Once a month, the Moolah Theatre and Lounge in Midtown St. Louis slowly fills with moviegoers wearing punk gear and movie poster T-shirts. Screams ring out past the theater doors, and the screen casts neon green light on the seats.
The words “Late Nite Grindhouse,” written in font that looks like oozing snot, splash across the screen.
After a year of box-office wins and award nominations, horror films are receiving more mainstream recognition. But the Late Nite Grindhouse film series has honored the genre for years, taking people back to the gorey worlds of midcentury horror films — some classic, others forgotten.
The New York Times declared 2017 “the biggest year in horror history” after a series of box-office wins. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” garnered award nominations that most directors in the genre never see — observers have pointed to a "known genre bias" against horror and other pulpier films.
Late Nite organizer and host Andy Triefenbach said he agrees, to an extent. “Horror has always kinda been this commentary about what’s happening in society,” he said.
Most recently, “Get Out”depicted racism in the United States through smart satire. Peele, who both directed and wrote the film, has pointed to the 1968 zombie film “Night of the Living Dead” as a thematic predecessor. Films like “Teeth” and “It Follows” captured anxieties about sex and assault. “Dawn of the Dead” tackled socialism during the Cold War; several of David Cronenberg’s mid-1980s films tapped into what Triefenbach calls a “weird sexual current” that’s culturally taboo.
Horror “can be a mirror to so many issues that are going on in many lives today,” Triefenbach said. He thinks its recent surge in popularity also comes from young viewers figuring out how the genre can do that for the issues they care about.
But Late Nite Grindhouse is also about being scared — in the right place, with the right people.
A night at the theater
“Let’s go back into the time when 'The Crazies' was released, cell phones weren’t impairing movie theaters,” Triefenbach told the audience at January’s show. He welcomed them to Late Nite Grindhouse’s latest showing — "The Crazies," a 1973 George Romero film about what happens when biological weapons meet small town American. “Turn 'em off. Don’t talk.” He pauses. “We’ll kill you. Have a good day."
The audience claps and whistles. It’s fun, it’s weird, and it’s just a bit scary. And it’s exactly what the regulars come for: To feel frightened somewhere fun, around like-minded horror fans.
That’s Jackie Kelly’s perspective, at least. The 24-year-old actress and writer has attended Late Nite Grindhouse nearly every month for several years.
She’s loved horror films for years and now acts in them for a living, even though she’s gotten some grief for being a fan of the genre. “At some point my mom got very afraid that I was going to be a serial killer or something, since I was a female and I like horror,” she said, with a bit of irony.
To her, Late Nite Grindhouse celebrates films that she loves — and films that many audiences automatically write off.
“This is not ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ this is not ‘The Room;’ we’re not going to cackle and tease the film,” Kelly said. “These are very underappreciated films that as a horror fan I feel are really great works of cinema. A lot of people joke about them and think they’re just trash because with the word 'horror,' automatically people just think it’s trash.”
Triefenbach, who founded the series in 2010 as a spinoff of his horror podcast and website Destroy the Brain, often picks films with a reputation, that people might’ve heard of and always wanted to see in theaters. This month “Dolemite,” a feature film written and acted by Rudy Ray Moore, shows on Feb. 9 and 10.
Late Nite has debuted some films in St. Louis, decades late. Because St. Louis wasn’t historically a major film market, he said, “We typically didn’t get a lot of these exploitation films — which is kind of a bummer.” It’s also shown new releases, in recent years.
Sometimes the showings attract people totally new to the Late Nite Grindhouse series, people who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves hardcore horror fans, Triefenbach said. In January, many were newcomers; other months, the audience consisted of just a few regulars.
Triefenbach likes the way having a midnight event can introduce people to movies they might never have thought to see, just because they’ve decided to tag along with a friend.
“People like to be scared, because seeing something that’s testing their morality, it’s testing something, you know it gets reaction out of them,” Triefenbach said. For some, it’s cathartic.
Gus Stevenson is another Late Nite Grindhouse fan in the indie films industry, and he said he values being part of an audience that enjoys horror films for what they are instead of mocking them. He remembers attending screenings where people would treat films like an interactive come-to-make-fun experience, even if the film was a well-made classic.
But at Late Nite Grindhouse “you can just sit down and enjoy it the way that it was meant to be watched,” said Stevenson, who’s 36 and grew up at the height of several popular slasher series. “These movies were meant to be seen in a theater on a big screen with a lot of people enjoying it together.”
In some ways, that his love of horror films started with that community experience, when he and other kids at school talked about the slashers they watched illicitly, without their parents’ permission. “There was a taboo element of it because we were all little kids and we weren’t supposed to be watching those movies,” he recalled.
For filmmaker and director Eric Stanze, the attraction isn’t that he’s seeing a new film — in fact, in the five years he’s attended Late Nite Grindhouse, he’d seen most of the films before. Instead, he likes experiencing classics in 35 mm film, or seeing underground rarities with an audience that laughs and reacts. And Triefenbach’s selections are a nice antidote to his disappointment with current Hollywood-driven releases, said Stanze, who's 46 and remembers binging horror classics at night on VHS.
“If these didn’t happen,” Stanze said, “I would be in a theater once a year or less.”
Triefenbach’s found a similar joy in hosting the events and building a community of horror fans.
“Either way you slice it, we’re kind of this subversive group of misfits that meet up at a theater at midnight and watch movies that maybe nobody else cares about,” he said.
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A previous version of this story misspelled Late Nite Grindhouse in the headline.