How strictly underground films such as ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ or ‘Scarface’ morph into icons of U.S. culture

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Scarface” is a 23-year-old movie. And according to critic Leonard Maltin, it stinks (1 ½ stars). So explain why, in 2006, “Scarface” T-shirts, “Scarface” posters, “Scarface” collectibles are all over the place. Weird. Especially since any critic in 1983 could have told you that “Scarface” was a middling “Godfather” knockoff, a much-inferior remake of a classic 1931 gangster film, a three-hour showcase for Al Pacino at his scenery-chewing worst. How could they have known that the snarling Pacino, machine gun in hand (“Say hello to my little friend!”) would be available at Spencer Gifts as a mounted poster, with real bullets embedded in the frame?

Or that rappers ranging from Biggie Smalls to Ice Cube would reference the movie in their lyrics? Or that the drug lord (Wesley Snipes) in 1991’s “New Jack City” would model himself on Al Pacino’s Tony Montana and be shown in his penthouse apartment obsessively watching “Scarface”? Or that a prominent rapper would simply call himself Scarface?

Or that the original Paul Muni “Scarface,” once considered the greatest of all 1930s gangster films, has now become a footnote to the Al Pacino movie, rather than the other way around?

There are hit movies (“Jaws”). There are cult movies (“Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS”).

And there are cult movies that most people don’t know are cult movies.

“Scarface” is one of these. And it’s not the only improbable example that has pop culture experts scratching their heads.

“It’s a mystery why some things hit a nerve and take off,” says Michael Stern, who wrote “The Encyclopedia of Pop Culture” with his wife, Jane. “I guess each of these movies resonates in its own particular way.”

In “Plan 9 From Outer Space” – a cult movie that most people do know is a cult movie – the malaprop-prone narrator solemnly warns viewers that they may one day pass someone in the street, “and you’ll never know, because they’ll be from outer space.”

In that spirit, here are some ordinary-looking movies that may have passed you by. And you’ll never know – because they’re cult films.

‘Napoleon Dynamite’

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Have you seen a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt? Have you wondered what the heck it means? Then you are one of the millions who have not seen “Napoleon Dynamite,” a quirky low-budget 2004 comedy that has almost single-handedly revived the tourist industry of Idaho.

“It’s certainly put us on the map,” says Kathleen Cole, spokeswoman for the Chamber of Commerce of Preston, Idaho, where “Napoleon” was shot on a $400,000 budget by novice filmmaker Jared Hess.

The Preston Web site, Cole reports, went from 2,500 hits a month to 45,000 after the film became a cult smash with Gen Y’ers – who identified with its dorky high school hero, Napoleon (Jon Heder), and his sidekick, Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez), who runs for student council president.

Preston, a mostly Mormon hamlet of about 4,500 people, was recently the site of the first “Napoleon” festival, which drew a crowd of 7,000. “Napoleon” merchandise, popular with teens nationwide, is in overdrive in Idaho: There are “Napoleon” hats, shirts, key chains, mugs and posters with the movie’s catchphrases, “Vote for Pedro” and “Sweet!” And the tourist bonanza is having ripples throughout the whole state, Cole says.

“One girl e-mailed us and said she wanted to plan her wedding so she could have her honeymoon during the “Napoleon’ festival,” Cole says.

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’

To most people in 1993, Tim Burton’s puppet cartoon about a war between Halloween and Christmas was just a quirky novelty, a “Davy and Goliath” for the terminally depressed.

Who knew that Jack Skellington, Lock, Shock and Barrel, and all the other macabre denizens of Halloweentown were the perfect embodiments of the “Goth” subculture – the post-punk musical movement (Joy Division, Bauhaus, My Chemical Romance), whose chic melancholy, all-black fashion and playful in-love-with-death attitude is perfectly mirrored in the film?

Or that the movie would, in turn, become the basis for a line of Goth action figures and clothes?

“A lot of those people are really into Tim Burton,” says Mark Knoth, one of the managers of Vintage Vinyl, a Woodbridge, N.J., music store. “All those Tim Burton movies, even ‘Beetlejuice,’ there’s all this dark stuff going on, but it’s funny at the same time.”

Along with music CDs and DVDs, Vintage Vinyl sells much “lifestyle” merchandise. In the “Nightmare Before Christmas” department, they’ve got – among other things – toys, fashion accessories, bookends, candleholders. “There’s a lot of collectable stuff for the movie,” Knoth says.

‘A Christmas Story’

The late humorist Jean Shepherd always had a cult following. “A Christmas Story,” like the books, the TV specials and the long-running WOR radio show that preceded it, was seemingly just another of his attempts to bring the stories of his Indiana boyhood to a mass market. What eventually happened was something else: The 1983 movie became not only a hit but an underground phenomenon that built for decades, inspiring imitations (TV’s “The Wonder Years”), merchandising (bobble-headed “Ralphie” dolls, ladies’ leg lamps), and in the case of TBS television, a 24-hour movie marathon. (For several years, the station has run “A Christmas Story” over and over and over for a whole day each December.)

“Because it’s so funny, I think people don’t realize that the funniness is in the bizarre negative outcome of so many things in the movie,” says Eugene Bergmann, author of “Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.”

“A Christmas Story” remains one of the few seasonal films to present a realistic, warts-and-all portrait of Christmas – while at the same time a seemingly affectionate one. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s become a holiday tradition second only to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Or perhaps it’s just that people don’t really get it.

“Shepherd’s philosophy tended to be that most things in life were going to end in disaster,” Bergmann says. “In this movie, he was able to present that in an acceptable form, a form that makes people laugh and makes them not realize the darker undercurrent.”

‘The Warriors’

In 1979, the year that hip-hop officially arrived, a movie called “The Warriors” neatly packaged many of its values into one big, campy spray-painted package. DJ Lynne Thigpen, whose mouth is seen in extreme close-up as she spreads the word to get the street gang the Warriors, plays R&B tunes like “Nowhere to Run,” but the gang violence, the graffiti, the whole neon-lit ambience is pure hip-hop. (Director Walter Hill originally wanted to make the Warriors an all-black gang, but he was overruled by the studio.)

With little boosting by the studio, “The Warriors” immediately connected with 1979 audiences – including some who got violent in theaters during its initial run. Almost 30 years later, the movie is still a touchstone: Rappers refer to it (Craig Mack, “Flava in Ya Ear”), Burger King used it in commercials, and in October, Rockstar released a video game based on it.

“The movie is probably more popular now than it was then,” says Tom Byron, editor-in-chief of Official U.S. PlayStation magazine, who notes that “The Warriors” game is being marketed to twentysomethings, most of whom were not born when the film was released.

In addition to the marketable name, “The Warriors” also offered gamers a no-brainer premise. The film (based on Sol Yurick’s novel, based on the old Greek classic “Anabasis” by the 4th-century writer Xenophon) is about gang members who have to fight their way from the Bronx to their home turf of Coney Island.

“It’s a journey movie, a quest, and these guys who find themselves in a bad situation have to get back home,” Byron says. “That makes it a great premise for a video game. Video games tend to be quest-oriented.”

‘Scarface’

It was gangsta rappers, as noted, that turned “Scarface” into a cultural phenomenon. The question remains: Why this gangster movie? Why not “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “Donnie Brasco”?

Chalk it up, says Vibe magazine’s Serena Kim, to several things “Scarface” doesn’t have in common with other mob movies.

For one thing, it’s not really a mob movie.

“The movie is about one ruthless individual,” Kim says. “”The Godfather’ is more like a family epic. It has this subtext of (family) honor. With “Scarface,’ there’s this individualism thing. The film is about cold-blooded ambition. There’s a lot of connection between the values of the movie and the values of hip-hop.”

For another thing, drug trafficking – a subtext in other gangster movies – is front and center in “Scarface,” as it is in much of gangsta rap. “There’s a Biggie lyric, ‘Never Get High on Your Own Supply’ (from ‘Ten Crack Commandments’) that comes right from the movie,” Kim says.

Finally, director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone made a fateful decision when they transformed the Tony Camonte character of 1931’s “Scarface” – himself based on Al Capone – into Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who climbs to the top of the 1970s Miami drug racket.

To many black viewers, Kim says, there’s all the difference in the world between an Italian and a Cuban. Even if he is played by Al Pacino.

“Italians at the end of the day are Europeans,” Kim says. “This Cuban guy is a person of color and a political refugee.”

(c) 2006, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

Visit The Record Online at http://www.northjersey.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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