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UBC professor explores the lure of cult cinema

UBC professor Ernest Mathijs deconstructs what makes a film a cult classic.


It’s a thorny task, defining cult films. But Ernest Mathijs, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s film studies department, is game to give it a go. Hot off the press is his book, with U.K. writer Xavier Mendik, 100 Cult Films. The volume, with gorgeous images reminiscent of art publications, posits innumerable ins and outs of cult movie culture by looking at … well, 100 films.

Cult cinema, the book explains, has made tragic misfits, monsters and cyborgs – like Edward Scissor-hands or Blade Runner’s replicants – into heroes of our times. The book is a follow-up of sorts to Dr. Mathijs’s earlier effort with Jamie Sexton, Cult Cinema: An Introduction, described as “the first in-depth academic examination of all aspects of the field of cult cinema, including audiences, genres and theoretical perspectives.” He also authored a book on one-time cult maestro, Canadian David Cronenberg.

What is the cult genre? Dr. Mathijs defines it as a subversive probe that squeezes culture’s underbelly to extremes. An obvious choice for notoriously pushing all the right buttons: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Such movies may violate a sense of propriety, says Dr. Mathijs, because the viewer is “yanked out of normality.” He invites us to consider the 1928 film Un Chien andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – infamous for its apparent slicing of an eyeball – wherein a fellow desperately pulls across an apartment room two grand pianos carrying live priests and dead donkeys. As Dr. Mathijs proposes, viewing films “beyond the bonds of moderation, you let yourself go. Each of these instances should be treasured.”

Violating propriety is not the only criterion that makes a cult film, though. Evoking nostalgia also fits the bill: Dorothy’s whirlwind trip to Oz, for instance, and her pining for home. Others mainstream films that can be seen as cult include Star Wars, Dirty Dancing and even The Sound of Music.

To those who know him, Dr. Mathijs’ research shouldn’t come as a surprise. Prohibited from actually renting movies as a boy, he could only look longingly at the posters – melodramatic and magnificent – in the store window. “They’ve stayed with me,” he confides. Nowadays, he says, cult films yield comparable thrills.

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