Arrow Video are offering up an interesting if flawed little curio on DVD this month; and it’s one that is sure to pique the interest of George A. Romero’s fan-base. “Midnight” was written and directed by John Russo, Romero’s writing partner on the original “Night of the Living Dead” and better known for his involvement with the unrelated “Return of the Living Dead” spin-off franchise, and as the writer of many horror novels -- as well as a number of popular film-making guides. This, Russo’s debut directorial effort, was adapted from one of the author’s own works of horror prose, but is clearly seat-of-the-pants, fly-by-night, low-budget filmmaking at its crudest: it’s a rather ungainly little film, shot with a crew of four and a cast of amateurs from Pittsburgh’s local Playhouse theatre group, and set on the outer edges of the semi-industrialised landscape we know so well from “Night of the Living Dead” and from Romero’s low budget oeuvre from around this same period, which includes films such as Jack’s wife (1972), “The Crazies” (1973) and “Martin” (1977).
By Arrow Video’s usual high standards this might seem like a rather throwaway release: the film elements haven’t weathered the trials of time particularly well and this is no meticulously restored, re-mastered, souped-up DVD edition. Although “Midnight” was shot on cheap, 35mm film stock offcuts, the transfer mustered up for this release looks more like a murky VHS dub, with faded washed out colours, blurry resolution and occasional tram lines rippling across the screen. The extra features are limited to two featurettes courtesy of High Rising Productions, but they’re both excellent and prove very informative, and the disc comes with the usual attractive packaging and glossy booklet of writings (in this case including an essay by the always excellent Stephen Thrower, so it is well worth getting). In a way, “Midnight” is such an intrinsically weird, occasionally extremely eerie, period piece of quasi-exploitation film-making, that the authentically ropey presentation we have here only adds more atmosphere to the whole grungy experience of viewing it, and helps engender a curiously foreboding sense that we might be presented at any moment with something on the screen that could prove extremely unpleasant.
The simple plot is awkwardly executed and the film suffers numerous wavering performances from its small cast of actors, most of whom you can just tell went in front of the camera wearing the clothes they turned up on set in. Russo’s adaptation of his own novel is plagued throughout by clunky expository dialogue and inconsistent characterisation, but the story’s almost casual juxtaposition of the grotesque with the mundane frequently injects it with a sense of intense unease that can be extremely unsettling. This is the Pittsburgh backwater version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (although Russo claims he never saw the film until sometime later) with Tobe Hopper’s Hansel and Gretel meets sweltering Southern Fried Texas Gothic aesthetic replaced by a bleak autumnal no man’s land of flat scrubland, leafless trees and semi-derelict cottages under chilly grey skies. Melanie Verlin plays Nancy Johnson – a tom boyish teenager who runs away from home after being molested by her drunken cop stepfather while her mom is out at work ( the sleazy drunkard is played by ‘Mr Big’ from “Reservoir Dogs”, Lawrence Tierney). She hitches a lift with two hash smoking drifters, Tom & Hank (John Hall and Charles Jackson) who are on their way to California to chill out some more, and are paying their way by shoplifting from grocery stores en route. After crossing the state line, the trio are hounded out of a racist hick town by some unwelcoming locals assembled at the town bar (which include the town sheriff among their number!) and are forced to spend the night out in the open -- camping in a bleak stretch of surrounding woodland, despite being warned off the area by a visiting black preacher man (Bob Johnson) and his young daughter (Lachele Carl), who tell them that several young people have gone missing in the area. Unfortunately the unhappy group soon discover the reason why: a nearby house is home to a group of deranged siblings who have been brought up in total isolation from the outside world by their (now deceased) mother to practice her home-patented brand of Satanism, and are indiscriminately kidnapping and murdering in the locality, their aim being to find three suitable females to sacrifice at midnight as part of their annual tribute to their demonic lord!
In the disc’s accompanying featurette, “Midnight at your Door: The Shocking Sacrifices of John A. Russo”, the writer and director explains just how difficult it was to get this small-scale project completed at all. A skeleton crew, sometimes unreliable amateur actors and, later, censorship problems from the MPAA, made the whole process a rather fraught and sometimes near impossible one. The film stock being used was extra cheap and frequently turned out to be light damaged, which meant that Russo often discovered that he’d lost the best material of the day and had to resort to using second or third-best takes; although Tom Savini is credited with providing the special make-up effects, Russo in fact concocted most of the fairly rudimentary stabbings and gunshot wounds himself. Russo even has a little dig at Savini on the featurette for what he considers to be a botched and unrecognisable mummified version of the siblings’ dead mother which crops up at the climax of the film.
Thanks to the necessarily hand-stitched, unerringly cheap and relentlessly problem plagued nature of the shoot, there is a really fragile awkwardness about proceedings that would completely derail most other independent films of this nature. Yet, despite its inherent clumsiness, Russo rustles up a strained but persistent element of eccentric charm around the whole affair which just about saves it, and which often actually enhances the film’s clash of the prosaic and the upsettingly odd. The Satanic family are an interesting combination of the absurd and the mundane: John Amplas, already familiar as George Romero’s mixed up adolescent who thinks he’s a vampire in “Martin”, brings a gleeful predatory insanity to his performance while his on-screen brother Cyrus (David Marchick) is this movie’s disturbing equivalent of a lumbering ‘Leatherface’ killer: a semi-comical bearded giant in denim dungarees who stalks the tribe’s victims with a big kitchen knife, giggling maniacally as he dispatches them, sometimes in their own disconcertingly normal-looking homes. Greg Besnak plays the more obviously violent thug of the quartet while the siblings’ attractive sister Cynthia (Robin Walsh) is actually the one who serenely carries out their grim, sacrificial offerings to Satan – slicing the throats of the bound and gagged female detainees with a disturbingly determined religious reverence.
The film is consistent in its ability to unsettle and put the viewer on edge, with strange contrasts between the bland and the grotesque which enhance an overall sense of its eeriness. The way in which nascent threat seems to follow Nancy everywhere she goes, even before the devil worshippers turn up (a sleazy stepdad, untrustworthy commuters trying to pick her up on the road, hostile town locals) is offset by an absurdly upbeat and breezy piece of middle-of-the road folk pop balladry that re-occurs on the soundtrack periodically throughout, while the rest of the time discordant synth noises drone ominously behind the oddball actions of the murderous clan. The murders tend to occur in jarringly dull and unthreatening surroundings (a husband and wife playing Frisbee outside their unassuming house) and Nancy stumbles into a world of unimaginable evil quite by accident while trying to find refuge from what she assumes to be two corrupt and murderous cops, rushing eagerly into what appears to be a perfectly ordinary suburban home that then turns out to be (in another echo of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) the dwelling of the Satanist clan to which the fake cops actually belong.
There are some very effective colourings of the macabre dotted here and there which only get more acute and noticable as the film goes along. The fact that Nancy and the other captured girls are crammed by their captors into three-foot long wire-mesh pet store cages usually meant for dogs or cats, and then forced to watch as they’re each taken out and murdered one by one, is a truly bizarre and unsettling detail. The family’s weirdly normal home with its banal décor and floral curtains turns into a hymn to such peculiarity in their upstairs altar room -- the siblings gathering there dressed in long black robes, pentagrams inked on their foreheads, to conduct their sacrificial ceremony in front of a skeleton stretched out on a crucifix, and with the mummified corpse of the siblings’ long dead mother in attendance! Russo has always exhibited an interest in religion and in isolated forms of fundamentalism, such themes often cropping up in an intensely ironic context during much of his work. Here, he even re-stages a version of the opening cemetery scene from “Night of the Living Dead”, this time with a father and daughter visiting the grave of the girl’s mother, only to find them-selves the prey of a giggling Cyrus. Elsewhere, Russo sharpens the contrast between the claims of traditional religion and the Satanists’ deluded rampage: after hearing Nancy (already established as a believing Catholic) praying in her confinement as she waits to be taken away to be ritually slaughtered, Cynthia offers the terrified prisoner a disconcertingly childlike but eloquent soliloquy on the ubiquity of evil and the futility of prayer!
A really effective moment occurs near the climax when both the imprisoned Nancy and the Satanist siblings alike, are each seen sincerely and devoutly offering contrasting prayers to their opposing Lords, Nancy in fear of her mortal soul and the Satanists genuinely desirous that her soul should be ‘saved’ by joining with their own Master. In this regard, the film does depart significantly from Russo original novel, as is made plain on the featurette: The book [spoilers ahead] has a much bleaker, nihilistic ending than the one we’re offered here. The film leads to a rather unconvincing, if not perverse conclusion in which Nancy’s blackmailing and previously unerringly sleazy stepdad (he falsely tells the girl’s mother that Nancy has been attempting to seduce him with her ‘young body’ at one point) suddenly becomes the unlikely hero of the hour. Early in the film, Russo includes a chilling scene where Nancy takes confession and is told in no uncertain terms that she risks going to Hell for sleeping with her boyfriend and offering ‘bad confessions’ in the past. The intent on Russo’s part appears to be to show that both mainstream religion and the strange hybrid practiced by the killer siblings are each equally as perverse and destructive and disconnected from the brutal harshness of reality, but in fact the film then suddenly seems to validate Nancy’s prayers to God by having the stepdad turn up to stage a last-minute heroic rescue attempt, in the process bizarrely positing Catholicism and Catholic prayer as potent protection from rampaging serial killers and Satanist kidnappers (although all the other perfectly innocent non-praying victims are allowed to die, of course).
The unconvincing climax not-withstanding, “Midnight” is still a very creepy, strange and effective little low-budget chiller with the feel and atmosphere of an exploitation-heavy Grindhouse piece but the intelligence of something much more worthwhile and long lasting. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (if you watch on a computer you can still see the time coding at the top edge of the screen!) with a grungy but adequate mono audio. As well as the John Russo feaurette already mentioned, we also get treated to a short introduction by John Amplas and to a thirty minute featurette, “Vampires, Rednecks and Zombies: The Fear Career Of John Amplas”, in which the actor talks about his career, starting out as part of the Pittsburgh Playhouse as a young man, and his later introduction to George A. Romero and subsequent work on many of the director’s films. Amplas’ memories of working on “Midnight” are somewhat impaired by his apparently having been partial to imbibing certain substances at the time, but the actor concludes his reminiscences by paying tribute to fandom and to the opportunities that his participation in the convention circuit has recently opened up to him. All in all, this is a pleasing and worthwhile little cult item and Arrow Video have made a nice job of presenting it to a new audience, even if the transfer is not up to the normal standard.