As much as I’m glad to have pretty much full control over what movies I watch and when I can watch them now that I have a plethora of streaming services and an (if I do say so myself) impressive collection of Blu-rays, DVDs, and VHS tapes, there was something about being at the will of the cable TV channels and their often bizarre selection of late-night programming that I miss in many ways. I mean, let’s back up a bit and clarify that I realize not many people ever stayed up alone until four in the morning watching random movies on TV, but for those of us who valued the company of pure trash cinema in the blue glow of the screen late at night as the buzz from the beer and the eventual stomach pains from the unhealthy snacks crept in, it’s a special kind of comfort. A sad comfort, I think most would say, but frankly those were happy times in my life. While in college and being way too much of an antisocial loser to attend parties and too much of a procrastinator to start any of my assigned papers more than a few hours before they were due, that’s honestly what I think of when I reminisce of my “college experience” (whatever that means): shitty movies on late-night cable TV. I have yet to see any of those raunchy college comedies focus on that, so I’ll be the savior to my fellow nocturnal scavengers of trash and provide a few tales that I guarantee National Lampoon won’t be telling any time soon.
In my mind, the quintessential late-night movie block in television history is USA Up All Night, which ran on the USA Network from 1989 to 1998. Since USA is a basic cable station, the movies were presented censored and with commercial interruptions, but the roster of films was really quite impressive for any connoisseur of disreputable cinema. The original host was Gilbert Gottfried, but I guess once he started making that Disney money from playing Iago in Aladdin, he got too big for the show and they replaced him with the exquisite Rhonda Shear. They did show some pretty well known movies like Critters, Conan the Barbarian, and Porky’s, but the bulk of what they showed was stuff you’d otherwise only find in an independently owned video store that specialized in horror and cult films (yes, those stores did exist at one point). You would not find most of these movies at Blockbuster Video.
We’re talking pure schlock like She-Wolves of the Wasteland, I Was a Teenage T.V. Terrorist, Night Eyes 3, and Flesh Eating Mothers. Even in their edited for basic cable form, these oddities were so unusual that it’s hard to imagine a major TV network ever ran them, even if it was really late at night. This was before the internet was a household fixture too, so in many cases these airings were the first time a lot of people had even heard of these movies. And if they were just bizarre enough that even watching censored versions of them with commercial breaks and Rhonda Shear stepping in once in a while to make some cheesy puns or offhand remarks about them was a revelatory experience, then you knew you had to track down the full, unedited versions somehow (which could prove exceedingly difficult back then).
Almost all of the movies were seemingly curated with one demographic in mind: horny weirdos. I mean that in the best way possible, incidentally. The predominant genres of the films were low-budget horror and braindead teen sex comedies, so you can see how this was a perfect storm for the sort of people who would bother to stay up that late to watch movies in the first place. These were decidedly not the movies you’d watch with your family on a Friday night. They probably weren’t even the movies you’d watch with your friends on a Saturday night (I don’t know why the day of the week makes a difference). These are the movies you’d watch alone when it’s too late to be called night but still too early to be called morning. That’s what USA Up All Night was, and their selection was just about perfect with that having been considered.
The movie I most associate with USA Up All Night is the 1988 sleazoid sorta-horror flick Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. This is one of those movies for which simply reading the title aloud is probably enough to determine whether or not it’s something you’d enjoy. Is your tone derogatory or judgmental in any way? Then don’t bother watching it. But if you can’t help but be filled with glee and horndog curiosity, then you definitely want to check it out. For one, it stars Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer, AND Brinke Stevens — the Holy Trinity of ’80s scream queens, for the uninitiated among you. Director David DeCoteau used some of the leftover budget from this movie to film Nightmare Sisters with most of the same cast and crew immediately afterwards, and while that’s not necessarily relevant to Sorority Babes, it is worth noting because it’s rare that you get to see a low-budget schlockfest and realize that they didn’t even use all of the meager budget they were given.
It truly is an amazing movie. Not in the sense that it’s “good,” or even really in the sense of being a “so bad it’s good” movie that you watch to laugh and make MST3K-style wisecracks at. It’s just so unapologetic in how much it completely embraces being pure trash. I guess that’s why I consider it the ultimate USA Up All Night movie. Granted, when it aired on USA, you didn’t get to experience all the pleasures of the full nudity and whipped cream scene that occurs less than ten minutes in (yeah, it really is that kind of movie), but in a way that only made it more enticing, because it made you realize, “Holy shit, I need to find a copy of this movie somewhere.”
It also contains an imp goblin thing with genie powers (actually, I’m pretty sure “The Monkey’s Paw” was more what they were going for, but I didn’t want to diminish the effect of the movie by implying there are any literary allusions in it) who sounds a bit like the Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. His name is Uncle Impie (which you’ll undoubtedly remember if only because he refers to himself in the third person constantly), and he’s a rather ridiculous-looking puppet whose mouth barely even moves when he speaks. It’s gloriously cheap and totally amazing. He gets to spew immortal lines like, “Come on, geek, I know you want to pork her!” (This line is directed at the nerdy college kid who wishes for one of the titular sorority babes to fuck him but then for some unexplained reason acts like he’s being fed dog food when sexed-up Michelle Bauer is rubbing on him excitedly — did he suddenly find a conscience in the two minutes between wishing for it and receiving it?)
Now, I fully realize that it takes a very particular sort of person to appreciate a movie like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. Even a very peculiar sort of person, you might say. But I’m bringing it up because there very clearly was and still is an audience for it, even if you won’t run into them at any parties or social gatherings. It’s time we speak up for these late-night junk movie fiends and acknowledge that these movies are important too. That might seem like a huge stretch from where my train of thought had been going up to this point, but dammit, these movies are comfort food. Comfort food for weirdos, perhaps, but I personally get such a strange sort of buzz from watching these movies that I can only compare it to weed that gets you particularly fucked up. Not skunk weed that you smoke with friends when you just want to get a little loose and giggly (that’s what more standard cult movies are like, and I certainly love those too), but a really potent strain that you might save for yourself because you’re almost embarrassed of how you might act when you’re feeling its effects.
That’s what these late-night trash movies are, in essence. I’m sure you could have a grand old time watching them in a group setting if you found just the right group of people, but I kind of believe that’s not the intended environment in which to watch them. No, only the singular setting of a dark bedroom at three in the morning with beer and pretzels will give you the full effect. And as sad an existence as I’m sure “normal” people think we must lead, I think there’s a strange sort of beauty to it that I can’t quite explain. When you watch a movie (or listen to an album, or consume any other form of art), there’s usually some sort of social aspect involved. Even if you do it alone, the expectation is that you’ll eventually discuss it with people, or you’ll at least take to the message boards to rant about how it was robbed at the Oscars or something. A lot of the movies they played on USA Up All Night were devoid of that element. They got no respect from anyone, and few enough people even knew what they were to warrant discussion in any significant capacity. They were like dirty little secrets that many viewers probably didn’t even let anyone know they were watching. They’re not entirely unlike porn in that respect, except that they’re not for purely sexual gratification (although that was often included in the deal). There must be some tucked-away part of the brain that’s triggered exclusively by watching these movies late at night. I wouldn’t say it’s a transcendent experience in any way, but it’s a unique one, and it’s one that people don’t seem to talk about enough.
I’ll put it this way: imagine being a filmmaker and making a movie that you know is only going to be seen by a few thousand people — if even that — late at night on a basic cable station, will likely never be so much as mentioned in any publication with a circulation beyond that of homemade fanzines, and will probably never even be discussed by many people other than maybe for one lonesome weirdo to tell another, “Hey, I saw this really weird movie last night.” At that point, you’re not making movies because you want to make a name for yourself. You’re not making movies because you want a lot of money. You’re not making movies because you want acclaim, recognition, or certainly not any awards. You are making movies purely for the sake of making a movie. And maybe some half-drunk cretin who doesn’t get invited to parties will derive a small amount of comfort from it and then forget most of it the next day.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a damn noble reason to make a movie.