While talking about the history of underground film and cult films it is important to distinguish between the terms “underground films” and “cult films.” A cult film is a movie that was financed and distributed through the studio system that was a failure or underperformed upon its original release but then gained a passionate following in later years. An underground film is not financed through the studio system and is usually distributed independently in some way. Right now, because of the corporate takeover of the movie business, you can pretty much consider underground film to be dead. People are still making them but almost nobody is seeing them. Now experimental films will play mostly at film festivals and then disappear never to be seen again. Previously, they had been a big part of the counter culture and independent film companies were able to produce their own genre films that offered sex, violence and subject matter that the studio system would not touch at the time. Now the corporations have taken over it all and there is little left for those kinds of movies.
It can be argued that the first true work of underground cinema was Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s Un Chein Andalou (1929). Buñuel would later become one of the most subversive and greatest European filmmakers when he started making features in the 1950s but at this point he was completely unknown and while working with his friend, the artist Salvador Dali, he created one of the few short films that any serious film lover must see.
While the early silent era films were putting together a crude narrative language inspired by theater and literature, Buñuel instead created a film that proceeded on the surreal logic of a dream. Most notorious, is the early scene in which a woman’s eyeball is slashed with a razor. Buñuel was afraid that the first showing of the film would cause a riot so he filled his pockets with rocks before the screening. The result was the template for the entire future of underground film and a huge influence for future art cinema, horror movies and even later music videos.
Film theorist Maya Deren brought the idea of underground film to the United States. Working with her husband she made a number of films over the years that were a response to her criticism of Hollywood’s monopoly over the creative, political and economic direction of the film art form. The most famous of these is Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) which imitates the dream style of Buñuel’s film but instead of trying to be overtly provocative goes for a more Freudian tone.
Kenneth Anger was another major figure in the early development of underground film. Having been a child actor, Anger was aware of much of the politics of early Hollywood and he would become famous for writing a book called Hollywood Babylon that would expose much of the seedy side of early Hollywood. He was also openly gay (very rare for that time) and an occultist and friend of Alistar Crowley. Anger began to make films that expressed his homosexuality and his interest in the occult. The first to get wide attention and serious study was Fireworks (1947)
Anger was also a huge influence on mainstream Hollywood films. He was the first filmmaker to use pop music on the soundtrack but he usually did this without first acquiring the rights and this led to many of his films to be unseen for many years. Scorpio Rising (1964) is one of his most famous films and has been cited as an influence by filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.
Perhaps the quintessential underground filmmaker is Stan Brakhage. He broke more completely from the idea of narrative than any previous filmmaker had and instead explored filmmaking as a strictly visual art more similar to painting. When he first began making films in the 1950s his work was so radical that it got little attention but over time he began to become a figure of some renown. Brakhage would physically paint and scratch on the film to create certain images. The result was films that seemed “handmade” by the director and created an intimacy that not many underground films had. Dog Star Man, a series of short films made between 1961 and 1964 is considered to be his masterpiece. David Fincher has said Brakhage was a major influence on his films, especially Se7en and Fight Club. Brakhage was also a college professor and two students of his were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. Brakhage makes a cameo in their film Cannibal: The Musical.
Rise of the Sleaze Merchants
If there is one form of underground film that exists today it is porn. The reason for it is obvious. This is the only kind of film left that Hollywood won’t touch. Going back to the Hayes Code, Hollywood has a history of various degrees of censorship. In the 1950s and early 60s nudity, sex and graphic violence were still off limits to Hollywood and the first director to really take advantage of this was Russ Meyer. Meyer was a photographer for Playboy who made a series of exploitation and soft core sex films that were hugely influential on mainstream film.
Meyer started a genre called "nudie cuties" with The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959). These films were rather innocent as the name implies. The film featured a protagonist who gained the ability to see through women’s clothing. That was all the film had as a plot and it made Meyer a lot of money just based on the novelty of featuring nudity. Other films followed, both from Meyer and other directors such as Doris Wishman. After the nudie market got saturated Meyer moved on to make films that included sex and violence. Lorna (1964) was the first of these, followed by Mudhoney (1965), Motorpsycho (1965) and his most famous film, Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill (1966).
These movies showed the development of Meyer’s style to include inventive cutting techniques, a campy tone and dialogue and use of satire. Faster Pussycat was also unique in that while the three proceeding films had featured violence against women now the women were the ones who were the aggressors. This movie gets Meyer labeled a feminist by some film critics but Meyer himself denied this by saying, “I just thought it would be fun to have the women beat up on the men for a change.” In later films the women continued to be dominant and were usually the heroes while the men of his films were either clueless or villains. Meyer went Hollywood in the early 70s and made Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and The Seven Minutes (1971) for Fox but when both films flopped he went back to making his own films. The prominence of hardcore pornography eventually forced Meyer to retire but he was still a very wealthy man.
Meyer was easily the most influential independent filmmaker of this period. The artist Andy Warhol directed his own art films but most of them consisted of just a static camera watching a person sleep or of hours of footage of the Empire State Building. Warhol went on to produce a number of sleaze films himself, Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), Women in Revolt (1972), Heat (1972) and versions of Frankenstein (1973) and Dracula (1974) all directed by Paul Morrissey and all imitating the camp style of Meyer. Another director that took advantage of this trend was Herschel Gordon Lewis, whose film Blood Feast (1963) set a new standard for the amount of graphic violence that could appear in a film. None of the blood and gore in his films looked the least bit realistic and his films were incredibly bad, having almost no artistic merit to speak for them. However, without Lewis it could be argued that the more artistically successful careers of directors like George Romero, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Wes Craven would never have emerged from the grindhouse films of their early careers. Because of this Lewis is often called “the godfather of gore.”
The last of the great sleaze merchants is John Waters, who as a young man in Baltimore financed his own films starring his friend Glenn Milstead who as a three hundred pound drag queen went by the stage name Divine. Unlike the films of Meyer and Lewis, who were concerned with making money as their main objective, Waters had genuine ambitions of elevating bad taste to an art. He gained national attention for his film Pink Flamingos (1972) which famously featured Divine eating dog excrement on camera. The film remains a huge cult hit to this day and Waters continued to make a series of similar styled films throughout the rest of the 70s.
Waters took a hiatus from filmmaking in the 80s but came back to make two almost mainstream teen comedies Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1991), both of which became Broadway musicals. Though he has made more subversive black comedies since, such as Serial Mom (1994), Cecil B. Demented (2000) and A Dirty Shame (2004) he has since become something of a mainstream icon. Waters is one of the few underground filmmakers to do well in mainstream hollywood, the other being David Lynch who was important in the development of the “midnight movie.”
The idea of midnight movies came about in New York City in the early 70s. It was an advertising gimmick, for The Elgin Cinema, where movies were presented that were “too heavy” to be watched at any other time. A number of these films were old camp classics like Reefer Madness (1936) and the lesser seen Sex Madness (1937) that were appreciated for their ironic value. Many other rediscovered movies such as Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) were screened and when The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) failed on its initial run, it found a place on the midnight movie circuit and became the longest running midnight movie.
The first true midnight movie (a film that was made to appeal specifically to that audience) was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). Jodorowsky is a filmmaker from Chile who had previously made film adaptation of Fernando Arrabel’s play Fando and Liz (1967)in Mexico. The film caused a riot at the Acapulco film festival when it was screened, banned in Mexico and was edited before release in the United States. Somehow Jodorowsky was able to get the money to make his mystical western El Topo, and unable to get distribution for it, Jodorowsky was able to get it played as a Midnight Movie where it was seen by John Lennon. Lennon helped get the film distribution and also helped Jodorowsky finance his follow up The Holy Mountain (1973). Jodorowsky has been retired since the 90s, having made only a handful of films but rumors persist of him working on another project constantly. A recent documentary detailed his attempt to make a film version of the science fiction novel Dune before David Lynch took over the project in the 1980s.
Speaking of Lynch, his first film Eraserhead (1977) was another example of a film that got its start as an early Midnight movie. While an art student Lynch made some promising short films and then set out to make a feature. Eraserhead took almost six years to complete after Lynch had received a $10,000 grant and he could not complete his project with the money. Lynch was forced to constantly raise funds and then pull the cast and crew back together to film as much of the movie as they could. Despite the fact that the film simply baffled critics, Lynch was able to get a cult following for the movie through midnight screenings in Los Angeles and Mel Brooks hired him to direct his film The Elephant Man (1980) after meeting Lynch and screening Eraserhead. Lynch has since been nominated for three Oscars for “Best Director” thanks to the cult success of his little midnight movie propelling his career.
The 1980s and the End of Underground Film
By the middle of the 80s the term “Underground Film” had been replaced by a new term “Independent Film.” While it started out the same way as most underground films did, films independently produced by individuals or small companies and distribution outside of Hollywood, the subject matter of so called independent films was different. The late 70s had seen a shift in Hollywood toward films geared toward the young and special effects, such as Jaws (1976), Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1979) became the new template from which Hollywood decided which films were worth making. While Hollywood had since started to embrace the controversial subject matter and sex and violence that you would normally see in only underground films they had stopped making intimate, arty and intelligent films for adults. When directors like John Sayles, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen Brothers set the template for independent film they were not trying to be subversive or iconoclastic, they were simply making the kinds of films that Hollywood wasn’t making anymore.
As the decade wore on, the elimination of anti-trust laws by the Reagan administration led to large companies gobbling up all of the independent distributers. As the trend continued in the 90s more and more small film companies were bought by the studios until we reached the point where independent film itself has become a misnomer. While it is common to refer to low budget films as “independent” very few are independently financed and the few that are must sell their movies to the studios to gain distribution or fail to find anyplace they will be seen. Even screening your films in independent theaters can be difficult because the multiplex has now completely taken over.
In the early 80s one New York City film movement continued to provide the last gasp of Underground Film. Led by Nick Zedd, who dubbed it Cinema of Transgression, the group was heavily associated with punk, post-punk and early industrial music scenes and many of the New York musicians of that era appeared in the films. Like the musical styles that influenced them, the films were often rough and simple, with hedonistic themes and subversive intent. Though Zedd is the most famous of the filmmakers, and named the movement, it might also be said that he was the least talented of a group that included Kembra Pfahler, Cassandra Stark, Tommy Turner, Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch. Zedd’s films were often childishly inept and contained sophomoric attempts at humor or social commentary.
Photographer Richard Kern might have been the best of the group. While his films seemed as rough and thrown together as the others, it seemed like this was more of an aesthetic choice rather than a lack of talent on Kern’s part. Like most film movements the Cinema of Transgression slowly died as its practitioners got older and the film industry became increasingly more corporate.