What are the most polarizing cults today?


The following films drew a lot of heated commentary in our survey, much of it interrogating the term cult.

The following films drew a lot of heated commentary in our survey, much of it interrogating the term cult: can a film with a popular (or hyped?) reception trajectory such as Paranormal Activity be a cult? Can a film that solicits transgression the way Splice does (or does it?) be a ‘real cult’? Isn’t the sexploitation and politics combination of The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai an indication that paracinematic protocols are programmable? Isn’t the gory excess of A Serbian Film, even in its hyperbole, calculated? Well, yes, say some, and no say others. You will find below a number of voices, largely in favour of the films just mentioned, that raise questions about how polarizing the issue of cult can be.


By Dana Keller

Do they do it like the mammals on the Discovery Channel? The renegade scientists of Splice, and their creatures, certainly do it differently. One common thread among the many definitions of “cult film” is transgression, and Vincenzo Natali’s films (Cube, Nothing) have this in abundance. Splice is transgressive in everything, from its subject matter, style, and morality, all the way to its funding (a co-production between Canada, France and the U.S.) and its casting: leads, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) — whose names aptly allude to James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein — present the unusual pairing of an Hollywood hunk and a Canadian indie film star.

The word “splice” itself refers to the genetic cocktail that results in the film’s creature, the polymonstrous Dren (her name is ‘nerd’ spelled backwards). But the splicing does not end at genes: one can also splice film, and Natali spliced together many genres (a word that of course closely resembles “genes”) in creating Splice. The last 10 minutes of the film are pure horror movie/creature feature, but up to that point it’s a mix of science fiction, comedy, thriller, drama and romance. The transgression of generic boundaries arguably isn’t all that unusual anymore, but Splice’s “bad” subject matter — namely, controversial issues of genetic engineering, interspecies sex, incest, “gender-fucking” and abortion (“we just need to know if we can generate a sustainable embryo, then we destroy it”) — more than makes up for this.

And the cherry on the sundae? A sex scene that has sparked the exclamation, “They wouldn’t!?” amongst a large number of viewers. Splice may not be a cult film yet, but it has more than enough (an excess, even) of the right ingredients to become one.

A Serbian Film
By Chelsea Birks

While many have called The Human Centipede the most depraved and disgusting film of recent years, the lesser known but significantly more violent A Serbian Film is undoubtedly more deserving of the title. The film follows Milos, an aging porn star brought out of retirement in order to do one final project, an “artistic” porno for export to foreign markets. The project, filmed and financed by evil philosopher-mastermind Vukmir, turns out to be an extended snuff film featuring everything from torture to necrophilia to the rape of a newborn baby.

A Serbian Film’s cult potential is apparent from its notoriety alone: with four and a half minutes of cuts it is the BBFC’s most censored film since 1994, and the director of Spain’s Sitges Film Festival was charged with screening child pornography after showing an uncensored version of it. Web bloggers and critics alike both admire and abhor the film, often simultaneously, and most warn potential viewers to stay well away. While your average filmviewer may well heed these warnings (and is well advised to do so), those of us drawn to gore may become too curious to resist. A Serbian Film is similar to Hostel in this respect, as its popularity relies on a reputation for “going too far.”

A Serbian Film really does go too far, and it goes too far in a manner that is both strangely intelligent and unusually well executed. A pronounced sophistication of style, as well as obvious aspirations towards higher meaning, make it difficult to write off A Serbian Film as mere exploitation trash (although many have certainly done so). While it is not easily dismissed, it is also too relentlessly brutal to be counted as art cinema, even art cinema in the likes of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. While the graphic depiction of genital mutilation in Antichrist certainly pushes the proverbial envelope, the extreme sexual violence in A Serbian Film annihilates it. It is not a film that questions morality, or even lies at its fringes. It is a film that plunges into the most degraded depths of immorality without offering any respite or solution. It is nihilism pushed to its most extreme and disgusting consequences.

Director Srdjan Spasojevic and writer Aleksandar Radivojevic both claim that the film is intended allegorically, as a metaphor for the abuse of the Serbian people by their government, but there is little weight behind the claim. The film is better absorbed as a broader expression of anger, a brutal and bloody exclamation of rage towards all the ruthless “powers that be,” the Vukmirs of the world. It is debatable whether Spasojevic and Radivojevic succeed in achieving this intended higher meaning—but controversy is certainly no stranger to cult cinema.

Paranormal Activity
By Tobias Winblad

“Self-satisfied and subtle as a brick. Not so much soaking up influences as downing pints and vomiting them back up.” For some, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity will never be a cult film because of its crudity. Yet according to many other respondents to our survey there are a few ways in which the film does shirk up to cultdom, especially via its contentious marketing and its production qualities. Debates around its reception too indicate that the term ‘cult’ circles ominously around Paranormal Activity.

First up is the film’s unconventional release trajectory: Paranormal Activity initially opened in only a small selection of theatres. This limited release was accompanied by advertisements instructing audiences to demand that the film be shown in their city. Besides creating a sense of exclusivity (‘You can only see it if enough of you request it!’), the marketing strategy also encouraged audiences to form a community around the film — and this before they had even seen it.

Budgeting also plays a role in the cult potential of Paranormal Activity. Since many independent and low-budget films comprise the cult canon, a common expectation is that cult films will have poor production qualities. Presented as being shot with a consumer camera by a non-professional, Paranormal Activity definitely lives up to this expectation.

Next up is the film’s reception. Generally cult films achieve a lasting presence and ultimately settle with a niche audience. Paranormal Activity — through its incremental release as well as the sequel and prequel that have followed in its wake — has managed to maintain a presence since it hit theatres in 2007. The same release strategy that fed its success, however, also arguably damaged the film’s reception. By the time it presented itself to the global market, Paranormal Activity had outlived its golden days: it had garnered so much hype during its initial release, and people had such high expectations, that critics and audiences alike began tearing it apart, leading to a great debate between lovers and haters. This debate, in turn, led fans of the film — who had previously banded together in their demand to have it shown in their city — to huddle even closer in their defense of the film against those who hated it. The effect was to create around Paranormal Activity the niche audience necessary to cult films.

Paranormal Activity’s marketing, budget and reception are all in line with key cult film requirements, but will it become a cult film? Only time will tell. Perhaps we will have to wait for some viewers to tie the myriad supernatural and religious references in the film into a real cult.

The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai
By Robyn Citizen

Surprise film festival/art-house success The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai follows a pillowy-lipped prostitute shot in the head during a gunfight between a Middle Eastern and North Korean terrorist bent on starting WWIII with then president Bush’s cloned trigger finger. Delirious but strangely not dead, Sachiko finds that her injury sparks intellectual and psychic super abilities. Soon she is the target of international intrigue and the obligatory soft-core sexcapades punctuating the ‘pink film’ genre. It is political commentary that turns this string of sex scenes and modest production values into a fascinating ideological and stylistic mishmash – think ‘60s surrealism, Russ Meyer’s camp and Japanese New Wave. The oft-discussed anti-Bush sentiments are tongue-firmly-in-cheek with images of U.S. warmongering and global surveillance offset by bawdy sex romps – the ex-president’s finger is on the ‘button’ here in more ways than one. Yet the slyest digs are at the expense of complicit Japanese including pretentious intellectuals who literally get off at the mention of Western scholars such as Noam Chomsky, and end their sentences with “n’est-ce pas?”

As a feminist cult cinema fan the unusual coupling of Sachiko’s unpunished female sexuality with intellectual virtuosity feels thrillingly subversive. Still, the filmmust oscillate between facile female empowerment and role transgression and the insipid sexism of much of its genre. As she gets smarter Sachiko derives less pleasure from her suitors yet remains sexually available. Lest we interpret this as the incompatibility of female desire and too much book learnin’, Sachiko’s sexual enthusiasm quickly resurges when she takes matters into her own hands. For those who like their porn hard-core and utilitarian or their political cinema straight-faced and well, coherent, The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai will disappoint. The rest of us can revel in its scattershot brilliance and messy metaphor about the far-reaching effects of geopolitics when we all agree to just lie there and take it.




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