Midnight/Backwoods Massacre (1980) *
Well, I’ll say one thing for Midnight/Backwoods Massacre. Having watched it, I can at last answer a question that has been popping into my head from time to time for years: how much of the credit customarily given to George Romero for Night of the Living Dead rightfully belongs to his collaborator, John Russo? Russo is both an author and a filmmaker in his own right, with several movies and novels to his credit— Midnight among them— and it has never been clear to me how much of Night of the Living Dead belongs, so to speak, to him. If Midnight is any indication of the kind of work Russo does on his own, then it looks as though the answer to my question is “almost none.”
We begin with one of the sinister prologues that had become de rigueur for cheap horror movies in the aftermath of Halloween. In a hayfield somewhere in western Pennsylvania, a teenage girl is screaming because she has gotten her foot caught in a bear trap. Suddenly, three boys, another girl, and their mother come running over to the trapped teen, but considering that they’re all carrying improvised weapons, it doesn’t seem too likely that they’ve come to help. And sure enough, the mother announces that they’ve caught themselves a demon. Nevermind that it looks just like Bobby Peterson’s sister— it’s a demon straight from Hell, and it is the family’s duty to kill it. One of the boys obligingly comes forward at this point, and brains the girl with an axe handle. This whole scene is a bit difficult to understand, because in the next one, it is revealed that all five members of this dangerously superstitious family are actually practicing Satanists. You’d think Satanists would be positively flattered that their Infernal Master had sent a demon to their doorstep.
Flash forward what will later look to be about ten years. At the other end of the state, another teenager named Nancy Johnson (Melanie Verlin, who later turned up in a small role in Monkey Shines— never let it be said that George Romero doesn’t remember the little people) is having an unpleasant run-in with her alcoholic policeman stepfather, Bert (Lawrence Tierney, from Silver Bullet and The Offspring). Mom (the aptly named Doris Hackney) is out of the house, and Bert has just come back from his usual post-workday trip to the bar. When Nancy asks if she can use the car that night to go out with one of her friends, Bert agrees, but then changes the subject of the conversation by coming on to her. He starts small, with insistent demands for hugs and kisses, but works his way up soon enough to asking his stepdaughter to strip for him. Nancy slaps him, and he pounces on her; it is only by clobbering him on the head with her transistor radio that she is able to escape.
And escape she does, all the way out of the house. Nancy’s plan is to hitch-hike to her older sister’s place in California, but the first person who offers her a ride does so only on the condition that she sleep with him. That’s pretty much exactly the kind of crap the girl is trying to get away from, so she sends the big letch on his butterfly-collared way. Nancy has a bit more luck with the next vehicle that stops for her. It is being driven by Tom (John Hall) and Hank (Charles Jackson), two men in their mid-20’s on the road to a vacation in Ft. Lauderdale. Sure, they aren’t exactly going Nancy’s way, but since, unlike some people, they don’t require blowjobs as payment for a seat in their van, she figures she’ll take what she can get. At least it gets her out of town.
What follows makes sense only as an attempt to illustrate the idea that Nancy, Tom, and Hank are getting farther and farther out into dangerous territory. Every time they stop for gas, they run into some kind of trouble with rednecks who take exception to the high melanin content of Hank’s skin. Indeed, at their first stop, they end up having to give a ride to a black preacher and his daughter, whom the station attendant finds just as offensive as Hank. Tom and Hank drop their new passengers off about ten miles down the road, just enough of a drive for the preacher to warn them that there have been a number of mysterious deaths in the area, and that the local police don’t seem to be too interested in investigating them. After being dropped off, the preacher and his daughter go to what looks an awful lot like the cemetery from Night of the Living Dead to pay their respects to the girl’s dead mother, and they are promptly ambushed and slain by an enormous, fat hillbilly in blue overalls (David Marchick), who somehow manages to get a handle on his otherwise uncontrollable cackling for just long enough to sneak up on them. They’re coming to get you, Barbara...
Meanwhile, Nancy has just learned that Tom and Hank have been stealing from grocery stores to support themselves on their trip; apparently, they had enough money for gas or food, but not both. Their next “shopping” excursion goes so well that they end up being chased by the police, and are able to escape only by ducking down a long, winding driveway into the woods while their van is briefly hidden from the view of the pursuing cops by a sharp bend in the road. Naturally, this driveway goes right past the Cackling Fatty’s house, and Tom and the gang nearly run him down on his way to bury the body of one of his victims.
You’d think seeing something like that only hours after being told that a killer was loose in the neighborhood would affect your behavior in some way, but you and I are apparently much smarter than the characters in this movie. Rather than turn around and head back toward civilization, Tom, Hank, and Nancy drive even deeper into the countryside so that they can camp out for the night!!!! Natural selection swiftly steps in to deal with this threat to the gene pool in the form of two psychopathic cops who shoot Tom and Hank down in cold blood on the pretext that they suspect them of having raped and killed one of those girls the preacher was talking about. Nancy manages to escape, but her flight takes her straight to the Cackling Fatty’s house, where she is caught between him and the two rogue policemen. The three sickos then lock her in a wire-mesh dog cage next to another girl who had previously run afoul of them.
As it turns out, the Cackling Fatty is named Cyrus, and the two cops (actually imposters dressed in the uniforms of two more of their victims) are his younger brothers, Luke (Greg Besnak) and Abraham (John Amplas, from Martin and Toxic Zombies). The girl who was intently playing solitaire in the kitchen while the men were corralling Nancy is their sister, Cynthia (Robin Walsh). And just in case you hadn’t made the connection, these are the devil-worshiping children from the first scene, all grown up. The reason they have taken Nancy and the other girl prisoner is that, over the course of Easter Weekend, they intend to use their captives’ blood in a ceremony to re-animate their mother’s mummified corpse.
The recipe calls for the blood of three girls, though, so Luke and Abraham have to go fetch another. And while they’re doing that, a repentant Bert Johnson comes to town looking for any sign of Nancy. One of his friends on the force saw Tom and Hank pick her up, and noted the license plate number of their van. And when Bert started hearing reports of three youths on a grocery-stealing spree driving a similar vehicle, he got in the car and started following those reports west across Pennsylvania. And now that Luke and Abraham have pressed that self-same van into service as their Abductionmobile, the dumb motherfuckers have an excellent chance of leading Johnson right to their house. This happens on the afternoon of whatever you call the Saturday that intervenes between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and though Bert arrives too late to save the other two girls, he’s right on time to rescue Nancy. But because this is an 80’s horror movie, Bert’s rescue attempt has to go disastrously wrong at the last minute, leaving Nancy to supply her own salvation. The killers are all dispatched in remarkably short order, and Midnight screeches to a halt without the faintest hint of real resolution.
That failure to tie up any of the plot threads after the killers are vanquished is Midnight’s most glaring defect. We never gain any insight into why the family turned to Satanism, why they kept their mother around for what must, on the basis of her level of decomposition, have been years after her death, or whether the one scene in which the matriarchal cadaver is depicted communicating psychically with her offspring is meant to be taken literally or as an illustration of Cynthia’s insanity. Russo never addresses the issue of Bert Johnson’s change of heart regarding his stepdaughter; one minute, we see him trying to force himself on her and then convince his wife that Nancy has been trying to seduce him for months, and the next, he chases Nancy, Tom, and Hank across the whole state in order to make sure she’s safe. This could have made for a really engaging subplot, what with the inherent irony of Nancy having to depend for her rescue upon the very person she had been trying to escape when she landed herself in trouble, but instead Russo just skirts the issue by having Cynthia stab Johnson between the ribs while his attention is focused on her brothers. And while we’re on the subject of Bert’s westward pursuit of Tom, Hank, and Nancy, who in their right mind drives from Philadelphia to Ft. Lauderdale by way of fucking Pittsburgh?!?!
Under the right conditions, Midnight might still have survived its script to succeed as a mindless splatter flick; God knows I’ve enjoyed enough of those. But despite the presence of Tom Savini’s name on the credits, this movie is really quite tame in its gore effects, and thus has little or nothing to offer even from a pure exploitation perspective. Throw in Russo’s limp direction, everyone’s bad acting, and a host of other minor annoyances, and you get an almost total waste of an hour and a half.