Personally speaking, I don’t really think the concept of a “cult film” resounds in the same way today as it did pre-social media. Everyone’s tastes and needs are attended to so astutely by viral start-up studios and filmmakers shooting entire features on iPhones that it’s tough to make a true midnight movie anymore. More or less, cult films are defined more by their post-release internet appreciation and meme-ability than anything else. Only just now are people beginning to catch on to the wry humor of Jennifer’s Body, or the batshit crazy antics of Speed Racer, or the weirdly profound nature of Spring Breakers, etc. This being said, it’s hard to gauge the effect that cult films will have on my generation until well after the fact, and god knows how the way we consume media will change over the next decade. Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All Time is a three-volume documentary focusing on the biggest cult films from different genres from the heyday of the cult film. Vol. 3 focuses on the strides that cult comedies and pure camp have made for over half a century now.
Out the gate, it’s clear that what makes a good cult comedy is tapping into the pure essence of alternative youth culture of whatever time it inhabits, whether it’s the anarchistic rebellion of teenagers in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, or the stoned apathy of capitalism in Clerks or Office Space, there’s always something that screams “fuck you” at some sort of establishment from the space of cult comedies. It all seemingly taps into the fears and frustrations of 20-somethings coming into their own and assimilating with that of the older generation, having folded into the establishment after their own rebellions. Sometimes, they’re quiet and liminal small town pieces like Napoleon Dynamite or Kingpin, or they’re just full-blown fever dreams as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Female Trouble were. They soon become the figurative voices of change, as well as provide the escapist entertainment that carries everyone through their 20s.
What’s very interesting in making this case is how often the MPAA is referenced within Time Warp Vol. 3 as an obstacle of authority that often times shoots themselves in the foot containing the content they find so vile. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Showgirls, Female Trouble all were famously slapped with X or NC-17 ratings for their subversively explicit content. A good chunk of the film also focused on the intense fight Miramax had with the MPAA to secure Clerks with an R-rating after being the first film to be classified with an NC-17 solely on account for its language. It’s an almost heavy-handed parallel to the types of films that make cult comedies and the messages that they exude, that a notoriously strict establishment would play their hands so publicly into a film’s censorship, often being the ones who catapult the films into popular culture.
What’s incredibly impressive about this film, as opposed to something like You Don’t Nomi, which spent its entire runtime speaking on Showgirls with outsider voices describing how the film has changed their lives, Time Warp spares no expense to be able to talk to as many people involved with the films discussed as possible. From Gina Gershon for Showgirls, to (unfortunate) Oscar-winner Peter Farrelly for Kingpin, to John fucking Cleese for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this documentary really does provide the view from the inside from any person willing to share their stories with the camera. I do wish, however, that the film had returned to the roundtable discussion between Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas, and Kevin Pollak, especially with Waters’s own Female Trouble being heavily featured. It felt like wasted potential in featuring this oddly dynamic group of oddballs having genuine conversations about films they love together and not giving them more screen time.
Personally, I found myself enamored with the entire segment devoted to Napoleon Dynamite, if only because it’s the most recent film discussed. It was a cult that I became a part of quickly, even at only eight years old at the time of its release. It was a film that got many viewings from my sister and me on long road trips, where we would watch the film on the way to our destination, and watch the film with the audio commentary included on the DVD on the way home. It’s a film that I’m still surprised a young me was able to pick on, as strange and subversive as it is. This was the moment when I found myself at the center of Time Warp, and finally feeling that sense of revisionist nostalgia that my generation missed with most of the other films featured on this list.
This very personal aspect is what makes cult cinema so truly special, and something that I still hold doubts that my generation can uphold in the digital age. Can anything be cult when everything is niche? How subversive does something really have to be to be “cult” to a group of 20-somethings today? In the age of stan culture, the art of cult filmmaking and the unintended nature of their peculiarity is somehow seen more with the advent of social media but felt as a ripple through the generation as a whole less. There’s nothing mind-boggling about the way that Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Movies of All Time, Vol. 3 is put together as a documentary, but there’s such passion in revisiting these films from the perspectives of those who lived them that it’s absolutely impossible not to catch the bug that all of these films have released unto audiences over the years. Watching, if I hadn’t seen one of the films discussed, the way that the subjects speak about and frame their respective films and the effects they had on the industry and their careers as a whole, I found myself wanting to immediately add them to my list. I can’t imagine many of these films catching my eye without the word of mouth that they carry with them, but anything that’s able to bring that amount of passion out of an audience is something that I can truly respect, even if I don’t find myself at the altar of every film.
Available on VOD and digital beginning June 23rd, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.