Striking midnight: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" moves into "Rocky Horror" territory
It was Saturday night, and the witching hour drew near.
Hundreds of bloodthirsty fanatics congregated in New York City’s West Village, braving the bitter chill of a February night. To stay warm, they stood close together, breaking down any barriers between vampire and vampire slayer.
At the same time, another group formed roughly 20 miles away in Upper Montclair, N.J. But in place of stakes and fangs, audience members donned stilettos, black curly wigs and leather vests with leopard-print linings.
Both groups were waiting for the stroke of midnight--when their movies would begin.
Midnight movies, including “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the latest entry, a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer" sing-along, are a way for fans to gather with other like-minded worshipers to act out and sing along to lyrics that most in the crowd know by heart.
“We’ve definitely formed a cult around this TV show,” said Clinton McClung, 36, who founded the sing-along in 2004, while program director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston.
McClung originally intended to show “Buffy’s” musical episode, “Once More with Feeling,” for some friends, similar to his bowling soirees for “The Big Lebowski” and shark burger barbecues for “Jaws.”
But “Buffy” proved different.
“Put on the first show with no promotions, and 600 people showed up,” he said. “I kind of knew I was onto something.”
McClung eventually bought the rights to the episode and took the show to the IFC Center in New York City, where it plays every month for $15 a ticket.
For that, audience members receive goodie bags filled with vampire teeth, finger puppets, kazoos and a cheat sheet on when the toys should be used. To cap off an orgiastic scene between two characters, for example, the audience is instructed to pop exploding firecrackers. “Not only is it a nice expression of love, but it has a nice sulfuric smell,” McClung said recently to a sold-out crowd.
An acting troupe performs in front of the movie screen while the crowd sings along to subtitles. The resulting blend of theater and cinema pits the voice of the on-screen Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, against the singing of the cast and audience to create a chaotic, karaoke-like symphony.
It's a fun scene, but Stuart Samuels, director of the 2005 documentary “Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream,” said the “Buffy” screenings don't hold a waving-Bic-lighter flame to the midnight movies of the '60s and '70s.
“They’re looking for another example of how to laugh at something,” he said. “They’re not looking for anything that connects content to any larger context of meaning, and they don’t want it.”
Samuels said the original midnight movies, like David Lynch’s 1977 allegory on loneliness, “Eraserhead,” and George Romero’s 1968 frightening parable of changing times, “Night of the Living Dead,” took apart “the assumptions and the beliefs and the ideas of the culture by turning everything on its head.”
“They really represented a critique of the basic assumptions of American culture--about life, about meaning, about individuality, about sex, about everything,” said Samuels, who believes today’s midnight movies, like “Buffy,” a sing-along “Sound of Music” and “Donnie Darko,” are lacking in cultural significance.
Samuels does respect "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," a cinematic rock opera that most believe is the grandfather of participatory midnight cinema.
Larry Viezel, 32, directs a “Rocky Horror” acting troupe in Upper Montclair, N.J., and organizes national fan conventions. He said "Buffy" crowds were mimicking “Rocky Horror” fans, who, for 30 years, have been dancing, shouting and receiving goodie bags filled with rice to throw at the wedding scene, toast for when a character proposes one at dinner and toilet paper to throw when one character cries out "Great Scott!"
“I don’t see ["Buffy"] replacing ‘Rocky Horror,’” said Viezel, whose screenings cost $7, plus $5 for a goodie bag. “I see that emulating ‘Rocky Horror.’”
In 1975, “Rocky Horror” bombed in its initial theatrical release, but its audience grew exponentially through midnight screenings. As the phenomenon progressed, audiences started shouting back at the screen, then began bringing props to throw at appropriate points during the movie.
Today, “Rocky Horror” continues to play at more than 70 theaters worldwide, and has grossed nearly $175 million, according to Lou Adler, the film's executive producer.
To reach a similar result, Viezel recommends that “Buffy” progress naturally rather than by imitating the “Rocky Horror” experience. “If they just let it grow organically and let it grow on its own, they might actually wind up with something unique,” said Viezel, whose recent Valentine’s Day "Rocky Horror" show drew a sell-out crowd of 160.
McClung did call his "Buffy" acting troupe a “Rocky Horror” cast, but was quick to differentiate the two phenomena. “‘Rocky Horror’ I feel is a little more antagonistic, you know, people are making fun of the movie,” he said. “Most fans that I’ve ever met of ‘Buffy’ really want to share that love.”
Shannon Paige, 29, who plays Buffy in the New York acting troupe, added that the “Buffy” crowd is tamer than its “Rocky Horror” counterpart. “The ‘Buffy’ fans seem to be more good-natured and more quiet,” Paige said. “They’re not really crazy.”
For example, people who come to their first “Buffy” screening--called virgins--are ceremoniously showered in red confetti by one of the cast members. Viezel’s screenings, on the other hand, have varied initiations for “Rocky Horror” virgins, but they normally include doughnuts and an act that would make any mother blush. “You’re embarrassed for a second or two, usually doing something slightly taboo, nothing perverse, just a little off-center,” Viezel said.
At a recent Friday screening of “Buffy,” the crowd was filled with several “Rocky Horror” defectors.
“I did a ‘Rocky Horror,’” said Jeanette Duffy, 23, with a been there, done that shoulder shrug. “‘Buffy’ fans are really not that freaky.”
McClung said "Buffy's" appeal comes from the realism of the characters. “Everybody in ‘Rocky Horror’ is this strange over-the-top caricature,” he said. “All the characters in ‘Buffy’ are actually, despite being about vampires and magic, very realistic characters.”
“Like when Buffy loses her virginity to Angel and he turns evil,” she said laughing. “Who hasn’t gone through that?”
McClung plans to take a summer "Buffy" tour to Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and Toronto. And, of course, all the showings will start when the clock strikes 12.
“Vampire slayers, they have to go out at midnight, there’s no question,” he said.
If not, they could get stuck in a “Time Warp.”