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With the world waiting with bated breath, we here at The Frida had to ask ourselves what would be considered a modern cult classic now that the streaming market has oversaturated and overstuffed their servers with licenses for thousands of movies that are either subpar schlock trash or hidden gems fed to you through the algorithmic waves of watching habits that prying A.I. codes pull from your sick, twisted taste in film, once thought safe and sound. Well, Bobby and I are here to answer at least the questions we ask ourselves really late at night as we sit wide-eyed in front of our monitors, running through YouTube “Top 10” lists and digging through our own brain meats to pull out movies that you can springboard to after you have sat through our 21st Century Cult screenings. Let us tempt you into watching some mind-numbing, weird but thoughtful celluloid fixtures that will continue your swim through the murky waters of cult classics of the modern era.
I, Josh, will start off with my picks, which will send you folks into a happy little dance down memory lane and remind you that Josie and the Pussycats wasn’t the only oddball, satirical take on pop stardom and product placement.
Josh Green, Writing Team Member
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
When the Lonely Island (comedy college friends turned SNL alumni Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone) came back from their SNL digital short retreat from making the bouncing-off-the-walls craziness that was Hot Rod, they had one goal in mind. They wanted to make fun of popstars. They set their sights on the rise and sometimes fall of such artists like Justin Bieber, Madonna, Beastie Boys, NSYNC, and many other artists who rode the line between solo and group work to make an out-of-body experience like no other. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was a straight shot to the gut of the music industry, pulling no punches against the new wave of artists who had placed their music in iPod ads to get small bumps of notoriety and had their tours sponsored by high profile brands and vehicle companies like Mountain Dew and Hyundai.
Popstar took things off the rails with the depiction of members of a group, known as The Style Boyz, going their separate ways after a bad breakup with member Conner Friel, aka Conner4real (Samberg), who is getting ready to release his second solo album. Tagging along for the ride is his buddy and bandmate Owen “Kid Contact” Bouchard (Taccone), who was once The Style Boyz’s producer and DJ, and is now Conner’s iPod presser and hype man. Lawrence “Kid Brain” Dunn (Schaffer) has gone on to start a farm and woodcarving business out in Colorado. As things take off for Conner’s tour and eventual album release, things start to fall apart. Conner’s album, Connquest, fails to gain high praise like his previous solo album and The Style Boyz’s previous efforts. This sends Conner and everyone around him down a spiral of missteps and mishaps, including but not limited to placing his album in the memory banks of the washing machines and refrigerators of the company sponsoring the tour, Conner’s manager Harry (fellow SNL alumnus Tim Meadows) hiring a Tyler, the Creator-esque rip-off rapper named Hunter The Hungry, and Conner eventually trying his best to get any media attention he can through any means despite the humiliation it brings. Popstar brings forth the ups and downs of pop stardom while poking fondly at The Lonely Island’s own successes, which came from releasing their comedy albums to wide acclaim. It’s goes without saying that if you enjoyed Josie and the Pussycats’ rockstar-to-popstar commentary and how subliminal messaging and popularity contests can sometimes ruin the original intent of your art, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping amps it up and takes the self-loathing, attention-starved solo artist aspects of the music industry that Josie touched on and further pushes the button on the big-headed icons.
Hot Rod (2007)
Since I’m on a Lonely Island kick, let’s put Hot Rod as the backer to Ichi the Killer. Neither of these movies are in the same wheelhouse, mind you — one’s a straightforward absurdist comedy about a manchild trying to get over the death of his father by pushing himself to the breaking point with low-impact stunt work while the other movie is about a manchild who is manipulated into assassination and deals with his (real or imagined) childhood trauma by taking his rage out on his hits or unsuspecting but, I guess, deserving victims. Well, wait, I guess they are a bit in the same wheelhouse with the manchild trauma stuff, but where Ichi kills for relief, Rod Kimble (Samberg again), the main focus of Hot Rod, almost kills himself on numerous occasions in the name of his father, who supposedly was Evel Knievel’s stunt driver.
Hot Rod has a lot going on for it just within its surreal framework. The touches of offbeat humor, which seem to follow some of the same offbeat humor that may or may not be intentional for Ichi, serve to establish Hot Rod as a good palate cleanser to Ichi‘s sick humor. Grotesque displays of body horror with humorous conversations flowing in and out of characters’ mouths take place in Ichi the Killer — for instance, the scenes depicting Kakihara (played by artistic madman Tadanobu Asano) in his many moments of sadomasochistic violence against himself and others — and is played up in almost cartoonish fashion. The hot oil torture scene is a good example of what surreal comedy can be when violence is turned up to 11. That goes without saying, though some of the violence in Hot Rod is very cartoonish in nature but more in the Looney Tunes variety. Rod Kimble falling down the side of a mountain at breakneck speed while tumbling in oddball fashion after having a heart-wrenching stress relief dance, the fantasy dream he has of a taco and a grilled cheese fighting it out for quick food supremacy, and the acid trip story (courtesy of Bill Hader) shows that you can still be a little bloody even when you are limited to America’s ridiculously outrageous MPAA rating standards. Having said all that, though, I figure at least Hot Rod is a good watch on a veg-out night where one might simply indulge in some legal substances in order to pull out the full effect of the film’s intent with the writing and humor. The same could be said about Ichi the Killer, but that’s a fine line to walk when you’re blitzed out your mind, watching the equivalent of The Shining‘s bloody elevator scene with Bugs Bunny surfing out on its waves towards you.
Bobby Thornson, Writing Team Member
Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002)
Kung Pow is a unique type of film that might have seemed like a niche and bizarre project when it released, having been mostly panned by critics and only living on as an early morning rerun for a handful of comedy-related television channels, but it holds up as an intentionally stupid yet fun time. Utilizing a mix of footage from a preexisting ’70s kung-fu film and newly shot footage, Steve Oedekerk creates an insane, parodic odyssey about a man who looks to take revenge on the man who killed his family when he was an infant, imitating cues from Hong Kong action cinema with over-the-top gags. Even with a joke or cultural reference or two that can fall flat and a slight feeling that the movie is one long, dragged-out joke about low quality English dubbing, there are enough extremely goofy jokes per minute to get you through this one (maybe with the aid of a few alcoholic drinks in your system).
Growing up watching the mastery of Bruce Lee in movies such as The Big Boss gave me a strange appreciation of the gags in Kung Pow, although it falls far behind overtly comedic (not to undermine the natural comedy present in kung-fu movies that are not considered comedy) and more faithful contemporaries such as Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. Kung Pow might easily exist as the complete amalgamation of Oedekerk’s comedic sensibilities, as the rest of his filmography includes mostly producing and screenwriting on a handful of properties, such as Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls — although he was the creator of the Thumbs! series that kicked off with Thumb Wars at the turn of the century and also directed Nickelodeon’s Barnyard (which is oddly prefaced by the cow kung-fu fight in Kung Pow).
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
In one of the most underrated comedy gems and easily one of the best performances in Bruce Campbell’s filmography, Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep is a film with a surreal revisionist premise (adapted from the novella of the same name) that feels born around the dirty and forgotten edges of American social and popular memory, following a man in a Texas nursing home who claims to be Elvis. He explains that he switched places with an impersonator by the name of Sebastian Hoff, who died in ’77, and lost the paperwork that proved his prior life. Now stuck with nothing more than a world full of regrets and a failing body, he waits out the rest of his days in Shady Rest Retirement Home until a stolen Egyptian coffin and a handful of thieves brings into his world a reanimated mummy that he must fight.
Besides Campbell giving one of the most memorable on-screen performances of Elvis in a very independent and low budget film, Bubba Ho-Tep uses the popular knowledge of the life details of the most famous American celebrity to craft a poignant yet funny tale of an aging human with remorse and a troubled, complicated past who comes to redeem himself. Coming from a director mostly known for directing most of the Phantasm series, this could easily be considered Coscarelli’s best and most emotionally involved film. It also set the sort of precedence of garnering acclaim at festivals and creating a cult status for itself, which his 2012 film, John Dies at the End, would later follow. One of my favorite elements, more so realized later in life after years of watching Bubba Ho-Tep on reruns with my father, is the persistence of Campbell’s wacky yet lovable slapstick influences, which he has been known for since and were made known in the beloved Evil Dead franchise.