CULT FILMS | FILM MUSIC
by Cole Gagne
Certain films which today are regarded as classics of American cinema -- John Ford's The Searchers (1956), Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), the Judy Garland musical The Wizard Of Oz (1939), Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life (1946), Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940) - are, or at least used to be, cult films.
Box-office disappointments when they were released, these films were kept alive over the decades not by reviewers or studios or theaters, but by filmgoers who loved them.
This devotion eventually attracted the critical re-evaluations, revival-house screenings, video and laserdisc releases, and so on, which have brought these films the success that eluded them in their day, and moved them beyond their cult audiences and into the mainstream of film history.
The true cult film, however, never entirely loses its outsider status; something about it remains too weird or disturbing or juvenile or absurd or specialized or otherwise indigestible to enable the film to be embraced by the masses.
One way or another, a cult film transgresses against the model of the conventional Hollywood movie. Excepting the horror films made by Universal, most of them are not the products of major studios; the more a film transgresses, the further it marginalizes itself, not just from Hollywood's aesthetic but also from its avenues of promotion and distribution -- and thus from its market, which is why few people get rich making cult films.
(Then again, most of these films are low-budget affairs which don't need to make a lot of money in order to be profitable.)
Nevertheless, the foundation for cult films is the devoted audience for American horror movies, especially those made from the 1920s through the '60s. Critics mostly derided or ignored these films, leaving their devotees free to share information and nourish their enthusiasms among themselves.
By the '90s, these generations of fans have bestowed iconic status upon the genre's greatest stars: Lon Chaney Sr., Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney Jr., and Vincent Price.
The cults for these actors drew attention beyond their established classics and elevated neglected films in which they gave outstanding performances, such as Chaney Sr. in The Monster (1925), Lugosi in The Human Monster (1940), Karloff in The Black Room (1935), Lorre in The Face Behind The Mask (1941), Chaney Jr. in Son of Dracula (1943), and Price in The Conqueror Worm (1968) [aka Witchfinder General].
Over the years, as more and more people came to appreciate how gifted and irreplaceable these actors were, virtually every film in which they appeared was elevated to cult status, horror film or not, regardless of how fleeting the actor's appearance was or how cheap and silly the film might be.
The next step was the consecration of the demi-gods, most notably Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, and George Zucco from Hollywood films, and Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Klaus Kinski, and Barbara Steele from the horror tales made by England's Hammer Studio as well as other European (chiefly Italian-made) fright films.
Alongside such established masters of horror as directors James Whale and Tod Browning, other filmmakers also became the objects of cult devotion, especially William Castle, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, and Italy's Mario Bava. The great special-effects masters, especially stop-motion-animation geniuses Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, who were the true stars of their films, have also come to be regarded with similar awe.
Horror, science-fiction, and fantasy are not the only genres that have an almost automatic fascination for cult audiences. Action/adventure films are also highly regarded, although the standard big-budget blow-'em-ups starring Schwarzenegger or Stallone are too aboveground and legitimized to excite cult tastes.
Just as cultists have lovingly broken down the horror genre into specialized sub-categories such as zombie films, abominable snowman/bigfoot tales, slasher movies, etc., so too do they enjoy the action films for their most lurid and disreputable sub-genres.
Biker films are thus highly regarded -- not just seminal efforts such as The Wild One (1953) with Marlon Brando or The Wild Angels (1966), produced and directed by Roger Corman, but also such lesser-known films as Tom Laughlin's The Glory Stompers (1967), which introduced his once-popular character Billy Jack; director Richard Rush's Hell's Angels On Wheels (1968) with Jack Nicholson; Bill Brame's The Cycle Savages (1969) with Bruce Dern; and producer/director Al Adamson's Satan's Sadists (1969) and Angels' Wild Women (1972).
Other beloved offshoots of the action genre include moonshiner films, most notably Thunder Road (1958), produced by and starring Robert Mitchum; Viking movies, especially the rousing ax-swingers Erik The Conqueror (1961) and Knives Of The Avenger (1967), directed by Mario Bava and starring Cameron Mitchell; and serials of all kinds, be they westerns, science-fiction, espionage melodramas, or super-hero tales.
Jungle movies are of course highly prized; Tarzan is admired in all his incarnations, especially the series made from 1932 to '48 with Johnny Weismuller (who's also beloved for his later "Jungle Jim" films) but also the Bomba the Jungle Boy films with Johnny Sheffield, and just about anything else that has movie stars pretending to wrestle lions or alligators.
Also beloved are the Italian-made sword-and-sorcery films, a series launched by the box-office success of Steve Reeves in Pietro Francisci's Hercules (1957) and Hercules Unchained (1959). As long as their budgets are low, their effects tacky, and their characters archetypal, these films never fail to satisfy cult audiences.
Crime movies play equally well to cultists, again most effectively when they enter murkier sub-genres. Film noir has become almost too legitimate to be of special interest to cultists, although director Edgar G. Ulmer's stylish and fatalistic Detour (1946) is revered, as is director Boris Ingster's noir-prototype The Stranger On The Third Floor (1940) with Peter Lorre.
Juvenile-delinquent films are irresistible to cultists, especially those from producer Albert Zugsmith, High School Confidential (1958) and The Beat Generation (1959). If the teens are also hot-rodders, so much the better: Dragstrip Girl (1957), T-Bird Gang (1958), Hot Rods To Hell (1967). Crime films about dope peddlers and acid-trippers are also highly regarded, such as Roger Corman's The Trip (1967), written by Jack Nicholson, or The Love-Ins (1967), produced by Sam Katzman.
Drug movies of the '30s are especially prized because their denunciations now play as sheer comedy: Marihuana (1936), Reefer Madness (1936), The Cocaine Fiends (1939). The most popular of all crime movies for cultists are probably the mad-love melodramas, from the classic Gun Crazy (1949), directed by Joseph H. Lewis, to Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), Leonard Kastle's The Honeymoon Killers (1970), and Pretty Poison (1968) with the beloved cult stars Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins.
Exploitation films also rank high on the index of cult movies. The spectacle of a Hollywood aesthetic put to work on material patently outside the accepted Hollywood norm never ceases to delight, especially with burlesque films such as Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955), both starring the legendary Bettie Page; the raunchy nudies of director Russ Meyer, most notably Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Vixen (1968), and Cherry, Harry And Raquel (1969); the ultra-violent gore films launched by director Hershell Gordon Lewis with The Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964); and such uncategorizable efforts as the all-dwarf western The Terror Of Tiny Town (1938) or Chained For Life (1950), starring Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton.
Cultists adore seeing the Hollywood ethic broken down; they hold a special fondness for all foreign takes on American genres, and relish seeing our idiom scrambled into Spaghetti westerns or cop actioners made in Hong Kong or Japanese science-fiction or the horror movies of Mexico, the Philippines, and Spain.
Sometimes that foreign cinema exists within America, as with the yiddish-language films of the 1930s, such as Green Fields, co-directed by Ulmer and Jacob Ben-Ami.
The independent films made by and with African-Americans and shown along their own circuit of black audiences from the late teens to the late '40s represent another domestic but foreign cinema; the writer/director Oscar Micheaux, who made musicals, mysteries, and domestic and social dramas, is especially regarded for his daring and originality -- and for his disdain of narrative conventions, typified by his willingness to leave in flubbed takes or to let himself be heard from offcamera, directing his actors!
Hollywood's own poverty row is also another country, at least as far as the industry was concerned. Audiences were heard to groan when the PRC logo flashed onscreen and they realized just what kind of a quickly made, low-budget no-brainer they were in for. (The Producers Releasing Corporation was launched in the '30s and eventually absorbed into United Artists by the early '50s.)
By the late 1950s, American International Pictures was winning over teenage and drive-in audiences with their low-budget crime, actioner, and horror pictures, many of which were made by producer/director Roger Corman; in the '60s the studio would find gold with its series of beach movies launched by Beach Party (1963) with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and in Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price.
Cultists are immediately interested in all quickie studios, independents, and otherwise threadbare productions, which unconsciously send-up the loftier Hollywood vehicles they try to emulate.
Even more highly prized are the instances of a genuine personality responding creatively to a film's limited production -- hence the cults for such different filmmakers as Ulmer, Micheaux, and Edward D. Wood Jr.
Exploitation films are also prized for betraying their narrative models by incorporating extremes of sex and/or violence. The cautionary anti-drug tales that don't have a clue, and which are so hilarious today, are the closest cult films come to camp.
Although cultists are as delighted as anybody to see The Conqueror (1956), in which John Wayne stars as Genghis Khan, theirs really is not a camp sensibility. What they do have is a fascination for films which one way or another undercut their ability to persuade: either the budget can't supply adequate sets, costumes, and/or effects, or else the cast can't portray their roles -- usually due to their own technical deficiencies, or because their fame and/or notoriety eclipses whatever they might do oncamera, as with films that give lead roles to rock stars (such as Ned Kelly (1970) with Mick Jagger or Blindman (1972) with Ringo Starr) or to jock stars (such as C.C. And Company (1970) with Joe Namath or Can't Stop The Music (1980) with Bruce Jenner).
Films starring future-President Ronald Reagan and/or his wife Nancy Davis have also earned a special niche, particularly Hellcats Of The Navy (1957), in which the two have romantic scenes together; Davis hearing God speak over the radio in The Next Voice You Hear (1950); or Reagan's last film and his only villainous role, director Don Siegel's The Killers (1964), which offers such matchless entertainment as the sight of Ronald Reagan slapping around Angie Dickinson.
When a film is beloved even though it cannot persuade, it's being loved for its realness: how the set is really made, who the actors really are. This perspective, increasingly common in our postmodern era, is precisely the opposite of the way in which one watches a big-budget Hollywood film and has in turn led to the development of an audience with a taste for films that even more strictly deconstruct Hollywood's storytelling methods.
Films that superimpose genres are always welcome: Frederic Hobbs' biker vampire film Alabama's Ghost (1974), or the horror westerns of legendary director William "One-Shot" Beaudine, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1965) and Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula (1966), with John Carradine as Dracula. Also prized are patchwork films, in which all sorts of footage has been cobbled together into a feature.
Producer/director Jerry Warren released numerous foreign films successfully after inserting new domestic footage; thus, John Carradine wound up alongside Mexican actors in Curse Of The Stone Hand (1965) and Laplanders in Invasion Of The Animal People (1962).
Peter Bogdanovich put Mamie Van Doren into Soviet science-fiction footage for the AIP release Voyage To The Planet Of Prehistoric Women (1968). The Terror, with Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, was signed by Roger Corman but is reputed to contain sequences directed by Francis Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and Nicholson.
Other beloved Frankensteins include the last four films of Boris Karloff, released years after his death: The Snake People, The Incredible Invasion, The Fear Chamber, and House Of Evil are Mexican films except for all the scenes with the 80-year-old actor, which were shot in Hollywood over five weeks in 1968; his director was Jack Hill, who also wrote and directed the memorable cult films Spider Baby (1964) with Lon Chaney Jr. and Switchblade Sisters (1975).
Cultists also love feature films cut down from serials, which not only turn the cliffhanger genre on its ear, but can also offer lively distillations of all the action. Theatrical features put together from television shows are also welcome, such as One Spy Too Many (1966) from The Man From U.N.C.L.E spy series; the tube can even produce such surprises as Lon Chaney Jr. playing Satan in The Devil's Messenger (1961), from the Swedish television series No. 13 Demon Street, written and directed by Curt Siodmak (who'd scripted The Wolf Man).
The mother of all patchwork films is Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), written, produced, and directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. Starting with just a few silent minutes of film of Bela Lugosi, made shortly before the actor's death, Wood whipped together a science-fiction/horror mix in which aliens resurrect the dead as part of their scheme to conquer Earth.
Not hesitating to juxtapose studio shots with exteriors that don't match (even in the rudimentary sense of day vs. night), or footage of Lugosi with scenes that feature chiropractor Dr. Tom Mason walking around and holding his cape in front of his face, Plan 9 From Outer Space operates in a special world all its own.
Far from being the worst film of all time -- a dopey label attached to the film in the early '80s by a few whitebread critics -- Wood's magnum opus is actually one of the most beloved and entertaining films ever made. No matter how many times one sees it, there are always new delights to discover.
(Who can resist the sight of cop Duke Moore thoughtfully scratching his head with the barrel of his own pistol?) Besides Lugosi, the film also boasts many members of Wood's legendary stock company: horror-movie hostess Vampira; 400-pound Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (here in a rare speaking role as cop-turned-zombie Inspector Clay); and pseudo-psychic Criswell.
Equally amazing is Wood's first film, an autobiographical account of transvestism called Glen Or Glenda, made in 1953 to cash in on the notoriety of transsexual Christine Jorgensen; along with Wood in the lead role as the cross-dressing Glen, who is afraid to come out to his fianc?e, the film also includes sequences starring Bela Lugosi as a Spirit-figure who offers odd philosophical and poetical commentaries on the characters.
Part documentary, part exploitation-melodrama, part fantasy, the film defies description and remains required viewing for all cultists.
Despite the numerous cult films that clearly have avant-garde pretensions (or in the case of Wood and Micheaux, anticipations) it's rare for an art film to also be a cult film; to a certain extent, they have to be as transgressive for their own genre as the other films are for the Hollywood narrative if they're to be picked up by cult audiences.
Chilean-born writer/director Alexandro Jodorowky is one of the few filmmakers highly regarded in both cult and avant-garde circles. His 1970 El Topo, a Mexican production, was a surreal, Leone-esque western in which Jodorowsky also starred as a killer in search of enlightenment, who wanders a deadly landscape of killers and freaks.
The film's frequent blood-lettings and penchant for dead animals pushed it into a zone too extreme for the avant-garde circuit, but when El Topo began playing midnight shows in New York City, it became an underground smash.
The religious symbolism and carnage were even more extreme in Jodorowsky's follow-up, The Holy Mountain (1973); his tour-de-force Santa Sangre (1989), another violent tale of religious madness and physical mutilation, was the director's masterpiece and one of the best cult films of its decade.
Other avant-garde filmmakers who have attracted cult audiences include E. Elias Merhige, who re-photographed each frame of his mysterious feature Begotten (1989) until the distressed result came to resemble a film of impossible antiquity, as though shot before the invention of cameras; and the Brothers Quay, American-born identical twins who live in England and make terrifically detailed, nightmarish stop-motion shorts, such as Street Of Crocodiles (1986) and Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1987).
Perhaps the finest avant-garde film to also reach cult status is Eraserhead (1978), a visionary black comedy of sexual dread, set against an entropic universe.
Alternately funny, breathtaking, and repulsive, Eraserhead was the first feature of writer/director David Lynch, whose fascination with the bizarre, the distorted, and the unexplainable have made him a major cult director (especially after Lynch's short-lived television series, the memorably twisted Twin Peaks). Eraserhead was another film that made its breakthrough with the public thanks to midnight screenings.
Several other essential cult films also triumphed with midnight shows in the '70s. John Waters' first success came with midnight screenings of his notorious black comedy Pink Flamingos (1972), in which 300-pound transvestite Divine played the Filthiest Person Alive and proved it by actually eating some dog turds.
Reefer Madness became a very popular midnight movie with college audiences around the country. The equally marijuana-soaked The Harder They Come (1972), a rowdy reggae musical from Jamaica which was produced, directed, and co-scripted by Perry Henzell, failed to find its audience in its initial release but became a hit playing at midnight.
The greatest midnight-show success story, however, is The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a British rock and roll/horror film built around Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter, a cross-dressing mad scientist from another planet. So devoted is this film's cult that they have for years jumped up onstage and acted out the movie while it was being projected.
Today there exists an army of information-gatherers who monitor the release and distribution of films that would interest cultists. Through magazines, books, the internet, conventions, and numerous other networks, they keep the cult flames eternally blazing.
Thanks to them, low-budget cult films, midnight movies, or psychotronic films have now come to represent a big industry. Hollywood, taking note of the wide and diverse audience for these films, has come full circle and has attempted to capitalize on and re-create its marginalized masters.
But unlike the pleasures of seeing poverty row emulate Hollywood, these new films seem more decadent than deconstructive: director Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood (1994); the William Castle reminiscence Matinee (1993), directed by Joe Dante; the musical remake of Corman's Little Shop Of Horrors (1986), directed by Frank Oz.
Such films inevitably disappoint, both artistically and at the box office, and say more about the retro-trash mentality which turns old sitcoms into '90s films than they do about the qualities of their subjects. They also serve as reminders that the special charms and surprises of cult films are genuine and cannot be faked.