The midnight movie is a romanticized tradition in film culture. Recognized largely today in the mainstream for the liberatory audience participation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the modern midnight movie derives more directly from the counterculture of the late 1960s. It was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s acid western El Topo (1970) that first became a hit for audiences seeking an acid-fueled religious experience in downtown theaters.
Over the years, the midnight movie has waxed and waned. The era of daring programming like Eraserhead (1977) and Liquid Sky (1982) has given way to broader, more mainstream fare occupying the 12 a.m. time slot. Repertory cinemas often use midnights as a way to show a variety of more accessible genre films while Hollywood studios have turned midnight premieres for everything from Harry Potter to The Avengers series into box office hype-machines.
Recent months, however, have seen the release of three neo-exploitation films, each wildly unique but all drawing from the original cinematic traditions of the midnight movie. They are aesthetically-driven, ultraviolent, thin on plot but bright with saturated color palettes; Mandy, Let the Corpses Tan, and Revenge are all set for underground canonization if they, like Jodorowsky and David Lynch before them, can find their audiences. But unlike the original wave of the midnight movie which featured wanton male aggression and/or sexual anxiety at the expense of women, these new films belong to our modern zeitgeist around gender and film. They feature, if not necessarily empowerment, a critical examination of the violent male gaze women have endured throughout midnight movies’ history.
Mandy is the latest feature from Italian-Canadian director Panos Cosmatos. The work is visually a blend of dark blacks and vibrant primary colors, crafting shadowy images of desperate violence strung together by a loose plot. Set in 1983, lumberjack Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his metalhead artist girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live a quiet life in a small logging town in the Shadow Mountains. The couple’s somber but peaceful life is interrupted when they are kidnapped by the Children of the New Dawn, a vicious hippie cult that seems a cross between the Manson Family and Heaven’s Gate and led by the volatile Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache). When Mandy laughs in his face during his sexual advances, Sands responds in rage, hangs her in a sack, and orders her burned alive in front of Red. Red escapes, briefly returning to his home where he chugs a bottle of vodka, forges a battleaxe, and grabs every other weapon he can get his hands on to take his revenge.
A blend of drone metal music and fantasy-laden prog rock imagery that appears to be in the direct lineage of Heavy Metal (1981), Mandy is an experiential bloodbath, luring the viewer into the darkness of its forests with the promise of a classic freakout performance by its oft-memed lead actor. After spending the better part of a decade sleepwalking through direct-to-DVD action thrillers, Mandy gives Cage the reality-bending nightmarescape his explosive acting style commands: he exudes pathos — screaming, growling, crying — seeking a full release, the kind of mental cleansing cults often demand of their victims so they may rewire their minds.
But it is Andrea Riseborough’s profound title character who haunts the film. Despite being the victim, her spiritual presence permeates through Cage’s rampage, reappearing in flashbacks and animated dream sequences to seemingly observe the violence playing out between her killers and her broken lover.
I experienced Mandy in a near-sold out midnight screening, and if the energy of my audience continues to spread, it’s a film that could very well have legs to become the biggest mindmelt cult canon entry since Donnie Darko (2001). Intended to have a limited theatrical run and eventually make its money back via video-on-demand, the movie’s distributor RLJ Entertainment has now extended its run through November and the mainstream business press is taking a serious look at the movie as a potential new midnight classic. In the Netflix era, Mandy has defied the standards of modern-day indie film distribution as viewers buck VOD and streaming options in favor of these late night theatrical screenings that give the film the atmosphere and control over the crowd that a living room cannot provide.
The financial success of Mandy has not (yet) translated for two French productions, which have received a more limited U.S. theatrical distribution but nevertheless feel cut from the same exploitation and genre influences as Cosmatos’ work.
If Mandy is the modern marriage of Heavy Metal and Friday the 13th (1980), then Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Let the Corpses Tan could be our new El Topo. A throwback to spaghetti westerns, Let the Corpses Tan is about a group of criminals out in the desert who knock off a bank truck to steal 250 kg of gold, but the plan hits a hitch when they break at a small villa occupied by a group of artists (led by Elina Löwensohn) only to find the police on site. The remainder of the film is a prolonged shootout running from morning to the late hours of the night (the action is frequently interrupted by minimalist title cards telling us the time, often jumping ahead mere minutes).
If this sounds straightforward it is anything but. Even the New York Times struggled to make sense of the story and to call Let the Corpses Tan “highly stylized” is to say that Picasso took some liberties with the human form. Cattet and Forzani unleash a flurry of cinematic experimentations. In one sequence, a man is fired on and each impact cuts to the interior of his body, showing the bullet sinking into his blood and muscle. Stretches of silence will be disrupted by decibel-shattering gunshots and intercuts of faces in terror. Paint splashes on the camera lens, bodies are painted in gold, ants crawl over the heads of men who have been buried in the dirt at the foot of a cross, and a mysterious nude woman in shadows appears above them to urinate in their face.
Like in Mandy, the lead female character takes a nearly spiritual presence as the men kill each other. Whether the shadow woman is meant to be Löwensohn’s artist character or a grim reaper figure isn’t quite clear, but she’s present throughout. She oversees the devastation men wreak and appears before them as their final vision — and humiliation — before death.
Throughout Let the Corpses Tan we see women’s bodies bound in leather straps, we see women kill without mercy, we see women have their clothes cut to shreds off their body. Coming from husband/wife directing duo Forzani and Cattet, Let the Corpses Tan comments on and plays with the violence against women that was a frequent fixture of the spaghetti westerns of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Given the structurally deviant filmmaking, the dark feminine spectre hovering above the souls of men speaks to the directors’ godlike ability to give their characters life and to take it away from them with prejudice, almost as revenge for the way women have been victimized in these films for decades without comeuppance.
Even El Topo, the first midnight classic that defined the movement with its surrealist spin on the western genre, features an allegedly real rape scene perpetrated by director/writer/star Jodorowsky. He also forced his young son to appear naked in the movie’s intro and personally slaughtered 300 rabbits for another scene, if that’s any additional indication of his viciousness on set. With this in mind, Let the Corpses Tan’s feminist elements become more vital to the progress of the genre. If the original midnight movie was crafted with the suffering of its own cast, the new underground films must seek empowerment.
While Mandy and Let the Corpses Tan feature women as ethereal presences, Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge is a firmly human story carried by its protagonist, Jen (Matilda Lutz). Like the other two, the bluntly-titled film is derived from a classic exploitation subgenre: the rape-revenge movie. The rape-revenge formula has by now been the subject of several acclaimed feminist critical works, most notably Carol Clover’s text on the horror genre Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992) where she analyzes at length the infamous I Spit on Your Grave (1978), about a New Yorker who travels to the country to finish her novel but is brutally raped for half the film’s runtime by four rednecks and later condemns her torturers. Clover must concede that I Spit On Your Grave is at best a mix of misogyny and empowerment. Fargeat however approaches the genre with a firm feminist bent, ensuring that her hero is not defined by the crime committed to her.
Revenge takes place in a desert getaway house owned by French millionaire Richard (Kevin Janssens). He has taken Jen there for a weekend extramarital affair and in the opening Fargeat’s camera feels much like Michael Bay directing a gratuitous sex scene that emphasizes eroticism. But Fargeat will quickly subvert this gaze when she uses the same shots during a brief but horrific rape scene.
Richard and his friends/assailants Stanley (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) beat her and throw Jen off a cliff in the desert where she is impaled through the stomach by a sharp and blatantly phallic branch. Jen, through dogged instinct, survives and spends the remainder of the film hunting the hunters in increasingly ruthless fashion, reclaiming her life and changing from a phone-obsessed California valley girl into a powerful force of reckoning. Like Mandy, there are hallucinogenic sequences and drive for justice against pig-like men, and like Let the Corpses Tan there is a rich desert setting and female perspective on the gore that moves the genre forward from its male-directed history.
In Men, Women, and Chainsaws Clover writes: “It lies in the nature of revenge or self-defense stories … that the avenger or self-defender will become as directly or indirectly violent as her assailant, and, as we shall later see, these films are in some measure about that transformation.” This is certainly the case here, and it is what to me makes Revenge the strongest and most grounded of these new gender-focused exploitation films. Here we have men — not country bumpkins but rich business leaders — stripped down to their cruelest true selves. Like Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), Fargeat reveals the hatred of women amongst the wealthy and powerful. These men may be pathetic, but they are not cartoons. And it is through empowering her protagonist that she makes a rape-revenge film that does not feel seedy, gross, or even intended for primarily male audiences.
These three movies are not the first neo-exploitation works to probe and flip the table on gender norms, and they may not be perfectly executed in their approaches. But taken together they certainly show their deserving of the spotlight, and absolutely worth the price of admission for a late-night screening. You can sleep when you’re dead.