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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2008

Mainstream success threatens cult cinema’s sleazy charm

Dorothy Woodend

Messiah of EvilTell someone you like science fiction, fantasy or horror films and you might get “the look.” A look that says, “Are you silly, immature or, worse, pervy?” Fans of genre cinema—the term applies to many different categories of film but is most commonly applied to sci-fi, fantasy and horror—have long had a bad rep as freaky weirdoes, social misfits, gore hounds and so on. I know because I am one of them. Despite being a confirmed coward, I feel drawn to the dark side simply because there is often some odd form of truth there.

The success of the Fantasia festival in Montreal (which runs for almost three weeks in July), Toronto After Dark and the Calgary Underground Film Festival (now in its fifth year) indicates a growing level of interest, acceptance and even love for the form. But whether this is a good or bad thing usually depends on whether you were a fan before mainstream acceptance. In this post-Tarantino age, it’s getting damn hard to find very much that is truly underground any longer. Cult cinema ain’t what it used to be.

Isaac Alexander, who contributes to different science-fiction blogs and worked with the Seattle-based anime convention Sakura-Con, says, “When I grew up, I was a part of school clubs devoted toward science fiction/fantasy and anime. These clubs provided the ‘distribution’ to discover video programming from distant lands,” says Isaac. “Now, you just need to load up the internet and head to YouTube.”

Kier-La Janisse, who founded Vancouver’s infamous (and now defunct) horror film festival CineMuerte, pulls no punches in her assessment of this phenomenon: “I think the mainstream always comes knocking when anything underground proves to be viable to some degree, regardless of genre. Then they rip off the ideas of all the real pioneers, the people who took all the chances to prove that these types of films could work.”

She adds that a true aficionado is someone who works to locate low-quality versions of these titles. “When I want to watch Messiah of Evil or something, I watch a crappy VHS of it. I need the specialness—otherwise you’re just a consumer.”

A consequence of this contradiction is that films that do very well at bigger festivals like Fantasia or Toronto After Dark often err on the lighter side of the darkness. A case in point is an Austrian film called On Evil Grounds, which has screened in multiple festivals including the Calgary Underground Film Festival and Fantasia. On Evil Grounds is very much like a Tex Avery horror film (for those who don’t know the man, he was the looniest of the Looney Tunes animators). Bodily fluids erupt everywhere, and one doesn’t know whether to laugh or throw up. Maybe both. Since it is made for people to hoot and holler at, the film was a massive success at festivals.

Of course, festivals cannot live on love alone; you still need funding, and bums in seats. Certainly there is devotion from committed fans, the occasional bit of critical respect, even money. Well, sometimes. Bill C-10 is only the latest offensive that critics fear will deny tax dollars to films that are excessively violent without an educational value. You can have your bloody mayhem, but there better be a lesson buried at its centre. Despite the increased visibility and popularity of genre cinema, the festivals that program it don’t get much help from the Canadian government.

Try explaining to the Canada Council the educational benefit of films that depict maniacs hacking up boobalicious teenagers, and you get the picture. Or maybe you don’t, since many films simply don’t get shown. Brenda Lieberman, who runs the Calgary Underground Film Festival, says, “People often stereotype horror fans, which makes it less likely for sponsors to jump in.” CUFF has been growing slowly over the past five years, but the festival still struggles to break even, balancing more obscure offerings with crowd-pleasers.

If you really want to see weird stuff or, worse, show weird stuff to other people, you still have to do it yourself. I think it’s time I started a film festival.

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