From Basket Case to Raiders, the undying cult of genre film

On Saturday the Alamo Drafthouse is showing the cult-classic horror film Basket Case. Given that the movie was made for around $35,000 with a largely amateur cast and crew, it's hard to imagine a film less likely to still be showing in theaters more than thirty years after it was first released. Even the film's writer/director, Frank Henenlotter, never expected it to have that kind of longevity. "Oh, god, no," Henenlotter says. "Just the opposite. The only reason I even finished making it was I was convinced no one would ever see it."

What's even stranger is that Basket Case is far from alone.

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Most movies -- good, bad or indifferent -- get a week or two in theaters, then disappear from the big screen forever, to be banished until the end of time to cheap DVDs, Netflix, cable TV and maybe YouTube bootlegs, if the owners aren't stringent with their takedown notices. Yet there's one category of film that manages to continue to put asses in real, honest-to-god theater seats for years, even decades, after their original release. Call it genre film, cult film or whatever you like, but horror, science fiction and fantasy films live (almost) forever on the silver screen while their more serious, mainstream counterparts are never seen projected again.

Midnight movies and specialty showings are sustained almost exclusively by the genre classics they program. Try to fill up a rundown theater every Saturday night running all the Best Picture winners in reverse historical order and you'll go bankrupt before you get halfway through the '90s. Take that same theater and program a rotating mix of Star Trek movies, obscure slashers and the occasional sword-and-sorcery epic and, while you won't get rich, you'll have an audience lined up week after week to enjoy the finest that cult, exploitation, horror, fantasy and science fiction have to offer.

Don't take my word for it -- have a look at the repertory cinema programming for the Denver Film Society, Alamo and Landmark theaters here in town. Sure, they program the occasional "serious" classic, but every weekend, or damn close, they show space operas, splatter films and the like. They don't do this out of the goodness of their heart -- they do it because, when it comes to "classic" film, that's what people want to see.

So why do such critically reviled, chronically unserious films have such staying power? For one thing, they're fun. So many "important" movies, for all their majesty and craft and genuine importance to the history of film, are a giant fucking drag. No matter how much they pluck at your heartstrings or tell you important things about the way the world works, you don't want to see them again and again, especially in a "going out" setting, surrounded by people. When it comes down to it, which would you rather see for the fifth time: Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List or Raiders of the Lost Ark? There's little argument that Schindler is a more important film, but who wants to sit through that again and again in a theater? Raiders, on the other hand? Come on! Sword vs. gun! Lost treasures! Pithy one-liners! That's fun, plain and simple, and film is, first and foremost, entertainment.

It may be, too, that while the serious, thought-provoking questions that drive mainstream filmmaking age like milk -- try watching any issue film from the '60s or '70s without cringing -- the primal fears of horror and wide-eyed hope of science fiction are, to a degree, timeless. Doesn't matter what era you are in or from, getting cut to pieces by a psycho in a hockey mask is terrifying. Even comedy doesn't age nearly as well -- as standards shift, some jokes go from borderline acceptable to outright offensive, and even things like comic timing seem to shift to the point that a side-splitting comedy from 1975 is full of jokes that mostly fall flat today, while Rollerball still works as a speculative look at a corporate dystopia.

Or perhaps it's just that genre film fans are, these days, the only significantly large group of dedicated film fans left. They're the ones that track down obscure Japanese bootleg versions of their favorite films because of forty seconds of additional footage and an alternate ending. They're the ones helping stars of their favorite films eke out meager careers decades after their heyday on the convention circuit. Most importantly, they're the ones putting their money on the counter and their asses in the seats when a theater shows one of their favorite films, no matter how obscure, ancient or unimportant it is.

Don't believe it? Consider this -- Basket Case came out in 1982, and there's a good chance that forty to sixty fans, maybe more, will come out for it this weekend. That, despite the fact it's been showing at film festivals, grindhouses and midnight movies on and off since the day it was released. That same year, Gandhi won more Oscars than you could fit on most people's mantels, but you probably couldn't get fifteen people out to see it on any given Saturday, even though showings are as rare as hen's teeth. The movie lover's heart wants what it wants, and what it wants is clear -- blood, guts, spaceships, wizards and weirdos.

Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.

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