I don’t know by what means you stumbled across my little shindig here, but odds are you have some level of familiarity with cult cinema and the VHS heyday. For argument’s sake though, let’s say you don’t. We sometimes forget that while we have spent a long time in a particular game, some people will come in with the eyes of the novice, fresh faced and unawares of our ways. We shouldn’t react with scorn but welcome them into the fold as fellow fans. For that purpose, I want to address how to begin seeking out the cult cinema of yesteryear.
The Rental Store
For many fans of cult cinema, our fascination began among the lurid displays of art at our local video rental stores. Over our lifetimes, we have seen these local stores dry up and die off from the influx of chains, which in turn were killed off by the release of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Because these services generally appeal to a common denominator audience, older films can often be difficult to find in their libraries, but that still gives you the option of the more recent low budget treat or the occasional public domain release that they might be able to provide.
That said, some cities were lucky enough to keep a video rental shop alive, partly because these places had to diversify based on local and underground tastes that the mass market shops never catered to. If you live in a major city, your best bet is to search for shops like this and pay them a visit. Pick a genre that interests you and peruse at your leisure, or speak with the attendants running the place. Odds are if they’re in a rental store, they’re film enthusiasts and can often offer suggestions. Never forget the importance of sharing a love of the cult!
Going hand in hand with the specialty rental store is also the arthouse theater. Do you have a local movie theater that does special events? Maybe you’re lucky enough to live near an Alamo Drafthouse theater. If so, check their schedules and reach out to them to find out upcoming showings. These are amazing and wonderful places to experience cult cinema, and they need you to come and fill the theater just as much as you need to go watch. Remember that your theater may also not be in a traditional location; bars, book stores, and coffee shops will often show movies now too, so keep an eye open when looking around for what’s available.
TV’s Still a Thing, Right?
Sometimes while scrolling through channels at around two in the morning, you will find the most incredibly amazing crap. Whether it be a late night contract purge on USA or a weird themed evening of film on SyFy, cult films do still wind up on television. Unfortunately, these versions are usually censored and potentially full of commercial breaks. Long gone are the days when AMC didn’t run a film with an ad every five minutes, artificially extending the run time to around 3 hours. There is still hope though! The network El Rey has proven to be a stalwart for finding all kinds of treasures, and TCM has a program called TCM Underground that proudly makes it a point to be uncensored and commercial free. Keep an eye out, and you might just stumble across a real gem.
Of course, you may not be so lucky as to have access to any sort of proper rental shop anymore. The towns I spent my childhood in are some of these locales, and with only one or two movie theaters run by major corporations and no rental market to speak of, you’re stuck looking online. This can lead to mixed results, as Netflix prefers to stick to the modern. You have no idea how many times I’ve checked to see if Gremlins was available… Now Amazon Prime does feature more cult cinema, and in some cases they do it in conjunction with specialty services like Full Moon and Shudder. These are fantastic services for tracking down particular kinds of films, primarily horror. Another nice thing about these services is that, as you watch and rate films, they detect your tastes. Yes, it’s a creepy thought that these companies are acquiring such metadata on you, but…hey, if it gets me a chance to see Gremlins, I’m surprisingly ok with it.
But It’s On YouTube!
Whoa, hold your horses on this one. Yes, many cult and underground films have made their way onto YouTube, sometimes even at the behest of the creator. Troma is particularly noteworthy for releasing their material this way because they want the fans to have it. But YouTube movies have a variety of problems. The first is that they may be infringing on copyright claim or ownership. As much as people like sticking it to the man, sticking it to the little guy isn’t nearly so compelling, and these are the folks that the big guys are happy to pass the cost off onto. Also, copyright claims can get films pulled, so you might think something is available only to see it yanked before you can watch it.
That’s just the legal side of it though. There’s another problem, and that is quality and length. If you pay attention to run time of films on YouTube, you may also notice that sometimes they are drastically different from times listed in a variety of sources. This may be because the version being shown has cuts made or was artificially lengthened and recolored to try and beat copyright detection. Sometimes they are shown in only a small window for this same purpose. It’s also possible that you’ll find films dubbed into other languages or with burned in subtitles. That’s not even bringing up the possible resolution issues, and if you’re looking at black and white or silent films, there may be notable issues with colorization and music. This is not how these films were meant to be viewed!
Look, if it’s the only option you can find, YouTube may seem like a brilliant resource. But it is the bottom of the barrel, and I can’t recommend it. Odds are in many cases, you’ll see the same quality as mass film releases in DVD box sets, and those are more often than not poor transfers for the purpose of generating a quick buck. That said, I don’t want to see films kept out of the hands of even the poorest fan, so if you have to use a free resource…well, just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.
Speaking of free resources…
Check Your Library
It might have never occurred to you that your local library has access to films, and some areas have statewide library systems that can pull books and possibly even DVDs, Blu-Rays, or the odd VHS on their Interlibrary loan program. Librarians are always good reference resources to start with, and there may not only be films but also books and magazines on films available to you. As the public, you have access; please use it!
Going beyond this, there are numerous resources across books, videos, and the Internet for finding new films to seek out. I’ll go further into detail on this in a later post, but remember, as a cult fan you have more options than you may realize. Explore! You never know what gems you may find.