'Survival of the Film Freaks': Film Review

Courtesy of OTC Industries
Too broad to focus on what makes these cine-oddities captivating.
3/1/2019

Bill Fulkerson and Kyle Kuchta talk to pros and fans who cherish the movies others reject.

An ode to those disreputable, frequently repulsive movies fans have sought out in remainder bins, midnight screenings and the less-inviting corners of the internet, Survival of the Film Freaks looks at the phenomenon of the cult film over the decades. Taking an encyclopedic approach where more targeted geek passion would have been welcome, co-directors Bill Fulkerson and Kyle Kuchta talk to some of the right people but don't make their enthusiasm contagious. If you already own the works of William Lustig and Lucio Fulci, you know most of what's here; if those names don't ring a bell, this isn't your best introduction.

Things start promisingly, despite opening titles that betray what was surely a microscopic budget: A rapid-fire barrage of weird and woolly clips gathers the kind of images that stick in the memory after intoxicated late-night screenings — these lurid, gory or simply bizarre shots are, if you don't know the movies, likely to leave you wondering what stories could possibly lead to such images.

The focus here, though, isn't as much on the movies as on how people have discovered them over the years. For the film's purposes (after a quick acknowledgement of Buñuel and other early provocateurs), that story revs up in the 1970s. Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, an elder statesman of schlock, explains that the exhibition business opened up around this time — with an entertaining film, it was suddenly possible for a nobody to get into a thousand theaters.

Of course, Roger Corman learned similar lessons a generation or two previously. But this is a film where Chris Gore can say with a straight face that "the '90s really was the beginnings of independent film," so certain generational blind spots are to be expected.

Two women, one black man and one Japanese filmmaker pepper an interviewee list of dozens of white dudes, the vast majority of whom hit sentience right around the time VHS rental stores swept the nation. A couple of slightly older men may have firsthand memories of seeing El Topo at early midnight screenings, but the film's talk of the sleazier grindhouse scene seems mostly to be secondhand knowledge, a romantic vision acquired from the great evangelist Quentin Tarantino.

These children of the '70s can, to be sure, paint an evocative picture of what it was like to be a movie lover in the decades between VHS and the internet. For Adam Green, director of Hatchet, a "huge movie" was one whose rights had been bought by HBO, ensuring that it popped up frequently. (Remember kids, when pay cable began, "USA Network didn't have, you know, 80 hours of Burn Notice to play.") If Beastmaster, Dragonslayer and Ice Pirates were easier to see than, you know, good movies, they acquired a certain place in the collective psyche.

As the film moves chronologically, and quickly, from VHS and pay cable to the DVD boom, one realizes that Survival is more a history of consumption than an exploration of what was being consumed. Fulkerson and Kuchta intermittently offer more of those dazzling montages of clips, but they almost never let an interviewee explain what drew him into an individual movie — much less what the repeat viewing of a freakazoid classic does to the brain, or how one talks oneself into believing that two climactic scenes of accidental gonzo brilliance justify sitting through 80 minutes of stultifying incompetence.

The doc is barely at the halfway mark when we reach the dawn of file-sharing, at which point anyone who would choose to watch it knows about as much as anyone on the screen. Much conventional wisdom is reheated, with a side dish of complaints about today's young filmmakers who set out intentionally to make a "cult movie" — not understanding how poisonous self-consciousness is to outsider art.

Nearly all the graying dudes admit they aren't as interested in finding cult classics today as they were in the '80s or '90s. When a cult can grow from a dozen in-the-know nerds to a million nobodies in the span of a few tweets, where's the fun? Survival seems to side with those who think the movie itself is much less important than how you discovered it.

Production company: OTC Industries
Directors-screenwriters: Bill Fulkerson, Kyle Kuchta
Executive producers: Donnie Dale Evans III, Mike White
Editor: Kyle Kuchta
Composers: Bill Fulkerson, OK DOK, Jason Maas

86 minutes