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CULT FILMS

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.

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