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Dreaming the Darko

The Del Mar's midnight movie series gets its due for its role in making 'Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut' possible

By Steve Palopoli

I firmly believe Donnie Darko was the 21st century's first bona fide cult film. And though writing about cult films has long been a passion of mine, I can honestly say I never saw this one coming.

Scott Griffin did. Though he modestly says he "just caught it at the right time," the truth is he programmed it as a midnight movie at the Del Mar long before the media--and even many fans of the film--had caught on to the fact that it was a phenomenon.

Let's face it, it's easy to fall into thinking that the great personal films--the ones that deserve cult followings in the first place--have all been made. For several years now, any movie that has generated even the least amount of buzz has been so hyped by the marketing machine that it's worn out its welcome by opening weekend. The Blair Witch Project is a great example--it would have made a fine cult film, and I can testify that in pre-release, pre-hype screenings it was indeed, as the ads would beat to death, "scary as hell." By its first week of release, though, expectations were at such a fever pitch that the ending (which is actually very well-crafted, though it was pretty much lifted straight from a true cult film, Cannibal Holocaust) was a huge disappointment to crowds that expected to see something--anything--show itself at the end. The filmmakers cashed in short-term, but considering the trajectory of their careers since, I wonder if they now feel used up and spit out by a machine that once let a cult filmmaker like Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson work his way up seamlessly into the major leagues.

In any case, Griffin did with Donnie Darko what the great midnight-movie circuits of yore used to do--he took a film that he has a personal passion for, correctly judged that there were a lot of others out there who shared his passion for it, and gave them a place to experience it together. I'm thankful this can still happen at all in this day and age, and Griffin's daring and visionary programming of the Del Mar's series in general gives me hope that movie lovers can still make alternative classics out of misunderstood films that the mainstream rejects.

Now Donnie Darko has been rereleased in a director's cut. It features 20 minutes of new footage, plus new visual effects and music, and from all accounts, it makes a hell of a lot more sense--while still retaining the crisp twilight atmosphere that made it feel like it would have fit in perfectly in Bradbury's October Country stories.

My favorite thing about this release is that in Santa Cruz, rather than open in weekly rotation like most films, it will debut at the midnight movie this weekend. Cheers to the management for paying tribute to the role Griffin--and, let's not forget, movie fans who sold out Donnie Darko's previous midnight showings--played in making this new version possible.

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut (R; 122 min.), directed and written by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell and Noah Wyle, opens Saturday at midnight at the Del Mar Theatre in Santa Cruz.

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From the September 1-8, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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