'100 Cult Films': Some You'd Expect, But 'Star Wars'? Film studies professors Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik talk about what makes a cult film — and their definitions may surprise many listeners.
NPR logo

'100 Cult Films': Some You'd Expect, But 'Star Wars'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/143861137/143916368" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'100 Cult Films': Some You'd Expect, But 'Star Wars'?

'100 Cult Films': Some You'd Expect, But 'Star Wars'?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/143861137/143916368" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Scripts with a cult following among movie insiders today stand a good chance of becoming the cult films of tomorrow. Just ask George Lucas. You heard right. Even though "Star Wars" was one of the biggest blockbuster popcorn flicks of all time, it's still considered a cult favorite - at least according to Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik. They're the authors of a new book called "100 Cult Films," which places "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Sound of Music" alongside "Pink Flamingoes" and "Rocky Horror Picture Show." Professor Mathijs teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he joins us from the CBC studios. And Professor Mendik teaches at Brunel University in London. He joins us from the studios at BBC Radio Northampton. Gentlemen, welcome.



CORNISH: Now, I have to say right away I'm pretty floored by the inclusion of "The Sound of Music" and "The Wizard of Oz" to the same list as "Rocky Horror Picture Show." So, clearly we need to get some definitions straight. What makes a movie a cult film? Give us your definition.

MENDIK: Just kind of from a U.K. perspective - and I'm sure Ernest, as always, will kind of correct me - I mean, I think really what we're dealing with is the idea from the margins to the mainstream. I think this is a volume that tries to recognize that there are now blockbuster cult movies. But also that cult movies do have still an underground status. You know, these are movies that transgress content because they are often so controversial and contentious. Their style was also transgressive. They were both kind of art house and grind house and also they were an offense to good taste. That was a marginal notion of cult, but Ernest is an expert in their mainstream kind of visions.

CORNISH: Yeah, Ernest, I was going to ask you to make the case for some of these films. For instance, "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" as cult films. Explain.

MATHIJS: Yeah, they're very popular films. But I think amidst their popularity, there's a degree of fandom that exceeds the bounds of moderation. It's that very engaged, committed, loyal, enduring fandom for "The Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" and "The Sound of Music" and "The Wizard of Oz" that makes those films into cult films as well.


MATHIJS: Amidst all the popularity of "The Sound of Music," there are pockets of loyal fans who find ways to use that film as a guide through life. It's very cultist. Slogans such as "how do you solve a problem like Maria?" become questions about gender identity that fans latch onto.


MATHIJS: And that sort of turns into a camp film and hence into a cult film.

CORNISH: How does a mainstream film become a cult film? Is it just about that devoted subset of fans or is there something about the movie itself?

MATHIJS: It's a bit of both. There's a subset of fans, but those fans, they don't invent stuff. They latch on to elements of the movie, which they then pull out of normality, if you want, and they start questioning it, discussing it extensively up to the point where then other people, other fans start asking themselves. Yeah, that's right, actually. This isn't quite normal, such as, for instance, the friendship between Luke and Leia.


MATHIJS: If you really get into it, there's something there that's quite edgy.


CORNISH: Most of the films on the list are from the 1970s, and why is that such a rich period for cult films in particular?

MENDIK: Well, I guess, you know, it's often the case that people say bad times in society are good times for cult movie. And it is interesting to note that when we're in a period of calm, you know, cult movies kind of largely disappear. But when society's in a state of turmoil, they really erupt and you get a whole plethora of them. And I think in the 1970s, it's very much the golden age of cult cinema. You know, you had in America things like the Watergate crisis, Vietnam, race riots and urban unrest. In Europe, you had the Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. And it's no surprise that these affected cultures were really spewing out cult moves at different genres by the bucket-load. And I guess I often refer to these movies as the feel bad genres. They really had a moral ambiguity about them. You know, so although they were quite comical, cliched and kitsch, they often had semi-serious messages behind them. And that's why I think the '70s were so important.

MATHIJS: Yeah, I absolutely agree with you, and I would even add a couple of things. It's also the 1970s is also the decade when the classical Hollywood system has failed forever and there hasn't quite yet been erected a new system.

CORNISH: Give us a sense of maybe two cult films that you guys really love, your favorite on your list.

MATHIJS: OK. I have a public one that's a very esteemed and clever film, and that's David Cronenberg's "Videodrome."


MATHIJS: And then I have a private one, and it's also a Canadian film. Maybe that explains why I ended up in Canada. And that's a Canadian horror film called "Ginger Snaps."

CORNISH: Ah, "Ginger Snaps" is a movie about - I mean, to distill it down - it's about a teenage girl who turns into a werewolf.

MATHIJS: Yeah. Two sisters...

CORNISH: And it's like a metaphor for her actually becoming a woman, right?

MATHIJS: It's a remarkable film because it totally upsets the traditional horror fanboy.

CORNISH: And, Xavier, for you - two faves?

MENDIK: Top of the list would be have to be Dario Argento's 1977 supernatural shocker "Susperia," which was the inspiration for the more recent "Black Swan" with Natalie Portman. It's essentially a murder mystery movie set in an all-female dance academy. But more homegrown and American would have be Toby Hooper's 1974 classic "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." It was the first movie I ever saw on home video, and at the time we only owned a black and white TV. And it took me several years to figure out the movie had actually been made in color. But it actually didn't detract from my enjoyment at all. I was totally terrified by it. And I think why it was so terrifying, there was no moral center to this movie. Really, that encapsulates what cult movies are often about. They really blur the moral boundaries and make us think.

CORNISH: And I know you guys solicited public suggestions for the last film on the list, but we actually asked for some suggestions from our listeners as well and we got more than 2,000 responses. So, I'm going to read just a few. Prepare yourselves, OK? Margo McIntire writes: Seriously, no "Princess Bride" on the list? Inconceivable.

MATHIJS: She's absolutely right. That was our 101st film.

CORNISH: Are you being serious?

MATHIJS: Well, there are about 200 101st films.

CORNISH: Right, right. Well, there's more on this list. Robert Allan writes: What? No "Clockwork Orange?" Without that, the list is illegitimate.

MATHIJS: It's a bit of a conundrum.

MENDIK: Yeah. I think, you know, to sub-quote "Jaws," we're going to need a bigger book.


MATHIJS: I think we owe it to the people who wrote in the comments - I quickly glanced at them and there were - and I immediately started jotting down all the titles and I thought there's another book in here. We need to cover all these films.

CORNISH: Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik are the authors of the new book "100 Cult Films." Ernest joined us from the studios of CBC Vancouver, and Xavier from BBC Radio Northampton. Gentlemen, thanks so much.

MATHIJS: Thank you.

MENDIK: Thank you.

CORNISH: And you can see the complete list of the top 100 cult films, along with a slideshow of some of our favorites on NPR.org. This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.


CORNISH: And finally, before we close, I have some news to share. Starting next month, I will begin an election year assignment as co-host of NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. But WEEKEND EDITION Sunday will be in good hands. Rachel Martin will host the program in 2012. Rachel is NPR's national security correspondent. We heard her in today's show and look forward to hearing her more. She'll take the reins on January 8th. Until then, we'll have Christmas and New Year's Day together on WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Thanks for listening. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.