The Blair Witch Project expanded our definition of what constitutes a cult movie because, insidiously hyped, it entered the popular consciousness months before it was released. The young film-makers did not sit around waiting to be discovered, like the Steven Soderbergh of sex, lies and videotape or even David Lynch; they simply posted their own advance publicity on a website. As it turned out, their promotional vehicle was considerably more inventive than the film itself. Still, the hype worked: Blair Witch made more than $150 million (it cost a paltry $25,000 to make), yet it is not truly a mainstream movie and has engendered a devoted, ghettoised following.
Blair Witch was released too late to appear in Cult Movies, a guide with 150 meticulous entries by Philip French, the well-known film critic, and his son Karl. The authors begin by offering definitions of "cult" and a brief history of film watching. From the 1920s to the 1960s the passionate audience was split between students of the cinema and undiscriminating fans - it was, ironically, the television generation of the 1960s who became steeped in movies, partly because of the ubiquity bestowed on film by the new medium. At the same time, the fashionable auteur theory created the myth of the director as creative deity.
These are important historical details because cult cinema is more an art of reception than it is a type of film-making. Indeed, the films in Cult Movies have possibly nothing in common whatsoever. The disconcerting truth is that most films, like most people, don't fascinate us at all, even when they do entertain. So what identifies a cult movie? Well, it is surely something that comes to fascinate us through a kind of furtive body language, an accumulation of unconsciously registered signs. We empathise with cult films, not with their actors or with pyrotechnic special effects, but with the very movies themselves. We engage with them unreasonably and ambiguously. The emergence of a canon of cult films, made in a broad variety of circumstances, have helped to make the cinema, beyond the obvious commercial and escapist reasons, fascinating to a disparately educated (and international) audience.
It would be hard to disagree with most of the choices here. The writers have self-imposed a one-film-per-director rule, but their approach seems to have been to pull out the most cultish films by the most established directors. So, appropriately, Orson Welles is represented by Touch of Evil, not Citizen Kane; Carol Reed by Odd Man Out, not The Third Man; Martin Scorsese by The King of Comedy. Jean Renoir, that least cultish of great directors, doesn't get a look in. Inevitably there are several movies in the selection that one would question and the 1990s feel over-represented, as if the authors feared looking out of date to a likely young readership. There are also surprising omissions: Sandy Mackendrick's masterly Sweet Smell of Success, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, Max Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman.
The pleasure of Cult Movies comes, then, in no small part from an establishment figure espousing on trendy films. The trademarks of Philip French's technique are all here. The encyclopaedic art and industry knowledge (some entries read like John Motson training for a big game), the lofty textual observations, the puns, the obsession with westerns and train movies and a style that manages at once to be both concise and wordy (Karl's more simple style offers an accessible counterpoint to his father's grand authority). Each entry is broken up with quotes and bizarre background facts that the authors revel in with a trainspotter's enthusiasm. This book is a gem.