A film’s cult status is normally defined by a peculiar kind of audience reception (repeat viewings, fanatical audiences) that has been acquired over time, rather than by any easily identifiable content, but there are certain characteristics often found in the cult movie that make it possible to apply this label to the now regular strand of new titles at the BFI London Film Festival. These are the films that tend to be categorised by precisely their resistance to ready categorisation. They are the midnight movies and marginal misfits, puzzling and paracinematic, transcending the boundaries of horror, sci-fi, fantasy and other genres, exulting in their own wonder and weirdness, and exposing eccentricity and otherness along the way.
Several features from this year’s LFF Cult selection explore primitivism, animalism or the uncanny within the human species, while others offer highly singular and particularised perspectives on otherwise ordinary events and lives.
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You Won’t Be Alone
In premodern Macedonia, a skinless, witchy Wolf-Eateress (Anamaria Marinca) removes baby Nevena’s tongue and, 16 years later, claims the child as her own, rearing her in blood-letting savagery. Now a Wolf-Eateress herself, Nevena seems destined to repeat her adoptive mother’s bitter life of predation, cruelty and otherness – “and yet, and yet” (a recurring phrase in our otherwise voiceless protagonist’s voiceover), as Nevena variously changes identity, sex and species, she ever so gradually learns to laugh and cry, and starts to see that, for all the harsh misogyny and violence of village life, there are also attractions and ideals.
Played by Sara Klimoska, Noomi Rapace, Carlotto Cotta, Alice Englert and a dog, the shape-shifting Nevena embodies the contradictions in our capacity for vindictive monstrousness offset by immense, overwhelming love – and so writer-director Goran Stolevski’s strange, often brutal feature is also a hopeful lesson in humanism.
Out of Darkness
Also tracing the fine line between the human, the bestial, the monstrous and the demonic, Andrew Cumming’s feature debut goes back 45,000 years to the palaeolithic period, as a stone-age sextet seeks a new life in a new world, only for these hunters to find themselves being hunted by something as fast and fierce as themselves. “The danger of bringing light to a dark place,” as the group’s old advisor Odal (Arno Luening) says, “is that you might find out what lives in the darkness.”
If the film is full of the woodlands, caves and shadows that form our species’ primal fears, it is also, like Quest for Fire (1981) and Prey (2022), literally primitive in its settings, delivering ur-horror that is the template (and origin) of a future genre. It even has, in the exploitable ‘stray’ Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a proto-Final Girl who challenges gender norms, who will do anything to survive, and whose late-acquired introspection brings both real horror, and renewed hope for something better.
In Gabriel Bier Gislason’s debut feature, London student Leah (Ellie Kendrick) is caught between the traditional Hasidic upbringing maintained by her overbearing mother Chana (Sofie Gråbøl), and the secular lesbian life that she would like to enjoy with her new lover, the Danish actress Maja (Josephine Park). This is like Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience (2017), only with a supernatural entity drawn from Jewish folklore. For when Leah suffers a crippling seizure in Denmark, gentile Maja agrees to help nurse her in the Stamford Hill apartment, close to the influence of Channa, and of something else whose malign presence makes itself ever more felt.
This genre element serves as a fitting metaphor for Leah’s conflicted, hybrid nature, as she strives to leave behind what Chana represents, but cannot quite let go of her own history. For all the kabbalistic rituals, at heart this is a story of mothers and daughters, and a queer romance of otherness.
The Kingdom Exodus
If the two series of Lars von Trier’s Danish hospital-based The Kingdom (1994, 1997) openly borrowed their surreal soap operatics from David Lynch’s two series of Twin Peaks (1990 to 1991), then The Kingdom Exodus is more like Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Up to speed on events from 25 years ago because she has just watched the shows on DVD (“How can they peddle such half-baked hooey – that’s no ending”), sleepwalking, telekinetic Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) heads to the hospital to dig into its unresolved mysteries, even as neurosurgeon Dr Helmer Jr (Mikael Hersbrandt) arrives from Sweden with a strong sense of Swedish superiority and disdain for the Danes matched only by his determination to uncover what drove his father Stig Helmer mad.
Combining crazy comedy and cosmic horror, von Trier revels in the petty, banal vanities of his characters while constantly holding out the promise of apocalyptic inundation.
Jung Bum-shik’s feature debut Epitaph (2007), which he co-wrote and co-directed with his brother Jung Sik, was structured as an omnibus, and he subsequently contributed episodes to the anthologies Horror Stories (2012) and Horror Stories 2 (2013). After turning to found footage in the feature Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018), his latest New Normal marks a return to his roots in short form, but he has written and directed all six of its formally separate chapters himself, ensuring that they come with a coherence otherwise often lacking in this format.
Set during a June marred by both a freak snowstorm and unnatural outbreaks of violence, these stories focus on lonely, insulated urban existence and the need for connection, even as disparate characters prove to have lives more closely interwoven than they ever realise. It’s a darkly, freakily comic mosaic of murder and mayhem, collectively unfolding broader themes of coincidence, fatalism and deeply ingrained malice.
Sat in the gutter but looking at the stars, writer-director Colin West’s feature was the highlight for me from this year’s Cult strand. As 50-year-old schlump Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan) puts an application for NASA in a public postbox, something irrational and impossible happens: a red convertible comes crashing from the sky beside him. Spilling out onto the road is its driver, Kent Armstrong, who looks like “a younger, better-looking” Cameron, and who, miraculously emerges unscathed from the accident, moves in next door and takes over as host on Cameron’s long-running science show for children, Above and Beyond.
Like a combination of Donnie Darko (2001) Gagarine (2020) – only with a much older protagonist and some mind-bending twists all its own – this paradoxical psychodrama, expanded by West from his 2018 short Here & Beyond, builds its own uplifting truth from the scattered detritus of criss-crossing suburban narratives. A tightly scripted study in the unique subjectivity of experience and “the connection of all things”, this is full of intricacy, empathy and awe, not only locating the extraordinary in ordinary lives, but also bringing to its many conundrums a deeply affecting resolution that is as complicated or as simple as you choose to see it.
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