Books 3: Cult Culture
A few people on Twitter mentioned Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books as being an influence on their film scholarship, and I’d be remiss in not giving credit to it also. Peary has great taste, and gathered up a really disparate bunch of movies. For those of us outside London or New York, it seemed impossible that we would ever get to see many of these films —
ANDY WARHOL’S BAD
BEDTIME FOR BONZO
BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR
THE HONEYMOON KILLERS
KISS ME DEADLY
Today, almost nothing in Peary’s first volume is particularly hard to see, but when I was a teenager you couldn’t even buy a VHS of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, let alone PANDORA’S BOX. Peary’s book is like a collection of titles that needed to be released. It was also exhilarating to see high-art and trash jumbled together like that, so you had Peckinpah and Joseph H Lewis next to Ophuls and Pontecorvo, Herzog and Cocteau rubbing shoulders with Russ Meyer and John Waters (before it became respectable to do so). And Peary still had standards, or rather, he knew when he was dealing with a film of visceral impact or nostalgic appeal rather than real artistic excellence. But his enthusiasm was unfaked, regardless. He didn’t always like the films he was dealing with, but he’d make the effort to understand them and find interesting things to say about them.
“There were three films I saw repeatedly as a child in the mid-fifties: John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Howard Hawks’s Land of the Pharaohs. They impressed me equally. One had John Wayne, another had James Dean, and the third had a bunch of bald, tongueless priests who allowed themselves to be buried alive, some cowards who get thrown into an alligator pit, and a statuesque beauty with a bare midriff.”
“I admit nostalgic affection for Ishiro Honda’s flying reptile film Rodan (released in America in 1957) because it scared me into screaming ‘Japanese! Japanese!’ in my sleep when I was a kid.”
Peary’s cinephilia is rooted in both childhood and dreams, and he relishes the dreamlike narrative of VERTIGO (not yet placed at the zenith of Hitchcock’s corpus).
There are lots of things I disagree with in Peary: he thinks Bava went downhill after he started shooting in colour (!), for instance, but it was relatively rare for anybody to write about Bava at all, much less between the same covers as considerations of DUCK SOUP and THE SCARLET EMPRESS.
Confession: I never owned any of Peary’s books. I used to go and read them in different bookshops, though. Somehow I never saved my money to buy them, but devoured them, a chapter at a time, in bookshops long since closed: Bauermeister Books, George IVth Bookshop, The Cinema Bookshop, James Thin’s Bookstore. And then, years later, I met Fiona, who had the whole set.