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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 fiancée, 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.

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© by Cole Gagne