If you’ve ever felt lost, unseen, unacknowledged, or just generally without people, chances are that something came into your live and turned all of that around. We’re not getting into something as deep as religion, but, for many, the art that saves does begin to feel like one. We’re talking the mosh pit kids beating the hell out of each other at punk shows, the Transylvanians looking for a fun night out, the followers of Bodhi, the believers in Sparkle Motion, those who abide, and the ones just looking to turn things up to 11. These are the movies that lived at midnight because studios didn’t think anyone would want them, yet would keep playing over and over. And when the theaters stopped, they lived on via VHS tapes being trading back and forth. The first of a three-part documentary series, director Danny Wolf (Gigolos) Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time, Vol. 1 — Midnight Madness focuses on the movies that beckoned to audiences to come out to play while all good sense had gone to bed.
Let’s begin with the good here, shall we.
Time Warp is the kind of documentary that informs well by gathering together a large group of educated individuals, many involved in the material discussed, to examine a film, a style, or a creator with great care and enthusiasm. This will make any fan of the work excited as they’ll see the thing they love being praised and any non-fan possibly more interested in learning more. For instance, when discussing The Big Lebowski, Wolf interviews actors Jeff Bridges and John Turturro, enabling the audience to learn something about the actors’ experiences of making the film and their view of responses to the film, even telling some stories of making it. One story Bridges tells about the day they shot the dream sequence is particularly hilarious and may not be known by the general populace. Fun though this may be, what adds punch to each segment is the wider perspective of the film offered via notable film critics, culture writers, and repertory cinema owners. So whether it’s Bridges talking about his love of the Dude, Rob Reiner explaining how ticked off Black Sabbath became after seeing “little Stonehenge,” or Gary Busey expounding on the profundity of Point Break, each segment is balanced via contextualization of the period, the business viewpoint, and other insights beyond the screen. The value here is especially strong when considering the contribution made by esteemed actor Pam Grief (Coffy) during the segment on the subgenre blaxploitation. Here, she explains that, from a business perspective, the term “exploitation” was used in the industry trades seen by theater owners looking for films to screen that signaled adult content. There’s no discussion of the rating system used by the MPAA, but she does explain that the term “blaxploitation” was not denigrating, but a signifier of the subgenre. However, to hear Fred Williamson (Three the Hard Way) explain it, the term wasn’t professional but a means of demeaning a culture while profiting from it. This is the only segment in which any kind of disagreement is made and Wolf never treats it as a controversy. It’s just placed before the audience for them to ruminate on.
As engaging a documentary as it is for the information it provides, the structure of it is nonsensical and the use of hosts is confusing. With a bit of digging, it appears that Wolf’s three-part documentary originally released in 2019 as an eight-part tv miniseries. This does provide a small explanation as to why Vol 1 is co-hosted by directors Joe Dante (Gremlins) and John Waters (Pink Flamingos), as their work can be found in the midnight movies isle of any physical or digital purveyor of cult films. However, even in watching Vol 1, it’s unclear why actors Illeana Douglas (Ghost World) and Kevin Pollack (The Usual Suspects) are involved. The hosts aren’t used very much for transitions between films (only two transitions made any kind of sense between host/material), and it was mostly Dante and Waters doing the talking. Perhaps their roles were larger in the miniseries or will become larger in the upcoming Vol 2 (May 19th, 2020) and Vol 3 (June 23rd, 2020), but, for now, the use of hosts is confusing and seemingly unnecessary. Speaking of, there appears to be no flow between the films whatsoever. Broken into two chunks, Vol 1 explores “midnight movies and subversive cult movies” with a total of 15 topics explored within. Outside of the opening discussion of The Rocky Horror Picture Show before beginning the interviews and, later, going from Waters talking about Pink Flamingo to a clip of the film, there appears to be no clear through-line from one topic to another. This doesn’t, in any way, detract from the information gathered nor should it dismiss the presentation of individuals being interviewed, but it is possible to get a mental whiplash as one topic abruptly ends and all you’re given as a segue is a poster.
While the hosts are strange and the transitions are virtually non-existent, the whole of Vol 1 is a bit of fun. Being unfamiliar with Penelope Spheeris’s documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, the inclusion of the film was not only fascinating to gain new knowledge, but Spheeris’s “go f**k yourself” attitude in the interview was deeply refreshing after the more typical, straight interviews from the other participants. Likewise, having heard of but not having been exposed to the films of Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) in undergrad, having the opportunity to hear from some of the individuals who worked with him or ran his films in their theaters, instilled a desire to explore an area of film considered but never made a priority to invest any time in investigating. A goal of any documentary is to inform the audience on a subject of which they may not be familiar and to instill a desire to take some kind of action, even if it means learning more. It may be unfair to ask a documentary about midnight movies to be perfect, and the issues present are largely quibbles, but Time Warp, Vol 1 is certainly going to either invite new members into the fold or strengthen old fans’ long-held love. Either way, that’s a win.
Available on VOD and digital April 21st, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.