The lights have long dimmed and the fog from the fog machine has dissipated from our first Midnight Movie Madness event at the Fire Hall Theatre, and though it was a rather small crowd, everyone had a fantastic time and we put on a really solid event with two movies, cabaret singing from besties Amy D and Nikki Quam-bomb, fabulous prizes for playing Cannabis Trivia and a little game of chance we called “Dime Bag,” and drag performances from yours truly. As we look at what went well and what could be improved for future events, I also wanted to take a little time to talk about how this event came to be, why I chose the films I did for this first event, and the vision for where this event is going in the future.
First, I should start by saying that hosting a midnight movie has been a dream of mine for a long time. When I was a kid, I was absolutely fascinated by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and her campy horror hostess schtick. I practically wore out my VHS copy of her first movie, and it’s one that I still watch to this day. The documentary American Scary does a great job of laying out the history of horror hosting in the US and profiles some of the great entertainers who have been and still are a part of this tradition. I love all kinds of horror movies. The old Universal Studios classic monster movies that gave us Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I love the old 50s classics where fear of nuclear fallout and communism gave us campy flicks about mutated animals, military experiments, and dangers hidden in quiet suburban neighborhoods. I adore Psycho and I appreciate how truly revolutionary it was: it introduced a kind of horror where the danger didn’t have to be a giant monster or a swarm of killer bees or some other fanciful creature. It could look just like us, and could act like a shy, awkwardly handsome motel proprietor. This change gave birth to the slashers of the late 70s and 80s which are also near and dear to my heart.
But when I started to plan my first Midnight Movie event, I decided to steer away from the more traditional horror offerings and instead went with a pairing of the original cult favorite Reefer Madness and the 2005 film that reimagines it as a musical. The timing, with the event happening the week of 4/20, was a happy coincidence and made the selection feel even more right. Reefer Madness comes from a time of irrational paranoia, with church groups and PTA committees overcome with strange fears about marijuana and how the youth of our nation will be sunk into depravity by this terrifying menace. There was no solid scientific information about marijuana use or its effects, and everything was centered around a specific perspective on morality that linked marijuana use to other, less ambiguously bad and criminal activities.
As I playing with the idea of having a Reefer Madness themed event, I though about how we are kind of living in a world of Reefer Madness 2.0: with all of the discussion about legalization of marijuana going on in states, for both medical and recreational use, the arguments are tending towards the extreme. Critics are saying it will destroy your life and trot out all of the dusty old standbys like marijuana as a “gateway” drug and how it will take away all of your motivation and ambition. The pro side is just as prone to hyperbole, acting as if pot-smoking is going to cure every ill you’ve ever had or will have and give you a better sex life to boot. No one is having realistic conversations; people are just throwing out any argument that fits their desired outcome and letting things fall where they may.
For me, the truth is that choosing whether or not to partake in adult herbal refreshments is just a larger part of the overall scope of your life, and it doesn’t determine how successful (or not) you’ll be, how motivated (or not) you’ll be, how criminal (or not) you’ll be, etc. I think of two friends I’ve known who are pretty regular marijuana smokers. One spent a whole lot of time on the living room couch, smoking pot and watching Golden Girls reruns. And not a lot else. This person had trouble staying caught up with classes and eventually dropped out of school. Another friend is a regular smoker and still maintains a successful full-time job along with lots of creative side projects. It’s about the person and how they manage their life.
On a larger scale, we’re in the middle of an election that is getting so fucking ridiculous that I can’t believe this isn’t some extended Saturday Night Live skit instead of the actual political landscape. Donald Trump one-ups his racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments every time he speaks. The Bernie supporters are so butt-hurt about their candidate not winning the nomination that they are ignoring what their candidate is actually saying about the importance of supporting Hillary and the potential dangers of a Trump presidency. And Melania Trump proves that all you need to do to give a powerful, moving speech is to steal it from someone else. It all should have become a cocktail party joke a long time ago. Reefer Madness seemed a perfect comment on all the cultural shenanigans.
The next Midnight Madness event is coming up in August as part of Grand Forks Pride and features one of my biggest drag inspirations: Divine. Once again I’m straying from the bloody, spooky genre classics that usually define the midnight movie. For Pride, I wanted to highlight a performer who I think deserves much more recognition for her role in shaping drag culture (and many aspects of queer culture) today. Divine’s extreme look (created in collaboration with the legendary makeup artist Van Johnson) flew in the face of drag at the time which was largely focused on glamorous, passable drag and underground pageants. The goal was to look as much like a “real” woman as possible (whatever that term, “real woman,” even means). Divine’s look was different and a little scary, and she reveled in it. John Waters once described her as the “Godzilla of Drag,” which is one of the highest compliments I can imagine.
What I love about John Waters’ films is that there is always this presence of filth that pervades the world of the movie. Things which are normally left unsaid in polite society are spoken aloud, often gleefully with a glint in the eye. In a world where queer folk are trying harder and harder to “fit in” with whatever little box with make straight folks feel comfortable around us, John Waters presents worlds in which discomfort is pleasurable and perhaps even necessary. Divine is a fantastic piece of these world because her characters are always read as explicitly female: they are born female, they bear children, and yet there is also the wink and nudge to the “truth” of Divine’s identity underlying every scene. It’s a little bit of a mindfuck, but in the best possible way.
I wanted to start with the documentary I Am Divine because I want people to understand more about Divine – who he was as a person, not just as an icon or as an image in a movie. The outrageousness of the persona lends itself to legend, and it’s easy to forget that Divine was an actual human being with loves and relationships and struggles, that he was part of a larger community of queer folks. Watching the documentary gives you so much context and additional information that you can’t help but see the narrative film, Female Trouble, with different eyes.
As we grow the series, we’re going to be doing a variety of themes and also a mix of both single feature and double feature events. At Days of the Dead, I met a bunch of indie film directors and purchased a number of movies that I’ll be bringing to the Grand Cities in the coming months. And soon, in both single- and double-feature formats, we’ll be getting back to the horror genre. The first couple of indie movies from DOTD that I’m looking at bringing are Pitfire of Hell and Harvest Lake. I’m looking at a combo of the documentary Best Worst Movie and the movie it’s about, Troll 2. I met a woman who distributes a wide range of indie films and shorts, especially focused on great offerings by women, and we’re going to collab on a couple of events. And I’m working really hard to find a way to bring scream queen Felissa Rose to town for a double feature night featuring the slasher classic Sleepaway Camp (stay tuned to see how that works out!).
I hear so many people complain about how little there is to do at night if you don’t want to brave the “downtown meat market,” and believe me y’all – I hear ya! So I look forward to seeing you at our Midnight Movie events at the Fire Hall Theatre where we’ll have games and prizes, movies so cheesy they should be served Deep Dish, and yours truly presiding over the madness!
Tags: Best Worst Movie, Champagne Dreams Productions, Elvira, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, Female Trouble, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Harvest Lake, I am Divine, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Midnight Movie Madness, Midnight Movies, Miss Jaye, Pitfire of Hell, Reefer Madness, Sleepaway Camp, World of Champagne