Mike Varrati

Cult Filmmakers You Should Know #21: HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS

By Michael Varrati

If you’ve ever been thrilled by the ruby red splatter of blood or gasped in glee at images of sinewy guts, then there’s a strong chance you owe a debt of honor to Herschell Gordon Lewis.

A towering figure in the pantheon of fright, Lewis has been hailed by many as “The Godfather of Gore,” and it’s a title he’s earned every right to hold. Though blood and violence onscreen existed long before the audacious auteur hit the scene, it was with a veritable sense of sleaze that Herschell Gordon Lewis literally upped the ante of the horror genre to the visceral level it exists at today.

Declared by John Waters to be one of “the greatest filmmakers of all time,” Herschell Gordon Lewis began his legacy in fright films for the rather simple reason of needing to make a quick buck. In the late 50s, Lewis was working as a humanities teacher and ad man in Chicago, directing commercials in his spare time to supplement his income. After buying out the advertising studio he produced commercials for, Lewis turned his attention to larger projects: Film.

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MASTER OF THE MASSACRE: An Interview with Filmmaker Jeff Burr

By Michael Varrati

In the midst of a discussion about the pitfalls of filmmaking, I suggest to iconic director Jeff Burr that he should teach a master class on the subject. Burr laughs me off with a word of polite thanks before moving onward, but I remain serious in my assertion.

Known by many genre fans for his contributions to existent franchises and off-beat indie fare, Burr has made an impact on the horror community over the last three decades by pushing ever forward with his craft. Although likely most identified as the man who gave the Sawyer family life anew in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, Burr’s wide body of work encompasses a plethora of thrills and chills that have helped give him the insight to inspire and advise a new generation of filmmakers.

In fact, it is Burr’s place as an inspiration to those that have grown up with his films that led to our little fireside chat today. Recently contacted by Henrique Couto, an Ohio-based independent filmmaker, Burr was surprised to discover that one of his lesser known films, Eddie Presley, had served as an inspiration to Couto on his own forthcoming feature, Depression: The Movie. Now, thanks to the cinematic kinship of the two films, Eddie Presley and Depression are set to play a once in a lifetime double bill at the Hollywood Theater in Pittsburgh, PA…and Burr couldn’t be more tickled about the idea.

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DOCUMENTING THE DEVIANTS: A Celebration of Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz

From the very beginning of my association with Peaches, one thing we’ve always come together on is our need to celebrate our heroes.

However, this commonality isn’t shared solely by the boss lady and myself, but rather is a thread that runs through the veins of each member of the Midnight Mass family. We all have this compulsive yearning to worship at the altar of those who shaped us into the children of the popcorn we are today. You can see this love and passion in every single one of Peaches’ stage shows, and hopefully it’s also reflected in my columns here on the site. As dyed-in-the-wool monster kids, we consider it our duty to carry the banner ever forward into the night, shouting of love and schlock to all who will listen.

Because of this continued commitment to spreading the word, we always like to recognize a kindred spirit when one crosses our path. In recent years, one such individual has proven to be a cut above many of his peers, celebrating his idols with a level of style and class that few can match.

The man in question is documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, and for his continued effort to make sure future generations know the names of his idols, we wanted to take a moment to make sure you knew him. Read More…

Drag Dossier #2: HIBISCUS

By Michael Varrati

In writing about the Cockettes, it has become something of a clichéd trope to quote John Waters. Having famously once described the iconic gender-bending performance troupe as a bunch of “hippie acid freak drag queens,” the Pope of Trash seemingly had applied a nice summary to something that had been previously hard to define.

However, as with most succinct overviews, Waters’ comment merely scratches the surface of a larger history. From their very inception, The Cockettes were poised at the precipice of a social and sexual revolution.

Founded in the late 1960s, the group grew to prominence in San Francisco (and later worldwide) for their avant-garde, open approach to art and sexuality. As their popularity grew, so too did their ranks. Waters alumni Divine and Mink Stole famously joined The Cockettes for performances, as did disco icon Sylvester.  The group was seen and praised by peers as diverse as Andy Warhol and John Lennon, and through their inspired style, changed the face of performance art and drag forever.

In 2002, filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber encapsulated much of The Cockettes’ history in their documentary of the same name. Through candid interviews and archival footage, the film pulled back the layers of an era of social/sexual reform, and perfectly placed The Cockettes in the center of it all. Read More…

From WISHMASTER to Schoolmaster: An Interview with Robert Kurtzman

By Michael Varrati

If you’re an ardent fan of horror cinema, there’s absolutely no question that you’ve run across the work of Robert Kurtzman.

A veritable legend of the genre with an exhaustive list of credits, Kurtzman is a definitive horror icon that has truly done it all.

Moving to Los Angeles in the mid-80s, the Ohio native slowly gained a reputation for remarkable work in make-up effects, putting a personal touch on many low-budget horror masterpieces. Then, in 1988, he joined together with effects impresarios Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger to form KNB EFX Group, a company that would emerge over the next decade as the most significant effects house in Hollywood.

Working on hundreds of titles (some of the Elm Street and Evil Dead films amongst them), Kurtzman and his crew at KNB reshaped the face of horror cinema, putting a bloody stamp on the films that defined a generation.

However, Kurtzman proved to be more than just a skilled make-up artist.

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Stephen King Gets into Gear: Directing MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and Beyond…!

By Michael Varrati

In the world of horror, Stephen King is a man who requires no introduction.

Since the publication of his first novel in 1974, King’s work has gone on to shape the very zeitgeist of the genre. Endlessly celebrated and imitated, Stephen King is to horror what Bob Dylan is to rock. The man almost singlehandedly ushered us into the modern-era of fright, and is unequivocally one of the very best of us.

I’m an unabashed fan of King’s, and have never really been able to understand those who don’t care for his oeuvre. I’ve always chalked up any distaste for the author to pretentious snobbery or a rally against his popularity. However, love him or hate him, there’s no denying that he’s left an impact on pop culture.

Having written over sixty novels, many of which have been adapted for screen, King’s presence in horror is hardly waning four decades later. Echoes of Carrie and The Shining permeate modern fright films, and many of King’s adaptations have become milestone movies of their own. It almost goes without saying that Stephen King is as much at home at the theater as he is at the library. Read More…

Cult Filmmakers You Should Know #20: PAUL BARTEL

By Michael Varrati

In gazing upon the kindly visage of Paul Bartel, the first images to arise are certainly not those of “suburban cannibal” or “high-octane racer.”

Prior to his untimely death in 2000, the seemingly reserved Bartel had made a career out of portraying the lovable curmudgeon, winning hearts in movies such as Rock ’n’ Roll High School and Tim Burton’s original Frankenweenie. For a whole generation who was used to seeing him as the befuddled teacher or loveable uncle, it seemed unfathomable that something far more subversive lurked beneath the surface of Paul Bartel. Yet, for those in the know, Bartel has always been more than just a mere character actor. True cult aficionados are aware that Paul Bartel can be cited as the man responsible for some of midnight cinema’s finest moments.

Openly gay in an era where it was considered taboo, Bartel found being upfront about his sexuality afforded him a lot more opportunities in the independent film world than mainstream Hollywood. An outlaw from the beginning, Bartel almost instantly fell in with the “King of the B-Movies,” Roger Corman. In 1972, Corman and his brother passed along a horror script to Bartel, a tale of skid-row lodgers and living dolls called Private Parts. Bartel gave the film his own macabre touch, morphing the horror piece into an outrageous black comedy.  With Private Parts, the actor-turned-director was able to establish a presence in the world of cinema, creating an original, outlandish voice that shined from the very beginning. Read More…

Drag Dossier #1: COCO PERU

By Michael Varrati

One thing Peaches Christ and I have always had in common is our desire to celebrate our artistic influences loudly. The very essence of Peaches’ Midnight Mass is the appreciation and worship of the movies that inspired and motivated her to become the icon of fright she is today. Similarly, a lot of my articles here on the site, including the popular Cult Filmmakers You Should Know series, are all carefully planned to pay tribute to the avant-garde and daring artists that I love.

While film is definitely a huge motivator for the two of us, Peaches and I are also rather multi-faceted in our appreciation of the arts. Recently, Ms. Christ and I got together to discuss praising different aspects of the performance community, and we kept returning to the idea of legendary drag performers. As Phillip Ford mentioned in my Vegas in Space piece, there was an era when drag was certainly not the celebrated part of the LGBT community it is today. For a whole generation, the mere idea of gender-bending was considered to be an outlaw act. Certainly, a far cry from the RuPaul’s Drag Race-era we exist in now. But, because of a plethora of drag pioneers like Divine, Charles Busch, and more, the concept of this fringe performance art began to creep its way into the theatre and movies, creating a veritable cult of its own.

So, in the spirit of the Cult Filmmakers series, Peaches and I would like to open to you the Drag Dossier. Through this series, both myself and special guest writers will reveal to you the stories of some of the most famous, avant-garde, and unique performers in drag culture. Hold tight, my dear children of the popcorn, because it’s going to be a glamorous ride!

For our first installment, I am beyond thrilled to highlight one of the very best of the community:

The legendary Miss Coco Peru.


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Cult Filmmakers You Should Know #19: ASIA ARGENTO

By Michael Varrati

Stepping out of the shadows of the previous generation can be a process for anybody, but when your parents are two of cinema’s most notorious luminaries, there’s bound to be an extra measure of complication.

For Italian actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, contending with famous parents has always been a fact of life. Her mother, noted actress and screenwriter Daria Nicolodi (Suspira, Deep Red), blazed a bloody trail for the women of Italian horror throughout the 1970s and beyond. Similarly, her father, the hugely celebrated filmmaker Dario Argento, literally changed the face of genre cinema forever.

With two titans of terror as parents and various other relatives in the business, Asia’s childhood was one ruled by the movies. By her own confession, she initially turned to acting not to establish her own identity, but because she sought her father’s attention. Read More…


By Michael Varrati

With the imminent arrival of Barry Bostwick to Midnight Mass HQ, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time pondering the phenomenon that is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Created by Richard O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman, the film with the longest run in theatrical history has blazed a bizarre, yet unparalleled trail through the history of cinema. Rocky Horror has throngs of fans who still crowd into movie theaters on a weekly basis, shouting and singing along in a fanatical fervor akin to religious devotion. For many creatures of the night, RHPS is more than a movie, it’s a way of life.

Of course, worshipping at the altar of a beloved film is not a foreign concept to me or my boss lady, Peaches Christ.

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