Podcasts You Should Know: Join the Midnight Mass congregation with Peaches Christ and Michael Varrati
Cult movie fans rejoice! If you brought props to the theater for a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, if you can’t pronounce “Versace” any other way than “Ver-sayce” or if you worship at the altar of Divine, have we got a podcast or you. Drag legend and cult movie aficionado Peaches Christ and the equally obsessed Michael Varrati invite you to “Midnight Mass”, their new podcast.
Each week, the show focuses on a unique film, filmmaker, performer or genre and features interviews with actors, writers and even super fans. So far, the show has taken a look at the Winnipeg cult who can’t get enough of Brian DePalma’s rock musical Phantom of the Paradise, the OG final girl of Friday the 13th and the wicked teen revenge comedy Jawbreaker. Peaches and Michael are the perfect tour guides to this wild world of cult flicks.
Peaches Christ (Joshua Grannell) is an icon of the drag scene. He bio describes her as a direct descendant of Jesus” and “an underground drag phenomenon, emcee, filmmaker, actor, and part time cult-leader.” She studied film at Penn State University and her senior thesis film Jizzmopper: A Love Story (where Peaches was born) won the audience award at the annual Penn State Student Film Festival. Peaches is known for her popular midnight movie screenings at San Francisco’s Bridges Theater, appropriately titled Midnight Mass. The screenings included drag performances and special appearances by guests including John Waters and Mink Stole, Cassandra Peterson (a/k/a Elvira), RuPaul and Mary Woronov. In 2010, she directed the indie horror flick All About Evil, starring Natasha Lyonne, Cassandra Peterson and Mink Stole.
Michael Varrati is a talented writer, actor and director. He has written many Christmas movies, including 2016’s Christmas in Vermont, starring Chevy Chase. Michael is the director for the Boulet Brothers’ series Dragula and is the co-founder of June Gloom Productions, a film company that is hyper-focused on the creation of queer horror and LGBTQ+ social commentary cinema.
We got the chance to chat with Peaches and Michael about the new podcast and all things cult movies in our exclusive interview. Learn more about this congregation you’re going to want to join.
So, I guess to start out, can you just give me a little bit of your background and kind of how you got together and how you started up the Midnight Mass podcast?
Michael Varrati: Well, Peaches and I met in the mid 00s. I was in the process of working on a book about horror hosts, which sadly never came out. And I had been looking to see what the natural extension of the late-night horror host and creature feature host was in a modern era and I stumbled upon Peaches’ website and saw what she was doing with this marvelous show called Midnight Mass in the Bay Area. I had intended to just do a quick interview with her and, next thing you know, years of friendship were forged over a conversation because we both discovered we were kindred spirits and loved all of these same strange, culty movies. And then in 2010, when Peaches took her movie on the road, I went with her to document that journey and I will let her kind of speak to that but yeah, that’s how we met and here we are all this time later.
Peaches Christ: That was such a unique situation because Michael, who I hadn’t met in person, was so enthusiastic about the way we were releasing my film All About Evil. We were doing this sort of William Castle-style road show, where we were taking it from market to market. And, you know, sometimes Mink Stole would be with us or Cassandra Peterson or Natasha Lyonne, depending on what city we were in.
And we would do a big Peaches show before the movie screening and then the film would play in that market. But usually, we did this big show with local drag queens and it was true to what we would do at Midnight Mass. And Michael asked, “Do you have anyone who’s documenting this for you as you go across the country?” And I said, “no, we can’t afford it.” You know, we were so low budget. And Michael said, look I can crash in your hotel rooms and this and that. So, we kind of negotiated a deal where Michael was part roadie and documentarian, and he joined our crew and there’s no better way to get to know someone intimately, you know, how they smell in the morning, then to go onto the road together where it would be like four or five of us crashing in one hotel room where Mink Stole would have her own room…so it was very intimate and Michael and I became really close.
And over the years we just started collaborating together on my stage shows and other projects, writing projects. And then recently we’ve really collaborated together a lot. And so, when thinking about doing a podcast, like everyone in the world is doing right now, it was kind of like, okay, if I’m going to do a Peaches Christ podcast, the thing that I need to do is create it so that I’m interested in doing it.
Regardless of whether or not it can be monetized because who knows if it’ll take off or not. And I knew that if I did it with Michael, who I enjoy nerding out with so much about cult movies, it would be a worthy endeavor because it’s a subject that I love and I’m passionate about. And that’s really what kind of kicked it all off.
Where did both of your love for all things cult come from?
Peaches: Well, it’s one of those questions that, obviously, I’ve been asked a lot and I do try to come up with new answers, but you can’t because then you’re just lying. But…well, I do that too, but I really think that it is something that I was just kind of born with. I loved anything, dark, anything spooky, anything weird. That’s what I connected to. I was mesmerized by Elvira. I loved schlocky movies, I loved horror and spooky stuff.
It really just started from childhood and it was all this stuff. It was realizing that there was this community, especially through the discovery of Fangoria magazine and then meeting fans, like having pen pals back in the eighties, of these weird movies and reading books by John Waters, like Shock Value. His book was such an introduction to me into this whole other world. I love John Waters. I grew up in Maryland. I read Shock Value and it meant the world to me because John introduced me to Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Ted V. Mikels, Doris Wishman, you know, on and on the Kuchar Brothers. I just couldn’t get enough. Part of it might be that I was able to make it a hobby because there was no internet there wasn’t the accessibility, you really had to work hard to track down these titles. I read about a movie for years before I could ever find a copy of it. So, it was like a passion for me as a kid and it just never left.
Peaches talks about the origins of her love of cult movies.
Michael: Similarly, I came to cult movies because, as Peaches speaks about her love of Elvira and being transfixed by Elvira, I grew up with a show called USA Up All Night, which aired in the end of late eighties into the early nineties. And, I’ve told the story often, but USA Up All Night did a double feature of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Return of the Killer Tomatoes. And when I saw that in the TV Guide as a little kid, I was like, I don’t know what that is, but I don’t know how tomatoes can be killer and I need to know. And, watching that double feature, although it’s a horror comedy and not necessarily horror, it was weird and out there and it was a sort of baptism by cult because by morning, having watched both movies, I became aware that there was this whole other world of movies out there that my friends weren’t talking about at school, that they weren’t playing at the multiplex. And I was sort of drawn back to that forbidden nature of those things.
And so, when I would go to the video store, I would start walking the aisles and look at the different covers of the things that seemed a little out there or strange. And as I rented those movies and watched those things, I realized that those were the things that were made for me and that spoke to me. As I grew up and started writing and becoming interested in making films myself, I gravitated towards the people who make the “outside of the lines” kind of work. And as Peaches said, finding community is very key. I worked for a horror movie magazine right out of college called Ultra Violent.
We were committed to exploitation cinema, and I met a lot of people on the road at conventions, kind of in a pre-internet era where I got to connect with regional filmmakers or people like Lloyd Kaufman or Richard Griffin in New England. These guys were making these movies that you knew Paramount wasn’t going to make but were just so strange and weird and far more interesting. And I’ve been obsessed my whole life.
Michael talks about the differences (and similarities) of writing for horror and Christmas movies.
I know it’s like probably trying to pick out your favorite child, but do you have a favorite cult film?
Peaches: You’re right. (Laughs) I do think of John Waters as being my greatest hero and he’s become a friend and a mentor over the years…John’s influence on me and what he lit up in my life runs a parallel course to The Rocky Horror Picture Show…I would say John Waters. I know that it’s not a movie, but John Waters as the cannon and auteur – plus the discovery of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s not a coincidence that both those discoveries had integrated drag into the cult movie experience through Frank N. Furter and Divine. So, if I could just kind of cheat and say John Waters, plus The Rocky Horror Picture Show that double feature, it, you know, really is what helped give birth to this.
Michael: I have to echo that. I think that if you are a devotee to you to call you, can’t not pay respect to Rocky Horror, because I think that Rocky Horror set the standard for how we can build communities and celebrate these kinds of movies that exist on the outside. And when I was growing up and looking at things like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or El Topo or Night of the Living Dead, and they were playing these midnight screenings and people are coming and celebrating it like a rock concert. And of course, when you’re like in this world, you want to know more about that. And I was obsessed with Rocky Horror to the point where I also would drive to different screenings of it to see different casts. I remember having my parents drive me – before I could drive – to different video stores to find Shock Treatment, the follow-up movie to it. So, Rocky Horror is really kind of that crucial bit of DNA. I do love Attack of the Killer Tomatoes still to this day because it was my origin piece…but always something a little strange, a little queer.
I love that the podcasts looks at the movies from a more personal angle, with interviews and stories and more focus on the cult of these films instead of “here’s what happened in this movie.” How did you decide on that format?
Peaches: I think honestly, when we realized we were going to back to sort of my roots as the Midnight Mass impresario, we looked at how that would translate best to an audio forum.
Midnight Mass was a raucous celebration, inspired by Rocky Horror, of our favorite movies. Well, ultimately what it really did, and what I tried to do most importantly, was sort of create a church-like environment to worship these films, meaning that the congregation had to be part of the show and the cult. There was no fourth wall, so the cult was actively engaged. We would tell the cult to dress up, we would have costume contests. We’d put lap dancers in the audience for Showgirls screenings, you know, so there was very much this show that we were all a part of.
Well, it’s very hard to do that in a podcast form. We need to create something that people can listen to. But specifically, there are enough podcasts out there about movies themselves and the trivia around movies and the history of those movies – and I love those podcasts. I listen to those podcasts, but what we could do was sort of get into the nitty gritty of really interviewing the people involved in the making of them. Specifically asking, what’s your relationship to this thing, this community, this cult now that has formed around something that you made maybe 30, 40 years ago, that you couldn’t have imagined you’d still be talking about many years later? As well, we interview people from the cult itself, the fans that have done so much that they’d become the high priests and the high nuns of this cult movement. So, that was our sort of our idea for moving forward with a podcast and we’re figuring it out as we go.
Michael: Well, one of the things, when I describe it to people, is that in a lot of ways, it’s an audio documentary because as Peaches mentioned, we’ll talk to someone involved in the film or someone so deeply influenced by the film that it’s impacted their career, as well as artists and super fans of these movies to learn how it’s not only permeated culture, but their lives. And what’s really cool for us is obviously, we don’t pick a movie that we ourselves don’t worship. We love every single one of these from the deep cut titles to the highly celebrated ones
But what’s been wonderful about it is even though we love these movies, through each of these conversations we’re learning something new that is forcing us to reassess it and love it in a whole new way. You had mentioned you’ve listened to the Phantom of the Paradise episode. One of the great joys of that episode, I think, is that we thought we could just spend an hour and a half talking about the movie itself and then we discovered this bizarre phenomenon that it was a hit in Winnipeg, Canada in 1974 and nowhere else – and we were blown away by that. There’s a sociology there. That’s never been repeated with any film ever and that’s what we love. We love to find those little gems.
I don’t want to like get into spoilers about your upcoming episodes, but what’s been your favorite episode to record?
Peaches: Wow. That’s really tough. I think maybe right now it might be the Friday the 13th episode, partly because it was so unexpected and so sudden and lovely. Michael actually saw that there was a Friday the 13th like a week and a half away on the calendar. And he said, “Oh God, we really should have thought about that. How cool would it have been if we put out a Friday the 13th podcast?” And then we kind of were talking and he said, “Well, there’s maybe still time.” It was this weird series of events where I had just heard from another friend of mine about this book, The Final Girl Support Group. And I, so I mentioned that to Michael, Michael says, oh, I know Grady [Hendrix], let me reach out to him. I also know Adrienne King, who’s featured in the book. She’s not only the first final girl of the Friday the 13th series, but she is the narrator of the audio of Grady’s [book].
And the fact that the two of them jumped on board to do the interview so quickly meant that I had to read that book in two or three days, which for me is like, I read books kind of slowly at night in bed. You know, one book can last me quite a while and I’m kind of ashamed to admit that. But this was kind of an amazing experience where it was like, okay, I’m just going to spend hours for a couple of days just reading this book and then to get to talk to them and have those interviews and to have Adrienne speak so personally about her experience with a stalker in her life as a final girl, kind of becoming reality after she left the film shoot, you know, it was really special and touching and dramatic and there was something just so lovely about it. Then, I might also say that, you know, that’s one of the more recent episodes we’ve recorded. So, I tend to like the ones, you know, that we’ve done the most recently.
Michael: Well, and I’ll echo what Peaches said, I really do think that the Friday the 13th episode is special. For all the reasons that she mentioned, but also because of how quickly it came together and how organic and just powerful the conversation was. It showed to me what happens when all of our cylinders are firing together. It was proof positive that Midnight Mass is doing exactly what Midnight Mass should do. And I really was happy with that. I love every episode we’ve recorded. I will say, I want to clarify that we have had amazing guests and we’ve got some really amazing guests to come. There’s not a one of them that when we released them that week, I listened to them when they go live with the audience, just because it’s fun to do because oftentimes it’s many weeks removed from when we recorded it and I find myself being transported right back to the conversation and I’m proud of every episode, but yeah, the Friday the 13th one was great because it just helped quickly it came together for sure.
Is there a dream “get” that you want for the show, like a, a topic or a guest or somebody that you haven’t actually spoken with yet?
Peaches: Well, I mean, so my dream guests are the same as I get asked this about my live show, because I’ve done so many live events with so many people I admire and I’m really, really grateful and really lucky. When I start to list the names of all the people I’ve done shows with, even I’m like, wow, that’s impressive, because so many of these people I grew up admiring. But there are two that have open invites who I would be happy if they do either the audio Midnight Mass or an in-person or both. And that would be Elizabeth Berkley from Showgirls, I think because Showgirls is a movie I screened for 20 years annually and I started doing it at a time when people didn’t see it as a midnight movie. I really feel proud of helping build that cult. But I also feel like because of misogyny and the fucked-up nature of the industry, Elizabeth Berkley was really unfairly crucified for the response to that film, when really two men were responsible for the way that the movie came out, including directing her.
And I should say this, I get why it’s a painful experience for her and why that whole experience would have been traumatic. But like Michael said, we earnestly love these movies. We’re not cynical screeners or exhibitors. We earnestly love the movies and that’s the crowd that we bring in. You know there is this sort of new wave of people who enjoy hate watching bad movies. And that’s never really been that interesting to me. I actually go, wait, I don’t think this is a bad movie. I love this movie and I would love Elizabeth to experience that sort of love from true fans, people who really appreciate her.
The other one who I’m terrified of but would definitely still want to do a show with would be Faye Dunaway. I don’t know if I’d make it out alive, but I think she’s so talented and so brilliant. And of course, you know, much in the same way that Elizabeth was unfairly thrown under the bus. I think Faye for Mommie Dearest delivered an incredible performance that is the reason Mommie Dearest is even something we still screen or still talk about. I would love to work with her someday, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think maybe Ms. Berkley will accept an invitation before Ms. Dunaway.
Michael: Peaches knows that I would love to talk with Elizabeth Berkley as well. I love that movie so much and I want to celebrate that movie with her. Something that we’ve talked about frequently on the show – and obviously it’s just by sheer proxy of who we are as creators and people is sort of the queer crossover with a lot of the movies. And one thing that I’ve always been interested in are movies that have been adopted by queer audiences that weren’t necessarily made by queer filmmakers.
I mentioned Phantom of the Paradise, but you know, Brian DePalma also made Carrie, which a lot of gay men reference quite frequently as a movie that they connect to because of the themes. And I would love to sit with someone like Brian de Palma and get his take on this other read of his work that I’m sure he didn’t necessarily intend or intend in the way that it’s now being received. I would love to talk to him or someone like Robert Zemeckis. Who’s known very much for these big budget movies for something like Death Becomes Her. Those are guests I would love to have, I don’t know if they’re out there and listening, please, please, please come and join us.
What more current or more recent movies do you think are capable of achieving cult status?
Peaches: That’s a really interesting question because I think that there’s the cult movies that you and I, our generation see as cult movies and understand as cult movies, things like the Russ Meyer films and Santa Sangre. These films were more obscure, they were harder to get. They were college fare. They were movies like A Clockwork Orange or something that you would see at a screening.
And then there’s the sort of modern cult movie where there are people who have grown up watching the same movie on cable television or on VHS or DVD. For example, I did not grow up watching Hocus Pocus and it was something I was probably a little too old for when it came out. I remember dismissing it because I’d seen enough of it, that I was like, I, that doesn’t seem good, a Disney movie with witches and then it was young people asking, “When are you going to screen Hocus Pocus?” It was enough for me to go back and rewatch it and go, oh, I get it for this generation. This is their Elvira. These are three women, obviously very much immersed in the queer community. These are three women basically doing drag performances as these witches and there’s this whole generation of kids who grew up obsessing over this movie. So, there’s this weird thing where I kind of feel like there’s these different categories now of cult movies, like sort of the nostalgia cult movie that just will never die. That people just, you know, love, love, love, and then sort of the more weird obscure film experience that people keep alive through word of mouth and showing it to friends that today is an anomaly to me. There are these movies that I see that I can tell that someone’s attempted to make a cult movie. And I actually think that’s not easy to do. Right? Usually, they happen by accident.
Michael: The reality is in many ways, cult films aren’t made, they’re grown. These movies a lot of times share this common theme of not necessarily landing with a larger audience right away. But they “their people” and by proxy their people introduce it to more people and it becomes that thing that grows over time. I think of something like Josie and the Pussycats, which I was lucky enough to see when it came out that weekend in 2001. I was the only one in the theater and nobody really talked about that movie for years. And now it has a huge cult following where it’s getting these new vinyl releases and getting event screenings, but that all came from people discovering it on home video or DVD.
And I think that the internet allows a new kind of discovery that we maybe are not as tuned into because it’s not our generation, but movies like Jennifer’s Body – which was not a huge hit when it came out, has now found a whole new audience a decade on, which I would say is a nouveau cult film or, or things that I’m starting to hear grumblings about like I Know Who Killed Me, the Lindsay Lohan movie, was not a hit at all but all of a sudden I’m seeing people on the internet talking about it as if it was Mommie Dearest.
Peaches: I thought of one, as you were talking, because I was thinking, how has the internet affected the modern landscape? And I thought of one, because I saw it right when it came out, it was like one of those movies where I really, really loved it. It was an art house film, but through memes and the internet – really memes, I think The Babadook ended up becoming this whole other pop culture phenomenon. It really could have been a sleeper horror movie, it’s very accomplished, brilliant. I loved that movie, but it really was the memes of the Babadook being gay or whatever that turned it into what I would now say is a cult movie.
Do you have any plans to take the show on the road or are you bringing back the Midnight Mass shows? What’s coming up next for you?
Peaches: Actually, you know, that is our ultimate goal. My shows over the years have become popular enough as far as the live part of the show goes but the live part of the show sort of took over and these sort of parodies of cult movies and celebrations of cult movies ended up being more of the live experience to the point where we were touring and no longer screening the movies and only doing the parodies. And while I love doing those shows, I really miss exhibition. I really miss screening a movie and I especially miss getting to do things that are a little more niche, a little more obscure.
I think Michael and my hope is that the podcast, if we can reach enough people, we can go out on the road and maybe take the cast from one of these films or some cast members and do an in-person Midnight Mass event with a screening that that might make the whole thing worth it! We really, really do want to do that.
One last question, if you wanted to introduce somebody into the world of cult films, what is the one film that you would recommend they see first?
Peaches: I guess assuming that they’ve already heard of and seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, I think I would push them toward Pink Flamingos because if you can’t really handle Pink Flamingos…which still holds up to this day. You screen Pink Flamingos for an audience…and it is incredible that a movie made in the seventies can still deliver shock value to it, to a satisfying degree. So, my recommendation would be Pink Flamingos.
Michael: Well, ironically enough, I was going to say Female Trouble. So, it’s still a double hit of John Waters.
New episodes of Midnight Mass premiere on Wednesdays and are available on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts. Follow the show on Twitter. Keep up with Michael on Twitter and Instagram and get the latest from Peaches on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. You can also get a personalized greeting from Peaches on Cameo.