I had a great time making this video review of one of my favorite books of the year. There were so many wonderful surprises in TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films from the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema. It is a well-written, loving tribute. If you'd rather read the review than watch it, there's a transcript below
What makes a film “cult”? Why do cult films matter? These are questions of never-ending interest to me and I recently got a little more clarification about it from a great new book.
There are several things to love about TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films from the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema. It’s a varied and entertaining book, perhaps more varied than you’d expect a book of this nature to be. It’s not your typical cult movie tome.
Based on choices from Turner Classic Movies’ long-running Underground program, there’s a lot of knowledge and excitement about unusual and unconventional cinema to be found here. This is the first book about cult film I’ve read that was written by women. Millie de Chirico is a long-time TCM programmer and is best known for programming for the Underground and serving as host of the channel’s Slumberground YouTube series. She’s also cohost of the I Saw What You Did Podcast, and I enjoyed having her as my guest on the Watching Classic Movies podcast. Quatoyia Murry is a writer and will be a familiar face to viewers of Slumberground as she has made several appearances on the show.
While de Chirico and Murry split duties on selecting and writing about films for the book, the entries are not marked by author. They are so similar in thinking and style that I wasn’t able to tell who wrote about which film unless I knew previously about a certain favorite (yes, Millie definitely wrote about Elizabeth Taylor in Secret Ceremony).
The movies are divided into five appropriately rebellious categories: It’s Crime Time, Domestic Disturbances, Fright Club, Rebellion and Youth Movements, and the bizarre topper: Visual Delights and Other Strange Mind Melters which describes a lot of cult films.
While there are plenty of titles here that will be familiar to cult film fans, there’s also a lot of unusual, lesser-known choices, including several movies that I’d never even heard of, let alone watched. I loved the resulting variety, which, while it certainly included what would generally be considered best-of cult favorites, was also full of personal choices. As a result, I felt more invested in this book. There’s an honesty to the choices because they come from a true love for the films and it gave me more trust in the new-to-me titles.
I loved the book’s forward by Patton Oswalt. What a perfect choice, Oswalt’s own book about his love for movies, Silver Screen Fiend would be a perfect companion to this one. He writes about cult films, “creating a tiny space of worship and adulation” and I agree that this is one of the important qualities that unifies all movies of this nature.
De Chirico and Murry also take that almost reverential tone. They respect these wild cinematic journeys. There’s no “so-bad-it’s-good” mockery. And that makes sense, because if a movie is entertaining enough to draw a cult following and inspire several rewatches, then it may not be conventionally good, but it is good.
I found even the entries from familiar films to be interesting, because going beyond plot descriptions and analysis, each selection is put in perspective according to its time. You get an idea of how different movies challenged perceptions, pushed boundaries, and brought new ideas to the world into which they were released. That can be good to know, because when a movie is familiar or is early in countering ideas that have long since changed with the times, we can start to take it for granted. There’s always a feeling that the authors are explaining why a choice matters.
I found the sidebars in the book to be useful. They expand your understanding of the choices in a variety of ways, so that you end up with a lot more than 50 films to consider. They come in a few general categories: OMG Moments, a Spotlight On section about a specific actor or filmmaker, Genre-ly Speaking which includes titles related to the entry for more viewing ideas, so you can check out more Canuxploitation for example.
If you are familiar with any of the books TCM has published in partnership with Running Press, you’ll recognize the format here. Basically, design is handled with as much care as content. There are lots of film stills and movie posters and the layout feels cult without straining to be hip, which is good, because trying to be cool is extremely uncool.
A small word of warning, I did notice a plot detail that had I seen it before I watched the film, it would have changed my experience in a significant way. Though I can’t recall seeing any others, I wondered if there were some I had missed. It isn’t a big issue, and I think the authors meant to be careful of spoilers, but tread carefully if that is something that matters to you. And I say that as someone who generally doesn’t worry about spoilers because I am usually more interested in the way things happen than the specific twists and turns of the plot.
This was one of my most highly anticipated books of the year, so I thought I would enjoy it, but it exceeded my expectations. There’s such a high level of care here in choice and execution, a feeling that the authors wanted to make sure every film, star, and filmmaker got due respect. I was also stunned by how much I expanded my to-watch list. I realized how narrowly I had been defining what makes a film cult. In some respects the idea of what fits that category has become the most deadly thing of all: conventional. These choices pushed boundaries just like the films themselves and I appreciated that.
Reels/TikToks I have made about films in the book: