Written by: Christopher O’Neill on August 16th, 2011
Theatrical Release Dates: USA, 1982
Director: John Russo
Writer: John Russo (based on his novel)
Cast: Melanie Verliin, Lawrence Tierney, John Amplas, Robin Walsh, Tom Hall
DVD released: September 5th, 2011
Approximate running time: 94 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1:33:1 Full Frame
Rating: 18 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English
DVD Release: Arrow Video
Region Coding: Region 0 PAL (UK)
Retail Price: £15.99
Adapted from his own novel of the same name, John Russo’s Midnight was made for $71,000 (including post-production costs) which is an incredibly small amount for a 35mm feature shot in 1980. Despite certain aspects of the film being hindered by the minuscule budget – for example, Russo reveals on the accompanying featurette that using cheap film stock resulted in portions of the footage being unusable, so in some cases alternative, less-effective takes needed to be used – Midnight is brimming with so many intriguing elements that it is easy to overlook the shortcomings in favor of its restless imagination. The narrative is constantly shifting gears which makes the film pleasantly unpredictable: it begins as a dysfunctional family drama and touches upon religion, the corruption of innocence, and authoritative hypocrisy; then it becomes a coming-of-age road movie about the generation gap and racial bigotry; and eventually descends into a grimy rural horror story which comes full circle by centering on another family unit and again explores the issues of religion (the film’s original title was to be The Congregation), abuse, and the false security of authoritative figures. It is the rebellious questioning of such sacred elements in American society which relates Midnight more to the genre films of the previous decade, then the simplistic stalk and slash films that flooded the market in the early eighties.
The limitations of the low-budget affect many aspects of Midnight, with mixed results. The acts of violence depicted can occasionally be unconvincing or appear amateurish in execution, yet are so random and cold-blooded – and framed against the disarmingly grey and dull Pittsburgh skies or sparsely decorated farmhouses – that they leave a nasty aftertaste. Some scenes, such as the unarmed young men being shot by killers dressed in police uniforms, or Nancy being locked up in a dog cage with other potential victims, resonate long after viewing. Likewise, some of the performances are uneven or one-noted but the central roles are filled by actors able to convey credible empathy – Melanie Verliin is a particularly feisty and likeable heroine, which makes her plight even more distressing, while Lawrence Tierney is excellent as the alcoholic and abusive stepfather, a pathetic figure who convincingly develops a conscience and becomes an unlikely honorable savior. It is worth noting that the film’s ending has been changed from the downbeat conclusion of the novel, which was re-filmed at the insistence of executive producer and distributor Sam Sherman. In doing so, the fate of both Nancy and her stepfather is different from the original material.
Unfortunately, the technical specifications of Arrow Video’s uncensored DVD are a major letdown. Utilizing the same dated analogue transfer used for Lions Gate’s American disc, the picture is framed in a fullscreen 4X3 ratio. The film was apparently shot in the academy ratio of 1:37:1, so the 1:33:1 presentation should be essentially accurate. The theatrical trailer (included as an extra on the DVD) is framed slightly different, since it crops a small amount of the headroom at the top and left-hand side while adding extra image on the bottom and right-hand side. While the trailer seems to be better balanced, the anomalies between the two images are minor, so much so that no relevant information seems to be cropped from the main feature.
The image quality of the transfer itself is plagued with mild dirt, debris and damage while being soft, murky and has a yellow/brown tinge which washes out color (the accompanying trailer does not suffer from this unattractive overcast and the colors appear more vibrant). The problems do not stop there: there’s video-wrinkle damage on the opening frames of the film, plus Arrow also failed to crop the minor yet annoying fragments of timecode information at the top of the image which could have been easily masked (this is not evident on television sets since the overscan crops it off, but is annoying if viewed on a laptop or computer screen). To further compound these imperfections, the UK disc is an NTSC-to-PAL conversion which takes away sharpness and color from the already soft and dull picture.
The audio does not fair much better. The mono soundtrack is riddled with pops and has a constant hiss. Admittedly, Midnight was filmed on an extremely limited budget and this probably means some of the soundtrack was imperfect in the first place (in at least one sequence, camera noise can be heard), but this shoddy transfer does not help. It is sad to see, even when a company like Arrow who are known to be more sympathetic to lesser-known examples of genre cinema, that Midnight still receives a very disappointing and underwhelming presentation.
Where this DVD does impress is with its extra features. The featurette “Midnight at Your Door: The Shocking Sacrifices of John Russo” (20 minutes) is an informative and fascinating interview with the writer/director. Russo has many stories about the making of Midnight, the various problems the production faced, and how Independent International Pictures sat on the film for two years (it was filmed in 1980) in hope that the then-current trend of slasher movies would die down (it didn’t, of course). He also points out that the MPAA demanded several cuts to secure an “R” rating for the film’s original American theatrical release. There is another featurette entitled “Vampires, Rednecks and Zombies: The Fear Creer of John Amplas” (31 minutes) which covers the actor’s work on Martin, Knightriders, Midnight and Day Of The Dead. The interview is interesting as Amplas discusses his cinema and theatre career, although it is obvious that his memory is somewhat hazy on certain aspects and he struggles to recall some stories. Amplas also provides an on-camera introduction to the film (1 minute). Rounding off the extra content is a theatrical trailer (4 minutes) which suffers from the same annoying fragments of timecode information at the top of the picture as the main feature.
Also included is a booklet containing linear notes by Stephen Thrower, author of Nightmare USA, which is a welcome bonus to this DVD set since he offers insightful background details on director John Russo, the making of Midnight and its American theatrical release. It also touches upon Russo’s writings as a novelist, and how many of his books relate back to his and others cinema work.