Midnight Specialists: Midnites For Maniacs

The king of midnight movies in SF: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
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cheryl@sfbg.com

Ask Jesse Hawthorne Ficks what his favorite movie is, and he won't hesitate: it's Ski School. Ficks, who programs and hosts the Castro Theatre's monthly Midnites for Maniacs triple feature, interprets "favorite" literally: the 1991 raunch-com might not surface on any highbrow top-10 lists, but it's likely no scholar loves Citizen Kane (1941) as much as Ficks loves Ski School.

"I've always been upset with people who talk about guilty pleasures," Ficks explained when I paid him a visit at the Ninth Street Film Center. As the Frameline31 box office manager, he was overseeing ticket sales from a room decorated with posters from past Maniacs selections The Legend of Billie Jean (1985) and Joysticks (1983). "There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. If you love something, you should genuinely love it. You can have some of that campiness — 'Oh my god, Nicolas Cage's acting in The Wicker Man [2006] is so bad, it's hilarious' — but you're not cooler than the films that you're watching. You're actually in love with the movies that you're watching. And you can maybe laugh at the movie, but ultimately there should be no mean-spiritedness in it."

Anyone who's checked out a Midnites for Maniacs event knows the depths of Ficks's cinemania. But even if you've never seen the gleeful host in action (typically he'll toss out trivia questions and reward winners with prizes like out-of-print soundtracks, sometimes in cassette form), you need only peruse a list of Midnites past to get a sense of his passion — the "Aerobicize Triple Feature" (Staying Alive [1983], Flashdance [1983], and Heavenly Bodies [1984]); a 3-D night that included the third Jaws and Friday the 13th films as well as the Molly Ringwald sci-fi nugget Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983); tributes to latchkey kids, punk girls, Dolly Parton, and the underage Jodie Foster; and May's "Vertically Challenged Monsters" night, which I can safely say will be the only time in recorded history that Gremlins (1984), Howard the Duck (1986), and Troll 2 (presented in rare 35mm prints) share a bill at the Castro. Or anyplace.

Troll 2, a horror comedy that was barely released in 1990, is a prime example of Ficks's programming technique. He doesn't pluck flicks from obscurity to amuse snarky audiences; he's hoping to entertain on a more meaningful level. "I was really concerned that people were going to come out purely to destroy the film as opposed to embracing it for all of its faults," he said. "No one can define that style of acting in Troll 2. It's not even bad acting. It's a different style. But I think it had more to do with people being embarrassed of loving something and being so guilty. Their film professors don't let them love Top Gun [1986]. Midnites for Maniacs is not just [about watching] films that we forgot, but also embracing them and loving them and rooting for them. Not beating up on them."

Ficks's personal tastes expand beyond underdog obscurities. When he's not overseeing box offices on the local festival circuit, he teaches film history at the Academy of Art College ("We have a nice exploitation chapter that's not in the [text]book"). He grew up obsessed with Freddy Krueger in Salt Lake City, where he started coprogramming a midnight series at 16. He also exploited the serendipity of geography to soak up as much Park City as he could. "I grew up at [the] Sundance [Film Festival]. I went to Slacker [1991], and that totally changed my life," he said. "I worked at Sundance from 1994 through 2002.

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