Friday, February 24, 2023

Notes on Film: Long Live TCM Underground

 by Anthony King

Grieving the death of the last bastion of classic cult and late-night cinema.

It seemed inevitable after everything that has happened in the past 11 months, but I never thought we'd see this. Before I delve further into my lamentations, though, a bit of what I've been watching...

The race for the NHL playoffs is ramping up (go Islanders!) so my movie watching has dipped a little bit, but there's still plenty to write about. I watched the sixth and final film in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, White Heaven in Hell (1974). I'm a sucker for a snowy landscape – even though I despise the Devil's powder in real life – so movies like A View To a Kill (1985) and The Great Silence (1968) get five stars automatically because of the snow. Add to that list White Heaven in Hell. While traveling on the road to hell on The Demon Way, Ogami and Daigoro face their final (filmic) battle with Retsudo and the Yagyu clan. Once again, Ogami takes down an entire army single handedly, but this time in the snow. The film opens with a beautiful montage of Lone Wolf and Cub traversing through the hills of a snowy Japan countryside. The baby cart is now on skis where Ogami can stand on the back and whoosh down the powdery hills. At night he attaches a torch to the side of the cart and it's one of the most beautiful images I've seen this year: nearly pitch black with a flame illuminating a man skirting across the snow. This is the second film of the series where original director Kenji Misumi is not involved, but director Yoshiyuki Kuroda maintains the story as well as the gallons of blood that define these stories. While all six of these movies have melded together in my brain at this point, I believe that speaks to the consistency of the entire series. Out of any movie series I've seen, Lone Wolf and Cub is the paramount in consistent storytelling, direction, and performance. My original idea of watching these movies was to get into Japanese cinema this year. For some reason I've had a hard time and found many of the classic Japanese movies boring (gasp!) which in turn led me to keep Japanese movies at arm's length. No more, I say!
With that in mind, I watched a Japanese Yakuza movie from director Kinji Fukasaku called Sympathy for the Underdog (1971). As I stated on Twitter, I have already amended one of my 2023 movie goals with Tomisaburo Wakayama being my most-watched actor. (Sorry, Geraldine Chaplin.) Killing several birds with one stone (Wakayama, Japanese cinema, non-English speaking movies) I was excited to watch another Yakuza picture after my experience with Big Time Gambling Boss (1968). SftU stars BTGB leading man Koji Tsuruta as Gunji, a former gang boss who has just been released from jail. The last two members of his gang pick him up and inform him they're no longer in charge and that new gangs have taken over their territories in Yokohama. Deciding to relocate to Okinawa, Gunji recruits a couple more men, and attempts to start their new life of crime from the bottom up. They have minor successes taking over different territories and rackets, but when they butt heads with the big boss, things come to a bloody end. Once again a Japanese movie has lit a fire under my ass after sitting on Japanese cinematic ice for many years. This is an earlier version of what we'd see come out of Hong Kong a decade later, and while Chow Yun Fat is still the King of Cool, Koji Tsuruta might be second in command now.
March looks to be an exciting time at the theater with Creed III (not interested), 65, Shazam! Fury of the Gods (not interested) John Wick 4, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and Scream VI. Leading up to Ghostface taking Manhattan I've been watching the Scream sequels, which I hadn't seen until now. I don't know if people are fans of Scream 2 (1997) but that was a steaming turd (except the ending). I enjoyed Scream 3 (2000) because I feel like Wes started leaning into the ridiculousness of the concept of a third entry in a franchise. This one truly had me guessing up until the reveal of the killer. Scream 4 (2011) felt like such a confident entry after not having made one in a decade. While I had watched these three within a week of one another, I'm curious how people felt when the fourth one came out. It felt seamless, like we were picking up right where we left off (albeit 11 years later). The regulars of Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette felt the opposite of old hat, and the addition of Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts, and Rory Culkin was such a great passing-of-the-torch. Everyone felt right at home, and I gotta say, out of the four, this ranks second only to the first Scream. After 1983 week I'll be watching the Radio Silence Scream (2022) and then head to the theater for number six!
Short films of note I've watched recently:
Conflict (Garri Bardin | 1983 | 7 min.)
My Sweet Prince (Jason Bradbury | 2019 | 12 min.)
Once Upon a Line (Alicja Jasina | 2016 | 8 min.)
Possibly in Michigan (Cecelia Condit | 1983 | 12 min.)

News broke early Thursday morning that Turner Classic Movie's weekend late-night movie franchise called TCM Underground will air their final film on February 24. Just before Christmas, TCMU's programmer and shepherd Millie De Chirico was let go. Back in April of 2022, TCM's parent company, Warner Bros., announced their merger with Discovery, formally changing the name to Warner Bros. Discovery. And in April of 2021 it was announced that the Warner Archive Shop was shutting down and moving all sales over to Amazon. Now, I'll be honest. I was heartbroken and panicked when WA made that announcement because I immediately went into doom and gloom mode. “We'll never get releases of the hundreds of classic films still yet to be transferred to Blu-ray.” But then when Discovery bought WB a glimmer of hope ignited within my soul. What I didn't know was that glimmer was actually naivety burning hot and bright. I thought for sure the powers that be at Discovery would embrace the fact they were now sitting on this catalog of classic film and would give each one the King's treatment and release pristine editions to us tapeheads. What an embarrassing thought!
As we've now seen, Warner Archive has slowed production of Blu-ray releases to a snail's pace (thank God they're still releasing what they can), and Discovery has stated they're only interested in “content.” Under this Discovery umbrella falls TCM and all that is entailed over there, including TCM Underground. In October TCM Underground released their first official book: a movie guide with essays on 50 cult movies shown on TCMU, written by Millie and Quatoyia Murry. As I've said in the past, it's a must own for fans of cult movies. What we didn't know at the time, though, was that this was the last hurrah for Millie and crew. I feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to do a podcast with Millie, and hear firsthand her passion for these films. When she announced her departure from TCM, the love and support for her came in a tsunami-like response from people all over the world, only proving that her love and passion for weirdo and forgotten movies permeated our screens and pages, encouraging our own love and passion to grow as a gardener encourages their crops to grow. She really is a one-of-a-kind gift to the world.
Thankfully, my love for TCMU, Millie, and the movies she champions eclipses that of the grief and anger I'm feeling about the off-loading of the franchise. TCM Underground truly felt like the last fortress of late-night programming. I grew up watching USA's Up All Night with Rhonda Shear, Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs, and trying to decipher how many boobs I was looking at through the scrambled screen of Cinemax. Joe Bob has, of course, returned to Shudder with The Last Drive-In, but those Friday nights still feel like events, and they don't happen year-round. In 2006 TCM Underground resurrected what many of us were desperately seeking: a place for the midnight movie on cable television. As streaming platforms were rolled out and soon started dominating the entertainment landscape, TCMU stood firm. Because of TCMU I discovered Allan Rudolph's Remember My Name, a movie notoriously impossible to see for many years. Yet Millie programmed it, and it became one of my favorite discoveries of last year. That's just one film out of the nearly 500 that aired on TCMU. For every film programmed, there was someone who saw that movie for the first time because of Underground. I will forever be grateful to Millie and TCM for giving cult movie fans a home on late-night television for 16 amazing years. Long live TCM Underground!


  1. You probably mentioned it before, but what's your podcast? Specifically the one when you interviewed Millie De Chirico?

    1. It’s the Cult Movies Podcast. We talked to Millie about GUN CRAZY last August.

  2. As a long-time watcher of TCM Underground, I am greatly disappointed by the news, but I cannot say that I am surprised. The channel has been changing a lot over the past few years, and TCMU seemed increasingly out of step with the programming. It is also evident that Turner Classic Movies is operating with fewer resources. I am glad that I had a chance to enjoy TCM Underground for almost the entire duration of its run. It will be missed when the weekend comes around.