As the classical Hollywood period declined in the late 1960s, New Hollywood began to rise, bringing forth new images and narratives that had never been depicted before on mainstream American screens. The most daring, countercultural works of the cycle included films that pushed boundaries of taste, broke apart narrative convention, and looked back to classical Hollywood for the purpose of critique. There was even a certain subset within the cycle that served as an experimental space within an already ground-breaking moment: the midnight movie.
Looking chronologically at the films Pink Flamingos, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead, I will be charting how the midnight movie evolved over the course of the 1970s, examining the industrial and historical contexts that lead to the creation of these films. New Hollywood’s ‘newness’ was dependent on concepts like making the implicit explicit, reworking old genres, and subverting familiar filmic conventions in favour of greater artistic freedom – the midnight movie allowed these ideas to flourish.
As New Hollywood is a cinematic period largely built upon revisionism, it is important to note that the term ‘midnight movie’ originated during the 1950s, referring to earlier Hollywood films that were shown on television late at night. This lead to many children growing up watching and rewatching the same movies, influencing a generation that would then become the cine-literate filmmakers and audiences of the 1970s, making some almost overly familiar with films that were originally branded as low culture.
The resurgence of the midnight movie in the late 1960s is, much like New Hollywood as a whole, a revision of an existing film practice, with filmmakers beginning to make films expressly for the purpose of being seen by a curious youth audience. By the 1970s, these films became known for their radical aesthetics and ideas, and were known more infamously for depictions of violence and sexuality that could never have been shown decades earlier. Personally, I believe that the chaotic, boundary-pushing tendencies of the new midnight movie embody how 1970s Hollywood is known for its departure from the conventional, classical Hollywood style.
The Implicit Made Explicit: Pink Flamingos
From the early 1930s onward, the Motion Picture Production Code played a major role in dictating what kind of films could be made in Hollywood; the Hays code, with its Catholic sense of morality, prohibited taboo imagery and subject matter. From the introduction of the code until the early 1960s, Hollywood films were almost entirely prevented from showing any kind of explicit content, with topics surrounding sexuality being completely prohibited.
With a plot featuring a drag queen’s quest to become ‘the filthiest person alive’, Pink Flamingos is a film that exploits the newfound freedoms provided by the abolishment of the Motion Picture Production Code. As one of the earliest examples of the New Hollywood midnight movie, the obscenity of this film can be interpreted as an immediate reaction to the decline of the studio era, pushing hard into a new debauched direction against what was previously permitted. From a biographical perspective, this is understandable: director John Waters is an openly gay man, who has noted that he included these never before seen topics to ‘make people consider things they’d never consider before’ and ‘throw the rules into anarchy’. As classical Hollywood films were unable to explicitly show ‘any inference of sex perversion’ or ‘sex hygiene’, depictions of homosexuality could only be lightly implied by filmmakers. By showing scenes of graphic nudity, intense profanity, drug use, cross-dressing, and a cornucopia of sexual acts, Waters brings images to the screen that are entirely new, that could not have been previously shown whatsoever on mainstream US screens.
While the content of the film may be the more noteworthy topic, the production and cinematography are also certainly distinct from the classical Hollywood aesthetic. Pink Flamingos was created on a budget of $10,000, this industrial context clearly influencing the look of the film. Waters shot on location in Baltimore, and the sets within the town tend to be small scale and domestic – the cramped interior of the caravan, for example. The quality of the film stock is also far lower than that of a Hollywood production, and when combined with the use of natural light this results in a distinctly fuzzy, desaturated look.
The choice of location also seems at odds with the glamorous spaces depicted in Hollywood cinema: Baltimore was notorious for crime, and the areas chosen for it are dirty and dilapidated. This suggests that Waters is depicting an underworld that Hollywood had previously been able to ignore, creating a new type of film by showing what had rarely been brought to screens before. Though the inherent radicalness in depicting these unacknowledged spaces has worn off to an extent over the years, it can be seen contemporarily as generating New Hollywood newness via bringing forth what had previously never been made explicit.
As the most notorious moment in the film, and possibly of Waters’ career, the ending of Pink Flamingos demonstrates just how far the lack of a production code could be pushed, bringing a new extreme to exploitation cinema in the process. Without using any kind of off-camera innuendo or false props, Divine is shown eating dog faeces from a pavement, cementing her status as the filthiest woman alive. Filmed on location in the street with a cinema verité style realism, the scene blurs the line of fiction and reality by directly showing Divine actually committing an obscene act. The sequence primarily exists as a climax to the remainder of the film, which has gradually increased the stakes of filthiness up until this moment.
Its aims, then, seem extradiegetic – instead of solving any conflict within the film, the scene pushes boundaries of taste that extend far beyond Pink Flamingos itself, taking the original shock value ideas of exploitation cinema to their extreme end point. This is emphasised by the voiceover that closes the scene, with John Waters himself celebrating Divine as ‘the filthiest actress’ in the world. By signposting this act as documentary rather than narrative fiction, Waters casts a light on the artifice of Hollywood film, suggesting that New Hollywood is a realm in which the unattainability of classical Hollywood perfection is no longer relevant.
Blending Genres: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
At the decline of the studio era, the concept of classical genre films (Westerns, musicals, etc.) as pre-packaged and easily marketable products was brought into question after the high profile flops of pictures like Hello Dolly and Doctor Dolittle, two conventional musicals that were ‘dismal failures’ financially. A film becomes less simple to define if it belongs to multiple categorisations, resulting in a product that audiences may find potentially alienating if the generic features are contradictory.
Consequently, the notion of a ‘genre film’ as a safe concept was brought into question. As a film that mixes and reworks two seemingly incompatible genres from classical Hollywood – spectacular musicals and horror B-movies – The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an example of the subversive potential of the New Hollywood midnight movie. Much like Pink Flamingos, the film was born out of an underground LGBTQ+ space that produced the original musical, The Rocky Horror Show, reinforcing the idea that New Hollywood was a period in which countercultural corners of society could finally be acknowledged and brought to the foreground.
While Rocky Horror… does similarly rely on the shock value of its content, it also aims to analyse the Hollywood films that preceded it, suggesting an evolution in the midnight movie from the immediate reaction of explicit content to the reconsideration of the fringes of classical Hollywood. This is reflected in the film’s choice of aesthetic reference, as science fiction was a genre at the edge of Hollywood filmmaking that was not taken seriously in the classical era.
Both the stage show and the film foreground their intentions of genre reworking with the opening song, ‘Science Fiction/Double Feature’. Much like what is often cited as the first of the New Hollywood films, Bonnie and Clyde, The Rocky Horror Picture Show opens with an extreme closeup of a pair of red lips, in an undetermined location or time. This sense of destabilisation created by the lack of an establishing shot or any kind of reasoning for the extent of the closeup is opposed to the classical Hollywood style of maintaining continuity and keeping narrative coherence, removing this foundation of filmmaking for a new alternative.
Though this shot is highly sexually charged, the gender of the person behind the lips is never made clear – in fact, while the lips belong to actress Patricia Quinn, the singing voice is Richard O’Brien’s, unsettling the gender binary in a way that was prohibited in older Hollywood works. The song itself is celebrates the so-called trash films that could be found in 1950s midnight movie screenings, with references to low culture science fiction movies and serials like Flash Gordon and When Worlds Collide presented in the form of a 1950s style musical number. A high-brow musical style used to present low brow content reflects the New Hollywood tendency to combine seemingly incompatible ideas in order to provoke a response of confusion or discomfort.
While examples of genre reworking can be found woven throughout the whole film, the musical sequences are most effective in bringing together seemingly incompatible styles and ideas. “The Time Warp” musical number blends the cinematography, choreography, and spectacle of a classical Hollywood musical number with the production design and costuming of horror and science fiction B-movies, combining two genres that were seemingly diametrically opposed. While the production value of the film is clearly low, the bombast and energy of the song itself gives a sense of grandeur to the scene, as do the numerous visual allusions to dance numbers choreographed by Busby Berkley. One bird’s eye shot that looks down upon dancers moving in a circle is even reminiscent of the kaleidoscope patterns created in films like Footlight Parade.
The contradictory figure of Columbia (Little Nell) appears to be an exaggeration of the feminine and masculine extremes of such numbers – she has short hair, a top hat and a bow tie, but is also wearing a tight leotard and sequins. This is also reflected in the cognitive dissonance between Little Nell’s voice and her tap dancing, the former being high pitched and reminiscent of child actors like Shirley Temple, the latter bringing to mind the dance sequences of actors like Fred Astaire. These references to high budget, MGM musicals, however, are subverted by the mise-en-scène: the costumes are cheap and mismatched, the set is compact and in disarray, and the lyrics refer to ‘dimensions’ and ‘the time slip’, bringing to mind the campy B-movies mentioned in the opening song.
Auteurist Oddness: Eraserhead
In my opinion, no film better demonstrates the possibilities that New Hollywood held in giving more strange, marginal movies space to be widely seen and appreciated than David Lynch’s first feature film Eraserhead. With a near incoherent story and a gritty, off-putting aesthetic, the film seemingly exists more as an exercise in atmosphere than a narrative feature, and it was this oddness that allowed it to slowly gather a cult audience over several years of midnight screenings.
As a risky avant-garde project, it stands in contrast to films like Pink Flamingos, which gained an audience through exploitation style word of mouth, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which already had an established audience from its stage show origins. Additionally, rather than making explicit references to then society-wide taboos like homosexuality and cross-dressing, Eraserhead came from Lynch’s internal thoughts and fears surrounding fatherhood, unleashing them through artistic expression. Much like these films, however, Eraserhead seeks to thematically and formally break down the foundations of classical Hollywood, looking to and critiquing the old in order to arrive at the new. As one of the final midnight movies of the New Hollywood era, the film represents its logical endpoint, utilising new concepts like genre reworking and explicit content to such an extent that the new product is essentially indecipherable.
The entire film is shot in black and white, drawing inevitable comparisons to earlier cinema, and the nuclear (in both senses of the word) 1950s aesthetic of many of the interiors is also suggestive of a more critical look at the era and its conventions from a New Hollywood perspective. In a scene early on, in which Henry (Jack Nance) sits down to dinner with his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), Lynch subverts many expectations that were established in the history of conventional Hollywood filmmaking. Notably, he distorts any sense of cause and effect from the character’s actions and does not adhere to how the stock figures of a nuclear family normally behave, allowing mysterious chaotic forces to control the scene instead.
The scene begins with Mary’s father, Mr. X (Allen Joseph) requesting that Henry carve the roast bird, referencing that he had an operation on his arm ‘fourteen years ago’ and that it is now ‘all numb’, adding to the theme of placing the often celebrated past in a more ominous light. The framing of the dinner table is from a strange and voyeuristic angle that places the viewer in a dark corner of the room, not aligned with any particular character. This contributes to the uneasy tone, transforming what should be a familiar scenario into something more unsettling. This unease transforms into genuine horror when Henry begins carving the bird, which twitches and bleeds, somehow causing Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates) to start having a seizure.
The editing suggests a causal relationship, as Lynch cuts back and forth between the bird and Mary’s mother, but because the connection is near impossible to make for the viewer, this moment only causes more confusion. The discomfort of Mary’s mother subverts the idea of the mother of the nuclear family being an accommodating host, as she instead makes both Henry and the audience feel even more uncomfortable. While it is hard to draw any direct meaning from this scene (or from the film in general), it is this withholding of any explanation that exemplifies the odd freshness of the film.
For its disturbing imagery and countercultural themes, I think that the scene in which Henry kills his baby epitomises the bizarre, personal tone of the film that provides it with New Hollywood newness, allowing the disturbing rumblings present in the film to come to a head. Notoriously, the materials used to create the baby have remained unknown since the film’s release, its animalistic, slimy appearance being almost the exact opposite of innocent, angelic depictions of babies from mainstream media. Though Eraserhead is closest generically to horror cinema at this moment, the impenetrability of the film keeps it within the realm of avant-garde cinema. This aligns with a trope of New Hollywood identified by scholar Todd Berliner, who states that films of the period often ‘situate their filmmaking practices between those of classical Hollywood and […] art cinema’.
Henry’s actions in the scene as the protagonist also create a similar ‘conceptual incongruity’ to what is present in The Exorcist, as the beating of a child is not treated entirely with disgust towards the perpetrator. This is intensified by the distressed noises the baby makes, which don’t seem to align with its monstrous appearance. The baby itself could even be described as a symbol of this countercultural underside of New Hollywood: an almost incomprehensible being that ended after only a short existence, but that nonetheless left a profound impact.
As a space that allowed New Hollywood tendencies to thrive at their most extreme, the midnight movie demonstrates the period at its most extravagant, explicit, and unconventional. While this sub-genre produced many more works that the films mentioned, these best exemplify some key traits of the midnight movie, particularly those that represent how the newness of the New Hollywood period manifested formally and thematically. Rather than purely honouring America’s cinematic past, these filmmakers used their newfound sense of freedom to unleash their most unconventional themes, stories and visuals.
The resulting films were so fresh and unusual that they were scandalous, taking up time slots at the very fringe of the mainstream screen. As a space that actively encouraged taboo material and experimentation, the 1970s midnight movie is New Hollywood in its most concentrated form, especially as it also embodies the contradiction that this new, inventive work was ultimately sidelined by studios for films like Star Wars and Superman.