What makes a great cult movie? It used to have something to do with subversion. If we look back at where ‘cult’ came from, we can trace its trajectory from the Beat generation and into the American underground.
Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, John Cassavetes’ Shadows, along with the likes of Kenneth Anger and the Kuchar brothers (George and Mike) began to pave the way for people like John Waters to really sink their teeth (amongst other things) into subversive content that pushed the boundaries of what we were allowed to see on film. Then, in the ’70s, the ‘midnight movie’ became a thing and we’ve been trying to recreate what the Elgin Theatre in New York accidentally gave birth to ever since.
Today, we have too many people trying to create things that are so bad they’re good in order to capitalise on the cult cinema resurgence. But you can’t do it deliberately; it has to happen honestly. A few of the below selections are screening this week at the Sydney Underground Film Festival, while the others are always available for a re-viewing at your local video shop. You may need to BYO plastic spoons.
Birdemic: Shock And Terror (2010)
I hate to point fingers, but we actually have Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock to thank/blame for this one. Birdemic is a classic love story: software salesman meets lingerie model, while town is under attack from eagles and vultures. But it’s not just the story that makes Birdemic so endearing — throw in some genuinely wooden acting (as in the ‘actors’ are really doing their best here), and blend well with an approach to editing and sound design that is so bizarre you’ll be in shock and forget to flinch when you finally see the two-cent CGI used for the birds.
And then there’s the subtext (well, text, there’s nothing ‘sub’ about it): the birds are attacking due to over-pollution, global warming… and bird flu. This year we look forward to its follow-up, Birdemic 2: The Resurrection. Rod and Nathalie are back, and so are the birds.
Mommie Dearest (1981)
Based on Christina Crawford’s memoir, Mommie Dearest should be a heartbreaking drama. Brilliantly and terrifyingly channelling Joan Crawford, Faye Dunaway gives the performance of a lifetime. Still, there’s something about Mommie Dearest that stops it from reaching its full dramatic potential.
Perhaps it’s the bit where Joan beats her daughter with wire hangers or perhaps it’s the bit where she calls out in the middle of the night for her daughter to bring her an axe while looking like she just stepped off the set of a Douglas Sirk movie that makes for such compelling yet genuinely jaw-dropping viewing. Could Christina and Joan’s real life really have been this crazy? If you’re unsure, watch it with John Waters’ DVD commentary turned on; it’s the pop culture equivalent of reading Susan Sontag’s Notes On Camp.
The Room (2003)
Entertainment Weekly called this “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” and they were right. Scattered amongst the single most uncomfortable love-scene ever committed to celluloid, is a creepy love-triangle and a lot of strange, extraneous melodramatic subplots involving family members and neighbours (“Oh, hi Mark.“).
The most fascinating thing about The Room, though (it’s not the weird growth on Lisa’s neck… shudder), is the enigma of Tommy Wiseau — “an American filmmaker with a vaguely Eastern European accent” as AV Club once succinctly described him, and the actor/writer/director/producer of this cult gem. That, and the fact that screenings are accompanied by buckets full of plastic spoons. If you don’t know what plastic spoons have to do with passion and betrayal, then you need to get to a screening right away.
Troll 2 (1990)
This is the film that officially wins the title for “best worst movie” — really, there’s a documentary about it called Best Worst Movie (2009). A cinematic anomaly, Troll 2 might be the only sequel ever made that bears absolutely no relation to the film it follows on from. What’s even stranger is that the evil “trolls” in the film aren’t even trolls, they’re goblins. But there’s no use trying to make sense of Troll 2; according to its writer, it’s a critique of vegetarianism.
What’s most peculiar, however, is that, unlike Birdemic and The Room, technically Troll 2 is quite good. An odd blend of Italian horror sensibilities and all-American values, all I can conclude is that I sure didn’t think corn could be sexy until I saw this film. “Oh my goooood!”
The Wicker Man (2006)
The only entity that could top the likes of Birdemic, Troll 2, Mommie Dearest and The Room is Nic Cage. It’s not often that a poor remake of a great movie can negotiate its way through critical slaughter and mass ridicule and still end up in the cult hall of fame, but when it comes to Cage, all bets are off.
Whether or not you believe he continues to make abysmal movies to pay off millions of dollars worth of IRS tax debts, there’s no mistaking how wonderfully charismatic he is onscreen, screaming the infamous “Not the bees!” line (there’s even a Taylor Swift mash-up of it on YouTube). That’s pretty bad, but it’s also really good.
Tara Judah is a Melbourne based film writer and radio critic. Her outlets include Metro Magazine, Screen Education, Overland, JOYFM and The Big Issue. She also co-hosts a film criticism podcast on Triple R. Her Twitter is @midnightmovies.