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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Intentional Cult Films

When one thinks of cult cinema, the titles that most easily come to mind are the accidental ones — movies that were intended to actually be good — Mommie Dearest, Exorcist II and Valley of the Dolls, to name the Holy Trinity. Something went terribly wrong in the filmmaking process, however, and the results were unintentional comic genius. Then there are the films that set out to be cult classics from the start but failed miserably. Shock Treatment, Howard the Duck and almost any Quentin Tarantino blabfest are some that immediately come to mind.

So is it possible to intentionally make a cult film that successfully fulfills all the qualifications of strangeness right out of the gate? Yes, indeed. In this post, I'll examine some titles that I feel accomplished just that very thing.

Let's establish some parameters. In my opinion, these are the key aspects of a successful cult movie:
  1. It's weird but it works
  2. It's got a plot, no matter how bizarre
  3. It stands the test of time
  4. It's not just strange — it's also fun to watch
For purposes of this discussion, I'm leaving out John Waters' ouevre (too easy) and midnight movies like Eraserhead and El Topo, which are more in the arthouse genre anyhow. I'm talking about genre-transcending films whose makers built in all the intentional weirdness from the get-go...and it all gelled.

I was inspired to write this column by my recent re-viewing of Jack Hill's Spider Baby, starring Lon Chaney, Carol Ohmart (House on Haunted Hill), Sid Haig, Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner. It's the story of the Merrye family, an eccentric clan that suffers from a syndrome that causes its members to regress, starting at age 10, to childlike behavior and finally to a pre-human, feral condition. Chaney is Bruno, the caretaker of the last of the Merrye brood, tasked with watching over them as their conditions degenerate.

Elizabeth (Washburn), Victoria (Banner) and Ralph (Haig) are the "children." Ralph's condition is the most advanced and he's lost the power of speech, and Victoria likes to play "spider" with unlucky visitors, capturing them in her web of string and "stinging" them to death with two long knives. Trouble arrives in the form of distant cousins Emily (Omart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker), who show up with a shyster lawyer and attractive young secretary in tow to get their hands on the Merrye estate. When first they meet this houseful of kooks, Emily thinks it's all an act to get them to leave empty-handed. She insists that they spend the night...and it's a decision they'll all soon regret.

Geez, I sound like Charles Gray.

Anyhow, poor Lon was hitting the bottle pretty hard by this time, and he's sweaty and rheumy-eyed, but damned if he doesn't deliver a committed performance. Banner is terrific as the sloe-eyed Victoria, the de facto "Spider Baby." And Washburn is at first an obnoxious goody two-shoes until she realizes what the intruders are up to and thereafter joins in the mayhem wholeheartedly.

The original producers went bankrupt before the film could be released, leaving it to languish on the shelf until 1968, when it was distributed as Spider Baby. Hill's original title was Cannibal Orgy, which would've been difficult to promote in 1964, but such a title might've found a more receptive audience four years later among drive-in viewers who were watching such brain-burners as Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby. It remained elusive for years, showing up at collector's shows in gray market VHS copies made from battered prints. Finally, Hill himself restored the film and it started getting the reputation it deserves. And the version I saw on Turner Classic Movies looked terrific.

Hill went on to a remarkable career in the WIP and blaxploitation genres. Washburn also appeared in Hills' Pit Stop and continues to work today, as does Redeker. Sadly, Banner died in a car accident in 1982 at age 35.
 
The Chiodo Brothers' Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) also fits snugly into this category. It's  weird, it's certainly fun to watch and it stands the test of time because the fear of clowns is timeless.

The Chiodos have had a long career fabricating special effects for features films and television. Their klowns look great even in today's digital world. In fact, it's their "fleshiness" that makes it work. And who doesn't love the great theme song by The Dickies?

It begins with teen lovers Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder) spotting a strange light in the evening sky that seems to land in a nearby woods. Going to investigate, they discover a gigantic circus tent with cotton candy-cocooned victims trapped inside. They rush to the authorities for help but are met with scoffing derision by Sheriff Mooney (John Vernon, giving Frank Drebin a run for his money). Shades of The Blob! That's about it for the storyline; this film is all about the set pieces. Lethal balloon animals, guns that shoot deadly popcorn, giant cartoon hammers — they're just some of the weapons at the alien clowns' disposal. And the '80s vibe and fashions merely add to the fun.

A sequel, Return of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space in 3D, also starring Cramer, is supposedly in production. Unfortunately, the klowns may be CG this time around, which would be a shame.

I remember seeing grim trailers for a movie called Strange Behavior airing on late-night television in 1981. I couldn't wait for it to open and it certainly didn't disappoint, but the trailers missed the boat, marketing it as just another one of the slashers so popular at the time. Sure, it's a horror film and yes, there are slashings. But it's also weird as hell.

Part of the weirdness stems from the fact that it's supposed to be set in Illinois but was shot in Auckland. And whenever you've got a score by Tangerine Dream, you just know it's going to be weird. Scripted by a young Bill Condon, who has since gone on to big-budget fare like Dreamgirls, the final two Twilight movies and (oops) The Fifth Estate, it's an homage to the pulp horrors of the 1950s. And New Zealand is surely the place you want to film to get that 1950s feel.

The cast is full of familiar American faces: Charles Lane, who played cantankerous old men for decades; Marc McClure, Jimmy Olson in the Christopher Reeve Superman films; Altman favorite Michael Murphy; and Louise Fletcher in a rare sympathetic role as Murphy's girlfriend. Dan Shor stars as Pete Brady (!), son of the town sheriff, John (Murphy). Looking to pick up some extra cash, he's told of an experimental program being conducted at the local university by his pal Oliver (McClure) that pays its subjects well.

At the college, Pete meets Dr. Parkinson (the hilariously acerbic Fiona Lewis), who tells him that the experiments are going to make him feel stronger and smarter. In actuality, there's a much more sinister intent — to transform the subjects into mindless zombies who'll commit murder on command. It's all the work of the evil Dr. LeSange (Arthur Dignam), who'd faked his own death years before and continues to conduct his gruesome work in secret.

The killings are really good. There's a real mind-melting scene featuring a housekeeper going upstairs to check on her young charge, only to find the kid dead in the bathtub while a large girl saws his arm off with a butcher knife.

I don't know if this part was intentional or a happy accident, but when she gets up to chase the housekeeper, the film sort of blurs and takes on a dreamlike stop-motion effect for a moment. It's very effective either way. Condon himself plays the first victim, discovered by the cops as an eyeless scarecrow tied to a post in a farmer's field. And — as you see in the DVD art above — poor Pete gets a really long needle in the eye.

But what makes Strange Behavior a perfect fit for the category is the all-abiding weirdness. Murphy is so laid-back that when he comes to work in the station in the morning, the first thing he does is have his assistant (Lane) get him a beer. Speaking of laid back, while John is shaving in the bathroom, Pete walks in, completely naked, and just stands their while his father finishes up.

When first we meet Fletcher's character, she's taking a big swig of Coke and then staring appreciatively at the bottle as if it's just said something nice to her. Later, Pete and Oliver go to a party where the costumed participants launch into an elaborately choreographed dance while Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes" plays. Oh...and did I mention it's not Halloween? And when John and Pete dig up Dr. LeSange to confirm he's really dead, there's nothing in the coffin except leg bones. The list goes on and on...

I saw Condon speak at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors convention in 1998. He was there to talk about his wonderful Gods and Monsters in which Arthur Dignam, Dr. LeSange himself, portrays Ernest Thesiger (the strange, weedy actor who played Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein).

I asked him if Dignam's casting was inspired by their earlier film, and he brightened up, happily reminiscing about Behavior. Afterwards, I had him sign my copy of "Father of Frankenstein," the Christopher Bram book that was the source for Gods, and you can see here that he enjoyed our conversation.

Condon and director Michael Laughlin reteamed for Strange Invaders a couple of years later, also with Lewis, Shor, Lane, Fletcher and Dey Young (Pete's girlfriend in Behavior). But the magic had passed; it just didn't have the same quirky charm.

Maverick director Samuel Fuller's 1964 The Naked Kiss is another one that deserves mention here. It starts off with a bang — a bald prostitute (Constance Towers) whomps the hell out of her pimp and then takes off to start life anew in the wholesome, Twilight Zone-ish community of Grantville. There, she gets a job in a hospital for disabled children and finds love with the wealthy, urbane scion of the town (Michael Dante). She is constantly pressured by the local police chief (Anthony Eisley), who had a quick tumble with her and now wants her to go work at the whorehouse across the state line. As if that weren't bad enough, she discovers a terrible secret about her dreamy beau — he's a child molester!

The film is quite well done, with nice widescreen black and white cinematography and good performances all around, which is what makes its strangeness all the more pronounced. The dialogue is so off-kilter that it seems to be coded, and there are a couple of amazingly maudlin musical numbers.

Towers really throws herself into her role, and Dante is appropriately sleazy. One can only wonder was audiences thought of it 50 years ago. It probably played the "art houses" — the downtown theaters grown-ups went to when they wanted to see foreign boobies.

Paul Verhoeven is no stranger to strange. He's directed such cult faves as The Fourth Man and Robocop, but it's Starship Troopers that really fits this category best. With an estimated $100 million budget, it's got to be the most expensive cult film ever made. When it was released to baffled audiences in 1997, it was surprising how many people saw it as merely a bad sci-fi epic when in fact it's a wildly subversive spoof of a bad sci-fi epic.

The cast, including perfect-chinned Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards (before she got Sheened), Neil Patrick Harris, Jake Busey and the great character actors Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown, is perfect. Even Golden Girl Rue McClanahan shows up in a bizarre role as a battle-blinded biology teacher.
 
Verhoeven's vision of nonstop media penetration in all aspects of society, constantly emphasizing patriotism and urging young people to join the infantry and serve the greater good, is creepily prescient. He's used commercials for parodic effect before, but here he's laying the totalitarian state theme on with a trowel. Roger Ebert (who didn't like the film) said it was true to the source, a Robert Heinlein novel first serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. And that's how the film feels — like a serial. A really insane serial.

The young soldiers are sent off to battle their country's mortal enemy, a species of smart bugs known as Arachnids, and the fights are really, really violent and the special effects are superb. Harris is a brainiac who has a special kind of telepathy that allows him to understand what the bugs are feeling. "It's afraid!" he announces after pressing his hand against the gooey flesh of a giant sluglike captive.

There have been three sequels to the film to date, with Van Dien returning as Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers: Marauder. I've seen parts of it on cable, and it was both boring and cheesy, with bad special effects.

Speaking of cult classics, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is on TCM, so I guess I'll have to sign off now.


1 comment:

Phil O'Malley said...

Baby Jane? And Queen of Outer Space with Zsa Zsa & Co. are the best cult films ever. Thanks for sharing.

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