Thursday, December 5, 2013
When Disney Went PG :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Michael Nankin and David Wechter's Midnight Madness (1980)
Okay, folks, lets set the Wayback Machine for the year 1980; a volatile period in history, when disco wasn't quite dead and the last vestiges of the 1970s gathered themselves for one last hurrah before the next decade asserted itself and the "We Generation" officially became the "Me Generation." Our specific target is Midnight Madness, a wild and wacky entry in the short-lived scavenger hunt genre, which also marked Walt Disney Studio's first (clandestine) foray into some new and *ahem* virgin territory as we hit the ground rolling on a college campus somewhere in Los Angeles, where we follow two vivacious vixens clad in satin short-shorts and Farrah Fawcett feathers as they putter around on roller skates to the driving disco beat of our theme-song belting diva. Fearing we might have stumbled onto a very special episodes of CHiPs, it soon becomes apparent these two are on a mission to deliver a batch of invitations to the ring-leaders of several campus cliques: the first goes to Lavitis, the quarterback of the football team (Wilkin); second to Wesley, the captain of the debate club (Deezen); third to Donna, the president of a less popular sorority (Roswell); fourth goes to Harold, a slovenly glutton of the highest order (Furst); with the last going to Adam Larson, a friendly student counselor (Naughton), currently trying to advise a haplessly timid freshman on the ins 'n' outs of just finding the ballpark, let alone first base, with the opposite sex.
Intrigued, all five accept the blind offer that lands them in a ratty apartment, where, after a brief A/V presentation on the history of game theory, the host finally reveals himself -- and judging by everyone's hostile reaction, his reputation precedes him. Sort of a cross between BIll Gates and a Bohemian cave troll, Leon (Solomon) announces all five guests have been carefully vetted to be the perfect participants for The Great All-Nighter; a grueling test of endurance and deducting skills one whole year in the making. Each invitee will be given carte blanche to pick their own team and transportation. From there, each group will be given a cryptic clue to decipher which will lead them to another location somewhere in the city, where another riddle to the next location will be found. If all of these topographical conundrums are found and deciphered properly, the winning team will be the first to set foot over the finish line -- wherever that may be.
Initially rejected outright by everyone, Leon isn't all that worried. In fact, kinda expecting this, he trusts his research enough to guarantee his two snuggle-bunnies, Candy and Sunshine, that all five will most assuredly participate. And sure enough, natural rivalries soon have a fire lit under everyone to 'go for the gusto' and crush the others. Thus, for those keeping score, we've got the jocks (Team Green) vs. the nerds (Team White) vs. the feminists (Team Red) vs. the slobs (Team Blue) vs. the designated heroes (Team Yellow), who gather once more to receive the first clue before thundering off into the night, where an evening of misadventure, life-lessons learned, and a staggeringly massive amount of misdemeanors, felonies, and property damage awaits...
The brainchild of Michael Nankin and David Wechter, the somewhat fast-track'd and fairy tale-ish tale of how these two collaborators arrived at Midnight Madness might explain away some of its calamitous and chaotically-induced criticisms. Seems the pair had been making films together since junior high, working their way from Super-8, to 16mm, to prestigious film schools, with Nankin heading to UCLA and Wechter to USC. Quickly putting school rivalries aside, the two kept working together, co-producing, co-writing, and co-directing a spoof on those old nuts 'n' bolts educational shorts shown in science classrooms since the dawn of warbley synch-sound. The result, Gravity, proved a hit at several film festivals, spurring the two on to their next project.
Entering their sophomore year, looking to pull off something even more ambitious, the two submitted a script for a musical social study of jealousy, burgeoning hormones, and the horrors of achieving a higher education to their respective departments for possible financing. Though the script was well received, it was turned down over costs considerations and a lack of seniority. Undaunted, the two wound up financing Junior High School themselves, raising and spending some $25,000; and not only did the end result garner them several awards on the festival circuit it also caught the eye of Ron Miller, an executive producer for Walt Disney Productions.
Back in 1954 Miller married Diane Disney, daughter of Walt, had a passel of kids, and lived happily ever after until her untimely passing earlier this year. Along the way, he was brought into the family business around 1961 and served as a producer for his father-in-law on a ton of their non-animated product: That Darn Cat, The Boatniks, Freaky Friday, Escape to Witch Mountain, Gus, The Cat from Outer Space, Pete's Dragon, No Deposit-No Return, The North Avenue Irregulars and, well, See what I mean? But after JAWS, Star Wars, and Animal House ushered in the era of mega-blockbusters, the studio decided a quantum shift in product was needed to maintain an audience share, which meant *gasp* venturing into territory well beyond the boundaries of their usual G-rated parameters because, *double gasp*, there was a sense folks were starting to shy away from the Disney label altogether due to its juvenile and kiddie-friendly connotations.
And so, starting with the distribution of Kieth Merrill's Take Down (1979) and the production and release of the sci-fi epic, The Black Hole, Disney officially took the plunge into suggesting Parental Guidance for their potential audiences and never looked back. To push this new agenda forward, Miller had plans for a whole wave of films, including the darker themed Watcher in the Woods and The Devil and Max Deviln along with two more sci-fi cash-ins, Tron and Condoman. But first, he took a chance and put two certain fledgling filmmakers on salary and gave them six months to come up with something for him to produce. Jumping at the chance, Nankin and Wechter, barely in their 20s, pounded out a script for The All Night Treasure Hunt, which was culled from the sordid tales of an actual underground Los Angeles based scavenger hunt with a liberal nod to the mass destruction and cutthroat chaos of Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Miller was sold on these collegiate level antics, and after a title switch to avoid confusion with the similarly themed and earlier released Scavenger Hunt, filming of Midnight Madness commenced.
Though The Black Hole was technically Disney's first PG-rated movie, it's overall themes on the inherent violence between good and evil, murderous villains, and nighmarescapes wasn't all that new, just amped up a little. Midnight Madness, however, was the first to brazenly broach the notion of canoodling with the opposite sex and other sordid extracurricular activities. And when these two young turks (aged 22 and 23) were let loose in the Magic Kingdom with a keg of beer, a Playboy magazine, and book of fart jokes, this infusion gives Midnight Madness a strange dissonance. For, despite trying to tap into the extra-curriculum of Faber College, we are definitely still firmly grounded in the Dexter Reilly universe -- hell, they all might as well be Medfield students, as a sense of wholesome and artificial unreality prevails. How else could one explain Leon's ability to hijack several venues for his game or no one really noticing or caring about the destruction the teams cause while plowing through them? To put it more bluntly, Nankin and Wechter may have been in the saddle, but it's quite apparent someone else was holding the reins.
And this lack of freedom, of making things naughty, but not too naughty (rival tires aren't slashed but deflated etc.), and raunchy, but not raunchy enough (an impromptu peep show is in deep silhouette only etc.), is why the film, thematically, critically and logically speaking, doesn't really work. Also, an unrepentant mean streak runs throughout Midnight Madness, too, and this really doesn't jive properly with the rest of the jovial merry-making. Racial stereotyping, bullying, sexism, chauvinism, animal cruelty, and a lot of fat jokes -- basically, if you ain't the Southern California ideal of Barbie & Ken pretty, you are destined to be the butt-end of a joke the filmmakers will subsequently beat to death with a shovel. (Before they bury it. And then dig it back up and beat on it some more.) Though Harold bears the brunt of this tactic, one other particular scene comes to mind when Adam 'saves' the hapless freshmen from a blind date, who, of course, is so hideous she gets a door slammed in her face and is left abandoned and alone and unwanted while every one else goes on a super cool adventure. Nice ... Seriously, screw you, movie.
It gets even worse when the film tries to find its moral center to justify all of this nonsense away. This is accomplished -- well, make that attempted with a fairly asinine subplot concerning Adam as he tries and mostly fails to reconcile with his cantankerous little brother (Fox), who is acting out over a forgotten birthday. Seems big brother is too consumed with winning to notice anything else. And to muddle this subplot even more, lets throw in Lora (Clingler), who must act as an arbitrator between these two while at the same time trick Adam into finally asking her out. To help speed this reunion along, they even push Harold and his gang from laughable buffoons to societal menaces. There are a few more subplots abounding, including Harold's paternally-prodded pathological hatred of Adam, and a feud between Leon and his bitchy landlord, but, you know what? They really don't matter; and we're here for the chase anyway, right? Right.
The chaos of the All-Nighter is what ultimately salvages Midnight Madness as the teams barrel around the strangely deserted streets of Los Angeles from one clue to another. My favorite stops are the musical interlude to solve the riddle of the 8800 keys and the extended tour of the Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery, where one of the jocks is so gob-smacked he does a two story belly-flop into a vat of beer. Another stop at a diner really shows the film's sophomoric hand when the clue of the 'two giant melons' is found dangling between the breasts of a well-endowed waitress. Using some faux Hari Krishnas to distribute the second to last clue at LAX is positively inspired but it won't take a genius to guess who is probably gonna win when all the teams converge on the Bonaventure Hotel, where it quickly devolves into a Jerry Lewis-esque comedy of errors.
The cast does a fairly credible job of making all of this work and keeps it moving forward. Naughton was a well known pitchman for Dr. Pepper (watch for an embarrassingly obvious product placement) and was looking to rebound from his failed series, the Saturday Night Fever inspired Makin' It (-- whose theme song, which Naughton provided, had more legs.) Clingler, meanwhile, defected over from the wacky world of Sid & Marty Kroft, where she played Super-Chick on The Kroft Super Show. (Anybody else remember that one? C'mon! The Wonder Bug? The Amazing Mongo? Bigfoot and Wildboy?) Midnight Madness was also the screen debut of Michael (before the J.) Fox. Apparently he was hired because he was 18 but looked 13, allowing the production to shoot around the clock and avoid any mandatory union curfews. And it was during the latest screening when the quarter finally dropped on this lycanthropic link between the brothers Larson:
Truth be told, Team Yellow, the team we're supposed be rooting for, is the least interesting and most annoying of the whole bunch. I was always more partial to the 'background noise' teams: Green, White and Red. I don't think Eddie Deezen has ever 'acted' a day in his life. (I have no idea where they found his three clones -- or those disco-dancing twins who make up half the Red Team.) Even Team Blue outshines our protagonists. Furst had his slob routine down cold by now but every scene is stolen out from under him by Andy Tennant's wise ass, Melio, and the alphabetically challenged Barf, played to perfection by Brian Frishman. There's also a ton of cameos, most notably the debut of Pee-Wee Herman as the proprietor of an arcade that gets trashed.
Behind the camera, the obviously overwhelmed Wechter and Nankin didn't get a lot of help. Aside from the vibrant and well-executed climax at the hotel, veteran Disney cameraman Frank Phillips' set-ups are flat and not very cinematic. And Julius Wechter's soundtrack is just an obnoxious string of notes subbing in as an impromptu (but slightly defective) laugh track. The whole thing really feels like a tepid Made for TV movie rather than the blockbuster comedy it was intended to be. Still, most of the blame lay at the fledgling filmmakers feet. Saddled with a script with too many teams, too many subplots, which resulted in a film that was just too long. Add in an over-reliance on slapstick and broken furniture, alas, they were about to learn a harsh lesson that bigger and louder does not necessarily equal more funny.
Once filming was completed, things quickly went from bad to worse. As per planned, the word 'Disney' did not appear on any titles or promotional materials for Midnight Madness, with credit going solely to Buena Vista Pictures, which had served as the distribution arm for the House of Mouse after Disney ended a 16 year relationship with RKO to keep all the profits for Old Yeller (1957) in-house. Whatever banner it flew under the finished film apparently lost favor with Miller, earning itself a very limited theatrical release and critical drubbing before it was quickly yanked and sold off into TV syndication. Sadly, after checking the IMDB, this appears to be the last collaboration between Wechter and Lankin; and this box-office disaster officially derailed any momentum they had coming out of film school. Miller, meanwhile, kept trying but after the equally disappointing box-office of Condorman and Watcher in the Woods he finally wised up and cut the reins completely, starting with Ron Howard's Splash, forming a whole new division, Touchstone Pictures, removing Disney from the live-action equation altogether.
I will not deny that Midnight Madness is kind of a mess. Well, actually, it's pretty terrible. With all the evidence presented you can see why. And now that that's out of the way, perhaps you can help me rationalize my love for this epic disaster. I'm not the only afflicted, either, as the film eventually found an appreciative audience on HBO, in between screening of H.O.T.S. and Beastmaster, and home video, where I first stumbled upon it and got hooked by its moronic charms. (And if you believe the rumors, the film inadvertently inspired David Fincher's The Game.) It's loud, obnoxious, and paper thin, and yet, I find myself barking out with laughter every time Barf tries to spell something, Team Green manages to solve a clue, or when one of the sight gags actually works. I guess this makes Midnight Madness a bona fide guilty pleasure because, unlike so many others, there actually IS some guilt involved in its enjoyment. Whatever. FAGABEEFE 4VR!
Midnight Madness (1980) Walt Disney Pictures :: Buena Vista Pictures / P: Ron Miller / D: Michael Nankin, David Wechter / W: Michael Nankin, David Wechter / C: Frank V. Phillips / E: Norman R. Palmer, Jack Sekely / M: Julius Wechter / S: David Naughton, Debra Clinger, Michael J. Fox, Stephen Furst, Maggie Roswell, Eddie Deezen, Andy Tennant, Brian Frishman, Brad Wilkin, Alan Solomon