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By Toni Booth on

‘Moviedrome’ and what makes a cult film

Curator Toni Booth writes about her memories of the BBC series Moviedrome, fronted by film-maker Alex Cox, and looks at what makes a ‘cult film’.

Working at home got me thinking about the things around me here and how they relate to what I ended up doing for a living as well as their connections to the museum’s collection.

This reminded me of something which I had planned to write a short blog piece about for some time: the Moviedrome series hosted by film-maker Alex Cox and produced by Nick Freand Jones which aired on BBC2 between 1988 and 1994, which for me and several others of a similar age were hugely influential on our film watching and appreciation, arriving just as we were in our teens. (Jones also produced Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema series on BBC4.)

Suddenly, Sunday nights on BBC2—if you were able to stay awake long enough—provided an amazing array of ‘cult’ films from around the world, created by some of the most inventive film-makers and featuring the kind of actors that aren’t afraid to push the limits of their craft.

Moviedrome returned in 1997, fronted by film-maker Mark Cousins; it was great to see it back, but my heart still belongs to the Cox era.

I was re-reminded of this by finding the two guidebooks produced by the BBC on our shelves:

Moviedrome booklets

And by re-watching one of the films featured again a few days ago.

But what is a cult film? Let’s turn to Mr Cox himself for his opinion:

A cult film is one that has a passionate following but does not appeal to everyone: James Bond movies are not cult films, but chainsaw movies are. Just because a film has become a cult movie does not automatically guarantee quality. Some are very bad; others are very, very good…

One thing cult movies do have in common is that they are all genre films—for example, gangster films or westerns. They also have a tendency to slosh over from one genre into another, so that a science fiction film might also be a detective movie, or vice versa. They share common themes as well, themes that are found in all drama: love, murder and greed.

—Alex Cox, Moviedrome The Guide, BBC, 1990

Pages from Moviedrome: The Guide

Which pretty much sums up what you get: a mix of horror classics (The Wicker Man), spaghetti westerns (Django), 1970s American ‘movie brats’ films (THX 1138), film noir (The Big Combo) and 1980s sci-fi (The Terminator). Plus of course a spattering of ‘cult’ film-makers such as John Carpenter, Roger Corman and David Cronenberg.

All introduced by Alex Cox, giving production information as well as his opinion, they could sometimes stray from the subject in hand, but were always interesting.

Many episodes of Moviedrome are available online—here’s a couple to begin with:

As you’ll see he doesn’t always entirely like the films he’s presenting, but that’s often the way with cult movies—they may not be straightforwardly good, but there’ll be something interesting in there.

I still haven’t seen all the films shown in Moviedrome. I particularly recall falling asleep pretty near the beginning of The Long Hair of Death, being bored by and abandoning Razorback, and being underwhelmed by Darkman (which I was for a second time when I watched it again last week). But I also remember being blown away by Yojimbo and Wise Blood, being thrilled by Q The Winged Serpent and freaked out by Carnival of Souls.

And how does this connect to the museum’s collection? Well, we have an archive of film production materials donated by Alex Cox himself a few years ago comprising correspondence, press cuttings and scripts for several of his films including Death and the Compass, Revenger’s Tragedy, Highway Patrolman and Sid and Nancy.

So, if you’re looking for some movie inspiration or possibly agitation during this time of increased need for indoor entertainment, I recommend you try a few of these films (or maybe all of them, if you can find them), preceded by Alex Cox’s introduction if you can find it—you might like them, you might hate them, but you might also find something that stays with you for the rest of your life.

2 comments on “‘Moviedrome’ and what makes a cult film

  1. I went to see Cox’s marvellous Repo Man at Home in Mcr last year. The chap giving the intro mentioned that Cox was now fairly reclusive and was in fact working as a fireman in California, having apparently abandoned the movie business. Maybe not for him, but for the rest of us a sad loss of a mercurial talent.

    1. He’s been teaching film at the University of Colorado since 2012, is still making films and writing books. He’s never been a fireman.

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