Abandon. Normal. Devices. That’s right, roll those words around your mouth as if you were tying a cherry stalk into a knot with your tongue. A double-knot, mind. Intended as a catalyst for production and experimentation, AND is a collaboration between Cornerhouse (Manchester), FACT (Liverpool) and folly (Lancaster), cross-regional in base but international in scope. During October 2010 the emphasis was upon on explorations of identity, behaviour and systems that define who and what we are: from gender, questions relating to ab/normality and picking at the scab of taboo to reveal the raw and puckered flesh glistening beneath.
Peaches Christ (performer and filmmaker Joshua Grannell) has been the horror hostess of Midnight Mass at The Bridge Theatre, San Francisco for the past ten years. A fan of cult cinema, from Showgirls to Female Trouble, Xanadu to Mommie Dearest, his legendary pre-show performances with a loyal retinue of drag assistants attract sell-out crowds and often incorporate guest appearances with directors and cast members (John Waters, Tura Santana, Linda Blair and more). Cited as the most successful midnight movie series since The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it’s a quasi-religious experience that replaces any sense of guilt with a mutually deranged congregation.
Described as ‘the opposite of a relaxing experience’, previous shows have included a Filthiest Person Alive contest, chilli-eating chowdowns, hooker beauty contests and mother-daughter mud wrestling, mixing drag cabaret with music hall mugging, a theatre of the absurd that lunges at cinematic rejects with true affection. After attending one such event, Midnight Mass presents Teen Witch (free magical audience makeovers!) I can report that the presiding vibe was that of a dysfunctional family: by no means all extrovert, with some who just like to watch, others who live to perform, drawn together to celebrate a shared love of trash and mischief.
Having directed a number of no-budget shorts during the same period (Season of the Troll, A Nightmare on Castro Street, Whatever Happened to Peaches Christ?), Joshua has recently completed his first feature-length debut, a comedy-horror starring a roll call of cult idols. From John Waters’ regular Mink Stole (Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom), to Cassandra Peterson (camp vamp queen Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), to Thomas Dekker (The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and The Guardian-approved return to form of Natasha Lyonne (But I’m A Cheerleader, American Pie).
The rapid-paced plot for All About Evil revolves around The Victoria Theatre, a vintage movie palace inherited by mousy librarian Deborah (Lyonne) from her B-movie loving father. Struggling to retain audiences, a violent tussle at the popcorn machine with her deliciously bitchy mother terminates in the discovery of a serial-killer within. Making direct and explicit reference to the audience watching and the captive (quite literally) attendees on-screen, let’s just say you might want to turn your mobile off…
Aided by her psychotic staff, a pair of identical evil twins (Jade & Nikita Ramsey), a murderous street hustler (Noah Segan) and her faithful, drooling lapdog of an elderly projectionist (Jack Donner), Deborah begins churning out weekly gore shorts based upon literary classics – The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, McDeath, The Maiming of the Shrew – becoming an overnight sensation. Camp, hilarious, horrifying yet intelligent, Grannell highlights the loss of independent screens, lack of female horror directors and the importance of a florid imagination; refereeing a bare knuckle debate between classic splatter versus the current trend for gorno.
And so on to the show. As the first screening of All About Evil outside of the US, the International Premiere was an advance sell-out and had been months in preparation as we spread news of the impending visitation. With groundswell support from Homotopia and Grimm up North, the word was well and truly out… and the response was a roar of approval. Pounding the streets well past midnight, I whispered into the ears of the beautiful and the damned, picking my way through the chicken-bone carnage and dark heart of the industrial revolution as part of a recruitment campaign to enlist foot soldiers in the service of guerilla filmmaking.
After sunset on the evening of the show, avant-punks Will & Rick entertained Cornerhouse café-bar with a set of horror oddities, including Haunted Homes, Hot Dog Man and the newly created All About Evil (an ode to the world’s most prolific serial killers) in honour of the occasion. Followed by Trash-O-Rama, the duo then dashed over the road to the cinema lobby to tease spooky sounds from theramin and blade saw for the audience on arrival, contributing to what we had anticipated to be a sense of gowing unease, but which on the night had become carnivalesque chaos: car horns beeping, vocal outrage and traffic-stopping outfits as The Children of the Popcorn arrived in full force.
A band of enraged librarians, apparently dismayed at their portrayal as repressed psycho-killers within the movie (actually recruited in advance from the city’s drag, bear, burlesque and cult film communities), barracked the audience queue that now snaked outside the cinema; itself built into and beneath the railway arches under Oxford Road Station. Clubbers, students and rugby fans returning from a local game stopped to gawp and in some cases join in, one young and unknown woman whipping out her guitar to strum up some support. Placards were of the literary-entendre variety: ‘Can’t Get Enough Dickens’, ‘I Like to Lit Crit’, ‘Pride Not Prejudice’, ‘Bag Yourself a Trollope’, ‘Peaches Is Not The Only Fruit’, ‘Born to be Mild’, and ‘Down with Peaches’.
Cross-stitch badges were distributed by the angry mob to anyone standing still long enough to receive the honour, featuring more slogans written in demure needlepoint: ‘Books Not Drugs’, ‘Check Me Out’, ‘Sshh, Quiet Sleaze’ and fistfuls emblazoned with their mascot, Knobby the Owl. Any attempt to remark upon their feathered friend’s uncanny resemblance to a large purple penis (intentionally so, fnar), was met with incredulity and a strict dressing-down.
Minutes before the doors were due to open, two genuine police riot vans arrived with an accompanying dog unit having received reports of a public disturbance; confirmed no doubt by CCTV footage from the immediate vicinity, as by now hundreds were either queuing or staring, with librarians foaming at the mouth in a collective Oscar-clinching delivery of indignant outrage. Despite our law enforcers finding find men in tweed skirts with full beards and a throng of buxom biblio-babes, some of those on the picket line felt compelled to flash their saucy underthings at the constables to confirm cover stories.
Once the doors were opened, the scenes of heightened anticipation only grew. Professor Patricia MacCormack, cine-excess specialist and present to conduct a Q&A with director Joshua Grannell the next day, arrived sporting a cut-throat, severed nipples and a headdress of spiked syringes, while a trio of delightfully undead ladies from the GOREgeous make up academy positively oozed hex-appeal, shredded musculature flapping from their torn faces, as arrivals of the weird, wild and just plain WRONG variety confirmed that we had plenty of contenders for the costume competition.
Jade and Nikita Ramsey, present on home soil in character as killer twins Veda and Vera, were assisted by lookalikes Stef Elrick and Laura McGee of dance duo Ultra Violet Violence in distributing Dixie cups amongst the audience for the unpleasant toast to come. The librarians too had managed secure tickets in order to continue their protest inside, tutting loudly and criticising their neighbours racy outfits before reluctantly settling back for the show to begin. It was time. The lights dulled, the music struck up, and Peaches Christ herself strode regally down the central aisle flanked by her twins and a medley of monsters who tumbled in her wake.
Joining her were Robin Hoodie, zombie pick-pocket; Elsa Manchester, Bride of Frankenstein; Cheddar Van De Tramp, The Goat of Mendes; Cleavage the Killer Clown; Camp Dragula; Two Ton Tess Tickle, a lovelorn Cthulhu; vampiress Princess Pit, plus yours truly as an insane usher. My participation was due to losing one of our monsters at the last minute (later found recovering from an alcohol induced blackout after starting the celebrations a little too soon), as the only other person who knew the dance moves. My fright was compensated by being able to slip into the official red velvet uniform of The Victoria Theatre’s staff, provided by Peaches’ own costume designer Tria Connell.
So we began, throwing our best shapes and tearing the twins limb-from-limb for opening number Gore Gore Girl, which was received rapturously by the capacity audience. A call for participants to partake of the Gore Couture costume competition resulted in some stiff competition, with Splat (actually our placard designer) coming a close runner-up in his body-hugging burst parcel tape ensemble. Second place was awarded to the fabulously fierce Sebastian in his diamond skull stacked heels and midnight shroud, with the enigmatic Pascale declared the winner, surely smiling somewhere beneath his bandages, safety pins, aviator goggles and Tim-Burton inspired sartorial tailoring.
But the night had only just begun. As Peaches Christ’s home grown sidekick Martiny failed to show at her allotted cue, our mistress took to using some VERY BAD WORDS to describe the failings of San Francisco’s most tragic drag wannabe, causing the seeded protestors present to snap, leap from their seats and ringleaders to storm the stage to repudiate her vile vowel usage and negative representation of book lovers. “The only thing we kill is illiteracy!” they insisted, to which Peaches responded with the argument that director Joshua Grannell’s depiction of their on-screen colleague was a strong and powerful woman of which they should be proud.
Unable to calm the braying mob, Miss Christ pulled out her own trick card. “You’re all sluts and whores”, she told them, going so far as to suggest that she only had to play a nasty mash-up of tunes to see them succumb to the music of their own, lust-deprived loins. “Never!” they shrieked. Like a red rag to a bull, Peaches could stand no more. The signal was given, and the music began. Manchester’s own The Midnight Growler was immediately possessed by the beat, yanking down his trousers and bending over to reveal shit-smeared underpants emblazoned with the words ‘Prose Not Ho’s’, ripping the remaining clothes from his body and plunging upon the laps of those on the front row.
He was immediately joined by the The Niallist, Bella Besame of The Slippery Belles and Kurt Dirt, overcome by the music of the orbs and hurling cardigans and flat heels to the wind, swiftly matched by the lascivious lap-grinding of their planted companions, revealed as the North of England’s dirtiest and most shameless groin-thrusters: Duke Wayward, Dauphine, Miss Littlebottom, The Blige Sisters (Isla Blige and Sheela Blige), Kitty, Miss Dixon Pieces, Trish Gallagher, Selina Silkenlicks and Jezebel Steele, all eager to flaunt, dangle and swing their swollen appendages of mixed M/F variety in the faces of an audience screaming with delight.
Forced to admit defeat and abandon themselves to perversity, the music waned all too soon. But had we peaked? Not likely. With Martiny mysteriously missing-in-Manchester, Peaches introduced the staff and directress of The Victoria Theatre, Trixxie Carr striding on stage as Deborah Tennis, determined to use the opportunity of a captive audience to aid her own Machiavellian scheming. Assisted by Mr Twiggs (David Watson), Adrian (the incomparable Zsa Zsa Noir), Veda, Vera and their mirror-doubles, the deranged directress let rip with her rendition of Star Quality, culminating in the arrival of a suspicious giant drinks dispenser. Before she and her cohorts could distribute their heart-stopping cocktail, Peaches interrupted, and the true story of her sidekick’s disappearance was revealed to those present… Martiny, nooooo!
The lights extinguished and the pre-show now over, the film could begin. But there was one final surprise in store. Without wishing to reveal any spoilers, there is an early scene involving an unwilling scream queen and… a guillotine. A member of the audience sat oh-so-perfectly toward the front, in an aisle seat, actually found the sequence too disgusting to retain hold of his stomach contents and violently puked, attempting to contain the upchuck in his empty Dixie cup. It didn’t work, overflowing and covering his chest as he ran from the cinema, the illuminated aisle trim provided just enough visibility for the audience to view the scarlet spatter as it tumbled down his shirt.
Cannes and London be damned, Manchester knows how to welcome horror royalty. Peaches Christ, Joshua Grannell, Sam Sharkey, Tria Connell and Trixxie Carr, we’ve drawn up blueprints for a trans-Atlantic tunnel to aid your return commute. Talks have been taking place at the highest level, and the British government are prepared to hand over Madonna to ensure your repeat patronage. Calling all gimps, your country needs you… grab a teaspoon and start digging!
Images in slideshow at top of page: 1 – 7, WeAreTape.com / 8 – 9, Kris Krug / 10, Neil Shearer
Thanks to our photographers and media assistants on the evening, especially WeAreTape, Neil Shearer, Kris Krug plus AND documentation team. Check out the reviews of the night from Curated Place, Film Rant, Little White Lies, Gemma Parker (Bride of Frankenstein), Arthur Chappell (Cthulhu), Documentally, Full Circle Arts, The Guardian and Wired UK, plus previews from Attitude Magazine, Dazed Digital, Creative Tourist and The Telegraph.