Phil Blankenship

In programming Heavy Midnites at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, Phil Blankenship has become accustomed to giving himself unique challenges. Take for example, a screening he did in March 2014 of the Gary Busey/Mimi Rogers’ thriller “Hider in the House.” A longtime favorite of the singer/songwriter Zola Jesus, one of the regulars who attends his screenings of wild and crazy cinema, the 1989 film featuring Busey as a psych ward escapee who holes up in the attic of an unaware family had never actually been screened theatrically in America, relegated to the bowels of late-night cable and the darker corners of Blockbuster Video after its distributor Vestron went bankrupt.

You can imagine its director Matthew Patrick was surprised when he got the call from Blankenship wanting to give “Hider in the House” its belated Los Angeles premiere (an honor that he’s bestowed to many seemingly lost films, most recently Edgar Wright’s first film “A Fistful of Fingers”). But Patrick was receptive, even able to lend his personal print for the screening, though Blankenship would still have to deal with lawyers to find out who had the rights to show it publicly. Even after clearing that hurdle, he would have to schedule the screening for one of the rare dates that Jesus wasn’t out on the road touring. His reward for all this hard work? A packed house hanging on every one of the film’s batshit twists and turns and fantastic anecdotes afterwards from Patrick about Tom Cruise trying to buy the rights of the film for his then-wife Rogers while it was in limbo.

“It was the perfect intersection of great movie, incredibly difficult to see, awesome guests and a really great turnout,” said Blankenship, who regularly engages in hundreds of phone calls and e-mails, scouring the world for film prints. “So that was really awesome.”

Blankenship has specialized in awesome at the Cinefamily, ever since bringing his after hours series from the New Beverly back in 2011, but after three-and-a-half years, he’s moving on. [In June 2016, he moved back to New Beverly.] Fittingly, his final screening on Fairfax was “Escape from New York,” a film captures the frenzy of attending Heavy Midnites with Blankenship resembling Snake Plissken, as the madman leading a pack of crazies to the promised land.

Phil Blankenship at CinefamilyArguably Los Angeles’ biggest film fanatic whose VHS collection likely rivals that of his daytime employer Amoeba Music, Blankenship came to Southern California in 2001 after the Bay Area-based record store opened their location on Sunset, helping to set up the movie buying operation after doing the same in San Francisco. Having grown up in Salinas, Blankenship was used to making his own fun, but after coming to Hollywood, he had expected more of the city’s repertory scene, which was showing the classics and cult favorites, but not the deeper cuts that he sought out regularly at his day job.

“The kind of movies I wanted to see weren’t really screening at the arthouses around town. This was actually before Cinefamily and back when the Cinematheque was perhaps more arthouse-centered than they are now,” recalls Blankenship, who counts among his favorite films the giggly 1984 sex comedy “Heavenly Bodies” and Panos Cosmatos’ 2010 mindfuck “Beyond the Black Rainbow.” “Genre films and the forgotten movies that I was watching at home, I wanted to watch them in theaters. So basically I thought if I don’t do it, I’m not going to be able to see it.”

Blankenship had noticed that the New Beverly didn’t have a midnight program at the time, so he asked the theater’s late founder Sherman Torgan whether he could four-wall the place. In the years that followed he eventually didn’t have to rent the theater anymore and built up an audience and a reputation as one of the most adventurous programmers in the city. He’s just as likely to throw on a nostalgic hit like “She’s All That” as some obscure find like the ‘80s Viggo Mortensen thriller “Prison,” with the primary criteria being fun.

But what’s even more rare than the movies he’s been able to unearth is the respect with which he pays them and the people that made them, approaching the type of exploitation flicks designed as product by its producers to turn a quick buck — and by hungry writers and directors to take advantage of the fact no one’s looking — with the seriousness that one would expect at a Truffaut or Kurosawa retrospective. In fact, his four-film marathon of Steven Seagal films in June 2014, complete with 35mm prints of “Hard to Kill,” “Out for Justice,” “Under Siege 2” and “On Deadly Ground,” a rare public appearance from Pacific Northwest-based Seagalogist Vern and even a call from the Aikido master himself, is spoken of in the same hushed tones amongst local cinephiles as the recent revival of Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1.”

Special guests will often look pleased, but occasionally bewildered they’re talking about films that have been forgotten and for some of their participants best left that way, leading to Q & As after the screening that are both incredibly entertaining and unexpectedly revealing. At a screening of the 1994 Ice T thriller “Surviving the Game,” director Ernest Dickerson remembered how F. Murray Abraham insisted on staying with the production after being involved in a devastating car accident that took one life on day four of the production, preferring to think about the character than his own mortality, and how Gary Busey (yes, a Heavy Midnites favorite) drew on memories of his father asking him to kill puppies on their farm that they couldn’t afford to feed as a child for an emotional dinner table scene.

These screenings seem to be as much of a revelation for the filmmakers as they are for the audience, experiencing a big, enthusiastic crowd for their films, many for the first time. When the seminal 1979 drama “Over the Edge” ripped the roof off the Cinefamily’s Silent Movie Theater this past August with the same vigor as a fresh-faced Matt Dillon and his gang of rebellious teens take over a small town in the film, the film’s screenwriters Charles S. Haas and Tim Hunter looked genuinely taken aback to see how appreciative the 170-plus people gathered in front of them were, especially considering that concerns about riots following “The Warriors” led its studio to essentially put it on the shelf, only leaking out to the public through late night screenings on HBO.

The same story could apply to any number of films that Blankenship has helped audiences rediscover at a tick past midnight, his infectious passion the only thing that can be counted on for nights when nothing else can be predicted. Naturally, even as memorable and berserk as screenings of films such as “The Astrologer” have been, it’s the group of movie lovers he’s brought together for screening after screening that he cherishes most.

“Every week, we have a full house and I love seeing people meet each other, waiting in line, become friends, talk, work on their own film projects together, talk to me,” says Blankenship. “Talking to people is probably my favorite part of the movies, learning what they’re interested in, learning what they want to see, and what they never even imagined exists. It’s exciting that there’s this well of film fans that are always discovering.”

A full list of Heavy Midnites can be found here and you can follow Phil Blankenship on Twitter @troniks.

For more on the fearless film programmers of Los Angeles:
When Pharmaceutical Companies Own the Rights to Your Favorite Film & Other Job Hazards: LA Film Programmers Tell All
John Wyatt and All the Feels of Cinespia
USC’s Alessandro Ago on Complementing a Moviemaking Education with One in Moviegoing
Brian Udovich on Firing on All Cylinders with Reel Grit
Mark Olsen Brings Festival Favorites Into “Indie Focus” in LA
How “Last Remaining Seats” Restores the Classics in Downtown L.A.