Picture it, if you will; the millennium is fast approaching and VHS is enjoying a record year for sales to which it will never equal again. Times are good. The video rental industry is booming, and accompanying such success is a dizzying number of good quality, medium budget, direct-to-video movies.
When DVD showed its first signs of becoming the dominant medium by which to watch movies at home, we were assured that EVERYTHING would eventually make its way over; alas, that didn’t materialize. Granted, there are numerous boutique labels giving us so many reasons to reacquaint ourselves with moreish schlock from the eighties, but as yet, despite Scream Factory scratching the surface of the nineties slash noughties with Cherry Falls (2000) and Disturbing Behaviour (1998), it’s a minefield of overlooked b-movie goodness.
It may seem a little trivial then to spend the next eight hundred words waxing lyrical about MIDNIGHT BLUE, a nifty little piece of celluloid from 1997, which, after almost two decades in existence, is yet to appear on DVD in either America or the UK. Having said that, I’m a preservationist at heart, losing sleep over pictures like this drifting out of the public consciousness. So while the National Library of Congress has welcomed Being There (1979), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Seconds (1966) to their little conservation society in the past year, Zombie Hamster waves in Skott Snider’s low budget tale of duplicitous behaviour to our remembrance hall of shunned schlock.
Snider’s movie is a genuine curio that defies expectations; first impressions are of a perennial top-shelfer, with its teasing, sultry, UK artwork, and the Playboy logo in the bottom left corner. In a decade where the erotic thriller dominated the British video store, the only surprise at the sight of a near naked woman adorning a rental case was if it wasn’t Shannon Tweed. Granted, the Hefner-heavy presence with regard to the production company would have been likely to put off your casual Friday night renter, but therein lies its secret, as deep within the cumbersome plastic case is a Noir-tinged mystery with a stellar cast.
Leading the ensemble is Damian Chapa as Martin, a straight-laced character with a slightly skittish demeanour, who after spending an unexpected night in the company of a high class hooker (Annabel Schofield), becomes obsessed with tracking her down. For Chapa, he told me the film was an opportunity to break out of a mould in which he found himself following prominent roles in Under Siege (1992) and Street Fighter (1994). “It just helped me get out of the gangster-type casting” he muses, “Although I must admit I wasn’t initially excited about it as I don’t like to take risqué parts”. Reluctance aside, Chapa embodies Martin with a lovable innocence that’s so endearing to watch, although he was quick to praise his female co-star for making the shoot an enjoyable one. “I’ve worked with many actresses in my life” he enthuses, “From Fay Dunaway to Karen Lombard to my ex-wife Natasha Henstridge, but I have to say that I loved working with Annabel. She gave so much and she was so sensual. It’s so easy to respond to”.
For Schofield, the Dyfed-born actress, model and author who is forever immortalized in the iconic Bugle Boy jeans commercial, the role presented itself as a challenge; Schofield says, “I knew the producers from a previous film, but I had to audition. I did love the script though, and I just really wanted the role! Also, the chance to play two characters AND do a Southern accent is a scary concept”.
Although the script from author and University of Syracuse professor, Douglas Brode, was a draw to both Chapa and Schofield – and rightly so, the real thrill of the shoot was to go toe-to-toe with acting icons Dean Stockwell and Harry Dean Stanton. “Well, one of my favourite films is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet” Chapa explains, “So when I found out that Dean was going to be in it I just had to do the film. Harry too, he’s just so unusual!”. It’s an opinion that Schofield wholeheartedly agrees with, telling me “It was an honour to work with Harry – one of my long time acting idols. He’s a true character, and working with him is one of my happiest memories from my career as an actress”.
The presence of both Stockwell and Stanton is another aspect that lifts Midnight Blue clear of the softcore samey-ness that seemed to shackle similar titles in the nineties. Stockwell in particular is just delightful as Katz-Feeney, a weather-beaten private dick who wouldn’t seem out of place in a Raymond Chandler novel. Also, despite targeting an audience hungry for some slinky shenanigans, there’s precious little to be found; well, compared to its peers, whose modus operandi was to whip a saxophone onto the soundtrack at specifically set intervals.
With Snider’s long history as a photographer for Playboy, this neo-noir isn’t blessed with a similar level of style that graced Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) the previous year, and I’m certainly not going to kid you by hailing it an undiscovered masterpiece that warrants an immediate 2k scan onto Blu-ray. It doesn’t. Ultimately it’s a flawed entry into an overcrowded nineties DTV market; imbalanced in its tone, it switches haphazardly from mystery, to eroticism, with a little bumbling comedy thrown in – not to mention the relentless, earworm inducing repetition of The Rush Inside by Shannon Moore on the soundtrack.
I do, however, insist that this feature is worthy of rediscovery as a forgotten relic of the nineties video store, if only for a chance to marvel at Brode’s winding, twisting script. “It’s pretty rare to get to speak such elegant, well-written dialogue” Schofield admits, and across the internet, there’s a pervading sense of Brode’s annoyance that his screenplay wound up under the stewardship of ‘ol bunny ears. It certainly begs the question what it would have been like had it been shot in a more ambitiously artistic manner, but as it is, dust down your VHS player, head over to Amazon, and snag the last remaining tapes before this delectable curiosity vanishes forever.
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