Attack of the DVD cult movie

Some might consider the release of "The Blob" on Criterion, a prestigious, artsy video label, akin to hanging a velvet Elvis in the Louvre. "The Blob"? How did this creature get past quality control?

DVD, with its laser-sharp picture, makes it possible to see cult movies - like that 1958 horror about a psycho Jell-O from outer space - in a whole new light.

That doesn't mean the remastered films have improved with age, or that the strings are any less visible on flying saucers made from hubcaps. But, thanks to DVD, the days of rare cult movies existing purely as an underground phenomenon are over. Retailer response to the revolution of DVD ownership has now made it possible for shoppers to walk out of Best Buy with a copy of "Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity," something they might have struggled to find on video at Blockbuster a decade ago.

The result is that many of these films are being appraised by new audiences. Fans, old and new, appreciate cult films for their inept tackiness, their originality, and their nonconformist rebellion against social mores.

"A cult movie is terrifically quotable and best shared amongst friends," says Mike White, publisher of Cashiers du Cinemart, a movie magazine about unconventional cinema. "I've always struggled with the definition. I suppose it's something adored by a core audience, but with material that could prove upsetting to mainstream America."

Scott Shaw welcomes the influx of DVD releases of films that once were the province of midnight shows at drive-ins. He began buying these obscurities on DVD after he discovered the low-budget work of Roger Corman, who's commonly revered as the king of cult films. "I started checking out his stuff, like 'Death Race 2000,' 'Eat My Dust,' and 'Grand Theft Auto,' " says Mr. Shaw.

Recently, though, he's become a big fan of low-budget director Jack Hill, a Corman associate. "I'd never heard of him," Shaw admits, "but Quentin Tarantino was always talking him up." Though it's not a genre exactly teeming with competition, he calls Hill's "The Swinging Cheerleaders" "maybe the only good cheerleader movie."

Bea Suarez of VCI Entertainment might argue with that. "We get a lot of requests for "Satan's Cheerleaders," she says. The Tulsa-based VCI, which releases vintage B-movies, offers around 2,000 titles. Suarez admits they're not masterpieces. "On a shoestring budget," she says, "you really had to be creative." She cites "Target Earth" and "Horrors of the Black Museum" as two of VCI's most popular cult DVDs.

While some films are loved for their flaws instead of despite them, Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog magazine, thinks the "so bad it's good" craze has seen better days. "For a while," he says, "it was, 'What's the worst thing I could possibly see?' It was about finding new lows."

The question of what even constitutes a cult film is debatable as the scope of the genre is wider than the letterbox format. Real cult movies are never a flash in the pan; they have to marinate in the public consciousness. But films that have saturated the masses aren't eligible. "There was an issue of Entertainment Weekly that focused on cult movies," says White, "and they included 'The Shawshank Redemption.' I think one qualification of a cult movie is that it won't be shown all weekend on TNT."

As in the case of Hill's work, many cult movies are known more for who directed them than for their content. Ed Wood, for example, has gone from Hollywood footnote to fringe icon.

"He had some great ideas," says White of the "Plan 9 From Outer Space" director. "Aliens reanimating corpses to take over the world? Classic stuff."

Were he just another lousy director, he'd be worth forgetting. But when you consider that Wood was a repressed transvestite whose plight was dragged out in "Glen or Glenda" (in which he starred), he really stands out. Thanks to fan support, not to mention a Tim Burton movie bearing his name, you can now find the best - meaning the worst - of Wood on DVD.

In comparison, Russ Meyer's films seem assured. "There's an almost cartoon quality to his work," observes Lucas, who compares the director's films to "the best pulp paperback coming to life on screen."

Meyer's best-known film is "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," a mix of soap opera and rock opera. It's also a genuine cult item. And at least one critic loved it. That's because he wrote it. The script was concocted by Roger Ebert, back when he was more likely to use his thumb to hitchhike than rate a movie.

It's smaller companies that have been responsible for releasing such titles to DVD. The Something Weird label, for instance, has expanded from a niche seller to having titles like "Confessions of a Psycho Cat" and horror films by Herschell Gordon Lewis stocked in chains like Borders.

Films like these were once hard to find. In the days before DVD, Geoff Kessell owned a small St. Louis video store called Whiz-Bam. It stocked cult and foreign films, two specialties that couldn't sustain the business. However, Kessell's not bitter that the big chains now supply the films he once stuck his neck out to find. He's still a cult fan. "No one remembers 'Titanic,' " Mr. Kessell says. "It's the stuff like Ed Wood that holds up."

White agrees: "It wasn't like everyone was going to see 'Oklahoma' or 'On the Waterfront.' There was also an audience for 'Creature with the Atom Brain.' "

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