Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Midnight (1982) dir. John A. Russo

Logline: Nancy (Melanie Verlin) is a young girl who has run away from home to escape her sexually abusive stepfather, Bert (Lawrence Tierney). She hitches a ride with two fellows driving down to Florida, and before long the three arouse the ire of the local townsfolk and catch the eye of a family of devout Satanists, prepping for human sacrifice.

Crime in the Past: No specific inciting crime, but there is an opening prologue showing Mama (Jackie Nicoll) teaching her adolescent children the Satanic ropes by sacrificing a young girl that they've caught in a bear trap.

Bodycount: 13, making it more like 1:00 AM in corresponding body-per-hour time, but that would make a lousy title.

Themes/Moral Code: There's some mildly interesting religious themes coursing through here, but because I think you can essentially boil them down to a "good vs. evil" opposition, I'd rather focus this space on something else. That something would be the white trash rural racism that we witness perpetrated against Hank (Charles Jackson), the young black man that Sandy is traveling to Florida with, and his white friend, Tom (John Hall), by association. Hank and Tom are harassed at a bar in one small town and then driven out by the sheriff, who tells them rather bluntly "you're kind ain't wanted here." Hank and Tom shoplift from the local grocery store to both eat and stick it to the man, which leads to them being chased down by two fascistic police officers who arrest and then execute them in an open field. There are some very uncomfortable shades of the Mississippi Civil Rights workers' murders in 1964, wherein local sheriffs aided and abetted the murder of three both black and white Civil Rights workers. Here, the police are committing the murders, enforcing a violent segregationist policy supported by the bigoted townsfolk. It's a horrifying and extreme statement about latent racism in the 1980s, and the revelation that these two supposed police officers are actually crazy members of the Satanic family does little to soften the blow.

Killer's Motivation: The Satanic family is kidnapping and sacrificing young girls to (who else) Satan so that he will give their rotting corpse of a mother new vitality. They drain their victims' blood into a cup, pass it around for a quick sip, then pour the rest into Mother's skeleton jaw. This resurrection never pays off (though, boy oh boy, it sure would have been neat if it had). So that's their driving motive, but they're standard psychopaths as well. For instance, they obviously aren't planning on sacrificing Nancy's travel buddies, Tom & Hank, but that fails to stop the faux-policemen brothers from executing them, or the lumbering, brain-dead brother from killing a preacher. Killing is, for this family, a tradition as sacred as Family Game Night.

Final Girl: Nancy, our final girl, is defined primarily by two characteristics: 1) her having partaken of "carnal relations," and 2) her Catholic faith. The first characteristic makes her (besides a weak virgin sacrifice) one of the uncommon breed of Non-Virginal Teenage Slasher Heroines (who are my favorite bunch, and who should really consider starting up a club). Though it's a good thing that Nancy can be sexually active and make it out of this film alive, it's not as if she isn't punished or judged for her perceived "loose morals." In fact, the film's men appear to have a sixth sense for noticing this fact about her, and consequently make obscenely lewd gestures towards "getting a piece of that action": her stepfather attempts to rape her within the film's first ten minutes, a man who offers to pick her up while she's hitching asks for sexual favors as payment, and even the nice guys (Tom & Hank) talk about how they'd like to bed that "jailbait" as they're deciding whether or not to give her a ride. Worse is that, to some degree, the film seems to agree with these men's judgment of her. The film's credits run over a scene with Nancy in a confessional booth with a priest, where she's confessing her sins after a two-year lapse. The priest is horrified at the revelation of Nancy's sex life and reminds her that she would be burning in hell if she happened to die. Once she's kidnapped by the Satanic family, Nancy (and, by extension, the film itself) seem to believe that she's been thrust into this situation by God because she has forsaken him. She prays very earnestly for forgiveness this time (in contrast to her earlier, less spirited confession), and *poof!* she is given her freedom and redemption. Midnight's moral code allows you to have sex, as long as you're awfully sorry about it afterward.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  John Russo, who co-wrote and produced George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), has had a modest directing career in his own right, with 1982's Midnight being the most well-known and well-regarded. It's a fairly decent down-home thriller with slasher overtones-- call it The Pennsylvania Chainsaw Massacre. That's hardly a joke, as the film really is an only slightly tweaked Texas Chainsaw (1974): a deranged, murderous family-- who masquerade in trustworthy local occupations, keep bones in their living room, and cart around the corpse of a family elder-- kidnap young women and put them through some psychological torture. Moreover, it has a similar bleak, grungy, muddy tone and aesthetic. It's not half the film that TCM is (not that one should expect it to be), but it's an enjoyable rural slasher with enough genre peculiarities mixed in to keep it lively. Midnight's most eccentric but ultimately defining characteristic is its almost incessant folk rock soundtrack. These light and chipper melodies wash over even the grimmest scenes, making attempted rape and risky hitchhiking seem downright whimsical. Special mention goes the title track, which plays, oh, twenty or so times throughout the film and which I really wished to share with you but apparently no one's taken the trouble to rip it and put it on YouTube so you'll simply have to believe me when I tell you that it's a doozy and my ears are still bleeding.

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