The Best of the Worst: Top Ten Cult Reissues

Okay, so 2000 has been a pretty crappy year for movies. Lots of people I talk to are having a tough time coming up with a top six, let alone a top ten list of favorites. Thank God this has not been the case for DVD reissues. Thanks to releasing companies like Anchor Bay, Criterion and Image, video store jockeys around the country have been wringing their pale, clammy hands in anticipation each month for the next batch of goodies resurrected from the cinema vaults. The last couple of years have been a renaissance for cult, horror, and Euro-sleaze films as the long awaited and long forgotten trashy gems of yore have been dredged up and given the blood-red carpet treatment. Sure, some junk has resurfaced with it — the world probably isn’t a better place for having access to the widescreen versions of Supergirl and H.O.T.S. (although there is something appealing about watching a strip touch-football game in all its original glory).

But alongside the dreck has come classics that haven’t been seen in their unadulterated versions in decades. This is a list of my ten favorites from 2000. What a time to be alive.

1. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey 1962 — Criterion Edition)
Carnival of Souls, the lone feature film independently produced and directed by instructional and classroom filmmaker Herk Harvey, was given the royal treatment by Criterion this year, eleven years after its initial revival in 1989. Inspired by Saltair, an eerie abandoned amusement park from the turn of the century in Salt Lake City, this film sprang up about as far from Hollywood as you can get (Lawrence, Kansas), and rivals Night of the Living Dead in creepy, haunting atmosphere. The Criterion Edition offers an in-depth look at a homegrown labor of love, featuring over an hour of Harvey’s instructional films made for the Centron Corporation, the film production company in Kansas where he worked all his life. While many of these shorts are about safety procedures for backhoes and classroom etiquette, they nonetheless give us a glimpse at a prolific filmmaking career outside the studio system.

2. The Beyond (E tu vivrai nel terrore – L’aldila) (Lucio Fulci 1981)
While I previously believed that you needed to be drunk to enjoy one of Lucio Fulci’s films, this year has brought back two that shut my mouth (see Don’t Torture a Duckling below). Formerly only available as The Seven Doors of Death (E tu vivrai nel terrore), a hard-to-find and unwatchably butchered version of the maestro’s vision, The Beyond has rapidly become one of my favorite horror movies. It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that’s completely fixated with eyeball-gouging (the movie has five!). It makes a case for gore as artistic expression and makes you wonder what went on inside troll-lookalike Lucio Fulci’s head. Super-stylish, super-atmospheric, super-cool. You can also get it in a collector’s tin that adds copies of international lobby cards to the already fully loaded DVD.

3. Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman 1971)
James Taylor and Dennis Wilson: it’s amazing that such a hip movie could star such square musicians. This reissue was exciting for me because I had gotten mighty sick over the years of hearing film students and laserdisc elitists rant about how it’s their favorite movie while it was virtually impossible to find. You could call it Easy Rider‘s nihilistic, pissed-off little brother, but it’s a far better, more hypnotic movie. Along with Vanishing Point, it’s one of the best road movies ever made. (This one comes in a collector’s tin too, but don’t bother. Much more expensive, crappy extras.)

4. Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava 1972)
Mario Bava is undeniably one of the most influential and entertaining European horror directors, and thanks to The Mario Bava Collection, all of his classics are being rescued from obscurity. My first choice for this list would be Black Sunday, his 1960 masterpiece, but it was reissued last year. But Lisa and the Devil, formerly only available as the far inferior House of Exorcism (this would be the American version), is a blast as well. Starring the luscious Elke Sommer and the lovable Telly “Kojak” Savalas (as the Devil!), it’s a bizarre fable about a tourist who gets hopelessly lost in a dusty Italian city and winds up in a heap of paranormal, incomprehensible, evil shit. Don’t bother trying to follow the plot — it makes very little sense — but Telly is still sucking on his lollipop, which makes it all worthwhile.

5. Don’t Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino) (Lucio Fulci 1972)
This is the second Fulci movie on the list, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of sheer horrific insanity of The Beyond, it is equal proof that Fulci could make movies that can be watched without the aid of mind-altering substances. This is his foray into the giallo (Italian crime/murder thriller) genre, and it is every bit as dark and disturbing as The Beyond is crazy and gross. Portraying a town in the grips of paranoid panic as a child murderer begins snatching up their children, this DVD is important because it’s the first time the film has ever been available in the U.S. Stupid title, classic flick.

6. Greaser’s Palace (Robert Downey 1972)
In light of Robert Downey, Jr.’s recent troubles, I felt the need to include this one so we can shift the blame off of him and onto his fucked-up dad. I mean, the kid was four years old and Robert Sr. was already sticking him in Pound, asking a guy if he has hair on his balls, and two years later in Greaser’s Palace, being brutally murdered in the woods. With a childhood like that, no wonder he’s a drug addict (what makes him a great actor may be harder to figure). Greaser’s Palace features a character named Lamy Homo (Michael Sullivan) who is killed and resurrected over and over again, each time finding himself floating in a rainbow with naked babies before he turns into a perfect smile. Genius!

7. The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell 1973)
The Harder They Come has been available on tape for a while, but in a dirty-looking, subtitled, and cropped version that makes the new Criterion edition a godsend. With a kickin’ reggae soundtrack, some bad-ass rude-boy posturing, and an unflinching look at impoverished Jamaican life where making it in the music biz really matters, this is one of my favorite movies. And I don’t even really like reggae.

8. Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (Sam Raimi 1987 – Special Edition)
Listen up you primitive screwheads! Evil Dead II is another flick that hasn’t exactly been hard to find, but this is one of those DVDs that has commentary good enough to justify watching it again for the fiftieth time. Bruce Campbell is full of funny and self-effacing stories about being tortured by Sam Raimi, and he graciously thanks his fans for keeping alive this “utterly ridiculous series of films.” Groovy.

9. Deep Red (Profondo rosso) (Dario Argento 1975)
Starring David Hemmings of Blow Up and Barbarella fame, Deep Red was my favorite horror reissue of the year before I saw The Beyond. The first uncut, English language version of the film, patched together with sequences that periodically switch awkwardly into Italian, Deep Red stands alongside Suspira as definitive proof of Italian horror maestro Argento’s visual mastery. Like most Italian horror flicks, the plot is convoluted and weak, but impressive explosions of gore and over-the-top zooms and editing techniques make it a lot of fun.

10. Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato 1979)
Cannibal Holocaust is a vile, reprehensible turd of a film that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone for fear of being labeled a total sicko. Full of rape, exploitation, torture, and on-screen animal killings, this film pretty much revels in breaking taboos and offers an ugly glimpse at a side of humanity you never wanted to see. But I found that watching it provoked the same sort of effect as watching my first porno movie — Cannibal Holocaust is not titillating by any means, but it definitely elicits surprise that something so explicit was actually committed to film. Sure, it’s repulsive and utterly unnecessary, but at the same time, it’s hypnotic and surprisingly well-made, considering how trashy the subject matter is. Rent it to play at a party for people you hate, or just to say that you’ve seen what is notorious as the “Sickest Movie Ever Made.”