Tuesday, September 14, 2021

MIDNIGHT (1982) (Severin Blu-ray Review/Comparison)

Label: Severin Films
Region: Region-Free
Rating: Unrated 
Duration: 94 mins
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.66:1) 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 and 5.1 with Optional English Subtitles 
Director: John Russo
Cast: John Amplas, Melanie Verlin, Lawrence Tierney, Jackie Nicoll, John Hall, Charles Jackson, Debra Smith, Doris Hackney, Bob Johnson, Lachele Carl

Writer/Director John Russo is probably best known as the co-writer of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead  (1968) and probably for good reason. In my opinion  everything else he's done just sort of pales in comparison, but that's not quite the slight it seem, c'mon, most things don't measure up to NOTD! Russo's got a few other directorial credits to his name; the sex comedy The Booby Hatch (1976), the weird shot-on-video cheesecake workout video Scream Queens Swimsuit Sensation, and of course that blasphemous 30th Anniversary Edition of Night of the Living Dead with the new footage and re-scored. He's also penned a bunch of horror novels, but this here satanic backwoods exploitation flick was based on one of his books.

Midnight (1982) opens with a nasty little pre-credit sequence featuring a young girl with her leg caught in a bear trap screaming in the middle of a field. She is then approached by a woman (Jackie Nicoll, The Majorettes) and her four killer kiddos who are armed with various instruments of blunt force trauma. The crazed mother explains to her brood that the girl in the trap is not a girl at all, but a demon that can take the form of anything or anyone. This part of the film brought to mind the late Bill Paxton's excellent film Frailty, which it pre-dates, and which is a very underrated film. If you haven't seen it you should check it out. The mother cues one of the boys to beat the girl upside the head with his wooden axe handle, knocking her out. They drag her body tot heir house where at midnight she is to be sacrificed to Lord Satan. At the proper time the family gathers dutifully around an alter of sacrifice as the adolescent evil-kid Cynthia (Debra Smith) with a pentagram drawn onto her forehead clenches a dagger in both hands held high above her head, then at the stroke of midnight she plunges the dagger into the the body of the young girl, Satan's will has been served! 

Moving ahead a few years later we're introduced to teenager Nancy (Melanie Verlin, Monkey Shines), a conflicted girl with tomboyish features who is torn between the her love of the Lord and her libidinous teenage hormones, weren't we all?  At home her drunken cop stepfather, Burt (Lawrence Tierney, The Prowler), is a dirty perv who while her mother Harriet (Doris Hackney) is at work attempts to rape poor young Nancy; saying things like "you don't have to call me dad, we both know I'm only your stepfather, c'mon give me some smooches". She manages to improbably get the upper hand and knock the big bastard out with her AM/FM radio, and then thumbs it down the road looking to hitchhike to California to live with her older sister livess. Along the way she is picked-up by Tom (John Hall, Surf Nazis Must Die) and Hank (Charles Jackson), two guys on their way to Florida for spring break, and they seem like nice guys. Even though they're headed in the opposite direction she tags along with 'em, and later while stopping off for gas they encounter a priest (Bob Johnson) and his daughter Sandra (Lachele Carl, Into The Badlands) who warn the teens of a series of strange disappearances and murders that have occurred in the area, advising the trio not to stop until they reach their destination. As ever in these sort of films they don't listen and the trio make several stops, none of them ending well. While buying beer they have a run-in with some racist locals who drive them out of town, and then a shoplifting incident puts them on the run from the authorities. In an effort to evade the police they turn down a dirt road which takes them deeper into the remote area, which is always a bad idea, always! Even after they spot what looks to be a maniac carrying a corpse wrapped in a sheet they still stop to set-up camp for the night; so these cats sort of deserve whatever's coming their way. 

The next morning Nancy goes for a solo early morning stroll while the guys sleep, and not long the guys are rudely awakened by a pair of antagonistic cops who shove their guns in their faces. The officers are Abrahan (John Amplas, Martin) and Luke (Greg Besnack, Knightriders), whom aren't cops at all, but the now adult children from the pre-credit sequence all grown up, and still crazy as loons and collecting victims to sacrifice to Old Scratch. Nancy witnesses the altercation from a distance and flees the scene, but not before catching the notice of the "cops" who give chase. She arrives at a nearby house only to discover too late that it's the home of the Satanist, 'natch. Inside she finds the now grown Cynthia (Robin Walsh) and the family's mentally deficient brother Cyrus (David Marchick), who is sorta the giggling Leatherface of the family, bringing to mind chubby backwoods killers like Buddy from Slaughterhouse, the twins from Just Before Dark, or Madman Marz from Madman. Their wicked mother is now a rotting, mummified corpse but the children still carry on with her legacy of demented demon sacrifice. I kept asking myself 'why would they sacrifice demons to the Devil, anyone?' Anyway, Nancy is captured and imprisoned in a dog cage alongside another unfortunate young lady named Gwen (Ellie Wyler), whom comes to realize that on Easter Sunday the quartet of Satanists plan to resurrect their deceased mother by sacrificing three women in her name to Beelzebub. Meanwhile pervy Burt seems to have developed a conscience to some degree and has set off in search of the runaway Nancy. Through his connections on the police force he is able to track down Nancy's whereabouts, but the question is, can he intervene before it's too late?

The flick's deranged, satanic killer family scenario is semi-interesting but not at all original, but it has a grim uneasiness about it not unlike NOTLD. As it was shot in rural Pennsylvania the terrain looks a lot like Romero's film, which I liked, I grew up next door in Upstate New York and loved seeing the wooded areas and dilapidated barns that brought me back to my childhood. Overall the film has an effectively creepy and chilling vibe that exploits our fear of rural folk, satanic cults, and backwoods folks. It's fun stuff if you like low-budget backwoods horror, but the film is not well made, and feels more like an early 70's made film than 80's, and not in a good way. 

We do get some effects work from gore-master Tom Savini who already had done George A. Romero's Martin, and Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th as well as gore standout The Prowler at this point, but you wouldn't know it by what you're seeing onscreen. He doesn't have a lot to work with here, and the highlights are a decent decapitation and the mummified mother, but don't expect any hardcore gore folks, just some superficial bloodletting.

Russo's definitely going for a gritty grindhouse drive-in vibe, capitalizing on the Satanic panic of the 70's and early 80's, and he succeeds to some degree with the disturbing pre-credit sequence and some low-budget scares and exploitation elements, but the film is poorly executed and the pace is horrendous. After that initial sacrifice at the start it takes the better part of an hour to get back up to speed. The acting is spotty as well, while I think Verlin makes for a decent final girl and Tierney is a hoot slumming it here as a rapey rhino-sized alcoholic stepdad with a conscience, I thought John Amplas, who was so good in Romero's Martin, was all over the place; though he does get a few fun unhinged scenes that are entertaining if a bit over-the-top. 

Midnight (1982) isn't gonna set the world on fire for you unless you're a connoisseur of z-grade backwoods horror, but it's got a regional low-budget charm that I dig a bunch, plus it has a scene of the teens shopping at a convenience store, and I love seeing the retro chip and snack packaging in these old movies, and my wife thinks I'm weird when I squeal with glee at the sight of a vintage Doritos bag or an old Pepsi can design.   

Audio/Video: Midnight (1982) makes it's worldwide debut on Blu-ray from Severin Film in 1080p HD framed in 
1.66:1 widescreen, sourced from a 4K scan of the negative and fully uncut. I happen to have both the previous DVD releases from Lionsgate (2005) and Arrow Video (2011), and have included a screenshot comparison of all three below and there are more screenshots of the Blu-ray at the bottom of the review. It's not contest, it's as day and night a comparison as you will ever see, with the new Severin Blu-ray not surprisingly blowing away all previous DVD editions, rather easily. Now, Severin have re-framed the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in favor of a more screen-filling 1.66:1 and I think it's a comfortable compromise without it feeling cramped or squeezed with plenty of headroom. Grain looks wonderful, colors are string and the black levels are solid throughout, you can still see spots of damage and blemishes, but it's very filmic looking. The previous Lionsgate or Arrow DVD releases were dupey and not-much-better than VHS, looking like they were sourced from a 2" tape master, real fucking ugly.  It's still amazes me how a solid restoration and some cool extras can make you appreciate and re-evaluate a film, and while I still think this is not a great film I do like it a bit more after seeing this restoration and hearing the behind-the-scenes stories I certainly like it a bit more than I did. 

Screenshot Comparison:
Top: Lionsgate DVD (1.33:1) (2005) 
Middle: Arrow Video DVD (1.33:1) (2011)
Bottom: Severin Films Blu-ray (1.66:1) (2021)

Audio comes by way of uncompressed English DTS-HD MA 2.0 and 5.1 with optional English subtitles, and everything sounds clean and well-balanced, no issues with hiss or distortion. 

Severin offer-up a nice selection of new Red Shirt Pictures produced extras beginning with the 23-minute Making Midnight with Writer / Director John A. Russo who talks about his business partner break-up with Romero post There's Always Vanilla, laying some of that blame on screenwriter Rudolph J. Ricci, but then forming a new company New American Pictures with Russ Streiner  and Ricci, which made The Booby Hatch before folding. He then gets into writing the script for Midnight, shooting it for Samuel Sherman's Independent - International Picture Corp. for 70K. He gets into how it was a difficult low-budget shoot and that paying Tierney really cut into the budget; as well as challenges like Amplas showing up drunk on the first day of shooting, working with Savini, and issues with film stock shortages and light leaks at the film processing lab that left him with only inferior takes he could use, and various cuts demanded by the MPAA to get the R-rating, which they put back in anyway, and the film's difficult distribution history. The 10-minute Producing Midnight- is an interview with Producer Samuel M. Sherman who gets into how his company Independent-International Picture Corp, which he ran with Al Adamson and Dan Kennis, began to distribute films for Russo, beginning with The Booby Hatch, which lead to Midnight, which was based on Russo's novel. He gets into the casting and how important it is for small films to have known stars, leading to the casting of Tierney. He also discusses not liking the original ending and telling Russo he had to shoot a new one, even though Russo was quite tired of working on the film after six months, and noting the differences in filming style of Al Adamson versus Russo. He finishes up talking about test-screening the flick in Binghamton, New York, and the marketing campaign which included re-titling it The Backwoods Massacre. The 9-minute Small Favors- Interview with SFX Artist Tom Savini has the FX legend talking about being very bust in the 80's post Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow and Friday the 13th, and how he did this as essentially a favor, he says he has never watched it, and that he mostly used recycled effects from Maniac and other earlier film to get the job done. He also says he loves Russo (aka Jack), and is appreciative that he kind enough to let Savini direct a sequence in his film Heartstopper (aka Dark Craving). The 11-minute The Midnight Killer - Interview with Actor John Amplas has the star of Martin discussing his collaboration with Russo, how he was given free-range, and remembering his co-stars, including Lawrence Tierney, and how maybe the script wasn't the best showcase for some of the acting talents onscreen. 

A cool extra that is actually three extras in one is the Isolated Score Selections featuring an audio interview with Composer Mike Mazzei moderated by Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures. It starts as a 10-minute interview with the composer with Mazzie talking about how he started performing Catholic music, scoring Midnight for Russo and being uncomfortable with the Satanic themes because of their faith, but that he was happy that the the final girl prayed for salvation at the end. He also gets into his recording set-up at the time of recording the soundtrack. After the interview ends we get an uncompressed DTS-HD MA 2.0 isolated score that runs about 44-minutes, which is pretty great. A mix of eerie backwards choral arrangements, pop tunes, and psychotronic synth gurgles. Hearingthe uncompressed isolated score I think I like it more than the actual film! When the isolated score ends at the 55-minute mark a 31-minute interview with Charles Hall moderated by Felsher starts up, which is not listed as an extra anywhere. Hall played the doomed character Hank and talks about his early career on-stage at the Pittsburg Playhouse, and having the opportunity to work in film beginning with Midnight. He also touches on memories from the making of the film, how seeing his friend John Amplas act so dark and scary was sort of weird, and seeing the finished film at the drive-in with friends who mocked him MSTK3-style. He finishes-up talking about his transition from actor to voice-over-actor and then into Christian radio where he has hosted a show for the past 24-years. 

The disc is buttoned-up with Alternate Title Card for Backwoods Massacre, the 4-minute Theatrical Trailer and a 1-minute Backwoods Massacre Radio SpotThe single-disc release arrives in an black Elite keepcase with a one-sided sleeve of artwork that looks to be the Alpha Video VHS artwork, which is also featured on the Blu-ray disc. 

Special Features:
- Making Midnight - Interview with Writer/Director John A. Russo (23 min)
- Producing Midnight- Interview with Producer Samuel M. Sherman (10 min)
- The Midnight Killer - Interview with Actor John Amplas (11 min)
- Small Favors- Interview with SFX Artist Tom Savini (9 min)
- Isolated Score Selections Featuring An Audio Interview with Composer Mike Mazzei Moderated by Michael Felsher (DTS-HD MA 2.0) 
- Alternate Title Card for Backwoods Massacre (15 sec)
- Theatrical Trailer (4 min)
- Backwoods Massacre Radio Spot (1 min)

Midnight (1982) won't ever be mistaken for a genre classic by anyone's standards but it's an interesting Romero-adjacent footnote that riffs on overly-familiar, even for it's time, horror and backwoods exploitation tropes. Despite Russo's lack of technical finesse and hackneyed script the film still manages to be a devious slice of exploitation, and an interesting curio from the Romero/Pittsburg crew, along the lines of Effects (1980). Severin's new Blu-ray looks and sounds phenomenal, and the extras are above and beyond what I could have ever expected, my hat is off to Red Shirt Pictures and Severin for knocking it out of the park with this release.  

Screenshots from the Severin Blu-ray: 


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