BROOKE GLADSTONE: This weekend, The Rocky Horror Picture Show fan club gathers for its annual convention in New York City. Few films can claim Rocky Horror's cult pedigree, but that doesn't mean they don't try. OTM's Derek John reports on the horrors wrought by Rocky. [ROCKY HORROR'S TIME WARP SONG EXCERPT PLAYS]
CHORUS: LET'S DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN-- LET'S DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN--
DEREK JOHN: The weekly Saturday midnight spectacle that is The Rocky Horror Picture Show is as reliable as a Sunday morning church service. [AUDIENCE NOISE, CHEERS AND JEERS] As the crowd at New York's Chelsea Clearview Cinema alternates between jeers and cheers, costumed audience members act in sync with the action on the screen. As insults are slung, puns are punned and rice is thrown, it's not hard to see why the Rocky Horror cult movie experience never worked as an afternoon matinee. [SCREAMS, SQUEALS]
JIM HOBERMAN: Movies were definitely released at midnight to find a certain audience, you know, wouldn't have to get up to go to work the next day.
DEREK JOHN: Jim Hoberman, senior film critic at the Village Voice and co-author of the 1982 book Midnight Movies, was one of the earliest observers of the cult movie scene.
JIM HOBERMAN: There was this sense of a shared experience. You know, these movies were participatory, in a way, culminating of course in the, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And they projected scenarios which would appeal to what was left of the counterculture in the '70s, after its decline as a political force in American society.
DEREK JOHN: Through repeated midnight viewings, films like John Waters' Pink Flamingos and David Lynch's Eraserhead flew under the mainstream radar and developed into word of mouth cult sensations. But as the counterculture faded and technology became more portable, midnight movies flickered and were forced to change. The midnight movies that play well today reflect a generation weaned on the VCR. Mark Valen programs midnight movies for Landmark Theatres, the nation's largest art house chain.
MARK VALEN: The audience has gotten younger for the midnight series, but a lot of the more popular films of the midnight series these days are films from the '80s, early '90s -- maybe they've only seen the film on video or DVD, and want that movie experience. [AUDIENCE INTERACTION, ETC]
WOMAN: Please welcome Abby, Danny and Mary to the movieoke stage. [APPLAUSE, CHEERS]
DEREK JOHN: Movieoke. If there's one word that captures this new generation's cult movie habits, it's got to be movieoke. Yep, and it's exactly what it sounds like -- in this case, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [SHOUTING] Bring down the holy hand grenade! [LAUGHTER]
DEREK JOHN: Crammed into the basement of New York's Two Boots Pioneer Theater, The Den of Cin (That's "Cin," as in Cinema) finds fresh-faced film fanatics acting out their favorite movie dialogue in front of an 8 foot tall DVD projection screen. The Pioneer, a smallish, 100-seat movie house affixed to a pizzeria, looks and feels like a cinematic throwback. [SOUND OF PIONEER'S 35mm PROJECTORS] Its two workhorse 35mm projectors, salvaged from the East German consulate after the fall of the Berlin Wall, show midnight movies every weekend, giving the theater a charm that the multiplexes lack. The Pioneer recently served as midwife to Donnie Darko, a latter day challenger to The Rocky Horror Picture Show's cult movie throne.
DORIS KORNISH: We were, like, a little bit surprised that it could show for almost two years -- two plus, I guess, and people would still want to come see it and see it repeatedly, you know? Over and over.
DEREK JOHN: Doris Kornish, co-owner of the Two Boots Pioneer Theater, had the foresight to schedule Donnie Darko at midnight, before anyone else did.
DORIS KORNISH: This film had something that touched people's hearts and minds, like, all at the same time, and hit those nerves that a lot of films, you know, miss these days. [CLIP FROM DONNIE DARKO]
WOMAN: Donnie Darko. What the hell kind of name is that? It's like some sort of super hero or something.
DONNIE DARKO: What makes you think I'm not?
DEREK JOHN: From the beginning, this first feature by 26-year old director Richard Kelly defied easy categorization. And it was deemed controversial when it first opened two months after September 11th, 2001.
BEAU KAELIN: Well, there's a scene in the film where a jet engine crashes through Donnie Darko's house.
DEREK JOHN: Beau Kaelin is promotions manager for Baxter Avenue Theaters in Louisville, Kentucky. Like other locally-owned moviehouses across the country, the Baxters started running Donnie Darko at midnight, after its DVD sales went through the roof.
BEAU KAELIN: When we first announced that we were getting Donnie Darko, everyone was excited, because that was a film that never got to the Louisville scene. I recall we - actually we sold out all 450 seats we had several hours before the film was actually scheduled to play.
DEREK JOHN: The idea that a cult film's popularity in the living room might propel it back into a theater wasn't obvious at first. In fact, when videos were first introduced in the late '70s, they undercut the theaters that incubated midnight movies. Village Voice film critic Jim Hoberman.
JIM HOBERMAN: On the other hand, it made it kind of easier for people to really seriously fetishize movies and turn them into cult objects. They could have the movie, and they could look at it as, as often as they wanted to at home. So I think as, as a result of that, new cults were born. [ETHEREAL SOUND OF DONNIE DARKO]
DEREK JOHN: Jim Hoberman credits Donnie Darko's cryptic website with helping create an online buzz similar to the Blair Witch Project in 1999.
JIM HOBERMAN: The website augmented the mythology of the film, so that people not only saw the movie. They could go, they could read about it on the website, and it became a form of knowledge.
DEREK JOHN: And the movie industry has started paying attention. Donnie Darko's success on DVD and as a midnight cult film has led to its mainstream re-release in select theaters this weekend. Film critics increasingly re-christen former box office flops and DVD re-issues as "overlooked cult classics." And some in Hollywood have begun hyping their DVDs "alleged midnight movie potential." Landmark Theatres' Mark Valen.
MARK VALEN: A couple of the studios have gotten savvy to the idea that there are certain films, when they're making a DVD release, that either has a certain cult director or, or somebody attached to it that, that they realize if they made a, a print of the film for theatrical, that they could probably get some play dates.
DEREK JOHN: But, as midnight movie promoter Beau Kaelin has learned, no matter how you try to package the cult movie experience, there are some things you just can't put on the DVD.
BEAU KAELIN: The staff would ask me if they could dress up, when we had Fight Club and Pink Flamingos in the same night, and a couple of them said oh, can, you know, we wander around, you know, shirtless, too, like we just got in a fight? I was like, well if you want to wander around shirtless in a lobby full of people here to see Pink Flamingoes, far be it from me to stop you.
DEREK JOHN: For On the Media, I'm Derek John. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Janeen Price, Megan Ryan and Tony Field, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Mike Vuolo and Anne Kossef and editing help from Sharon Ball. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.