The phrase ‘instant cult’, like ‘instant classic’, involves a paradox, even an oxymoron. For if a film is to acquire cult status, it requires time and a special, typically repeat audience that keeps returning ritualistically to its place of worship.
This is what makes terming a strand of new films ‘Cult’ such a brazen provocation. Of course, ready-made horror, sci-fi and fantasy fandoms will have an idea that Cult is their proper precinct, occupying a shadowy niche in the vast London Film Festival programme somewhere between the Debate, Dare and Thrill strands without quite fitting any of these.
Indeed, the cult film, though named for its reception rather than its content, is often marked by a transgressive, misfit profile – like Laura Moss’s entry Birth/Rebirth, which all at once thoroughly modernises the icky ethics of the Frankenstein myth while offering a queered paradigm for a new kind of family dysfunction. Cult films are best defined as hard to define: they locate their ideal audience on the margins well outside of the mainstream.
The film from this year’s Cult selection that best exemplifies what constitutes cult cinema is a documentary about it: Ali Catterall and Jane Giles’ documentary Scala!!! whose unwieldy subtitle Or, the Incredibly Strange Rise and Fall of the World’s Wildest Cinema and How It Influenced a Mixed-Up Generation of Weirdos and Misfits references a genuine cult classic. The subject is a repertory venue (or two) that, between 1978 and 1993, became a Mecca for all manner of oddball cinematic wrongness, attracting a regular, reverent crowd of psychonauts, insomniacs, cruisers, horror hounds, trash aficionados and Laurel and Hardy fans, many of whom have gone on, under its freaky influence, to become authors, artists and filmmakers in their own right. Perhaps here we have a model for how the outré materials of the (then) present were able to pass on their impact to an enduring posterity, so that, at least in hindsight, their cult did prove instant. It is also a vibrant, suitably punkish doc, full of crazy anecdotes and pulsing to a bombastic score from Barry Adamson (himself a regular Scala attendee).
If time and repetition are key to the cult film, then some selections build their status upon the echoes of a pre-existing past. Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch – Demons are Forever reimagines the morgue-set thrills of his previous – now cult – feature Nightwatch (1994, remade in English in 1997) for the next generation, while bringing back the original’s now older stars (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kim Bodnia, Ulf Pilgaard) to ring the changes.
Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast plays more complicated games with chronology, intertwining its rippling narrative through three different timelines – 1910, 2014, 2044 – all of which find different incarnations of Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) caught in similar, recurring destinies of thwarted love and doom foretold. It’s a metacinematic, metempsychotic, Marienbad-like hall of mirrors, where romance comes with variations of tragedy prescribed.
Cameron and Colin Cairnes’ Late Night with the Devil also looks back in time with its rediscovered tapes of a talk show from 1977, as a live Halloween exorcism exposes the secrets of the compromised host (David Dastmalchian). Like Cristian Ponce’s History of the Occult (2020), Michael J. Hurst’s Transmission (2023) and Dominic O’Neill’s Haunted Ulster Live (2023), this is a real-time recreation of past televisual pandemonium, where an actual cult (of the demonic kind) emerges to reflect the film’s status and projected viewership.
Similarly in Stéphan Castang’s Vincent Must Die, a man (Karim Leklou) who suddenly finds himself virally, violently victimised by all around him will turn to a cult-like online community of similar sufferers, while my favourite of the Cult titles, Pascal Plante’s Red Rooms, confronts viewers with an uncomfortable echo of themselves in the disparate, morally questionable collection of men and (mostly) women obsessed, for different if overlapping reasons, with a series of unspeakable true crimes against girls, snuff recordings of which the film keeps promising – or is it threatening? – to show us.
This is a tense, coolly ambiguous portrait of extreme voyeurism and fanaticism, interrogating our own willing membership of the cult.
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