Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Midnight Madness
When is a Disney movie not a Disney movie? We’ve answered this riddle a number of different ways already in this column. There are the TV productions that were released theatrically overseas, such as The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh. There’s the porous divide between feature films and short subjects. There have even been rare instances of films produced outside the Disney studio distributed by Buena Vista. But perhaps the purest answer to this eternal question is Midnight Madness, a PG-rated teen comedy made entirely by Walt Disney Productions but with the studio’s name deliberately and conspicuously removed. It is, in every way, an outlier in the Disney canon, even by the bizarre standards of the late 70s and early 80s.
Even the film’s development was unusual for Disney. Instead of the usual in-house talent, Midnight Madness was written and directed by newcomers David Wechter and Michael Nankin. Wechter and Nankin had made a couple of short films, including a musical comedy called Junior High School featuring a young, unknown Paula Abdul. Junior High School became an acclaimed hit on the festival circuit, attracting the attention of, among others, Disney producer Ron Miller.
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Disney had struggled for years to attract a teen audience. Part of the problem was Disney’s self-imposed mandate to only release G-rated fare, a rating no self-respecting teenager would be caught dead buying a ticket for. A larger problem was the Walt Disney name itself. For years, the studio had billed itself as providing the finest in family entertainment. What was once a badge of honor had become a stigma the studio couldn’t live down. Audiences knew what to expect from a Disney film. And teen audiences knew that what Disney was selling, they weren’t buying.
Junior High School impressed Ron Miller as the sort of movie that could help Disney break its teen curse. Wechter and Nankin were both in their early 20s when Miller hired them, making them two of the youngest filmmakers to ever work for the studio, at least on the live-action side. They sold Miller on a script with the working title The All-Night Treasure Hunt. Riffing on the formula of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the movie would follow five teams of college students as they compete in a scavenger hunt across Los Angeles. Disney wasn’t about to push into R-rated Animal House territory but it would definitely be a departure from the usual G-rated sitcom fare.
The movie opens with a pair of roller-skating hotties, Candy (Debi Richter) and Sunshine (Kristen Baker), delivering invitations to our five team captains summoning them to a mysterious meeting. We’ll meet the players in a moment. The man behind the curtain turns out to be a nerdy slacker named Leon (played by Alan Solomon, who eventually, ironically enough, started working behind the scenes on game shows like Card Sharks). Leon explains the rules of The Great All-Nighter: teams must solve a series of clues that lead them to another location somewhere in the city. The first team to make it to the final location wins…well, nothing, really, apart from bragging rights to a game that didn’t exist until just now.
At first, no one wants anything to do with Leon’s pointless and time-consuming game. But eventually, rivalries between the nerds, the jocks, the sorority girls, and each other take hold. Their reasons for playing the game may be flimsy but hey, it isn’t like they had anything better to do on that Friday night, anyway.
Our hero, the leader of the yellow team, is Adam Larson, played by David Naughton. Naughton was a rising young star at the time but his career was in a weird place. He first came to people’s attention in a series of Dr. Pepper commercials, extolling the pleasures of the soft drink with the maddeningly catchy “Be A Pepper” jingle (hence the prominently displayed can of Dr. Pepper Naughton shares a scene with in Midnight Madness). In 1979, he landed the lead role in Makin’ It, a sitcom attempting to ride the dwindling coattails of Saturday Night Fever. The show didn’t last but Naughton’s performance of the theme song because a pop hit, hitting #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. A year after Midnight Madness, of course, Naughton had his iconic role in John Landis’s An American Werewolf In London. His career path has not led him back to Disney yet but he’s still very active, so you never know.
Adam reluctantly agrees to participate in the game at the prodding of his potential new girlfriend, Laura (Debra Clinger, who appeared as Superchick, a member of Kaptain Kool & The Kongs, on Saturday morning’s The Krofft Supershow…if you are under a certain age, you have no idea what any of those words mean but my fellow Gen-Xers are going “Oh yeah” right now). Adam’s yellow team comes to include Laura, auto mechanic Marvin (David Damas) and a guy named Flynch (Joel Kenney). Flynch is a virginal freshman (and yes, they actually use the word “virgin”, so get ready to clutch those pearls) Adam takes under his wing in his capacity as freshman advisor. Adam “rescues” Flynch from going on a date with a homely girl when he strongarms him into joining the team, so Flynch spends the entire night in a tuxedo.
After a while, the yellow team picks up another member when Adam spots his younger brother, Scott, sitting at a bus stop about to run off to San Francisco. This promising young newcomer is none other than Michael J. Fox, 18 years old, playing 15 and looking about 12, in his big screen debut. Fox went on to have a pretty decent career, appearing in a few films you may have heard of and haunting most of my life as my doppelganger. Honestly, if I went to the movies circa 1991 and stood too close to a Michael J. Fox poster, people would do a double take. So I’ve always had a weird connection to Mr. Fox and wish him nothing but the best. Mike will eventually return to this column as a voice actor.
Adam’s chief rival is Harold, the leader of the blue team. Harold is introduced sitting at a drive-in, indiscriminately shoveling fistfuls of French fries into his mouth. Stephen Furst of Animal House plays Harold, seemingly graduating from Flounder to the John Belushi Bluto role here. Furst also appeared in the 1979 comedy Scavenger Hunt, so he already had some experience with this genre. He won’t be back in this column, although he did do some voice acting in direct-to-video Disney projects like The Little Mermaid II: Return To The Sea.
Harold is forced to compete by his controlling father, who can’t understand why his fat, slovenly, lazy son can’t be more like that wonderful Adam boy. It’s never really clear how his father even knows Adam but evidently, the rivalry runs deep. Harold’s crack team includes his girlfriend, Lucille (Patricia Alice Albrecht), who is constantly on his case about his clear eating disorder. Then there’s Barf, played by 6-foot-6-inch Brian Frishman, who appears to be, as we would have said back in 1980, completely retarded.
I’m afraid this is going to have to be stated explicitly, at this point. I apologize for using outdated and insensitive terminology and may well have to again but Midnight Madness is not a film overly concerned with political correctness. There’s a big difference between “mentally challenged” or “developmentally disabled” and the 1980 concept of “retarded”. Barf falls squarely in that latter camp. I don’t think there’s anything clinically wrong with him. He’s just that dumb. Again, no disrespect intended on my end toward the mental disability community. Sometimes it’s just easier to use the language of the times to discuss something that is very much a product of its times.
Anyway, speaking of outdated and uncomfortable stereotypes, Harold’s blue team also includes a Latino gentleman who goes by the name of Blade (Sal Lopez, who’s been in a ton of stuff…you might recognize him as T.H.E. Rock from Full Metal Jacket). Blade never speaks and is constantly brandishing a switchblade. It’s anyone’s guess how Blade and Harold got mixed up together.
Finally, there’s Melio, a guy who seems slightly smarter than Barf and is forever trying to passive-aggressively undermine Harold’s leadership and the team’s chances of winning. Melio is played by Andy Tennant, who switched careers not long after Midnight Madness. Today he’s much better known as the director of such films as Ever After, Hitch and many others.
Next we have the red team, a group of sorority sisters led by Donna. Maggie Roswell plays Donna and if you don’t recognize her face, you should probably recognize the name and voice. She went on to voice Maude Flanders, Helen Lovejoy and a host of other characters on The Simpsons and a variety of other animated shows, including Disney’s Darkwing Duck and TaleSpin. Her teammates include Berle (Robyn Petty) and a pair of giggling, overweight identical twins named Peggy and Lulu (Betsy Lynn Thompson and Carol Gwynn Thompson).
The white team is led by Wesley, played by Eddie Deezen. Prior to Midnight Madness, Deezen had stolen scenes in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Grease and 1941. He went on to become the uber-nerd of the 1980s, a ubiquitous presence in films like Zapped!, WarGames and Grease 2. His three teammates, all Deezen clones, don’t have names or even any lines, despite the fact that they’re all members of the debate club. They’re played by Marvin Katzoff, Christopher Sands and Michael Gitomer.
Finally, there’s the football players of the green team because it wouldn’t be a teen comedy without a bunch of jocks to root against. They drive around in a green car dubbed the Meat Wagon and go by the charming sobriquet Meat Machine. They’re led by Lavitas (Brad Wilkin, who had a small part in The Young Runaways on Wonderful World Of Disney). The team includes the beer-loving Blaylak (Dirk Blocker), Cudzo (Trevor Henley), Gerber (Keny Long) and…sigh…Armpit (Curt Ayers).
While the teams are busy running around L.A., Leon has his own troubles back at his apartment, a.k.a. Game Central. His nosy landlady, Mrs. Grimhaus (Irene Tedrow, last seen in this column all the way back in 1961’s The Parent Trap), has been itching for an excuse to evict Leon and his sexy assistants. The noise of the game eventually pulls in his neighbors (including Piglet voice John Fiedler and Charlie Brill from Blackbeard’s Ghost). Fortunately, they all get into the game, so by the time the cops arrive, who also turn out to be squarely on Leon’s side, the tenants turn on Mrs. Grimhaus and have her arrested instead.
Let’s be clear here: Midnight Madness is not a good movie and we’ll get into why that is in a moment. However, there are pleasures to be had in watching it. The Great All-Nighter takes us on a wonderfully nostalgic tour of Los Angeles in 1980, from the Hollywood Tower Apartments to Griffith Park Observatory to the Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery to the Bonaventure Hotel. Some of these places are long gone, others changed to the point of unrecognizability, so it’s a kick to go back in time and revisit them as they once were.
There’s also a nostalgic rush to the props and vehicles. Harold’s team tools around in a tricked-out van, complete with observation dome and on-board computer to help solve Leon’s clues. One of Leon’s challenges involves playing a video game called Star Fire, an actual arcade game so heavily modeled on Star Wars that it’s amazing no one got sued. And the proprietor of that arcade is a pre-Pee-wee Herman Paul Reubens, decked out in an elaborate cowboy outfit for some reason. I’ve never been unhappy to see Paul Reubens pop up in a movie or TV show.
It's also fun to see how Nankin and Wechter subtly wink at their status as a stealth Disney movie. Eddie Deezen and his team end up at Mickey Mouse’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Mickey also appears on a t-shirt. And there’s the familiar Disney faces like Fiedler and Tedrow mixed in with the rest of the cast.
Unfortunately, most of the jokes simply don’t land. The attempts at pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable in Disney movies are mostly lame. Sure, it’s kind of amusing to see an underage Michael J. Fox try to score a beer and get hauled away by security. It’s less amusing when Blaylak dives into a vat of PBR and has to be fished out by his teammates. Probably the most strained example is when the teams figure out that the clue “Look between the giant melons” refers to a necklace hanging between a waitress’ ample cleavage and systematically trash the diner in a bid to get her attention. Laugh, I thought I’d die.
The movie is also surprisingly mean-spirited, especially when it comes to body imaging. If an overweight person shows up on screen, you can bet you won’t have to wait long before they become the butt of a joke. That meanness even extends to the relationship between Adam and Scott. Scott seems to crave nothing more than his brother’s approval but Adam genuinely dislikes him. He refuses to give Scott credit for anything. When Scott finally and understandably gets sick of this treatment and runs off, Adam couldn’t possibly care less. He literally abandons his brother and the rest of his team to try to finish a contest he didn’t want to participate in in the first place. Not cool, Adam. Nobody wants to see people being mean to Michael J. Fox.
Midnight Madness snuck into theatres on February 8, 1980. It was a relatively low budget movie, coming in at around $4.5 million, but it barely made half that at the box office. But Midnight Madness did eventually find an audience. The movie was an early beneficiary of the new pay-TV fad. It played in heavy rotation on HBO in the early 80s, where it picked up an appreciative cult who responded to its mildly edgy charms and, more importantly, to The Great All-Nighter itself.
Because of this, Midnight Madness has had a surprisingly large cultural footprint for a movie that virtually nobody saw in theatres. Nankin and Wechter had been inspired by a real-life Los Angeles treasure hunt called The Game that started in 1973. In 1985, future Microsoft executive Joe Belfiore saw Midnight Madness and was inspired to create a similar game in real life. Belfiore’s contest eventually became known as The Game and has become an annual, extremely elaborate tradition.
Belfiore wasn’t the only one. All-night treasure hunts have popped up all over the country, many of which bear the name Midnight Madness or The Great All-Nighter. Here in Atlanta, we have Get A Clue, which has run every year (except during COVID) since 1989. On the Get A Clue website, their official history states that founder Jim Tobin created the game “after watching the Disney cult classic Midnight Madness”. If you search for some of these real-life games, almost all of them credit Midnight Madness as their inspiration. I suppose it’s a good thing these gaming enthusiasts weren’t watching Faces Of Death instead.
Midnight Madness may have been a resounding (and, frankly, deserving) flop in theatres but it’s kind of cool that it’s taken on a weird life of its own. But at the time, it was a major stumbling block for Ron Miller’s plans. After the back-to-back failures of The Black Hole and Midnight Madness, things weren’t looking great at Disney. But credit Miller for this much: he wasn’t about to stop trying.
As for David Wechter and Michael Nankin, their careers also took a bit of a hit after Midnight Madness but they eventually got back on their feet. Nankin wrote the screenplays for two more oddball teen movies of the 1980s, the deliriously fun horror movie The Gate and the Cold War buddy movie Russkies. He later found success as a director and producer on TV, working on such shows as Battlestar Galactica, The Exorcist and, most recently, Van Helsing. Wechter went on to write and direct The Malibu Bikini Shop, a more traditionally R-rated teen comedy, before moving into television himself, including the terrific Penn & Teller series Bullshit! He seems to work primarily in reality and documentary TV these days. I imagine they’re both a little surprised at the longevity of Midnight Madness. I hope they’ve been invited to play in one of the real-life games their movie inspired.
VERDICT: In 2004, Disney did finally acknowledge their role in Midnight Madness when they re-released the film on DVD with the studio logo on the front cover. Good. That officially makes this a Disney Minus instead of just a plain Minus.
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