I grew up with Premium Cable. We had HBO and The Movie Channel and later Starz and Cinemax. Today, a trip back to my parents’ house features many of those same channels but with added on-demand functionality and HD/Non-HD streams. Movie channels were always a luxury my parents allowed themselves. As a result, in a pre-Internet world, I spent night after late night of my early teens up late, watching movies.
I remember watching the premier of the 1993 thriller Sliver. I may have confused its self-seriousness for good filmmaking and hey look, breasts. The first time I saw Kids, it was on cable and either preceded by or followed by a short “discussion” vignette wherein the cast, filmmakers, parents, etc. all weighed in on the film’s subject. My 14-year-old brain’s takeaways from that movie were as follows: skateboarding beatdown was awesome, the Folk Implosion’s “Natural One” was a good song, Jenny = new type of hot.
There was something intensely relaxing about flipping to the “guide” channel and watching it slowly scroll the 80 or so available networks. When the “guide” channel was a new, novel invention, half the screen was covered with static advertisements with bland, soft jazz playing in the background. Eventually commercials and even scripted content would come to fill this space. But once upon a time, that channel really was just there to show you what was on.
While most of the premium channels’ time was booked with marquee movies like the aforementioned Sliver or Kids, late late at night they allowed the level of experimentation in their programming to grow as the overall quality of the films dropped. This created a solid block from midnight to around 4 a.m. where you could find risque but relevant movies like Single White Female followed by horror schlockfests like The Refrigerator followed by foreign darlings like Delicatessen. Gregg Akari’s Nowhere comes to mind whenever I think about the pure shocking joy of watching something my mind was totally unprepared for. This would have been around 1997/98 so I’d already seen plenty. But even then, this colorful, aggressive, hyper-sexual and moderately star studded examination of west coast madness truly surprised me.
I bought it on VHS and forced friends to watch it. It became something of a trend. This happened for a few reasons. One, I wanted to understand the movie better. I spent my teens constantly worried I just wasn’t getting something. Bouncing these bizarre echoes off my peers was a kind of calibration. It felt good to ask, “Wasn’t that fucked up?” and have them answer in the affirmative. Two, I did not want to be alone in seeing these things. Along with the inferiority associated with seeing but not understanding, there was the guilt of having witnessed. I wanted to spread things around to either prove I wasn’t messed up OR to mess other people up with me. This trend peaked in the early 2000s when I ruined a perfectly good party by forcibly screening a bootleg VHS copy of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo. I am sorry, everyone.
Now, to say every night was filled with exciting, challenging films would grossly misrepresent my experience. Most everything I watched was garbage. I have clear memories of mainstream bombs like Hackers, The Temp, No Escape, and The Good Son in equal measure with hours and hours of B-grade horrors on par with Phantasm III, Night of the Demons 2, and just about everything in the Puppet Master series, including a tremendously awful Puppet Master spin/knock-off called Demonic Toys. Horror was such fertile late-night programming I think I’ll just name more movies because so many of them are worth noting if for no other reason than no one ever notes them: The Mangler (killer laundry machine), Screamers, Return of the Living Dead 3 (first instance of a goth zombie?), Maniac Cop, Castle Freak, Sleepwalkers, Carnosaur. WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE.
These nights ceased to be special around the year 2000. The Internet all but destroyed any joy I took in passive viewing and replaced it with a manic need for active information. I’ve managed to easily translate this need across several generations of technology from playing Starsiege: Tribes on a dial-up Internet connection with USA Up All Night on in the background to, 18 years later, half-heartedly watching Star Trek on Netflix while frantically refreshing 4-5 apps on my phone. Just saying it now makes me loathe myself. And though I love Twitter and I’m always up for seeing what kind of hijinks your new babies are up to, I do sometimes wish for the peace/calm I felt sitting alone in a dark living room at 3 a.m. watching an awful movie. The remote control only had 12 buttons. The screen on the television was round and deep. When I shut it off to race the sunrise to bed it crackled in this way that made it seem as though the television had been under tremendous electrical strain. The machine ached so that I might watch Alicia Silverstone try to murder someone with a hive of bees in The Crush. For that, I am forever sad and grateful.
—Steven Casimer Kowalski