1982 , 93 mins. 56 secs.
Directed by John Russo
Starring Melanie Verlin, Lawrence Tierney, John Amplas, Greg Besnak, John Hall, Charles Jackson, Doris Hackney, Robin Walsh, David Marchick
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/DVD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Arrow Video (DVD) (UK R0 NTSC), Lionsgate (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
Still best known in the horror history books as the co-writer of the classic Night of the Living Dead (and author of its excellent 1974 novelization), John Russo found a successful career as writer of horror paperbacks that seemed to be everywhere in the late '70s and early '80s. Among these familiar books were The Majorettes, The Return of the Living Dead (no relation to the later film of the same name), and Midnight, a 1980 genre mash up Russo decided to adapt for his second directorial credit (after the one-off comedy The Booby Hatch). Given a very marginal theatrical release by Independent-International and a somewhat scarce VHS release from Vidmark, the film somehow got briefly ensnared in the U.K. video nasty panic of the '80s along the way. Shot on a very low budget, it hasn't enjoyed the greatest reputation with its wild tonal shifts frustrating anyone expecting a straight-up slasher film or Satanic bloodbath, even though it does deliver elements of both. What you really get is a prime slice of regional Pennsylvania drive-in filmmaking that's macabre enough to fit into the horror genre but also working as a kind of troubled teen film and even a dark comedy in spots.
In the pre-credits sequence, a young girl is caught in a trap in the middle of a field before being violently attacked and killed by a group of kids led by a homicidal mother figure who then carries out a grisly occult ritual. From there we meet our heroine, Nancy (Verlin), a Catholic teen who's just broken up with her boyfriend after losing her virginity. However, that's just the beginning of her troubles when her cop stepfather, Bert (Tierney), attempts to molest her at home while her mother's away. After fighting back, Nancy goes on the run and tries to hitchhike her way to her older sister in California. After some false starts she winds up riding along with the well-meaning Hank (Jackson) and Tom (future Pittsburgh Christian radio host Hall), and together they pull off a big shoplifting haul that puts them on the radar of the local police. Meanwhile a burly, bearded psycho (Marchick) is running around murdering residents in the area, and the traveling trio end up crossing paths with a pair of homicidal cops, Abraham (Martin's Amplas) and Luke (Knightriders' Besnak). With Nancy's stepdad using all of his resources to track her down, it's only a matter of time before all of these story strands converge with that Satanic cult in the vicinity who are waiting for the stroke of midnight on Easter to offer their ultimate sacrifice.
The hodgepodge of elements here won't work for some viewers, of course, but if you're on the right wavelength there's a lot to enjoy here including a great electronic soundtrack primarily credited to Paul McCullough (who also scored the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead and pulled multiple duties here including cinematographer and editor) including a very catchy (and frequently used) theme song, "After Midnight," performed by local band Quintessence. Of course, it wouldn't be a Pittsburgh horror film without special effects by Tom Savini -- and that's exactly what you get here with some nasty throat slashings using some of the tricks he perfected just before this with the original Friday the 13th. (Unfortunately a lot of prints and home video releases were censored back in the day, eliminating some of the splashier shots.) The entire film is also soaked in the kind of atmosphere money can't buy with the bare trees and creepy overcast lighting giving it a strange, damp feeling that really soaks into your bones if you're in a receptive frame of mind. Yes, the acting's very hit and miss (including characters from the same gene pool with wildly different accents for no reason) and the story lurches all over the place, but that's also why it still stands out when you know what you're in for. On the other hand, the story does hit a bit of a wall in the final stretch with a rushed climax that seems a bit anticlimactic for a plot that seems to be heading in a much more twisted, E.C. Comics or Frailty-style direction than what actually transpires.
Ever since its 1986 VHS release from Vidmark (a year after an unsuccessful reissue attempt under the title The Backwoods Massacre), Midnight has had an extremely spotty history on home video. Circulating prints were pretty cruddy, but that was nothing compared to the faded, yellow, and generally nasty-looking tape master that was circulated for years afterwards including a pair of very underwhelming DVDs from Lionsgate in 2011 and Arrow Video in the U.K. (authored in NTSC, interestingly) in 2011. At least the Arrow had some worthwhile extras including two featurettes, "Vampires, Rednecks and Zombies: The Fear Career of John Amplas" (31m17s) and "Midnight at Your Door: The Shocking Sacrifices of John Russo" (20m14s), plus a quick Amplas intro (33s), the unimpressive original trailer (which makes this look like a boring Macon County Line imitation), and liner notes by Stephen Thrower.
In 2021, Severin Films brought Russo's film back in circulation in what is really the first watchable commercial release of any kind, as separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. Actually, "watchable" is really selling it short as this 4K scan from the original negative is absolutely stunning and feels like a completely different film. The increase in every single aspect here (color, detail, adjusted 1.66:1 framing, etc.) is tremendous and should hopefully win over some new fans while causing previous naysayers to perhaps give it another shot. The framing here removes the extraneous headroom from the earlier transfer while adding quite a bit to the sides, and throughout it really works much better. The copy touts this as the "long-rumored uncut version," though that just amounts to a few seconds (less than ten -- the older transfer ran 93m47s, for the record.) English audio options are available in DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 stereo; it's very front and center for most of the running time and sticks to the sound of the theatrical mono mix, though there is some modest split-channel activity for the music during some of the driving scenes. Also included is a track of isolated score selections (essentially the soundtrack LP broken up into separate portions) plus an audio interview with composer Mike Mazzei introduced and conducted by Michael Felsher, which is quite enjoyable with a lot of background about his entry into pop music, the golden days of analog recording, the folks involved with Latent Image in Pittsburgh, and the collaborative nature of the score for this film on which he served as co-composer. Basically you get 12 minutes of interview, then the program from the soundtrack LP, and then back to the interview until the 86-minute mark.
In "Making Midnight" (22m44s), Russo talks about the collapse of the Night collective after There's Always Vanilla, his subsequent work with Russell Streiner, his disdain for organized religion that informed the story, the Pittsburgh Playhouse actors recruited for the film, the one scene he had to shoot with a drunk star, the many challenges posed by the minuscule budget that even impacted which footage could be used in the film, the big change that had to be made to the ending by the time the camera rolled, and the distribution blunders that came afterward. Then an interview with distributor Sam Sherman, "Producing Midnight" (10m25s), covers his relationship with Tierney that led to his casting, the acquisition of the project before the novel (originally known as The Congregation) was published, his influence on changes made after the first workprint was screened, and his very positive opinion of the final product. Then Ampas turns up in "The Midnight Killer" (10m37s), covering his previous friendship with Russo, the stage production that led to that aforementioned intoxicated scene, and his continuing friendships with some of the participants including Hall. Finally in "Small Favors" (8m35s), Savini talks about wedging the film in during a very busy period in his career (circa Knightriders, The Burning, and The Prowler) on the heels of his sudden rise to fame with Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th, with this one essentially done as a favor to Russo using an assortment of bullet hit and slashed throat devices. He also points out a key cameo from a familiar face from Maniac and delivers a really nice tribute to his beloved Pittsburgh, too. Finally the disc rounds out with the alternate The Backwoods Massacre title card, the trailer, and a one-minute Backwoods Massacre radio spot.
Severin Films (Blu-ray)
Arrow Video (DVD)
Reviewed on September 17, 2021