Los Angeles’ blend of midnight movies, cult screenings and historic theaters offer late-night scares and childhood nostalgia back in the theater. Join columnist Nina Young as she attends different cult screenings each week to find out why audiences stay out so late after dark.
Letters reading “MIDNIGHT HEAD CHEESE” glowed above the Nuart Theatre for its screening of the cult film “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”
The mysterious title – referring to a cannibalistic element in the movie – was confusing and alarming to a casual horror fan unfamiliar with the 1974 film’s lingo.
The Nuart on Santa Monica Boulevard, a quick 2 miles from UCLA, is perhaps best known for its Saturday performances of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” But the historic theater, built in 1930, additionally screens cult films Friday nights. Their “Cine Insomnia” film series, continuing through November, includes Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare” and various midnight showings of chilling Halloween favorites.
“Insomnia” is the perfect word to sum up a midnight viewing of Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Though the show ended well past 2 a.m., I was not at all eager to return home alone after. Unlike watching Netflix movies in a residence hall, midnight cult horror screenings don’t come with the ability to frantically shut your laptop after a jump scare. In the darkness of the Nuart’s all-black interior, with antagonist Leatherface’s chainsaw roaring and his human-skin mask looming on the screen, all I could do was hide behind my fingers.
Since its premiere in 1974, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has expanded into an eight-film franchise, with the series’ most recent iteration, “Leatherface,” hitting theaters in 2017. With the original film featuring a family of cannibals terrorizing a group of unsuspecting teenagers, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was controversial upon its release and its disturbing content lead to censorship in several countries.
So why wander the streets of Los Angeles to watch this 40-year-old film at midnight? As my friends and I joined the long line of moviegoers an hour before the film’s start, my ears perked up at the overlapping conversation of the film’s attendees, which included both young couples and older groups. Surrounded by dedicated fans – with many reminiscing about the first time they ever saw the film – I felt the anticipation building for the horror screening.
Attendee Wendy Seumanutafa said she and her friends had made their way to the midnight screening because it was one of her friends’ all-time favorite films, but they had never viewed it in theaters. Prior to the showing, she said she expected watching the film at the Nuart would be nostalgic.
“Just the experience of seeing it on the big screen … with fans, obviously only fans would come out and see it at a midnight showing,” Seumanutafa said. “It’s about the energy of everyone.”
Seumanutafa’s words unintentionally introduced me to my first guideline for late night, cult movie screenings.
Unofficial cult movie rule #1: Get ready to join what feels like an elaborate inside joke.
While accessible to anyone who loves cult movies, screenings like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” do seem to be meant for horror devotees, as evidenced during the film’s introduction, given by Nuart employee, Armando Muñoz. His spiel asked the audience about film trivia, included poster giveaways and was peppered with cannibal puns.
“The concession stand will be closing in 10 minutes, so if you want any more meat products, please go order them now!” Muñoz joked to the crowd before the lights dimmed and horror trailers rolled on the Nuart screen, creating an unsettling atmosphere before the film’s bloody opening credits.
It became immediately clear that the audience was well-versed in the film’s story beats, as they braced themselves for the jump scares and laughed at the scenes of dark comedy – a component I didn’t expect from the slasher film, but one that helped generate a sense of community. A chuckle of knowing, dramatic irony went through the theater when the teenagers picked up a suspicious hitchhiker early on. Someone in the theater might as well have yelled “Don’t do it!” at the doomed characters.
Unofficial cult movie screening rule #2: Do NOT fall asleep.
No one likes to fall into a deep sleep and wake up to 1970s teenagers being slashed with a chainsaw, so for this reason alone I recommend buying coffee as the night goes on. While I ate popcorn with hot sauce to stay alert, a few others in the theater took a different approach, with one person snoring in the back during the film’s second act. I believe this rule is also necessary to enjoy the film’s gradual progression toward the climactic terror. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is built on a 45-minute foundation of suspense before the cannibals fully make their debut, and missing the establishing moments would be detrimental to the full frightening experience.
As the film dramatically ended, audience members cheered and then left the theater to find their way home, with Muñoz staying behind to talk to fans.
He said “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was a perfect fit for the midnight movie scene due to its “edgy” cult status, successfully kicking off “Cine Insomnia” before Halloween. The crowd of fans and newcomers allowed him to witness both raw reactions and the familiar enthusiasm of returning fans, he said.
“I was literally surrounded by scared, screaming people hiding their eyes,” Muñoz said. “These movies may be decades old but they still have as much power now as they ever did.”