Lost somewhere between Mel's mullet and Heaven's Gate

The Rough Guide to Cult Movies

January 18, 2002

What makes a cult movie? Taxonomy was much simpler before the ascent of the domestic VCR, when the programming of repertory cinemas offered a failsafe guide to which films and film-makers were attracting the most fanatical followings: from triple bills of Werner Herzog and Nicolas Roeg to midnight screenings of El Topo and The Rocky Horror Picture Show . A fine series of books ( Cult Movies ) by US critic Danny Peary ably represents the spirit of these celluloid-worshipping cadres.

But in today's DVD age, the availability and repeatability of movies for private consumption is legion, and it is harder to tell which pictures are being watched most avidly. Undaunted, this rough guide offers thumbnail sketches of about 1,000 supposedly "cult" titles, logged across 80 categories. An editorial gamely sets out the bar for admission, arguing that cults are made of: movies that have inspired obsessive, dialogue-spouting fans; gems that were neglected on release; pictures that are so bad they become engrossing; and, less convincingly, mainstream releases that contain an "indefinable something". Hence, under "action and adventure" are entered Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon , where that "something" is presumably Eddie Murphy's cackle, or Mel Gibson's mullet.

The categories pose problems throughout, and the weight of material makes for a lack of finesse. For instance, there's a "silent film" section, and yet F. W. Murnau's Sunrise is filed under the cop-out label of "drama", in the midst of many other unusual films ( Performance ; The Conformist ) that should have been more thoughtfully placed.

One hates to sound like a whining anorak, but any true cultist knows that the fine points count. Vanishing Point should not be in "action" when "road movies" are collected elsewhere. The Vincent Price picture Theatre of Blood is undoubtedly "horror", not "spoof".

This failure of imagination is sealed by a section on "turkeys", which blindly cites the roll call of famous Hollywood flops. And yet the most worthwhile task of cultists is to preserve ambitious film-making from the tyranny of box-office totals. If the editors attended the National Film Theatre's occasional screenings of Michael Cimino's four-hour Heaven's Gate , they would know that its cult is comprised of genuine admirers. By aiming to be exhaustive rather than discerning, this guide misses the point. The reviews are just too scanty, and sometimes misleading. But at least the book is dotted with informative sidebars, including a salute to Harry Dean Stanton.

Richard Kelly is author of Alan Clarke and The Name of This Book Is Dogme 95 .

The Rough Guide to Cult Movies

Editor - Paul Simpson
ISBN - 1 85828 960 2
Publisher - Rough Guides
Price - £6.99
Pages - 484

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