Roughly 40 years ago film critic Danny Peary began his Cult Films trilogy book series. It was groundbreaking for its detailed analysis of films that capture our imagination far beyond the first time we viewed them. We have to see them multiple times. Whether arguable great works of cinema, such as "Night of the Hunter," or a malformed puppy, like "Blood Feast," they were so damn unique. Derivative was not in their vocabulary. You could not replicate a film such as "Plan 9 From Outer Space," or "Pink Flamingos." It was the work of inspired minds, even if a bit, or a lot, unhinged.
I read Peary's three books to tatters, of course. I still have copies. But the books began to fade in impact, something that was written a long while ago. And, then in 2006, TCM started its TCM Underground series and suddenly these fantastic cult films that Peary had written about, and many more, began airing in "the wee small hours of the morning." Directors such as Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Ed Wood, Ray Dennis Steckler, William Beaudine (post 1960), Timothy Carey, William Castle, Jamaa Fanaka, Penelope Spheeris, Paul Bartel, and others joined the list of respectables that dot TCM's schedule.
It's been 17 years of TCM Underground and I never miss it. If for some reason I cannot be up at those hours, I DVR. And yes, I watch re-runs; after all, they're cult films. Without TCM Underground, I don't think I'd have ever discovered diamonds like "Hausa," or "Emma Mae." For a list of all films aired, including shorts, go here.
So, when I learned of the October release of "TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films From the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema" (Running Press/Turner Classic Movies Philadelphia, 2022), I had to get it. I was hoping for a contemporary update of cult cinema; one that complements Peary's earlier work.
Readers will not be disappointed. "... 50 Must-See Films" is a gem. The reviews are expertly recapped and analyzed by writers Millie De Chirico (TCM Underground's chief programmer) and critic Quatoyiah Murry. I will briefly recap three reviews. The strength of the analysis includes the authors noting where these cult gems challenged conventional mores of their era, and take positions and assumptions that are accepted more today. Cult films, crudely made or not, can do this. As author/comedian Patton Oswalt says in the book's Foreward: "Moment and feeling always conquer plot and logic, especially out beyond the edge."
The authors have placed the films in various genre categories. Dig just a few of the titles: "I Saw What You Did," "The Honeymoon Killers," "Shack Out on 101." Or "Polyester," "Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things," "Fleshpot on 42nd Street." How about "Blacula," "Haxan" (this film is a big personal favorite), or "Lets Scare Jessica to Death." And there's "Little Darlings" (I'd forgotten about this film), "Two Lane Blacktop," and the aforementioned "Emma Mae." And besides "Hausa," there is "Belladona of Sadness," "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," "Mac and Me," and "Funeral Parade of Roses" (which will blow your mind away).
One thing I like about "... 50 Must-See Films ..." is its daring. It's willing to include films that were almost universally derided. The author's sense films that are just starting to develop a cult. Peary, for example, foresaw that the box office flop "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" would gain a big following. De Chirico and Murry are putting out the word that '80s box-office failures "Mac and Me," and "The Garbage Pails Kids Movie," have grabbed cults and are worthy of note and further interest.
And, indeed, when you look at the ultra-slick, somehow derivative high-production quality animation and fantasy today, you appreciate the uniqueness of the outcasts of the "... Garbage Pail Kids ...," sent to the State Home for the Ugly, or the awkward, crass, in-your-face commercialism of "Mac and Me." It's endearing to see another one-time failure, "Xanadu," bloom today from new viewers who simple marvel at its ability to capture a dozen artistic genres in one feature.
Here are recaps of three films in the book that represent cult genres that -- to my observations -- were not noted as cult material 40 years ago, during the era of Peary.
The first is "Emma Mae" (1976). Lumped incorrectly as "blacksploitation," (it was given a cheesy other title, "Black Sister's Revenge," in hopes of boosting sales) the film details a young, naive southern girl/woman (Jerri Hayes) moving to live with relatives in Compton. It's a whole new life and culture. She's awkward, not conventionally pretty, and sometimes mocked by family and others. But Emma Mae has a mixture of sweetness and ferocity that slowly earns her respect and friendship. Naively, she falls in love with a man who disrespects her badly, even after she's risked her life and freedom for him. The authors correctly note that this is a hybrid film. "It's part fish-out-of-water story, part coming of age, part family drama, and part revolutionary tale of Black female empowerment."
Another film is the Andy Milligan-directed "Fleshpot on 42nd Street." I was very pleased that TCM Underground finally recognized Milligan's work. His films, ranging in budgets of $10,000 to $40,000, often were "horror" flicks. But Milligan's real skill was digging deep into the domestic lives of his characters, and creating dysfunctions that often led to violence and death. "Fleshpot" is not a horror film. It captures the grimy, dangerous lives of sex workers around 42nd Street in New York City in the 1970s. The main character is Dusty (Laura Cannon) a semi-grifter who steals and leaves her current boyfriend, grifts a horny antique dealer, and moves in with transgender sex worker friend Cherry Lane (Neil Flanagan). (Flanagan, by the way, would note an Oscar nomination if conventional Hollywood cared a whit about grindhouse cinema.)
A small time is spent with these characters, who are survivors enduring life, and we are voyeurs, witnessing their world in grubby sex settings, the streets of 42nd Street, and a lower-tier bar with an eclectic mass of characters, including two sisters who need to be seen to be appreciated. Things might began to look up for Dusty. She meets an interesting man. But you get the feeling there are far more lows than highs in this world. Even Dusty and Cherry -- who need each other -- began to quarrel.
This is a powerful film. The authors note: "Viewing this edgy classic will likely be a jarring experience for most filmgoers today, even the staunchest cult movie fan. This film was made for a particular and very small subsection of the public, not the masses. This is its charm and its strength. Its an examination of a concealed world operating in the fringes outside mainstream society, and from the artistic bird's-eye view alone, it's a captivating watch."
Many of Milligan's films are lost. Thank heavens "Fleshpot" is one that survived.
The authors also include "Wild Seed," 1965, a film about a teenager 17, Daffy, who runs away from home. After being sexually attacked, she runs into a protector named Fargo, a somewhat harsh 20-something man who is a migrant worker and drifter. He takes her on a nomadic train-hopping cross-country journey to Los Angeles, with all the dangers this type of life offers.
Daffy (Celia Milius) wants to confront her father. She begins to have feelings for Fargo, but he's been battered by life into a type of protective cynicism. But through conflict, they yearn for each other. The authors write: "Wild Seed" is a sensitive, thoughtful film, big on mood and atmosphere and with tons of talent behind it .... (Daphne's) foray into the train-jumping life feels like a glimpse into a secret society ..."
Fans of diverse genres of film will love this book. Readers will make it a constant occasional read, skipping through and back to pages to different films they enjoy at that particular time, and wish to revisit. I hope that, given the amount of films already shown on TCM Underground, there will be several further editions of "50 Must-See Films."