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By Millie De Chirico and Quatoyiah Murry, Running Press, 230pp
Turner Classic Movies has become the last movie network with a Mission. Few remember American Movie Classics (AMC) in its prime—before they dipped their toe into original programming and rebranded with the successes of “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead”—but their model was presenting older films, repertory programming, uncut and commercial-free. As they moved away from that model TCM took up the slack, first as a competitor, then eventually emerging as the last man standing in the catalog cinema game. Even newer channels like IFC and Sundance, which started as indie versions of TCM, eventually morphed into dumping grounds for syndicated sitcoms and dramas with an occasional movie broadcast. TCM, so far, has not largely changed from its initial start—still presenting films uncut and commercial-free—but has adjusted to the times as its initial base audience ages out towards the graveyard. Taking on the role of curator for an emerging generation of film enthusiasts, TCM has kept the repertory presentation, but has expanded to include newer “classic” films, foreign films and sub-genres like film noir and “underground” cinema.
AMC used to run “American Pop,” a block which featured films attuned to pop culture, usually from the 50s and 60s. TCM Underground, debuting in 2006 in a late night/overnight weekend slot, dug deeper. Foxy Brown, Blacula, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, and Putney Swope, amongst others, made their TCM debuts this way. Some Underground hits have even migrated to earlier time slots. The series is a success, despite the expected pushback from the base about how “things just aren’t the same, pandering to these damn kids.”
TCM has also broadened its educational mission by publishing high-quality books (amongst them the expanded edition of Eddie Muller’s noir bible “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir“), and now “TCM Underground,” curating fifty favorite films selected by Millie De Chirico (TCM Underground’s current programmer) and Quatoyiah Murry. As both authors state upfront, it’s not meant to be an exhaustive listing or a comprehensive overview of cult film, but a collection of their personal favorites that have been featured on TCM Underground. Picking fifty out of over four hundred and fifty films featured on the series is not an easy task.
This tome is not as comprehensive as the Danny Peary Cult Film series, but it’s much meatier than one might expect, which is perfect for the TCM viewer or anyone new to cult film. It’s also not a history lesson; the usual chestnuts are not featured (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead, Night of the Living Dead, etc.). And, frankly, a good portion of what was considered “cult” has now aged enough to be considered mainstream. In picking their favorites, De Chirico and Murry make an eclectic listing for the contemporary crowd, to inspire people to dig deeper into the subject. Some old favorites come up (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Head, The Honeymoon Killers, Ganja and Hess), but there’s plenty of new additions (Possession, Hausu, The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, Secret Ceremony, Little Darlings, Emma Mae). Sidebars highlight actors, specific moments and interesting trivia, and it includes a foreword by noted cult film fan . All in all, a good reading choice while you’re waiting for the publication of the complete 366 Weird Movies volume.