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SOCIAL CLIMES / UP ALL NIGHT

Midnight Madness

July 17, 1994|BILL HIGGINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the line begins to form for the midnight show, Roger Christensen, manager of Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, describes these film buffs as a wonderful crowd, perfect for a late-night movie.

OK, he'll admit they have unusual taste. Last week they were here for "Chopper Chicks in Zombietown." This night it's the opening of the Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. Soon they'll see "Surf Nazis Must Die."

"I always had the fantasy we would show Bergman films at midnight," Christensen says a bit wistfully, "but there's no audience for that."

Perhaps this crowd doesn't want Swedish art films, but at least it's docile. Not like the filmgoers when Christensen worked a West L.A. theater where he was punched by an enraged fan. It seems "A Clockwork Orange" was sold out and this news was poorly received. To Christensen, that incident sets the standard for a bad crowd. "We're violence free in West Hollywood," he says.

Violence free, yes; weirdness free, no.

For the past year, the Sunset 5 has been showing five films at midnight on weekends, most of them produced on micro-budgets. The inspiration came from the Angelika theater, a multiplex in New York City with the same policy. It's this showing of a selection of films, each reaching out to an esoteric audience, that makes for an exotic meeting of minds.

One night the Sunset 5 screened "Glamazon," the story of a stripper who was really a man in disguise. As a promotion, the distributor sent half a dozen go-go girls, some of whom weren't girls, to dance in the lobby. "I don't remember much about the film," Christensen says, "but the lobby was visually stunning."

On this night, Los Angeles filmmaker Margot Hope is here to promote "Femme Fontaine: Killer Babe for the C.I.A." which is part of a monthlong salute to low-budget movie distributor Troma Films. Hope directed, wrote, produced and starred in "Femme." It's described on the poster as, "An unforgettable tale of murder, suspense and fishnet stockings."

Hope, who is wearing a striking pair of fishnet stockings herself, has brought a couple of Asian martial arts practitioners with shaven heads, plus a female co-star with whom she plans to stage a fight in the lobby. "Get a little pre-opening night excitement going," Hope says.

The writer/director/producer/star believes her film has definite appeal for the late-night crowd because its heroine battles "lesbian femi-Nazis, skinheads and film producers."

While Hope and company wait for a chance to kick each other, a three-piece blues band is starting to play in theater three.

To go with the opening of "Pride and Joy," the story of Alligator Records, a legendary blues label, the Janiva Magness Band is warming up the audience. Unfortunately, the audience is fewer than a dozen. But it's enhanced by some of the theater staff, a couple of Hope's martial arts heavies and a man wearing a costume whose main characteristic is that it looks as if his brain has exploded from his skull. He's promoting the upcoming showing of the "director's cut" of "The Toxic Avenger" that plays at the end of July.

Christensen explains the activities in his lobby by saying: "Some of the distributors have to make it seem more like an event to get people away from their VCRs." This, however, does not disguise the fact that many of the Troma films, in his words, "look like they were shot for $75 in a garage."

There are a couple of other late-night attractions in the mostly empty mall (built on the site of the legendary Schwab's drugstore) that houses the theater. The Virgin Megastore stays open until 1 a.m. on weekends and the recently opened Buzz coffee shop complements the late-night film attractions. "You want to have a cup to stay awake during the show," says Buzz employee Geoff Osberg.

This night, most of the customers are in their mid-20s and younger and look like they might just as easily have gone to Lollapalooza '94. What's drawn them is the Sick and Twisted festival, which easily draws five times as many customers as the other offerings: "Class of Nuke 'Em High," "Pride and Joy," "Fear of a Black Hat" and Pedro Almodovar's "Kika."

As the screenings begin, Christensen doesn't question why they come, he's just happy his theater is busy. "In L.A." he says, "people will do anything for free parking."

*

Where: Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (213) 848-3500.

When: Midnight.

Cost: Theater admission is $7.50; a cappuccino at Buzz is $2.

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