Over the years the phrase “cult film” has taken on a very definite meaning, referring to movies too offbeat and/or audacious for mainstream audiences. The term has become ubiquitous enough that recently a film collector pal contacted me about DREAM CITY (profiled below), a hitherto obscure “cult film” he’d just unearthed. Strictly speaking, DREAM CITY couldn’t actually be termed a cult film, as it had been all-but buried for the past three decades (and so had yet to amass a cult). In terms of the film’s tone and subject matter, however, the designation was appropriate.
What follows are brief reviews of 10 films from around the world that can be accurately called cultish–all are bizarre, one-of-a-kind achievements that can be enjoyed either as “good” or so-bad-they’re-good entertainments–but for the fact that, in the U.S. at least, none have attracted much of a following. Here’s hoping this article will do something to change that situation!
Presented in alphabetical order, my ten overlooked cult movie picks are…
ADAM RESURRECTED (2008)
Here we have a rarity: a film that’s too out-there even for cultists. It deals with the Holocaust, after all, a mighty touchy subject. Audiences can accept Holocaust themed comedies (such as LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL), but apparently not the type of whacked-out psychological reverie director Paul Schrader provides in ADAM RESURRECTED. Then again, though, maybe the fact that this film is only five years old has something to do with the lack of response it’s gotten thus far; it often takes decades for a cult to form around a film, so perhaps we’ll just have to wait for ADAM RESURRECTED to find its audience. In the meantime I’d advise cult mavens to seek out the film, and admire Schrader’s bold use of surrealism (this is his strangest film, which believe me is saying A LOT) and Jeff Goldblum’s daring performance as a Jewish man traumatized by having been forced to behave as a dog during the Holocaust. (FYI, see 1988’s PATTY HEARST for a similarly neglected Paul Schrader directed oddity.)
I’ve been promoting this little-known masterwork a lot on this site, and, seeing as how my efforts have had little result thus far, will take this opportunity to flog ATRAPADOS some more. It’s as strange and mind-altering a film as any you’ll see, set almost entirely in a basement apartment that’s been sealed off from the world by some unidentified catastrophe. Trapped inside this eerie lightless environ, a man (Julio Torresoto, who also scripted) and a woman (Sonia Vivas) are forced to create their own hermetic universe in which they bicker, conceive a child and eventually starve to death. The proceedings are mighty bleak, but also rich and evocative in the manner of ERASERHEAD or BEGOTTEN, photographed in varying tints of black-and-white and decked out with all manner of lighting and sound effects.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE HEART (EL LADO OSCURO DEL CORAZON; 1992)
This film, from Argentine filmmaker Eliseo Subiela (MAN FACING SOUTHEAST), pivots on three elements beloved by cult movie buffs: sex, poetry and surrealism. Inspired by the writings of the Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo, THE DARK SIDE OF THE HEART concerns a randy young poet (Dario Grandinetti) looking for love. He’s very particular in his quest, laying out his requirements in an oft-repeated monologue proclaiming that under no circumstances will he accept a woman who “can’t fly”. Prospective mates that don’t make the grade are ejected into a bottomless void beneath the guy’s bed. After much search he finds a gal who can indeed fly, a flighty prostitute who continually rejects his advances, which include ripping his still-beating heart from his chest and offering it to the gal on a plate–along with a hundred dollar bill! He also chats with a woman who is in fact the angel of death, gets berated by his dead mother whose voice emanates from the mouth of a cow, and hangs out with a buddy who lives in an apartment accessible via a giant walk-in vagina. All this sublime nuttiness is offset somewhat by the boredom of the enterprise, which is wildly episodic and packed with political diatribes comprehensible only to residents of Argentina–where I understand the film was a success, albeit a highly controversial one.
DEATH WISH CLUB (a.k.a. GRETTA/CARNIVAL OF FOOLS; 1983)
This jaw-dropping comedy/romance/psychodrama seems destined to be best known as the middle segment of the 1985 anthology film NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR. As such DEATH WISH CLUB was pared down to around a quarter of its full length, while I contend that this mind roaster is best experienced in its complete 85-minute form. The production values and filmmaking are redolent of a student film (even though director John Carr was a twenty year veteran), which fits the terminally loony script by Oscar winner Philip Yordan, and the unforgettable lead performance of Merideth “Who?” Haze. Her acting style is essentially summed up by her last name, but the lovely Ms. Haze has undeniable screen presence, and I can’t imagine anyone else in her role. She plays Gretta, a severely disturbed porn starlet who lures a naïve young man into her fold. Among other things, Gretta suffers from the fact that she can’t seem to decide whether she’s a man or a woman. She’s also a member of the titular “club,” in which a band of death-obsessed freaks play macabre variations on Russian roulette by strapping themselves into electric chairs, loosing a poisonous fly from a jar to sting one of them, and lying on the ground below a rotating bowling ball on a rope about to break. As if all that weren’t enough, the film also contains midgets, perverts, a dirty old man (played by Yordan himself) and a transvestite wedding. Sound nuts? It is!
DREAM CITY (TRAUMSTADT; 1974)
This film only recently came to light after being buried for over three decades, so it has yet to fully filter out into the cult sphere. Nonetheless, I can’t help but ask: what the Hell’s taking so long?? Adapted from Alfred Kubin’s proto-surrealist masterwork THE OTHER SIDE, the film concerns a secluded community located in the wilds of Asia where several transplanted Europeans joyously give their wildest fantasies free reign…at least until a revolutionary shows up to spread dissention and the dream city implodes a riot of orgies and wholesale destruction. Director Johannes Schaaf demonstrates little knowledge of or interest in the fundamentals of filmmaking, yet he evinces a definite talent for creating striking and evocative imagery that places DREAM CITY, clumsy and incoherent though it often is, alongside bizarre movie classics of the seventies like EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN.
GOLDEN BRAID (1990)
Australia’s Paul Cox has over the years directed many idiosyncratic films (including MAN OF FLOWERS, CACTUS and NIJINSKY), in whose company GOLDEN BRAID stands out because a). it’s arguably the most eccentric of all Cox’s efforts, and b). it has yet to attain a fraction of the cult following enjoyed by its fellows. Loosely based on a story by Guy De Maupassant, GOLDEN BRAID is about a passionate love affair complicated by the fact that the woman (Gosia Dobrowolska) is married and the man (Chris Haywood) is in love with a braid of blonde hair. Said braid, found in an antique dresser Haywood is fixing up, obsesses this nutcase from the start, inspiring numerous VIVA LA MUERTE-styled hallucinations and causing irreparable damage to his relationships. In all honesty I’m not exactly sure what happens in the final scenes, which I found to be gorgeously photographed, deeply felt and not a little pretentious, not unlike the film as a whole.
MAGIC HUNTER (1994)
Strange doesn’t begin to describe this free-form phantasmagoria, the unfairly neglected second film by Hungary’s Ildiko Enyedi (of MY TWENTIETH CENTURY and SIMON THE MAGICIAN). THE KRAYS’ Gary Kemp stars as a police sharpshooter who finds his life coming apart after he accidentally snipes an innocent woman. Of course there’s a lot more to the film, as Enyedi flashes back and forth between Kemp’s modern-day existence and that of a band of medieval monks, along with a couple caught in Nazi-occupied Germany and appearances by the devil, the Virgin Mary, time tripping rabbits and cursed bullets. MAGIC HUNTER has more than its share of annoyances, including a sleepwalking performance by Kemp and a tone that’s a bit overly whimsical for my tastes, yet the proceedings have the allure of a particularly bizarre dream–and like a dream have a way of lingering in the viewers’ subconscious for days, if not years, after the film is over.
A PRAYER FOR HETMAN MAZEPA (MOLYTVA ZA HETMANA MAZEPU; 2002)
With A PRAYER FOR HETMAN MAZEPA the Ukraine’s late Yuri Ilyenko (of THE EVE OF IVAN KUPALO and WHITE BIRD MARKED WITH BLACK) went against the wishes of his financiers, who were evidently hoping for a BRAVEHEART-like populist epic about the 18th Century Ukrainian leader Ivan Mazepa. Instead the highly mercurial Ilyenko, following his own inscrutable muse, created a cinematic acid trip overflowing with sex, violence and scatological excess. Reportedly the costliest film ever made in the Ukraine, it was vastly despised in its native land and Russia (where it remains banned), and its critics aren’t entirely without off-base. The film, quite simply, is a mess, with a largely incoherent stream-of-consciousness narrative loaded with symbolism incomprehensible to anyone without a thorough knowledge of Ukrainian history. Yet Ilyenko, who was (as usual) working as his own cinematographer, conjures quite a few unforgettable sights, from the opening shot of a map in the form of a naked lady with the Ukraine located in the crotch area to the sight of fortress gates disgorging a torrent of severed heads to a vast procession of floating corpses. The closest cinematic equivalents would be the films of Ken Russell and Andrzej Zulawski, which if you’re a weird movie fan should be enough to at least pique your interest.
SPIKE OF LOVE (1994)
I fully believe this Canadian cine-mutation deserves a place of honor alongside nutzoid cult classics like FORBIDDEN ZONE and FREAKED. It begins with a horny businessman finding himself trapped in a claustrophobic apartment with a loony seductress and the latter’s g-string wearing “mother.” Also on hand are the seductress’ equally deranged boyfriend and his brother, who arrives toting a severed head. Clearly the businessman is in for an ordeal, but so are the other guys, one of whom engages in torrid S&M escapades with the seductress while his bro decides he’s the messiah and crucifies himself. Yes, it’s that kind of movie! The proceedings often feel excessively stagy with their one-room setting (not unlike MARAT/SADE retooled as a nineties-era dark comedy), yet a near-psychotic level of inspiration is evident in every scene, with profanity-laden dialogue that sounds like David Mamet on mescaline. Of course the film isn’t for everybody, as all the characters are insane to some degree and the humor is of the darkest imaginable hue, but for cult movie lovers it’s required viewing.
STRANGLER VS. STRANGLER (DAVITELJ PROTIV DAVITELJA; 1983)
Sure, this Serbian comedy-chiller has a devoted following, but that following is situated largely in its native land. For whatever reason STRANGLER VERSUS STRANGLER is extremely difficult to find in the U.S., even on the internet, which is probably why it has yet to attain any substantial cult attention on these shores. It’s certainly no fault of the film itself, which is every bit as wild, campy and grotesque as anyone could possibly desire. Pivoting on two stranglers, one of them a middle-aged loser who lives with his mother and the other a young rock star obsessed with the crimes of his rival, it’s chock-full of goofball slapstick, over-the-top gore, outrageous coincidences, impossible-to-predict plot twists and homages to (and/or parodies of) PSYCHO, all of it directed in surprisingly elegant fashion. There’s nothing else quite like this nutty concoction, which if given half a chance could become a midnight movie sensation on the level of THE ROOM or even THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.