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CULT FILMS

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). © by Cole Gagne

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