Though cult films have existed since the first stag reel was lensed at the end of the 19th century, the cult film as we imagine it today was the logical if nevertheless confused product of ’60s cinephilia. In both its French and American guises, auteurism made us—the poor, passive, rapturous audience—believe we could marginally participate in the dreamy process of cultural production. Critics and filmmakers gradually were becoming two sides of the same coin, not two warring currencies. From Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard to Peter Bogdanovich across the Atlantic, critics were morphing into scriptwriters and directors, obliterating the longstanding boundary between producers and interpreters, cultural dictators and uncharismatic hangers-on.
At the same time, the New Left was fruitfully crossing paths with the new wave: filmmakers became polemical provocateurs and emboldened critics, emancipated from the petty role of “reviewer”, became heterodox adventurers oblivious to the antiquated and tasteful polarity of “good” and “bad”. We thus came to believe the cinematic projection was not an untouchable metaphysic but something slightly real and approachable, a prosaic religion ripe for overdue schism.
As auteurism challenged (albeit momentarily) the studio system, the monotheism of commercial cinema fractured into specialized, more autonomous cults. Films were now experienced from intimate, communal, often parodic distances, not from the dehumanizing pew of Hollywood’s megalithic cathedral. Undermining orthodoxies of cinema and culture at large, the Gnosticism of the cult film became nearly indistinguishable from an unrestrained counterculture that extended far beyond the frames of an Easy Rider or Woodstock.
Yet the staid, absolutist boundaries between filmmaker and audience could not die so easily. If the Hollywood big shot was now a cult auteur, the change wasn’t necessarily a demotion; the auteur remained a charismatic guru, one whose underdog discovery or critical championing—George Romero is a good example—kept alive the fantasy of upward mobility into the Francophone echelon of real auteurs.
The catalysts of cult cinema seem bewilderingly numerous, from the quaint nostalgia of Creature from the Black Lagoon, to the Sontagian camp of Ed Wood’s interstellar paper plates, to the belated niche success of Blade Runner, a film lambasted by many mainstream critics upon its 1982 release. The instigations of nostalgia or pathos seem counterfeit criteria for cultdom, however. That nostalgia cults hold great cultural sway is all the more reason to discover or found cults less prone to undue sentimentality— Christianity, after all, is predicated on a deadly nostalgia, and nearly all mainstream religions engage the rituals, fetishes, and parodies by which cult films are at least partly identified.
Furthermore, in an age of pervasive irony, self-conscious pastiche should instantly disqualify a film for cult status. A self-satisfied, ersatz exercise such as Grindhouse confuses posture with belief, affectation with naiveté. By definition, the cult film cannot fetishize itself. The fetishization is the necessary work of a relatively sane audience needing to carve out its own niche, needing to distance itself from the American multiplex, multimillion dollar advertising blitzes, whoring magazine reviewers, and a culture whose fetishes are usually imposed, not chosen.
We already know that any “worthy” cult film claims—pretentiously or not—to be oppositional, a necessary slap across the complacent face of the bourgeoisie. It is no accident that so many cult films—Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Fando and Lis, Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room, Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, L. Q. Jones’ A Boy and his Dog, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and even the ineptly metaphysical Circle of Iron—use desolated environments or vast empty spaces to signify their knowing alienation from copious materialism. Apart from an overriding aura of contrariety, however, the term “cult film” remains vague and unreasonably inclusive.
Decades of cult film criticism have traversed everything from Paul Morrissey to Andy Milligan, from Ralph Bakshi to Shuji Terayama, from sadomasochistic hentai anime to obtuse Italian peplums, from mondo shockumentaries to sub-Hitchcockian giallos, from Beach Blanket Bingo to El Santo vs. the Vampire Women, from the satirical scatology of Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie to the effete intellectuality of Raul Ruiz’s Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. On the surface, the term “cult” skirts uselessness, potentially connoting any object that falls beyond mainstream purvey and production. Sifting through the morass, however, it soon becomes clear the many of the legitimate cult films listed above (don’t defensively bristle at the word “legitimate”—we must draw lines) are more specifically opposed to the still-dominant aesthetic of Realism, as they happily pillage the toolboxes of Pirandello, Brecht, and Artaud.
If the best cult films oppose not merely the culture at large but the Realism that undergirds it, the name “cult” seems unduly pejorative, even a misnomer. The Modernists correctly believed that subverting bourgeois realism was key to overcoming alienation—so why should we associate this healthy impulse with a word that usually describes Stalinism or Scientology? In truth, the communitarian aspects of cultdom are wildly overestimated, as most cult film experiences occur phantasmatically across time and space. No physical cabal, secret handshake, or plumed uniform is required; cultists usually sit alone in the dark, their “communities” the simple knowledge that at any given moment they are not the only godforsaken souls watching Paul Naschy hack off prosthetic limbs or Barry Prima battle hopping lizard men. (This is the underlying melancholy of Mystery Science Theater 3000—one’s friends always seem cosmically distant). Furthermore, cult audiences often condescend to their objects of alleged worship, subverting rather than reinforcing the religious metaphor and necessitating some distinction between “comic cults” (which assume the superiority of the spectator) and “tragic cults” (which assume the superiority of the filmmaker).
A cult’s comic or tragic orientation never exempts it from obligatory membership in the larger culture (or superstructure, to use Marx’s term). Whether it is tolerated, ridiculed, or romanticized, the cult experience is a permitted subversion too weak to challenge an all-assimilating status quo. Paradoxically, the superstructure negatively nourishes the minority cult, which itself must be cultivated from within. Nevertheless, the cult experience does alter the etymological link among “cult”, “culture”, and “cultivation”.
In the era of agrarian economies, the word “culture” referred to both natural cultivation (i.e., farming the land) and an acculturated society that would logically follow from the taming of the wilderness. Presumably, such a link was necessary to maintain the import of a culture perceived as simultaneously natural and God-given. The cult film, contrarily, hermetically cultivates itself against the grains of culture. Yet rarely are today’s cultists true believers. Film cultists needn’t really believe in anything, as their paganism prefigures the faith demanded of monotheism. Cultists are more likely agnostics who, confronting the tragedy of their inevitable consumerism, turn their own solipsism into a kind of narcissistic self-worship, for the only thing left to defend in the currents of late capitalism is the ever-diminishing self. The object of cult worship thus becomes not the auteur but (in the manner of Emile Durkheim) the cultist himself, who emerges as an unfeasible hero, desirous of a human community but suspicious of the conformism even small communities demand.
The “oppositional” films the cultist chooses as his mirror are both relative and arbitrary, so don’t ask me for cult films’ exact parameters—the multiplicity and diversity of cult experience denies exactitude a priori. However, if we accept my proposition that the cultist is a Camusian rebel who worships himself more than anything else, it becomes clear that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the very worst of alleged cult films and probably no longer a cult film at all. Though it has the condescension required of the “comic” cult, its salient ingredients of parody, burlesque, and community are the same elements that, on a larger and more politicized scale, already constitute mainstream religion.
Simply, the Rocky Horror cult opposes nothing, and though its extra-filmic spectacle obviously diverges from dominant realism, its ritualized parodies are merely the most timid sort of camp. I’ve never met Rocky Horror cultists who were actually interested in cinema, in Tarkovsky or Visconti or even Howard Hawks—they were mainly interested in their own, badly dated monomania. Costumed ritual, my friends, is religion, and it’s hardly surprising that the tiny, original cult of Rocky Horror—perhaps it was once a cult—has expanded into the multiplex cathedrals. Yes, they unabashedly worship themselves, but their superficial revelry undermines the melancholy known by the true film cultist, who longs for social acceptance but knows mainly rejection. Rocky Horror devotees forget that the film cultist is not like a Catholic cultist—the film cultist wants to be together alone.
Let me explain further. The good film cultist is a romantic pantheist, not an evangelical. The good cultist should never replace the monolithic mainstream with a more manageable monolith or a conservative fervency with a gaudy one. He is an unabashed dilettante and collector who laments the disposability of his collection but nevertheless accepts its eventuality. The bad cultist sacrifices his selfhood to the group; the sophisticated cultist, wary of any residue of fascism, desires alternative groups but keeps them at arm’s length to preserve the integrity of his ego and the pristine beauty of his narcissism. If all this sounds impossibly paradoxical, even self-contradictory, so must it be—culture is too stultifying, too insurmountable, and we only manage by splitting ourselves into pieces, remaking ourselves with each film watched, each book remembered, each essay feverishly written.
Old film strip with some damage on it. Image from Shutterstock.com
My own story is despairingly unoriginal, even clichéd among those who write about film. As a lonely 14-year-old, I saw cinema as the only psychic escape from the tangled stranglehold of ’80s suburban New Jersey—10,000 little therapies in 10,000 little video boxes. This was a time of discovery and self-discovery, alternately confounding and exhilarating, long before Netflix rendered moot the thrill of the hunt, long before the intermediations of the Internet Movie Database or the perfunctory preemptions of Wikipedia. A crumpled pile of fanzines, a few stalwart film books (Peary’s Guide for the Film Fanatic was particularly well-thumbed), and my own unseasoned intuition led the way.
Understanding that local video stores were mainly philistine arms of corporatized taste-making, I quickly made for that quarantined “foreign” section, where I hoped to spot a stray Pasolini or Ozu, dusty and neglected. Surely I was the only teenager in New Jersey thrilled to discover an old VHS of Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), a silent short in which Douglas Fairbanks plays a cocaine-addicted, Sherlock Holmsian detective. I fondly remember the day in 1988 I found in a video store reeking of moldy carpet and bubblegum four films for which I’d been desperately searching: Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Umberto Lenzi’s City of the Walking Dead, and Ken Russell’s The Devils, all entombed in the era’s oversized video boxes. I spirited them home and copied them all onto the same low-grade Memorex VHS tape, where they, the sacred and profane, would sit together unreconciled, four abrupt cultural antitheses happily without hope of synthesis.
A small, local circle of brick-and-mortar video stores expanded over the years into eccentric radii and eventually fugitive corners. A decade before the Hong Kong new wave hit the American mainstream, I braved a grimy Vietnamese video store in the ghettoes of Plainfield, New Jersey to excavate censored, unwatchable bootlegs of Coolie Killer and Mr. Vampire 2. I squandered hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars pillaging the lost laserdisc emporia of New York’s Chinatown for badly subtitled films I’d never watch a second time.
Admittedly, in my formative years I was more hoarder than collector, vainly hoping to find order and clarity in sheer accumulation. It’s no exaggeration to say that towers of piled videotapes eventually blinded me to the outside world, to humanity itself. As literary critic Bill Brown notes, “If the success of collecting depends, first off, on the act of objectification (transforming a book, for example, from a text into an artifact) then successful collecting can suddenly veer toward thinking of people as things.” (“The Collecting Mania”, The University of Chicago Magazine, October 2001) There is inescapable truth to this: collecting was an opiate, driving me deeper into a cultish cul-de-sac of the self.
To be sure, there were optimistic moments, especially in giddy crimes of piracy, the minor revenge of the dispossessed. Collecting and piracy were more or less synonymous notions, and one necessarily sought out likeminded aficionados who could offer fantastic esoterica from Indonesia or the Philippines (I still retain an eternal soft spot for Zuma 2: Hell Serpent, in which large men in dinosaur costumes improbably wage apocalyptic battle on a schoolyard jungle gym). Archaic letter-writing with pen and ink was the indispensable prelude to mailing pirated videos across countries or continents. The letters were precious, phantom connections between unseen social deviants with shared tastes and an unwavering belief in the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service. The copied tapes, their anti-corporate rebellion dulled by a third-generation haze, would usually arrive in three or four weeks—and only occasionally would I watch them. Possessing them was usually sufficient; to watch them would risk having them invade my own cultish pantheon, something that, for all its eclecticism, should remain rarefied and protected.
Not watching certain films provided the relief of objectivity—I could simply have films without having to constantly render judgments about them. Avoidance is an admittedly bad way to achieve objectivity, but I suppose I fashioned myself after the Greek Eclectics, whose grounding in Stoicism made them impervious to rapture and inured them to what we call camp. Though certain films will always hold a spell—I’ve seen Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker nearly 100 times—I could never adhere monotheistically to a single film. I was also eager to reject or remain skeptical of established cults. I was bored to tears by the inarticulateness of Easy Rider—even as a teenager I suspected it travestied the counterculture. I was lightly charmed by the grubby Basket Case but found Cutter’s Way hardly the brilliant “cult” film so many critics claimed—it was simply too realistic. Nevertheless, I knew little of modernist traditions and often balked at texts far beyond my adolescent frame of reference.
At 15, I was intimated by the baroque stylization of Fellini: Satyricon (I couldn’t make it to the end) and startled by the very un-American homoeroticism of Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane. I was too naïve at the time to disbelieve the bombastic video box declaring Jarman’s film “One of the Ten Most Important Films Ever Made” and thus suffered a temporary loss of self-esteem, as I considered myself sophisticated enough to understand the subterranean and outré. However, I do remember enjoying St. Sebastiane’s final impalements at the hands of naked Roman soldiers badly speaking Latin. Embellished with languorous slow-motion, Brian Eno’s ambient score, and special effects by Italian master Carlo Rambaldi, the scene offered one of my first experiences of cinema as pure, erotic sensation, without need of narrative, interpretation, or searches for objective meaning.
My wanton eclecticism and pretended objectivity could not really stave off the loss of the self—as I said earlier, I became literally lost among the images and plastic boxes. The collection was simply too great and unwieldy. On thousands and thousands of numbered index cards I recorded all the titles of my copied films, and the cards still sit in a white box, much as the videotapes themselves remain stuffed in coffin-like metal cabinets. Today, I am often fearful of reopening the cabinet doors, for they suppress a chaotic universe that refused my ordering. As Walter Benjamin says in his well-known essay “Unpacking My Library”, the collection “…is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.” As each accumulated object carries with it the tale of its acquisition, interpretation, and small place in one’s total consciousness, “the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”
When desiderata become detritus, when the bittersweet sheds its sweetness, it is probably time to unlock the coffins and bury a few corpses. But as I enter early middle age, I cannot bear to destroy my memories, my plastic selves. Some tapes I must absolutely keep. I may never find another copy of Dislocation, pirated from a long-defunct Chinese video story and often regarded as Mainland China’s first science fiction film (the plot concerns a mid-level bureaucrat who clones himself to avoid attending dull communist party meetings). Surely I must safeguard my copy of the now-deleted, impossible-to-find ’80s VHS release of The Wild Bunch, which contains at least two brief cuts in the final shootout not restored to the now-ubiquitous director’s cut. Yet the question remains: how much of my past must I destroy to stay alive?
Do not worry—the collection is inherently easy to obliterate. It has no value except to me. Unlike those who collect originals of monetary or historical value, I have mostly degrading copies of copies of copies—Plato would vehemently disapprove. Sadly, I haven’t amassed rare editions of The Diary of Samuel Pepys or the annotated marginalia of George Meredith, nor have I ever, like Benjamin, anxiously purchased a rare Balzac at auction. Instead, I remain (dis)content with my scratchy VHS copy of Black Magic with Buddha (Lo Lieh’s 1981 horror film about wicked, blood-sucking brains from Beyond) and Splatter Farm, a destitute relic from the era of direct-to-video, do-it-yourself horror. Its most “memorable” scene features a psycho burying a man in the mud and then urinating on his face—surely a metaphor for some part of the cult spectator’s masochistic dilemma. Of course, two decades ago the piss was a bit more blissful, part of an innocent, prelapsarian time of furtive pleasures and unknown futures.
The collection’s fleeting value descends even further whenever memories of cult cinemas are resurrected in the form of easily available, superior technologies. I never dreamed Herschell Gordon Lewis’s The Gore Gore Girls would see the 1080 light of Blu-ray, but there it is. I am a bit incredulous, too, that that my cable company provides me with immaculate, high-definition prints of Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death, in which chemically poisoned vineyards zombify the French countryside, and Zombie Lake, known to jaded connoisseurs as the world’s slowest, dullest film about waterlogged, green-skinned Nazis terrorizing habitually nude Gallic villagers. But someone at Verizon cable apparently believes in a little bit of cultural diversity—but only a little, of course, for minorities must remain so.
So what remains? Though I’m no optimist, I am fairly well convinced that enough films strange and estranged will stay occulted, beyond the prying interests of the bourgeoisie and the capitalist arms of the appropriating mainstream. Consider Adamo ed Eva: La prima storia d’amore, alternately known in English as Adam and Eve, Adam and Eve vs. the Cannibals, or, in its vanished VHS incarnation, Blue Paradise, presumably an attempt to capitalize on The Blue Lagoon. The film is a probably unique genre hybrid, a soft-core rendition of the Biblical story of Genesis channeled through the Italian cannibal subgenre (there are passing similarities to Deodato’s Last Cannibal World) and a number of early ’80s exploitation tropes. In other words, a less commercial film would be impossible to imagine.
After wrathful stock footage of volcanoes signify God’s creation, Adam (Mark Gregory, best known for the role of “Trash” in the immortal 1990: The Bronx Warriors) soon emerges bloodily from a giant cocoon, his belly button inexplicably intact. Watching the physically striking Gregory wander naked and alone through Paradise for several minutes, one realizes how rarely (heteronormative) films treat male nudity with such innocence—this fact alone banishes the film from the mainstream. Bored with his frolics, he crafts Woman not from a rib but from sand dunes that, with the assistance of heavenly rain and unexpectedly affecting new age music, give birth to Eve full-formed. She is surprisingly plain and homely—he continues to be beautiful, even when a soundtrack of saccharine ’80s pop songs intrudes upon Paradise, reducing the sublimely ridiculous to the merely ridiculous.
I will not tire you with a complete synopsis, but suffice it to say that after 20 minutes the plot diverges somewhat from Biblical fundamentalism. After the snake, whispering devilishly in Italian, enacts his temptation, the outcast pair must brave a rolling rear-projected boulder (a la Indiana Jones), a stop-motion pterodactyl puppet (which Adam strangles to death and subsequently eats), a clan of apish cave people who grope Eve’s hair and seize Adam’s penis (Quest for Fire was released only two years before), a marauding tribe of dwarfish cannibals (this is an Italian film, after all), and a tense romantic triangle arising from the lusts of a blue-skinned warrior (who, in this film, seems to sacrilegiously predate Adam and Eve).
Interestingly enough, I am aware of no protests or bloodshed in Catholic Italy over the film’s release, even though its sacrileges and revisionist theology far outstrip those of the “realistic” The Last Temptation of Christ. Though in the final scene Adam and Eve, in their postlapsarian state, triumphantly give birth and settle into the domestic life, the film’s directors, Enzo Doria and Luigi Russo, apparently reside in a state of unperturbed, prelapsarian bliss. Only in such a paradisiacal state could there exist a film that—without a trace of irony or camp—trades in impossible hybrids and heterodoxies, refuses the religious tradition of its own ostensible narrative, and invents an absurd, entirely insular mythology cobbled from half-remembered movies. Is this not, then, the ideal cult film?