Sep 1, 2014

Midnight Heat (1983)

Without question, if there is any pornographic equivalent to Martin Scorsese’s somewhat nihilistic urban ‘crime drama’ Taxi Driver (1976), it is Midnight Heat (1983) directed by exploitation auteur turned auteur-pornographer Roger Watkins aka ‘Richard Mahler’ (The Last House on Dead End Street, Spittoon) and starring iconically unhinged porn chic era leading man Jamie Gillis (Water Power, New Wave Hookers). Indeed, despite being a true blue fuck movie that was made to capitalize off of the more archaic instincts of pathetic old horny geezers who cannot get a taste of real pussy, Watkins’ nihilistically wanton work is even more nasty and pessimistic than Taxi Driver in terms of its uniquely unflattering and oftentimes depraved depiction of post-civil rights era New York City urban decay. Majorly misanthropic to the marvelously mean-spirited core, Midnight Heat is a rare fuck flick where the fucking seems to enhance the pleasantly pernicious plot in a rather aesthetically seamless sort of way, as a work about a philosophical hitman of the pathologically melancholy variety who screws his boss’ wife and daughter and thus must go into hiding and be extra weary of the wanton women he purchases from sub-upscale escort services because some of them are truly killer cunts. While not Watkins’ greatest porn effort as a work that just cannot compete with the Wagnerite wantonness of Corruption (1983), it is pretty damn close as one of the most aesthetically malevolent blue movies ever made. Unlike with Corruption, the filmmaker had to make a compromise or two on the film, or as Watkins confessed in an interview with David Kerekes featured in Headpress 23: “CORRUPTION and AMERICAN BABYLON are two I had absolute, total control over. MIDNIGHT HEAT is good, except for a really stupid sex scene at the beginning because I felt you needed it. I figured if the audience is stupid, then we got to do this to hold them.” Featuring slow-motion footage of real-life hobos, winos, and crackhead negroes that dwell in cardboard boxes, Midnight Heat is a porn film for pessimists who could care less about seeing some old slag’s gaping gash and are much more interested in seeing the sort of forsaken mentality it takes for one to resort to becoming a pornographer in the first place.  In that sense, one could argue that it is Watkins' most autobiographical work. Indeed, directed by a man who was a friend/protégé of Hollywood auteur Nicholas Ray (Rebel without a Cause, Johnny Guitar) and Austrian-born auteur Otto Preminger (Laura, The Man with the Golden Arm) and whose debut feature The Last House on Dead End Street (1977) aka The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell showed much promise as far as nasty and nihilistic exploitation cinema is concerned, Midnight Heat is ultimately the debasing celluloid hate piece of a disgruntled artist who utilized a film style that is usually specially tailored for lonely losers to wank-off to as an outlet for his own lingering resentment, angst, and misanthropy. A conspicuously corrupt and culturally cynical chamber piece from the bowels of the Bowery, Watkins' work reminds one why NYC is a dirtier hole than that of any ghetto-dwelling crack whore.

 Alan (played by Jamie Gillis in the same $39 suit he wore in Corruption) is a hitman who was probably an associate of Arthur Schopenhauer in another life, as he only kills when he has a good philosophical reason to do so (or if the price is right) and spends most of his time staring out windows and thinking about why life and humanity sucks. When Alan has sex with his wife (Sharon Mitchell) and then proceeds to act all moody broody while staring out a window, his lady love complains to him that he is too “cold” and introverted and threatens to leave him, but he could seriously care less and replies in the following jaded fashion: “Do what you want…I can’t stop you.” Alan may not give a shit about his bitchy wife, but he cares enough about screwing both the daughter (Tish Ambrose) and wife (Dixie Dew) of his employer (Frederick Rein) to quite literally risk his life just for the mere cross-generational familial carnal pleasure. Of course, Alan’s boss inevitably catches him in the act, kisses him on the lips in what can be described as an intimidating figurative kiss of death, and makes the following cryptic threat: “I’ll be seeing you in the streets.” Of course, Alan knows he’s a marked mensch and despite being a rather self-destructive dude with what seems to be a death wish, he does opt for going into hiding in a sleazy dilapidated motel located in a hobo, junky, crackhead, and wino inhabited area of the Bowery. While Alan is able to occupy most of his time staring at the window and admiring all the human filth that plagues the streets, he eventually gets bored enough to hire not one, but two call girls. Of course, little does Alan realize that one of the cash-for-gash gals has been sent to kill him, though it does not take long for his murderous hunter intuition to kick in for him to realize that the rotten whore has homicide on her messed up mind. 

 When the high-priced hookers get to his motel room, Alan, who has been having random bouts of erectile dysfunction, decides to have the girls screw together while he looks on passively. While pussy-peddler Diane (Champagne) is a tall and swarthy Mediterranean broad, Shirley (Joey Karson) is a short buxom bleach blonde that has just gotten into the prostitution profession. Though Alan eventually has little Shirley leave as she does not have much to offer, he has Diane stay at his room as he finds something rather provocative about her. Of course, Alan soon begins sharing his personal philosophies with the hooker, stating regarding the hobos and winos around the Bowery, “Ever think what separates us from them? One morning they just woke up and said, “fuck it.” Precious little separates us.” Of course, Alan is also on the brink of saying “fuck it” and throwing his life down the drain, but he still has enough of a sense of self-preservation to know that there is something not quite right about Diane. While Diane has nightmarish flashbacks about being more or less anally pillaged by her hitman husband Tom (Michael Bruce), Alan recalls being cheered up by his hooker friend Nan (Susan Nero), who could not give him a hard-on but certainly could make him happy in other ways. If anything is for sure, Alan and Diane are both majorly melancholy individuals who are involved in debasing sexual relationships. When the two finally decide to share carnal knowledge, Alan screws Diane from behind and during mid-coitus asks her if she was “sent by someone.” With penetrative pleasure clouding her judgment, Diane confesses she was indeed sent to kill him, so Alan strangles her to death while he reaches sexual climax. In the end, Alan once again stares out of his miserable motel room window as if looking into eternity from his own metaphysical prison. Undoubtedly, I recommend that the viewer stick around until after the credits end, as a final free-frame shot features a wrinkled newspaper with the haunting headline, “EIGHT DIE IN HOTEL FIRE,” thus hinting that Alan may have intentionally burned down the place and killed himself in the process. 

 Beginning with the Henry Miller quote, “Sex can become a weapon,” Midnight Heat is certainly a work that demonstrates that sex is a fatal weakness that leads both men and women to the slaughter. Of course, with its fiendishly foreboding tone, unnerving weltschmerz, abrasive third world-esque set-design, and slow-motion shots of staggering bums and dumpster-dwelling dipsomaniacs roaming around the Bowery as if trapped in some sort of post-industrial pandemonium, Watkins’ work is more about existential crisis in the (post)modern age than it is about mere fucking, for the flick is far too decidedly dreary and disconcerting to give any truly healthy heterosexual man a significant hard-on. As Watkins would reveal in an interview with David Kerekes, star Jamie Gillis’ real-life situation was no less dark and disturbing than that of his character in the film, albeit to a more pathetic degree. Indeed, as Watkins stated, “I like Jamie, he’s alright. I like Vanessa. But they’re in a different world […] all they do is fuck and nobody cares anymore. We were always trying to think of new ways to fuck or do something. Jamie was telling me he was living with Seka […] She is this big, blonde porn star. He says to me, “Man, I think I’m losing my mind… Lately, to get off she gets on her knees and I put her head in the toilet and just keep sticking her head in the fucking water while I jerk off. And when I fucking cum, I flush the toilet.”” With random literary references to T.S. Eliot and Henry Miller and a strangely atmospheric and obscenely oppressive theatric chamber piece style, Midnight Heat may be the Taxi Driver of porn flicks, but more importantly it is an aberrant-garde work that nihilistically delegitimizes art by molesting it with sleazy pornography, thus indicating Watkins’ rather conflicted character as a true artist who whored himself out to the lowest bidder. Indeed, the forgotten prodigal celluloid son of Nicholas Ray and Otto Preminger, Watkins may not have achieved much during his erratic and sporadic filmmaking career, but he achieved more than most by adding an element of danger to cinema, which is something that I, for one, can appreciate. 

-Ty E

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