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April 26-May 2, 2006

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Cult Leader

Cult on Cable: There's something weird on your TV

By Steve Palopoli

THERE IS no doubt that cult films have gone mainstream in a way Rocky Horror freaks couldn't have imagined when they practically turned moviegoing into a gang activity in the first midnight movies of the late '70s.

As far as I'm concerned, the deal was sealed with Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction—in an alternate universe somewhere, that little $8 million film flopped in theaters in 1994, then rocketed to the ultimate cultdom after being discovered on video by rabid fans who appreciated the experimental narrative tricks, vicious humor and geeky references to cult movies past. But in this world, everyone was suddenly in on the joke, and it went straight into the pop-culture zeitgeist, making over $100 million in the process.

The '90s was just that kind of decade. There's been a rebirth since, thanks to a new generation of midnight movies (The Big Lebowski, Donnie Darko, Napoleon Dynamite). But the mainstreaming of cult culture hasn't stopped, and it's important to remember that it's not always a bad thing, either.

I was reminded of both points last week as I was exploring the bottomless pit that is my new digital-cable setup. With apologies to Mr. T. I hardly find my cable service "comcastic!" (unless that's slang for "ludicrously expensive"). But one place they truly rage is their "On Demand" service. That phrase used to mean, like, pay-per-view crap movies in hotel rooms. But now it's crazy what you can demand, mostly without spending a dime. I found off-the-wall stuff amid the general mediocrity in the "free movies" section, like the 1968 movie about the Boston Strangler with Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda, a documentary called Slut about the colorful history of that colorful word and Sergei Urusevsky's stunning but nearly forgotten 1964 pro-revolution propaganda piece I Am Cuba. They also seem to have all of Hitchcock's most popular films and all the movies DePalma made that ripped them off.

But the moment of truth came while I flipped through another free On Demand area called "The Cutting Edge". Not only do they have Adult Swim and anime stuff there, but there's a button at the very end called "Something Weird." When I saw it I thought, "No way, it can't be that Something Weird!" But it is.

Something Weird is a small distribution company that for the last 15 years or so has been the bottom-feeder of the cult-movie world. While Criterion Collection was putting cinematic masterpieces on laser disc, the Something Weird guys were putting out crazy VHS tapes featuring some of the most insane stuff you could find on video. It was thanks to Something Weird that I saw my first films by "Godfather of Gore" H.G. Lewis, Brazil's madman filmmaker Coffin Joe (whose unbelievable 1967 film I rented from a stupid video store in a strip mall solely because it was called This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse, which is still in my Top 10 list of best titles ever) and sexploitation icon Doris Wishman. So that's the kind of outfit we're talking about here.

And now they have their own cable channel. That's nuts. And so cool. In their On Demand section, I watched the only existing loop in which Bettie Page speaks, a seven-minute document of burlesque legend Lili St. Cyr's stage show, and a bunch of those messed up "educational" films on the dangers of things like running off to Hollywood to become an actress, driving crazy to impress your date and not Eating For Health. And they put up new stuff all the time. I'm going to have to clear my calendar.

While I'm on the subject of cult TV, I gotta mention that my favorite new series out there is The Henry Rollins Show on the Independent Film Channel. In the first four weeks, he's interviewed Oliver Stone, Chuck D., Werner Herzog and Ozzy Osbourne. And he gets musical performances from artists like Frank Black, Sleater-Kinney and Ben Folds. But the best part each week is his recommendations near the end for movies he thinks people should check out and why. He's got great taste, but you haven't seen funny until you've seen the muscle-bound, drill-instructor-like Rollins bark "This week, the films of Rainer Fassbinder!" My DVR has a date with Henry every Saturday night.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback, confessions about weird films you love and questions about that one movie you saw one time to [email protected]

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