Tag Archives: Cult film

BOOK REVIEW: TCM UNDERGROUND 50 MUST-SEE FILMS FROM THE WORLD OF CLASSIC CULT AND LATE-NIGHT CINEMA

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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.

TCM Underground 50 Must See Cult Movies cover

 

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ARREBATO [RAPTURE] (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Iván Zulueta

FEATURING: , Will More, Cecilia Roth

PLOT: A horror director whose work and relationships are in decline due to his heroin addiction receives a package from an eccentric acquaintance containing a mysterious short film.

Still from Arrebato (Rapture) (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Spaniards in our audience would never forgive us if we simply disregarded this one.

COMMENTS: As we learn from Mike White’s informative commentary track to Arrebato, director Iván Zulueta was an experimental filmmaker (with one prior feature to his name)—and, at the time he made this movie, a functional heroin addict. This background may explain why the two main characters in Zuleta’s sophomore feature are a filmmaker who is working on his sophomore feature, but seeing his work sabotaged by his growing drug problem, and a younger experimental filmmaker who appears to seek advice from the established director, but actually has more to teach than his mentor. In Arrebato the “raptures” of filmmaking and of opiates become entwined to the point where it’s impossible to decide which serves a metaphor for the other. An oblique version of the Christian sense of “rapture”—being snatched from earthly existence and spirited away to paradise—may also be at play, further complicating matters.

The film’s structure is unusual. It begins with Pedro sending a mysterious audiotape and film strip to José; the tape will supply a running narration throughout the film that explains much of the backstory. Listening to the tape induces two flashbacks describing the characters’ previous encounters. We meet Pedro in the flesh in these flashbacks, and his portrayal by Will More is… curious. On tape, his voice affects an unnaturally raspy delivery; in person, it’s high-pitched, like a kid’s. We first meet him in his child-man persona, throwing a childish fit when an experiment in filming a tree is briefly interrupted. He then hangs around in the background silently, with a bug-eyed stare, or shows up holding a creepy doll. When he takes cocaine, however, the drug paradoxically slows him down and turns him into a coherent, if heavy-lidded, adult; his hairstyle even changes from an unkempt bushy mop to a slicked back greaser ‘do. Later, the script will give Pedro the chance to act in a parody of a motorcycle fetish film, and to languish as a strung-out junkie (in withdrawal not from heroin, but from the ecstasy of film). More’s crazy performance is sort of like a Spanish operating under a heavy dose of barbiturates. Some will find it adds pleasantly to the weirdness; I thought it was distractingly goofy.

It’s not always clear, without paying attention to contextual clues (i.e. the progression of José’s addiction), what time period we’re in; still, the movie’s reputation as “confusing” is greatly overblown. The narrative, in fact, is simple to follow; the real confusion is thematic. This is one of those movies that has too many ideas, and might have done better to focus on just one or two. To the central idea of a merger between drug and filmic rapture states, we have a series of inserts of Pedro’s experimental short films (mostly in the herky-jerky time-lapse style); philosophical excursions revolving around notions of rhythm and pause; coded homoeroticism (Pedro and José lounging together in bed); inconsistent references to vampirism; Pedro’s oscillations between childhood and adulthood; a female character voiced by a pre-fame Pedro Almódovar; the suggestion of Pedro and José  as a split personality; a Betty Boop-themed seduction; and all of the various senses of “rapture” constantly crowding each other out. These colliding ideas and gambits harmonize inconsistently: the exploration of José and Ana’s disintegrating relationship works well as a subplot, but some bits, like Pedro’s detour into depravity through a punk rock-scored rough-trade threesome in an elevator, don’t make much sense. It almost goes without saying that there’s no rational explanation for the ending. Arrebato is a mostly delightful, sometimes frustrating mess, best seen as Zulueta’s onscreen self-psychoanalysis, performed in a  post-Franco atmosphere of loosened censorship that encouraged ecstatic excess. Any meaning the tale suggests disappears into the spaces between frames.

Arrebato was beloved by many Spaniards (and championed by Almódovar), but was unavailable outside of Spain for many years— and rarely screened even there. That changed in 2021 with the release of a restored version of the film to U.S. theaters, followed by a DVD and Blu-ray from weird/queer distributor Altered Innocence, via their arty “Anus Films” (groan) imprint. Visually, the print is grainy rather than pristine, appropriate for a movie in which the physicality of celluloid is immanent: the shooting, editing and processing of film is central to the plot. The experimental soundtrack (by Zulueta, with a contemporary punk anthem thrown in) is exceptional. The only special feature is the aforementioned Mike White commentary track, which gives important background information assisting viewers in appreciating this odd and sometimes difficult film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Arrebato is a blighted, frightened piece of work. You may want to back away from it sometimes, but its weird, nodding, incantatory pull keeps you hanging around for another fix.”–Nick Pinkerton, 4 Columns (2021 re-release)

(This movie was nominated for review by “squater,” who raved “I’m sure any weird movie lover will recognise Arrebato as one of the weirdest movies in the world.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Allan Arkush

FEATURING: P. J. Soles, Dey Young, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, The Ramones

PLOT: Riff Randell battles the punk-hating administration at her high school by invoking the musical powers of her favorite band, The Ramones.

Still from Rock 'n Roll High School (1979)

COMMENTS: The Ramones were icons of minimalism. Progenitors of punk, they pioneered a sound that was somehow both retro and revolutionary, delivering two-chord, two-minute landmarks that had none of the feel of craft and all of the sensation of having been spewed out of the most primal reaches of the band members’ autonomic nervous systems. Everything about them was reduced to its bare essentials: a basic guitar-bass-drum setup, fronted by a flat, nasal vocal that was tuneful while making no pretensions to being musical, presented by a group that spoke to punk’s fierce independence with a façade of careful uniformity, from the matching leather jackets and torn jeans to the identical messy face-obscuring Kate Jackson hairstyles, and even extending to their manufactured noms de théâtre. Everything about them was carefully engineered to celebrate everybody by being nobody.

So the notion that the Ramones would be the centerpiece of a bubbly teenager’s every waking moment is a little dissonant. And that they would somehow come to have an entire feature film devoted to them—one with a substantial cult following—is nothing short of bizarre. It’s the domain of old people to complain that the kids are making idols out of empty shells, but the emptiness of the Ramones is part of their very essence. They’re almost antithetical to the idea of teenybop worship. To watch P J. Soles’ Riff Randell—a veritable firehose of giddy hyperactivity—go gaga for this quartet of empty t-shirts is to plunge headlong through the looking glass. Try to imagine a Disney Channel original movie where a precocious 12-year old learns self-confidence through the power of her favorite band, and that band turns out to be GWAR. (Note to Disney: Please greenlight this. I will absolutely write the script for you.)

But for the purposes of the Roger Corman film factory, the Ramones hardly matter. They’re answer to a Mad Lib wherein [INSERT NAME OF BAND] inspires kids to overthrow those dullard grownups. (It’s telling that Corman’s original suggestion was center the film around disco music, an idea that would have been truly transgressive if it had been filmed two years earlier and dared to address the politics of race and sexual orientation endemic to the genre.) Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has one goal, and it’s to tell the kids how much cooler they are than those stick-in-the-mud adults. And if we have to put our thumb on the scale to make the old people especially dorky and uncool, well hey, that’s just Roger Corman being a smart businessman.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the kind of movie that Rock ‘n’ Continue reading CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

CAPSULE: RETURN TO OZ (1985)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh

PLOT: After being sent for experimental shock therapy, Dorothy Gale returns to Oz, where she meets new magical friends and enemies as she tries to save the Scarecrow from the clutches of the Nome King.

Still from Return to Oz (1985)

COMMENTS: Few people today realize that, after the smash success of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1900, L. Frank Baum wrote thirteen sequels (and other writers continued the official Oz legacy for a couple dozen additional volumes). With so much material available, it’s a surprise that it took Hollywood almost fifty years to create a live-action[efn_note]An animated sequel, Journey Back to Oz, was released in 1974.[/efn_note] sequel to 1939’s Oz blockbuster; had the original been made in today’s entertainment climate, we would be seeing a new Oz movie every year—at least.

The reasons for the delay had partly to do with rights to the originals being divided up between rival studios (MGM optioned the first book, Disney all the rest). By the 1980s, Disney’s rights to Baum’s works were about to lapse, so in 1985 they handed respected sound-editor-turned-first-time director Walter Murch the opportunity to create a sequel, based mainly on Baum’s third book, “Ozma of Oz,” but also incorporating parts of the immediate sequel “The Marvelous Land of Oz” and original ideas. The resulting movie was a box office flop, often criticized for being too “dark.” But children who saw it in theaters remembered it more fondly than their parents or contemporary critics did, turning Return into a minor cult film on video.

Encouraged by Murch’s own characterization of his work, the accepted wisdom that Return is “dark” is repeated like a mantra every time the film is brought up: often as a criticism or warning, but sometimes as a compliment or lure, depending on who is doing the reviewing. But, while Return is indisputably scary, “dark” implies some kind of inappropriate moral perversity found nowhere in Oz. In the original Wizard of Oz, Dorothy faced a green-faced hag bent on revenge-killing both her and her lapdog, a magical best friend who’s nearly incinerated, and pursuit from nightmarish flying monkeys dressed as bellhops. These vintage horrors compare quite favorably to those found in Return—but just because no one periodically breaks out in lighthearted songs about missing vital organs, the later movie is forever branded as “dark,” while the earlier one is a beloved childhood classic. Return to Oz‘s half-rock Nome king is eerily brought to life through uncanny claymation, but he’s no darker than Margaret Hamilton’s cackling harridan. Return features bizarre creatures called the Wheelers, who dress like New Wave punks who would have been at home as extras in Liquid Sky but for the wheels grafted onto their hands and feet, who a slink about the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Emerald City. Scary, but then again, they’re not freaking flying monkeys.

The darkest element in Return is purely subtextual, and will go right over young ones’ heads: the primitive turn-of-the-century electroshock therapy to which Dorothy’s aunt and uncle subject the girl hoping to cure her of her yearnings for Oz (a procedure that ironically sparks her return to the fantasyland). The reference to barbaric mental health practices of olden times is indeed dark, but few kids would get why in 1985 (and even fewer in 2021). There is an even darker undercurrent, though. This plot device could be read as implying that Dorothy Gale isn’t just an innocent dreamer; in fact, she’s deeply mentally ill, and the land of Oz is her schizoid hallucination. But again, this twist just disturbs the older folks: kids accept Dorothy’s adventures at face value, and remain blissfully ignorant of the suggestion of juvenile insanity.

Return to Oz could never live up to the original movie; wisely, it doesn’t try to. It ditches the musical numbers, which would have inevitably disappointed. 9-year-old Fairuza Balk seems chosen as lead based solely on her jewel-like eyes; she’s no Judy Garland (and she’s confusingly younger than the Dorothy of Wizard), but she’ll do. When we finally see the updated Scarecrow, beloved Ray Bolger has been transformed into an animated puppet, and he’s… a little off. But Dorothy’s new cast of allies are mostly delightful: a talking chicken, roly-poly mechanical soldier Tik-Tok, childlike Jack Pumpkinhead, a moose head attached to a flying couch. So are the villains: evil Queen Mombi with her detachable heads, the severe and mostly-animated grey Nome King. After a slow start, in a full color Kansas, the movie morphs into a well-paced 80s children’s adventure tale, with thrilling escapes and despicable (if not quite “dark”) acts of villainy. It has that magical “Oz” spirit—minus the songs, which obviously wasn’t part of Baum’s original work—and it’s easy to see why those who first saw it as kids fell in love with it. A good fantasy for first time viewers, and great nostalgia for grown-ups.

Also, be sure to read Jesse Miksic‘s detailed analysis for this site, “The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dorothy’s friends are as weird as her enemies, which is faithful to the original Oz books but turns out not to be a virtue on film, where the eerie has a tendency to remain eerie no matter how often we’re told it’s not.”–Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

(This movie was first nominated for review by “ubik,” who said that it “was probably the movie that first gave me a taste for weird movies way back in the day.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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“In my animated films the design of every frame is of great importance, as if it would be a painting. Most of the time, and particularly in a mythical, fabulous context, my human characters, even lead characters, are only a minor part of the whole thing.” —Marcell Jankovics

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: Fleeing hunters in a forest, a pregnant white mare takes refuge in a knot of the World Tree. For seven years plus seven she feeds her son, Treeshaker, before he embarks on a quest to destroy the three dragons that have captured the three princesses of the kingdom. Joined by his brothers Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, he seeks the entrance to the Underworld in order to battle the monsters.

BACKGROUND:

  • The narrative takes its inspiration from around half-a-dozen variations of a folk legend (which itself exists in over fifty forms). The canonical version is “Fehérlófia” as related by the Hungarian poet László Arany, though Jankovics’ rendition often departs from this source.
  • Jankovics’ decision to adopt an experimental animation style proved to be a double-edged sword. The film’s singular appearance grew famous only after years of word-of-mouth percolation; it was unmarketable at the time of its release, and Jankovics found only fleeting acclaim (and no work whatsoever) outside of his native Hungary.
  • Jankovics discounts any assertions about having taken psychedelics, claiming instead he merely wished to respect the fantastical grandeur of the source material.
  • The titular White Mare takes on a warm, pinkish glow when near her son. This tonal effect was lost until the film’s recent restoration, the mare having appeared simply white in earlier washed-out prints.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Treeshaker striding confidently behind row upon row of modern buildings in silhouette as a horrible brown smog obscures the scene: a mythical hero boldly facing modernity.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble-beard gnome; twelve-headed skyscraper monster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It might be impossible to find another feature-length animation that is simultaneously so stylized while feeling so organic, or with such vibrant colors telling so heroic a tale. Every cel is a stunning piece of art that seamlessly morphs into the next jaw-dropper. The curious source material lends a further twist: ancient Central European folklore channeled through a 20th-century animator toiling behind the Iron Curtain.


Re-release trailer for Son of the White Mare

COMMENTS: Marcell Jankovics’ introductory dedication declares Continue reading 17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)