I love duplicitous box art. Take MIDNIGHT MATINEE PSYCHO, for example, and quickly move past the question of how something can be a matinee if it’s at midnight. The DVD cover features a psychotic clown with a bloody knife, a dozen images in film frames depicting a variety of gruesome and frightening figures, and the word “starring” followed by notable genre names like P.J. Soles and Ari Lehman. It’s an eye-catcher of a cover! The description on the back sells a film about a “raging, psychopathic killer” who has been “killing innocent film goers attending midnight matinees,” something “Detective Holt and the Metro Police” are trying to prevent.
Guess how many of these items are actually contained in the film MIDNIGHT MATINEE PSYCHO? Go on, guess.
The answer is “none.” Even the running time listed is wrong, marking the film as “94 minutes with Special Features,” when the movie clocks in at 83 minutes and 17 minutes of trailers. With that, some might see a rip-off. I see an homage.
I grew up in the world of deceptive VHS box art, when a sordid cover box like the one for SLASHED DREAMS could lure you in to watch a low-rent domestic drama. And that’s clearly the world in which the Derek Young, the director/writer/editor/star of MIDNIGHT MATINEE PSYCHO is familiar with as well, and one he emulates with his 2013 film.
Most exploitation homages throw in some fake static, make sure there’s a smattering of violence, have their cast wear some old T-shirts and call it a day, but this kind of misses the point of the original material – or at least the connection with it. MIDNIGHT MATINEE PSYCHO doesn’t just replicate the look of a crappy ‘70s movie released to VHS in a terrible transfer that makes you wonder why they bothered, it gets the tone as well. It’s meandering, stupid, inept, and often border on incoherent.
That said, I couldn’t look away. It was like I’d unearthed something that was never meant to be seen, and didn’t even seem complete, much like MOVIE HOUSE MASSACRE, Rick Sloane’s 1984 feature about murders in a movie theater that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense and yet has been re-released countless times.
First off, the murderer is not a killer clown, but rather Josie, a “psychotic female pushed over the edge by rape” who has escaped from a mental institution, as we’re informed by title cards that last way too long. We then cut to a small, one-screen movie theater in the midst of their, er, midnight matinee (maybe it’s the 6 PM show?) in which employee Clyde (John Rutland) gets fired for hitting on a customer, the lovely newcomer Sara (Randi Nelle). The same night, as the audience watches a movie that, curiously, feels much less convincingly aged than the rest of the film, a man is murdered. (We later learn the movie is called VAMPIRES OF ZANZIBAR. The movie includes no vampires and seems to take place in some sort of urban high school.)
Our killer is afoot! We get a hilariously unconvincing news report about the killing involving the detective (remember him from the DVD box?) and some amazing scrolling credits that look like they were created by a bored 12-year-old via Video Toaster in 1991. But never mind that, the important thing is that Clyde and Sara end up getting together because there’s nothing beautiful women find more attractive than a middle-aged guy who can’t hold down a job slinging popcorn at a low-rent theater.
The killing goes ignored for a while, as we get Clyde and Sara romancing, much to the chagrin of Clyde’s son Carl (Young) who doesn’t like Sara because of vague reasons. Clyde, meanwhile, wants to be an actor, and there’s plenty of awkward dialogue that the microphone occasionally picks up. The next murder doesn’t occur until a year after the first one, when Clyde takes Sara to the theatre to propose to her and a worker is offed.
(SPOILER: SARA IS THE JOSIE FROM THE INTRODUCTION. She is also, with the exception of Sara’s best friend who only appears on the phone with her, the only female character in the film.)
Things get dumber from there, with Sara and Clyde getting married… off-screen, as only the minister (and Clyde’s best friend) performing the ceremony is in the shot! The couple also argue after Clyde decides he wants to make a movie – a movie we see the premiere of but don’t actually get to see much of, though what we do looks pretty amateurish. (The premiere involves another murder, and even though it’s in a different location and uses a completely different method, it’s attributed to the “midnight matinee psycho.”)
The movie ends up getting reviewed by the “top horror magazine,” and Clyde and Carl set out to the Days of the Dead convention (I believe this was the Indianapolis one in 2011) and various celebrities (including Soles, Lehman, Lloyd Kaufman, the hugely-bearded Sal Lizard and B-movie regular Michelle Shields) show up at their table. DAWN OF THE DEAD’s Mike Christopher shows up to do a zombie-related public service message, as though the film just got bored with the movie it was and wanted to try something new. Eventually, it ends.
Many scenes take place over the phone, and few characters actually interact with each other on screen. Scenes are cut in the middle of sentences. There’s a completely gratuitous scene in which Carl buys his 2-year-old son, a character never seen or referred to before or again, a tie-dyed T-shirt. Podcaster Eric Morse appears as a reporter and appears to be reading his lines to a particularly slow child off of cue cards. Lloyd Kaufman’s last name isn’t capitalized in the credits. It’s amazing.
On any standard level, MIDNIGHT MATINEE PSYCHO is impressively ramshackle, a movie that barely hangs together at all and doesn’t even deliver on the exploitation elements – outside of Nelle’s breasts in a couple of awkward sex scenes there’s no nudity and the murders aren’t gory at all. It’s also strangely captivating in its terribleness, as you can clearly tell that Young is a genuine fan and loves the movies he’s emulating.
Sure, you could ask questions like “How does Sara have a best friend that she seems to have known forever if she’s this other person?” or “Why does the usher take his vest off before he goes to the bathroom?,” but that takes out all the fun of something like MIDNIGHT MATINEE PSYCHO. It’s a great modern version of the type of anything-goes, we-don’t-need-to-explain-ourselves-or-do-second-takes spirit that made for some of the most incidentally entertaining surprises of the home video area, and Young gives MIDNIGHT MATINEE a look that makes it seem at least two decades older than it actually is.
It truly is the MOVIE HOUSE MASSACRE for a new generation. Just don’t expect any killer clowns.
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