Book Review: 40 Cult Movies

  • Reviews

Like films, I have a habit of jumping feet first into a book without paying attention to what I am immersing myself in. I did precisely that with Jon Towlson’s 40 Cult Movies: From Alice, Sweet Alice to Zombies of Mora Tau. My brain saw the word cult, and it decided that it meant ‘so bad, they’re good’.

The book cover for 40 Cult Movies: From Alice, Sweet Alice to Zombies of Mora Tau featuring artwork by Graham Humphreys.

The word ‘cult’ does mean different things to different people. Rosemary’s Baby, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Troll 2 are all considered cult films. The pinnacle for some people is the Nicholas Cage version of The Wicker Man – a cult film about a cult.

Cineaste.com describes cult films as “movies that are often transgressive, marginal, disasters on first release, or drawn from genres such as horror, science fiction, and exploitation, and which have attracted an exceptionally devoted and vociferous fan base”.

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The book’s title indicates that we will be looking at a range of ‘cult’ films. Alice, Sweet Alice (aka Communion) is a genuinely scary film, whereas Zombies of Mora Tau is a schockly film.

Instead of getting a back-to-back list of films that I hoped would add my ‘so bad, they’re good’ articles, I got some genuinely good horror films – maybe I was going to be out of my depths. I soon realised I was in safe hands when, within the opening paragraph, Towlson referred to Jonathan Ross’ The Incredible Strange Film Book: An Alternative History of Cinema. A book that proudly graces my bookshelves.

Film poster for Zombies of Mora Tau.

40 Cult Movies is more than just a review of the films; Towlson has done some meticulous research. Not only does he give us titbits about the films themselves (production history, etc.), but the films’ place with the history of its specific subgenres – whether they were ground-breaking, genre-changing, controversial, etc. – is all here.

It is also clear that Towlson has the same passion for all sorts of horror; he touches upon classics such as Night of the Living Dead to the Euro arthouse film Edge of Sanity. I am ashamed to say that I have only seen 14 of the 40 films mentioned. And, while all the films were written about in-depth, some grabbed my attention more than others. Punk horrors The Boys Next Door and Suburbia, both directed by the great Penelope Spheeris, are now on my radar. I also found some familiar films throughout, such as The Redeemer: Son of Satan, which appears to fall into the ‘so bad, they’re good’ category.

Film posters for The Boys Next Door and Suburbia.

On average, each article is about five pages long and does not get too ‘academic’. It’s like having that sip of wine before confirming that you want the whole bottle – there is enough here to get your horror tastebuds flowing to go on and consume more. Whether to watch or re-watch any of the films, or learn more about specific films.

There is an issue which is more to do with me as a reader than Towlson as a writer. It is a book you can read in any order, flipping through the pages to chose films you know or do not know as your heart desires. But like all books, A to Z or not, I read from cover to cover. It did mean early on, there were some jarring moments as you go from The Boys Next Door, a gritty look at American teens going on a killing spree, to Braindead, a blood-splatted gore fest, and back to serial killers with Chained. Talk about tonal whiplash!

Film poster for Chained.

However, as the book progresses, this becomes less of an issue. The alternative would be to cluster them in order of genre, but honestly, the A to Z premise is fine. The cover art is superb, but you would expect nothing less from the excellent Graham Humphreys.

Towlson states in the introduction that “If after reading, you feel the need to watch any of these movies again or seek out any you haven’t seen yet, then I will have succeeded in making you curious, too.” In my eyes, this book has achieved its aim. If you are looking for another book to add to your ever-growing collection of non-fiction horror, then you can not go wrong with 40 Cult Movies.

40 Cult Movies: From Alice, Sweet Alice to Zombies of Mora Tau is available now in hardcover and paperback from Amazon

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