Roger Ebert's Cult Credentials

Roger Ebert is an indisputable expert on film. But cult film expert? Rather than offering a comprehensive index of Ebert cult film reviews, there is a more compelling piece of evidence to support his cult film bona fides: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

This question (“cult film expert?”) follows the announcement of the theme and line-up for the Kansas City Public Library’s 2011 Off-the-Wall Film Series, which is operating under the banner Ebert Presents Cult Films from the Balcony. This series is curated by Ebert (exclusively for the Kansas City Public Library) and kicks off with a screening of The Cell (2000) on Friday, May 20, at sundown (no earlier than 8:45 p.m.) on the Rooftop Terrace of the Central Library.  

The notion of what makes a cult film can be somewhat nebulous and easily debatable, but whatever your standards, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (BTVD) meets them. Ebert developed the story and the screenplay with producer/director Russ Meyer – and his role as a principal author of this film should be enough to convince any skeptic of Ebert’s cult credentials.

BTVD follows the exploits of an all-girl rock trio whose members are all corrupted by the vices and vicious personalities of Hollywood. It is a satire that takes itself seriously while clearly signaling that the audience should do otherwise. Released in 1970, the film is set amid the sexual revolution of the 1960s and as such it is a risqué film, initially slapped with a X rating that was later “downgraded” to NC-17.

Ebert provides a DVD commentary track that is just as entertaining as the film itself. In addition to helpful insights, his commentary offers an encomium to Meyer – who learned to shoot film as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II and used those skills to establish the sexploitation film genre as an independent director and producer.

Russ Meyer (left) and Roger Ebert, 1970. (Wikimedia Commons)

BTVD was financed by Twentieth Century Fox, and served as the first studio film that Meyer produced. Even with studio backing, its budget was under $1 million. In the DVD commentary, Ebert describes a conversation with a Fox publicist, who told them:

 “…we were going to be the salvation of the studio, our film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Because he said every other studio in town has all the producers’ nephews up in the Hollywood hills with motorcycles and cameras trying to reproduce the success of Easy Rider. And what does Fox have? Two war movies and a western. Well, the war movies were Patton and M.A.S.H. and the western was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So of course the studio did OK with those three movies…”

BTVD received mixed reviews. As Ebert notes, one of them came from his future foil: “I remember Gene Siskel in the Tribune saying that Russ Meyer had for some reason saddled himself with a neophyte screenwriter…”

Some of the features of BTVD that qualify it for cult status include: incredibly quotable dialogue; some catchy rock numbers (with contributions from The Strawberry Alarm Clock); a firm stance in the margins of acceptable taste (even by contemporary standards); excellent (yet campy) production values; and characters who are completely in service to the script.

Ebert includes in his commentary that – despite frequent requests – he is reluctant to review his own film. But in the end, he offers a capsule review of BTVD: “Unlike a lot of movies, it doesn’t bore me.”

If anything, it must be this that The Cell has in common with BTVD.

The Cell is a film about a psychotherapist who enters the mind of a serial killer via virtual reality technology in order to rescue his latest victim. The film has a great cast (Vincent D’Onofrio in an unnerving performance, with Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughan) and a visionary director (Tarsem, an India-born music video director in his feature debut).

The most distinctive feature of the film is its visuals – incredible surreal landscapes (not all of them CGI creations) and sinister interiors that are reflections of a twisted psyche of a serial murderer. More than anything, the premise of the film seems an excuse for set designers, costume designers, and effects wizards to go nuts.

The compelling argument for The Cell as a cult film is (like BTVD) its firm stance in the margins of acceptable taste. This film features some very disturbing scenes (far short of the disgusting gore of the Saw and Hostel films, but disturbing nonetheless). 

In his director commentary, Tarsem talks in a very pragmatic way about how the visual aspects of the film were his priority and that the serial killer plot was his means of obtaining a studio budget – but that while he was at it, he wanted to push the serial killer film (an already ridiculous genre) as far as he could. With D’Onofrio, he found someone willing to go there with him. Together, they succeed.

After the screening of The Cell on Friday night, tweet your thoughts/comments/reviews to @ebertchicago and @kclibrary.

-- Paul Smith