The term 'cult film' irks me. What springs to mind when you hear those words?
I think there are three definitions which could all independently be ascribed to the term;
- films with a rabid fan base
- films which are popular with a small audience
- films which embrace the genre of cult - trashy, low-fi, shocking and offensive.
I think to a traditional, mainstream audience the list of cult films is a fairly narrow one and applies strictly to the first definition - The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Aliens, The Blues Brothers, The Wicker Man, The Big Lebowski, This is Spinal Tap, Blade Runner, Ghostbusters, The Evil Dead. These are not small films. Each of them has had several reissues on DVD and Blu-ray, can still fill cinemas decades after their initial release, have huge merchandise revenues and are well known to the general public.
I'm not a fan of the first definition. Tim Burton is known as a cult director but his films are massive studio releases. I've regularly heard Star Wars referred to as a cult sci-fi film and that slightly bristles.
The second definition feels more on the money for me, films which are popular with a small audience. These are the films which film fans will consider staples but a mainstream audience might not even have heard of - Harold and Maude, Clerks, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Grey Gardens, The Lost Boys, the films of David Lynch, Dark Star, Bad Taste, Office Space, Re-Animator - often skirting around sci-fi or horror but almost always having a slightly detached, ironic, laconic attitude with genuine filmmaking skill behind it. Of course, the definition of 'small' here is a flexible one - these films are important to hundreds of thousands of film fans worldwide.
The third definition is, for me, the truest. When I think of cult films, I think of John Waters films - Divine eating dog poo in Pink Flamingos, I think of the decades of trash that Troma films have released, most notably the Toxic Avenger series and other Z-list indulgences like the films of Ed Wood and Russ Meyer. Grindhouse, Blaxploitation, Ozploitation, the whole release slate of Cannon Films. Also the more fiercely independent and arty film-makers like early works from Todd Haynes, Andy Warhol and the animations of Ralph Bakshi.
About a decade ago, I set myself the challenge of finding a genuine cult film. The cult-iest of all cult films. A film which was well-made and clever, popular with a small audience yet with a truly rabid fanbase which also felt as trashy, low-fi and shocking as the greatest films of the established cult genre. And I succeeded.
At the time, I owned two independent video shops in Oxford, England - they were called Videosyncratic and were as indie-slacker as you could ever hope for. Surly, smart-arsed staff who knew way more than you about cinema, thousands of films you'd forgotten years ago or never heard of, loud music, late opening hours, you get the picture. A place you went to discover great films and feel judged. The shops were doing OK, so I wanted to expand the empire into an indie DVD label.
I started out looking for established cult films - at that time, labels like Arrow, 88 Films and Eureka had yet to define that market of putting out great packages with beautiful artwork and comprehensive special features of established second/third definition films on DVD. For a while I talked to Toho in Japan about releasing the Godzilla films on DVD, but it proved too costly, so I decided to go down and dirty. I put the word out through my global network of punky cultural elitists and eventually a voice from Seattle said "JERKBEAST!" "JERKBEAST?" I asked "JERKBEAST!"
Jerkbeast had started as a public access TV show in which the eponymous JB - a big red monster made out of crude papier mache would sit in a studio with his friends Sweet Benny and Marty. People would phone in and shout at them, they'd all shout back. Especially Jerkbeast, who was the shoutiest. Benny wore welding goggles. Marty wore a helmet with a rotating light on it. Jerkbeast... shouted at people. It was really shit. And really funny. The three friends were also a band, who regularly played in and around Seattle called Steaming Wolf Penis. Jerkbeast was on drums. An 8 foot tall papier mache monster on drums. And they were amazing. A genuinely great band. They even released an album called 'Assholes and Hand Grenades' which featured their greatest song 'Looks Like Chocolate, Tastes Like Shit!' After two series of their TV show and a failed attempt at an animated show, they decided to make Jerkbeast The Movie. The story of Jerkbeast The Movie doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter. It's an hour and a half of punk rock, necrophiliac, bunny smashing, insult-spewing chaos. And it's amazing. I immediately snapped up the UK rights to the film. It was the only film to be released on the Videosyncratic label. Because I didn't know what I was doing. And the film is awful. And by awful, I mean brilliant. And you already know enough about it to know if you'd love or detest this film. Both responses are completely valid.
But I nominate Jerkbeast as the ultimate cult film of all time - it's sharp in its crappiness and its creators Brady Hall, Brian Wendorf and Calvin Lee Reeder (who has gone on to win many awards for his subsequent filmmaking) create their own beautiful trashy world in it. It also has a very, very small but very, very rabid fan base - specifically in people who were punk rock teenagers in Seattle in the 90s and a bizarre subset in Manchester, in the UK who experienced Steaming Wolf Penis on their second tour of the UK in support of the film launch. Huge in Manchester. Huge in a small group of people in Manchester.
Anyway, the DVD label went bust because nobody saw the movie. We only sold a couple of hundred copies of the DVD, which now goes on Amazon for between £30 to £70 due to it's absolute scarcity. It doesn't seem that scarce to me. I've got an attic full of them.
The full ugly story of Jerkbeast's year in the UK, which includes his scrapes with Leatherface and Jason Vorhees and his invasion of the offices of Empire Magazine is available in my book Videosyncratic, which you can get a copy of through Kickstarter right here:
It's also the only place that you can get hold of the 2-disc special edition DVD of Jerkbeast. And you know you want to...