It couldn’t have been easy, two film buffs compiling a list of cinema’s top 100 cult films. The potential for angering cult-film enthusiasts (redundant, I know) seems enormous, inevitable. Along the way, there was fierce debate – and ultimately, some would argue, questionable results.
Along with the cult mainstays one would absolutely expect – The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Big Lebowski, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – even the casual observer has to wonder: What on earth is It’s a Wonderful Life doing on that list? The Sound of Music? The Wizard of Oz? And where the heck is A Clockwork Orange? Anything by Quentin Tarantino? And what – no Princess Bride?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” says co-author Ernest Mathijs, when asked what criteria he and co-author Xavier Mendik used in compiling the list. “It’s kind of easy to settle on a canon of say 55 to 60 key cult films ... but when we came to the higher numbers, it became very tough.”
Their recently published collaboration, 100 Cult Films, was more than a decade in the making. Mathijs, who teaches film at the University of British Columbia but was still living in his native Belgium at the time, met Mendik – who teaches film at Brunel University in Britain – in 2000 at the first international conference on cult cinema in Nottingham. Over breakfast, they began a debate that would last more than 10 years and ultimately result in this book (along with other projects).
Their definition of cult film is two-fold: the often-transgressive, edgy film that finds itself on the margins because it’s a challenge in some way to normality; and films that over time have endured an extremely committed loyal fan following. Any sort of controversy – especially censorship ( Emmanuelle, Baise-moi, Cannibal Holocaust) – was a big plus. Sex and violence too, especially when in concert ( Ichi the Killer, Nekromantik, Daughters of Darkness – “It’s lesbian time in Transylvania!” read one of the ads for the 1971 vampire sex flick).
In measuring cult status, horror is big ( Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead). So are films so bad they’re good ( Showgirls, The Room). Camp can also equal cult – thus The Sound of Music.
As for other non-marginal films on the list such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, “they’re bang in the middle of the mainstream,” says Mathijs. “But within that mainstream following there are pockets of fandom that are exceptional, that use these films as a path through life.”
Mathijs did his PhD on the international reception for the films of David Cronenberg, so it’s no surprise that Videodrome and The Brood made the cut. John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps rounds out the Canadian content.
Over the course of the debate between the co-authors, Mathijs lost his fight to include The Princess Bride (“Xavier said we had enough cute films already”) but won inclusion of the 1991 U.S. underground film Begotten.
“That’s a film that hardly had any release at all and Xavier’s argument was it doesn’t have much of a cult following,” says Mathijs. “And I said but it’s the real sectarian cult; it’s a very small committed group of people. It’s like a secret handshake that goes worldwide. If you’ve seen Begotten, you’re in that cult.”
Mendik won his case for Umberto Lenzi’s Rome Armed to the Teeth but couldn’t twist Mathijs’s arm to include Conan Le Cilaire’s Faces of Death.
Mathijs and Mendik ultimately decided on 99 films and then, looking for a way to measure endurance for recently released films, launched an online poll to determine the 100th (from a list of 25 recent releases they nominated). In Bruges won in a photo finish.
And it was with heavy hearts that they finally had to leave films such as The Exorcist, Grindhouse and the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In off the list. Says Mathijs: “We have at least 200 films that would qualify as the 101st cult film.”