Those Wild and Crazy Cult Movies
December 18, 1978
John Carpenter’s Halloween bids fair to become the cult discovery of 1978. Audiences have been heard screaming at its horrifying climaxes. The initial release, scheduling, and publicity have been catchpenny sensational, as if the distributors were content to sell tickets exclusively to the retarded ghouls and zombies they could pick off the streets. Most reviewers have ignored the movie altogether, and yet Tom Allen’s knowledgeable rave in The Voice set off proper dialectical sparks with Archer Winsten’s heartfelt pan in the New York Post. A cult movie, almost by definition, must be both admired and despised, and Halloween has already passed that test.
Indeed, at first glance Allen and Winsten seem to be reviewing different films, but a closer inspection of their critiques indicates that they are simply responding to different aspects of the same work: Allen, the formalist-mythological; and Winsten, the humanist-realist. Hence, whereas Allen was responding to the fluid camera movements reminiscent of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Winsten was questioning the common sense of the female protagonist in her encounters with the indefatigable bogey man. Only time will tell if Halloween will become a popular classic on the revival and midnight circuits, or merely an esoteric legend more written about than seen. It could go either way, particularly with today’s haphazard distribution and exhibition practices. Actually, the commercial fate of many cult candidates depends more on the persistence of exhibitors than the persuasiveness of critics.
David Rosenbaum described the cult phenomenon very perceptively in the Boston Phoenix of August 19, 1975. After confessing that he himself had paid 10 visits to The Harder They Come, he named such other cult films of the decade as Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, Harold and Maude, The King of Hearts, A Thousand Clowns, Morgan!, “or, for the freakier set,” El Topo, Performance, Night of the Living Dead and Pink Flamingos. Boston has of course been a hotbed for what Rosenbaum describes as “cinematic recidivism,” a process by which moviegoers are turned into “movie-followers” by returning to see the same film for the second, third, and nth times. The same process applies to Star Wars and Grease, but these do not qualify as cult films.
As Rosenbaum notes, “a sense of mystery and proprietorship is essential to cultishness.” He then excludes from this category the Marx Brothers, Casablanca, Hitchcock films, Citizen Kane and all the popular classics of the screen. These have been too enthusiastically received by both the critics and the general public. By contrast, most cult films have been panned to a fare-thee-well. Rosenbaum proceeds to define the cultishly appealing aspects of the films on his list as irrationality and nonconformity. The “plots” all require a sustained suspension of disbelief, and the almost invariably whimsical protagonists are invariably on the “good” side in the Manichean struggles between life and death, peace and war, love and hate, justice and injustice, equality and inequality, naturalness and plasticity, liberation and repression. Other characteristics of the cult scene, according to Rosenbaum, are “low-brow literary seriousness,” rock music, calculating grossness, and the euphoric atmosphere of drug consumption.
Rosenbaum concluded his 1975 meditations with a tentative prophecy: “Maybe writers cannot create cult films, but I can’t resist dropping a hint. Claude Lelouch’s And Now My Love was panned by Penelope Gilliatt. It had a modest run in Boston: But last month, on a Tuesday night, it sold out at a dollar theater in Newton. Some of my friends have seen it more than once. I’ve seen it twice. It’s about love.”
Although And Now My Love pops up every now and then at the Carnegie Hall, Bleecker Street, or Thalia circuits, the cult film that has really taken off since Rosenbaum’s article is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I suppose that one would say it is about shifting sexual roles. By now the audience is even bigger news than the film itself. A recent NBC series on the subject of after-midnight screenings of cult movies spent much of its time leering at the bizarre costumes, most into transvestism, of some of the proud repeaters in the audience. What interests me about the interplay between the flick and its followers is the degree to which familiarity has bred contempt among the cognoscenti. They act out the most banal scenes with a distracting, even gross literalism. When they throw real rice at the screen during the wedding scene, the seem to pass very perceptibly from appreciation to aggression. They would not do this if they were one-on-one with the spectacle. It is only through a collective bravado that they usurp the magic of the medium. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is no longer a movie protected by a meditative barrier but merely a pretext for rowdy rites of initiation into some vaguely subversive subculture. How the NBC network nabobs must quiver with titillation to hear little boys and little girls from the audience singing one of the show’s more rousing numbers, and stuttering over that terrible term, “transsexual.”
In their own way, the after-midnight ceremonies attending many cult movies provide admittance criteria by forcing the participants to make whoopee into the wee hours of the morning. Most movie reviewers are relatively dull nine-to-five types, and even the more mature swingers who can endure all the witty conversation at Elaine’s till the dawn’s ugly light are unlikely to relish the arrested adolescent atmosphere of the post-midnight movie mavens. Yet at this point it is possible that The Rocky Horror Picture Show can interest a much wider audience than heretofore, simply because it seems to have struck some rebellious spark in young people. There are certainly enough talented people in it with enough flashy confidence to pass the time for the curious moviegoer as well as the committed movie-follower. But like many of the recent crop of post-midnight cult movies The Rocky Horror Picture Show seems more like a dead end to the relatively serious film historian. It is unlikely to “influence” anything, or to represent any particular stage in the development of an artist, a theme, a movement, or a genre.
It is therefore not a cult film in the sense I considered Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho a cult film, when I defended it as serious art in my very first review in The Voice on August 1, 1960. That I entitled one of my collections of critiques Confessions of a Cultist was intended as a reflection of my closer relation to seminal works like Psycho than to terminal works like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perhaps “cultist” is an overstatement of my critical role. Perhaps today’s “cultism” is tomorrow’s classicism. History offers us many confusing clues on the subject.
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may or may not have been the first cult movie when it traipsed over to these shores from Germany back in 1921. To the extent that it was a horror flick, Caligari fully qualified for cult interest. Also, it was not widely popular, it lacked love interest in the normal sense, and it was not encumbered by big-name Hollywood stars. On the other hand, its expressionist settings reeked of the snobbery of high art, and there is little evidence that the “kids” of the ’20s went wild over this humorlessly Germanic contortion. The critics, as always, were mixed, but the fact that Caligari has been given such a prominent place in the official film histories suggests that its academic credentials diminish its claims as a cult item.
The Val Lewton horror classics at RKO in the ’40s, by contrast, have never fully escaped from the “sleeper” category. And the defiantly perverse tone in the late James Agee’s critical prose championing these low-budget thrillers suggests a Times-Square-underground resistance to the critical establishment of that era represented most conspicuously by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times. Indeed, there was a time when movies with titles such as Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and The Body Snatcher were automatically labeled low-grade trash, sight unseen. Many such productions were to be found on the lower half of double-bills, and thus the reverse snobbery of preferring the second feature to the top attraction came into play.
Cultists worshipping in the catacombs of word-of-mouth often exchanged impressions of unexpectedly brilliant or poignant B pictures. But there was relatively little appreciation in print of these underfinanced masterpieces. With anywhere from 400 to 600 releases a year jostling reviewers for attention, it was easy to ignore the uncharted realms of schlock. People nowadays may think of the 1933 King Kong as a cult movie, but it happened to open at the Radio City Music Hall — and not at midnight, either. Not that Kong was ever seriously considered for an Oscar. Fun was fun, but officially “good” movies tended to be relatively stuffy and sanctimonious and star-laden.
One can go back to the very beginnings of cinema to trace the split between flicks that were really enjoyed, and fillums that were merely endorsed. There were pre–World War I rowdies who preferred Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties to Sarah Bernhardt’s noble fretting and strutting on the stage-bound screen. And soon there were intellectuals to rationalize the preferences of the rowdies with analyses of Sennett’s kinetic qualities. When Luis Buñuel was writing film criticism in the late ’20s, he indicated that he preferred the cinema of Buster Keaton to the cinema of Emil Jannings. And this was a daring judgment even for a certified surrealist.
Almost all cultism, be it seminal or terminal, requires an attitude of critical defiance. In embracing the post-midnight outrages of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, its followers implicitly or explicitly reject the relative conventionality of most pre-midnight film fare. The big difference between seminal and terminal cultism, however, is that the former tries to develop a sense of historical continuity whereas the latter revels in the orgasmic uniqueness of the particular occasion. Seminal cultism involves evaluation as well as elucidation. The good must still be sifted from the bad in the realm of aesthetics. Terminal cultism eventually degenerates into mindlessly uncritical incantation as the distance diminishes between the dozing sensibility of the viewer and the illusory inevitability of the spectacle. The terminal cultist stops thinking in the name of today’s total absorption.
The critical cultivation of cult movies through the ’50s and ’60s spawned such categorical labels as pop, camp, noir, schlock, and sleaze. Unlike the condemnatory term “kitsch,” which assumed a high-art plateau from which one looked down on mass culture, the newer labels could be positive, negative or neutral. More important, there was an assumption in these labels that the subject was being studied in depth. To talk about schlock you had to immerse yourself in the output of the fleapits. And if you sat through a hundred or a thousand schlock movies you would eventually discover a few schlock classics. The dominant trend of film criticism and film scholarship since the late ’50s has been more encyclopedic than exclusionary. The sociological critics who ruled the roost from the ’20s through the mid-’50s acknowledged the existence of a great many movies as relevant to their studies. But once the cinesociologists had extrapolated the pertinent social messages from their material they were no longer interested in most of these movies as art objects. They certainly did not counsel preservation of prints on any massive scale. Instead, they provided visions of an ideologically correct cinema of the future. In the meantime, the archives could preserve Potemkin, and Mother, and The Bicycle Thief, and Grand Illusion, and Citizen Kane, and a Chaplin here and a Keaton there, and maybe a Griffith and a Dreyer, and not too much else.
Within the past quarter-century, however, a new generation of film critics have translated their mania for movies into very elaborate analytical methodologies. The Cahiers group were of course the most famous practitioners of the art of critical alchemy in finding gold in what had been designated by the culture at large as dross. But they were merely the most conspicuous of the revisionists, and not the sole authorities on revisionist criticism. What happened in one country after another was the discovery of pleasurable moviegoing experiences that could not be accommodated within any existing critical doctrine. “Trash,” snorted the cultural establishment at such cult movies as The Searchers, Touch of Evil, Vertigo and Rio Bravo. Ford, Welles, Hitchcock, and Hawks no longer require a very strenuous defense against the short-sighted snobbery of the trash-criers. The battle-lines have shifted from the relatively respectable realms of westerns, policiers and psychological suspense thrillers to what were once considered the pestholes of poverty row. Roger Corman has been widely acclaimed as the Val Lewton of the ’60s and ’70s.
In the November-December issue of Film Comment, Todd McCarthy writes appreciatively and perceptively of Michael Miller for his direction of Jackson County Jail and Outside Chance, and Robin Wood continues in that same issue his enthusiastic exegesis of Larry Cohen’s It Lives Again. These are obviously not the instances of the kind of rationalized cronyism one encounters in the slick pages of The New Yorker, but, rather, genuinely cultish responses to completely unexpected moviegoing epiphanies. Like many of us, McCarthy and Wood discovered so much more in Jackson County Jail and It Lives Again than they had been led to expect that they began tracking down the hitherto obscure careers of Michael Miller and Larry Cohen. This search led into the dark regions of hardcore porn (Miller’s Teen-Age Fantasies) and giddy socio-sexual satire (Cohen’s Bone). Such venturesome scholarship keeps us all on our toes by demonstrating that we never really know where talent is going to pop up next, and that we must keep an open mind at every screening. Too often, reviewers seem to be hypnotized by the sheer size of the hype in determining what is “important.” Cultish curiosity is therefore the best antidote to the industry’s front-running smugness.
Not that all cult favorites necessarily deserve to become classics. Quite the contrary, cultism must be debated as rigorously as classicism. Still, it is a good rule of thumb for anyone seriously interested in the medium to check out another person’s enthusiasms. Don’t wait for a critical consensus to form around a film before you deign to see it. Rush off on your own, and maybe you can start your own cult. There is something magical and miraculous about movie-making that confounds all our expectations, positive and negative. And these are exciting times for movie cultists in that the lifting of censorship makes it possible for low-budget productions to be extraordinarily audacious at least on the level of content. The higher-than-ever costs of big-deal productions tend to make them more conservative and more conformist in the treatment of reality. The raucous sensationalism and scabrousness of most schlock and sleaze is not an adequate substitute for the timidity of the “big pictures,” but at the very least there is a margin of dissent in toppling the taboos of “commercial” movie-making.
Like most of my co-religionists, I became a cultist when I found that the conventional criticism of my time failed to address itself to my profoundest pleasures. There was even a time when I was dismissed at screening rooms as an Ingmar Bergman freak. This was the period of Illicit Interlude, Monika, The Naked Night, The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night, but Bosley Crowther had not yet given his benediction to Bergman, and that was all that mattered to the publicists around town. And who is to say that part of my pleasure in Bergman was not unabashedly erotic, and that Maj-Britt Nilsson, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, and Eva Dahlbeck were not amatory axioms of the cinema? Indeed, I saw my first Bergman movies in houses now dedicated exclusively to hardcore pornography. There is now and always has been much more to Bergman than the artiness now associated with his graduation to the Bloomingdale’s Belt. To the cultist a movie is a movie is a movie, and one never knows in what soil a cinematic flower will bloom.
The 25 Most Memorable Cult Films
The Big Heat. Fritz Lang, 1953. Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame in a Wagnerian policier, complete with scalding coffee.
Bigger Than Life. Nicholas Ray, 1956. James Mason takes cortisone and terrorizes his family with his megalomania.
Black Angel. Roy William Neill, 1946. Peter Lorre supplies the ratty elegance while Dan Duryea sacrifices himself to save June Vincent’s husband from the electric chair.
Detour. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945. Tom Neal picks up Ann Savage, a tough, vicious hitchhiker who makes him rue the day.
Forbidden Planet. Fred M. Wilcox, 1956. Remake of the Tempest, with Walter Pidgeon as a Freudian Prospero trying to fight off his Calibanish unconscious.
Forty Guns. Samuel Fuller, 1957. Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan in the most phallic western ever made.
Gun Crazy. Joseph H. Lewis, 1949. The precursor of Bonnie and Clyde, with Peggy Cummins and John Dall.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Don Siegel, 1956. A classic fable of paranoia, in which Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter try to escape an alien race of pods who absorb people and look like you and me.
I Walked With a Zombie. Jacques Tourneur, 1943. Frances Dee does indeed walk with a zombie to a calypso beat in this most surprisingly graceful of all the Val Lewton horror films.
Kiss Me Deadly. Robert Aldrich, 1955. Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer follows the Spillane ethos to a new destination: atomic Armageddon.
Night of the Living Dead. George A. Romero, 1968. The very clumsiness of the acting adds to the horror of this cannibalistic zombie adventure.
Once Upon a Time in the West. Serge Leone, 1969. Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, and Jason Robards meet their destinies in an elaborately orchestrated gunfight.
The Pitfall. Andre de Toth, 1948. Dick Powell sends Lizabeth Scott up the river and tries to repair his marriage to Jane Wyatt in one of the sorriest endings in Hollywood history.
Ride the High Country. Sam Peckinpah, 1962. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott fight their last gunfight against punks who represent the new West.
Rio Bravo. Howard Hawks, 1959. John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson and Walter Brennan become axioms for the French critics in this almost absurdist western which might have been titled, “Waiting for the Marshal.”
Ruby Gentry. King Vidor, 1953. Jennifer Jones and Charleston Heston are caught in the wild sensuality of sin and redemption.
The Searchers. John Ford, 1956. A new generation of directors has been inspired by John Wayne’s vengeful quest for a lost niece in Comanche country.
Seven Men From Now. Budd Boetticher, 1956. Randolph Scott and a hanging tree in an allegorical western that moved Andre Bazin to admiration.
The Shanghai Gesture. Joseph Von Sternberg, 1941. Gene Tierney and Victor Mature exude the laid-back decadence of the drug scene long before Hollywood could acknowledge it.
Silver Lode. Allan Dwan, 1954. An astonishing anti-McCarthyism western with a confrontation between John Payne and Dan Duryea.
Summer Storm. Douglas Sirk, 1944. George Sanders and Linda Darnell drifting to their destruction in the best Hollywood adaptation of a Chekhov story.
Touch of Evil. Orson Welles, 1958. Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, and Marlene Dietrich are meshed in an atmosphere larger than life: corruption.
The Uninvited. Lewis Allen, 1944. The Casablanca of Hollywood ghost movies, with Gail Russell as intended victim.
Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958. James Stewart enraptured by Kim Novak in a definitive study of romantic obsession.
Wicked Woman. Russell Rouse, 1954. My own all-time schlock favorite, particularly when pig-like Percy Helton is running his slobbering lips up the arm of wonderfully lurid Beverly Michaels.