As a teen, Millie De Chirico would drive from the Marietta suburbs into Atlanta to seek out films that were “weird,” “titillating” and “transgressive,” or what many people know as cult films.
“It just felt like kind of a badge of honor to like something that your parents didn’t like, wouldn’t know about,” she says with a laugh.
But the quality of cult movies also fascinated De Chirico. They are often made by passionate people with a very specific vision or “crazy idea” that De Chirico said she finds compelling.
Her passion for and knowledge of films landed her a job at Turner Classic Movies (TCM) nearly 20 years ago. She is the chief programmer of “TCM Underground,” the Friday night cult-film franchise whose films last month included “Heathers,” “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Eddie’s Revenge.” She also hosts the YouTube series, “TCM Slumberground,” and a podcast, “I Saw What You Did.”
De Chirico is now also an author. She and Quatoyiah Murry, a film critic and writer who once worked at TCM and now lives in France, wrote “TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films from the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema.”
The two fans of cult and experimental films selected 25 each from the hundreds in “TCM Underground” archives to include in their book. They include everything from “Blacula” and “The Decline of Western Civilization” to “Xanadu.” The films spotlighted are favorites but also “ones that represented the rich diversity missing from mainstream films and ones that would exemplify the scope of what TCM Underground has to offer,” they write in the introduction.
On Tuesday, Nov. 29, De Chirico will be at The School of Communication and Media (SOCM) at Kennesaw State University from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. where she will present clips of her favorite cult films and do readings from her new book. The event is free and open to the public and will be located in the Leadership Room at the Carmichael Student Center at KSU.
The following is a Q&A with De Chirico. It has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you decide which films to include?
When TCM came up with the idea for a book [about two years ago], I was thinking, ‘Well, I think it’d be cool to center it around the ‘TCM Underground’ franchise. It’s been on for so long [since 2006] and there were over 400 titles that had aired as part of the franchise. So there was this really robust list to pick from. Quatoyiah and I were less interested in doing a book like ‘The Top 50 Movies’. We wanted to have some sort of list that we both picked movies from and then we could go into why we like them. We pulled a list of every title that had ever played as part of ‘TCM underground’ and and then she picked 25 and I picked 25 and we just kind of like went into our holes and wrote our films. The films are personal picks that we particularly enjoyed and felt very passionate about, titles that we felt were less discussed in that cult-movie canon that we had grown up with. We tried to cover a lot of bases.
What are the top two things that make a cult movie a cult movie?
“Well, I think there has to be a passionate audience, people that have some level of passion about it. And I also think a cult movie is something that is being reexamined or rediscovered, whether or not the movie initially came out as this big blockbuster that got lost in the shuffle, or maybe an independent film that nobody saw to begin with. I feel like the rediscovery aspect is what makes it a cult film. You know, I think that’s the joy for movie fans — being able to find things that have been either lost or sort of put away. It’s just people that have a passion for rediscovering films.
Who did you write this book for?
I think I wrote it for my younger self, really. I grew up in the era of these types of books being kind of the only way to find movies; definitely the pre-Internet era. And I was raised on stuff like “The Psychotronic Video Guide To Film” by Michael J. Weldon and the “Cult Movies” books by Danny Peary and these various cult-movie guides. That’s how I learned about films was through reading film guides. And with the exception of maybe Pauline Kael [film critic for The New Yorker magazine who wrote many books], all of those books were written by basically white men, and that is fine. That’s how I found out a lot about movies. But you know, at the time, if I would have been able to read a book like that, that was written by women of color, I think that would have … exploded my brain. There was a part of me that was writing this book with that in mind that, ‘Oh, I’m this person that now is having an opportunity to contribute to this world that I grew up with and I want to honor that.’ I think [Quatoyiah] also felt that. Cult movies pretty much have been decided upon by men and they get programmed by men normally, and they get written about and celebrated by men. I think that’s changing a lot now, but yeah, I feel like I wanted to write it for my teenage self.