Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Surprise DVD click MIDNIGHT MOVIE: interview with filmmaker Jack Messitt

As someone who's forever agitating for a decent reanimation of zombies, vampires and -- now -- the slasher genre, TrustMovies was told by a friend a few months back about a new addition to that last category that was worth a view. Indeed, MIDNIGHT MOVIE, the first full-length film from director of photography Jack Messitt is worth a watch from horror buffs, and probably more than one from fans of horror's popular slasher sub-genre.

From an opening that quickly, cleverly and scarily deposits its back story while setting up what is to come, this movie-about-a-movie that features a movie-within-a-movie takes us to a small-town, one-screen cinema for an exciting midnight show that promises to rediscover a classic of the genre. Oh, boy. We're soon watching this black-and-white 1970s slasher film, lovingly recreated for Midnight Movie (see below), from which the villain is able (don't ask how: this is part of the supernatural element) to morph into the lives -- and deaths -- of the audience watching the film.

This unusual scenario offers all kind of possibilities for fright and gore (our killer's a nasty one), many of which the movie taps into with glee. Too many, in fact. For my taste, as creative as its ideas often are, the film runs out of steam a bit before the finale -- which also shows some originality and flair, plus one surprising moment of charm that goes a distance in reminding viewers that all the blood and gore they've endured were really just "fun and games."

Midnight Movie stands relatively tall against much of what passes for creative horror these days. (It surpasses another attempt that was released to DVD around the same time: Killer Movie.) If you have not already seen Messitt's film, you might want to rent it prior to reading the interview with the filmmaker, below, as there are plenty of “spoilers” ahead….

Quick Update! Midnight Movie will be coming to Pay Cable TV, this summer '09.
The first block of showtimes appears below:
TMC — Sat 7/04 -- 9:00PM
TMC — Sun 7/05 -- 12:15AM
TMC — Wed 7/8 -- 10:00PM
TM2 — Fri 7/10 -- 10:00PM
TM2 — Sat 7/11 -- 1:10AM
TMC -- Tue 7/14 -- 1:45AM
TMC -- Sun 7/19 -- 8:30PM
TM2 -- Wed 7/22 -- 1:25AM
TM2 -- Sat 7/25 -- 2:45AM
TM2 -- Thu 7/30 -- 1:00AM
SHO -- Sat 8/01 -- 1:45AM
SHO -- Thu 8/13 -- 2:05AM
SHO -- Mon 8/24 -- 12:30AM
(TMC - The Movie Channel)
(TM2 - The Movie Channel 2)
(SHO - Showtime)


TrustMovies is speaking with Jack Messitt (left), a longtime director of photography (The Curiosity of Chance) who has recently broken out as a director and co-screenwriter with his successful horror flick Midnight Movie.

TrustMovies: Shall we call you a director, screenwriter or director of photography?

Jack Messitt: Any of 'em. I’ve worn a lot of hats over the last few years.

How do you categorize horror/slasher films? Break them down into some categories for me.

The horror genre, especially over the past 10 years has really taken some interesting turns. Horror in general is now hard to categorize because there are just so many sub-genres.

Are there any special new horror/slasher films that have you enjoyed of late?

My favorite type of horror film tends to be more of the thriller variety. Some of my favorites are The Shining and The Sixth Sense -- which I think in a certain way can be considered a suspense thriller. I also love a good slasher film, like some of those from the Friday the 13th series. I thought the recent remake had some interesting moments. It tried to be a blend of the entire series, taking some of the best parts of the series from different films and putting it all into one film. Of course it can't be as successful as the original was. But I think they really did their best to try to reinvent.

Sometimes, it seems that almost everything in the genre now is just a tired reinvention.

Horror has gone through so many different incarnations over the years, that it's growing difficult to reinvent. Fans demand something new and fresh, but so many horror films have been made over past 30 years, from big budget to low, it's getting a lot harder to pierce that genre.

“Pierce?” Spoken like a good slasher film director!

It's interesting because it seems to me that all the genres, from horror films to westerns, have had their evolution sped up. It was TV that sped up the western genre. And for horror, it was due to all the new and different horror films from the 80s and 90s, then the explosion of ultra low budget DV type horror of the past 10 years or so that really sped up this genre. Both of these genres were put on fast-forward in a way that other genres were not; where other genres could take their time and kind of meander through different choices. I think moviegoers are always looking for a film that takes a fresh angle. But to be groundbreaking and fresh is difficult. And the horror genre is really unique in that way that it offers so many sub-genres. Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are only one avenue you can take. There are the Japanese-style, supernatural type of thrillers; and films like Saw and Hostel, more torture-porn types. Really, horror is one of the few genres out there that can be broken down into so many unique forms.

Midnight Movie was your directorial and writing debut?

Right. It had a limited theatrical release last November and, according to Bigfoot Entertainment, it looks like there will be another one this October.

Isn't that pretty unusual?

Yes it is. Bigfoot has put together a deal with Carmike Cinemas, but the details are still being hashed out. It will cater more to smaller cities . We're excited about this because the smaller towns were not hit as hard in our initial release, which was either a week-long or week-end release, depending on the location. And sometimes it included showing the films at midnight shows -- which were actually some of our most successful. With the Nov 08 release, in LA and NYC and in some 20 of the larger cities nationwide we had a great response. It was this successful release that ramped us into our DVD release in January ’09.

How did you research the movie and how did it progress according to your concept of how horror movies, in general, have progressed in the past four decades?

In researching for Midnight Movie, I went back and watched a ton of horror movies from the past 40 years or so. I tried to see what was successful about the films that I liked and see if there was a way to incorporate those elements into my film. Again, I think the horror genre has run the gamut, through all the different stages in film aesthetic terms. So I began Midnight Movie with a script and then just ran with it. But, of course, when we started breaking down how to shoot the script, all the budgetary limitations came into play.

There's a big different in writing and then producing what you've written, I take it?

When you're writing, well, the sky's the limit. But as soon as the script is greenlit, reality sets in. I mean: You want every sequence to be great, every kill a "marquee" kill, but you can't with a budget like ours, so you had to be creative. In Midnight Movie, we killed 18 people all told. So, we did not have the budget to do every kill as a marquee one, so instead, I tried to give each it’s own "personality." The one thing I didn’t want to do was put our best kill up front. I didn’t want to peak too early. I didn’t want everything afterward to seem like a letdown.

So to help with this, I tried to put the kills together into a kind of format that would mirror the history of horror movies. Not only would it allow us to best use the money we had to create some real "marquee" moments, it would also help give the film an increasing progression of kills, a nice arc.

Could you explain in a bit more detail?

In the first sequence, when Radford takes out the psych ward, you only see the before and after what happened - much like the early stages of the horror genre.

For me, this was the highlight of the kills -- because it was so suspenseful, the scene leading up to it, and then so shocking to see the aftermath, but not the thing itself. In fact, this sequence so surprised me and shook me up that in the next scene, even though I knew she was in your movie, I complete missed noticing my good friend Linda Sunshine who even had a line of dialog in the movie!

Good! Glad to hear it had that effect on you. So, coming off that scene, we head into the theater. And when the killing starts there, and with each progressive kill, I try to move to the next stage of horror. Moving through the horror films of the 70’s and 80’s and finally into today’s horror, you see more blood and guts, so to speak. And this is not just in what you see, but how "dark" the scenes become. With each kill, it becomes more stark and dark, and the tone of the film changes as it goes on.

That's right: Darker and more graphic. That’s why I think I found the first kills so weird and extraordinary: You don't see what happened -- not even the full result of what happened -- which makes it all more scary and unsettling.

Yes: Everyone has his own favorite gross-out moment, so it's exciting to see how different fans respond to different moments.

In completing this idea of how the kills darken: The first kill in the theatre is actually in the movie in the movie – when we kill off Bobby the hippie. Instead of showing the impact, we cut away to the kids watching. But because of their reaction, you feel like you saw this, but you didn't. As with Psycho, you think you saw things, but you really didn't.

Psycho is famous for this.

Psycho was such a great example of groundbreaking horror in a way that other films can no longer do, Audiences react differently now because of everything that they've seen before.
Our second batch of theater kills -- like the 80s period of horror -- is gory but is still somewhat playful, in a way that some of the later kills are not. The gore level may be high, but it’s not done in quite as malicious a manner as some of today’s movies. Like that line, "If you want to get her, you've to go through me." A funny throwaway line typical of some the 80’s slasher films. So the killer does go right thru him, and gets the girl, too.

As movie progresses to next stage, I will jump ahead a kill or two to Babe, the biker chick (above). This, to me, is one of the more interesting kills, as far as how we put it together. Unlike the earlier Sully kill where the kids are laughing at their friend being killed on screen, this one has a totally different tone. They know it’s real, so we portray it in a much more stark and unglamorous way. It pulls the Hollywood aspect out of the kill. Even the sound design is more stark and raw, so emotionally it's a totally different feel.

How did you arrive at the idea of the film-within-a-film? That's one of the more interesting aspects of Midnight Movie.

The original screenplay, written by Mark Garbett, had a different idea of the film within the film. The movie in the movie was more of a mish-mash of creepy images, like the videotape in The Ring. But I felt that it was not realistic that people would actually sit through this for more than a minute or two before walking out of the theater. So Mark and I sat down and came up with a storyline for the movie within a movie. At first, it was a 1930's kind of film. We went through to a full draft of the script when we realized that, for today's audiences. The movies of the 30s movies don't hold much horror power.

That's true. Tod Browning's Dracula holds up today as history but not so much as a scary movie.

Right. But for me, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Night of the Living Dead still hold a raw power and for today's audiences, too. I think that if your released these movies for the first time today, they would all play as well now as they did then. So, The Dark Beneath was born as a homage to those films. (Ed's note: The Dark Beneath is the name of the very clever, black-and-white, film-with-the-film in Midnight Movie.)

Really, the curse of some of the sub-genres in horror is that all the subsequent movies must try to outdo their predecessors, but because they've been done so often now, there's no surprise. You have to change with the times. What is effective today, tomorrow's audiences won't respond to in the same way to because it can only be original once!

If you look at any genre, say action films… Raiders of the Lost Ark was groundbreaking at the time, taking an old concept of the B movies reels and making it fresh again just by infusing it with a big budget and big stars. But today, that isn’t enough. You need to do more. In horror, this meant gore.

For gore hounds, it's when the killing gets more graphic that these people come aboard. So after the kill with Babe, we progress to more of today's horror. When we go down into basement, we're also going into the Hostel and Saw area of the horror genre -- torture porn.

That's where your movie began to lose me. The scene seemed unnecessary and began to draw out the movie to a lengthier place it didn't need to go.

But in our thematic progression, this became a necessary scene. I remember when I first put this in the script. I got a lot of really bad reactions, but I felt it had to happen because of what we were doing in the film and the progression that horror films have taken, constantly bringing things to the next level.

And while I think this is one of our most terrifying, turn-your-head-from-the-screen moments, it has the least amount of gore. Again, what you don’t see is more terrifying than what you do, Watching Rebekah’s face as she screams makes you feel like you saw her toes being cut off. Especially for those that close their eyes, the sound effects do a lot. You feel as though you saw her toes being cut off. But you really didn't. Your mind is filling in the gaps in a way that I as a filmmaker can’t achieve in the same way.

But when you get to that moment when Timmy is being chased and is then is thrown -- literally -- out of the film, we come full circle into a more charming, playful moment. But leaving our heroine in the film itself, we're sort of going against conventional wisdom. We trap the one person that throughout the entire film has been set up to survive. I actually wrote several different endings, and planned on shooting them all. But we didn't.

How come?

Mainly because of time constraints.

And money?

They are one in the same, really. Regarding the ending, one of the great things about horror fans is that they like to think of alternate endings, and what might happen after the fact or between the lines, so to speak. At our first test screening, it was wonderful to hear all their different ideas about what other directions the movie in the movie might have gone in if our characters hadn’t interfered, so to speak. And hearing this from the fans themselves, just moments after the screening ended, was amazing. It was like, as they were watching the film for the first time, they were already making these connections and thinking about… what if?

How long did it take you to film?

We made the movie in 20 days.

At what budget?

Right around one million.

Wow. I guess, lately, I'm more used to speaking with filmmakers who have a much smaller budget.

Yes, it's a lot of money when it's in your bank account, but not when you start making the film. Because horror films are so much about the effects, you need to put your budget toward these things – but in a smart, effective way. Knowing the history of horror helped us do this. We could make it memorable. Like with Mario's kill and Josh's face in the basement, we went to a great special effects house, Pixel Magic. They did the effects on 300. Lunar Effects did our on-set work and built the prosthetics on Josh's face, but it was the combination of on set and post effects that made this such a great effect. We created a real, active wound with a lot of depth. When you look closely, it is actually bleeding inside.
This was a great experience for me, and I think that putting it together in the way we did helped keep the film from becoming generic. We wanted to make it as good an experience for the horror audience as possible.

Overall, you've been please with how things have gone with the distribution of Midnight Movie?

Absolutely. Peace Arch, the distributor, has been great at getting film out there -- on Netflix, Blockbuster, even some Wal-Marts. And with the limited edition in particular, they did a great job of packaging. All this shows that Peace Arch really believed in the film. In fact, it is selling and renting so well, that a Blu-Ray edition is coming out this September. I couldn’t be happier about that. It speaks so well as to how fans of this genre are reacting to the movie. The Blu-Ray edition should open up Midnight Movie to a whole new audience.

(All photos, save the poster at top,
are from Midnight Movie, courtesy of Jack Messitt.)


Bernie Brooklyn said...

Wonderful and informative interview. I learned a lot about the evolution of horror movies. Really enjoyed this. Thanks!

TrustMovies said...

Why, thank you Bernie Brooklyn. I learned a lot about that evolution, too. Mr. Messitt is full of interesting info, which I think I barely began to tap.

Rafael Minuesa said...

Hi James,

Wonderful review.
In case your readers would like to have more information about the movie, they can visit Midnight Movie's website at:


TrustMovies said...

Thanks, BFWC. I thought that I'd included MM's official web site, but maybe I forgot, so I appreciate your addition -- and I'm sure the filmmaker will, as well.