Cult Film

john waters by abel macias

A cult film, also commonly referred to as a cult classic, is a film that has acquired a highly devoted but specific group of fans. Often, cult movies have failed to achieve fame outside the small fanbases; however, there have been exceptions that have managed to gain fame among mainstream audiences. Many cult movies have gone on to transcend their original cult status and have become recognized as classics; others are of the ‘so bad it’s good’ variety and are destined to remain in obscurity.

Cult films often become the source of a thriving, obsessive, and elaborate subculture of fandom, hence the analogy to cults. However, not every film with a devoted fanbase is necessarily a cult film. Usually, cult films have limited but very special, noted appeal. Cult films are often known to be eccentric, often do not follow traditional standards of popular cinema and usually explore topics not considered in any way mainstream—yet there are examples that are relatively normal. Many are often considered controversial because they step outside standard narrative and technical conventions.

In the words of Umberto Eco, ‘What are the requirements for transforming a book or movie into a cult object? The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise.’

A cult film is a movie that attracts a devoted group of followers or obsessive fans, often despite having failed commercially on its initial release. The term also describes films that have remained popular over a long period of time amongst a small group of followers. Although they may only have a short cinema life, cult films often enjoy ongoing popularity through long runs on video, thus being issued in video ‘runs’ with more copies than other movies. The movie ‘Office Space’ (1999), which lost money during its box office run, managed to turn significant profits when word-of-mouth made it a popular video rental and purchase. ‘Harold and Maude’ (1971) was not successful financially at the time of its original release, but has since earned a cult following and has become successful following its video and DVD releases. Many cult films were independent films and were not expected by their creators to have mainstream success. Sometimes the audience response to a cult film is somewhat different than what was intended by the film makers. Cult films usually offer something different or innovative in comparison to mainstream films, but cult films can also be popular across a wide audience.

A film can be both a major studio release and a cult film, particularly if despite its affiliation with a major studio, it failed to achieve broad success on either the theatrical or home video markets but was championed by a small number of dedicated film fanatics who seek out lesser-known offerings. It is also true that the content of certain films (such as dark subjects, alienation, transgressive content, or other controversial subject matter) can also decide whether or not a film is a ‘cult film,’ regardless of the film’s budget or studio affiliations. An example may be Paul Verhoeven’s big budgeted, highly sexualized ‘Showgirls’ (1995), initially intended to be a drama film about the rise of a Las Vegas stripper, that flopped both critically and commercially when released theatrically; afterward, it enjoyed success on the home video market, generating more than million from video rentals. Today, it is a favorite of gay audiences and audiences in general have considered it to be a comedy thanks to frequent midnight movie showings. According to activist writer Naomi Klein, ironic enjoyment of the film initially arose among those with the video before MGM, the film’s chief marketer, capitalized on the idea. MGM noticed the video was performing all right, since trendy twenty-somethings were throwing Showgirls irony parties, laughing sardonically at the implausibly poor screenplay and shrieking with horror at the aerobic sexual encounters.’

‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ (1959) and other films by Edward D. Wood, Jr. were considered cult classics, attracting devotees who reveled in his incompetence. Other low-budget science fiction and horror films of the 1950s (for example ‘Robot Monster’), along with exploitation films of the 1930s, which resurfaced in the home video market of the 1980s (including the infamous ‘Reefer Madness’), were accorded that status.

The low budget horror film ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) directed by George A. Romero earned moderate box office takings but was critically polarizing at the time. However, the culture of Vietnam-era United States had a tremendous impact on the film and it was given a cult status after playing frequently at midnight movie circuits. It is so thoroughly laden with critiques of late-1960s American society that one historian described the film as ‘subversive on many levels.’ While not the first zombie film made, Night of the Living Dead influenced countless films and is perhaps the defining influence on the modern pop-culture zombie archetype.

John Waters’ ‘Pink Flamingos’ (1972), was wildly controversial (being an exercise in ‘poor taste’) featuring incest and coprophagia, became the best known of a group of campy midnight films focusing on sexual perversions and fetishism. Filmed on weekends in Waters’s hometown of Baltimore, with a mile-long extension cord as a power conduit, it was also crucial in inspiring the growth of the independent film movement. In 1973, the Elgin Theater started midnight screenings of both ‘Pink Flamingos’ and a crime drama from Jamaica with a remarkable soundtrack. In its mainstream release, ‘The Harder They Come’ (1972) had been a flop, panned by critics after its U.S. distributor, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, marketed it as a blaxploitation picture. Re-released as a midnight film, it screened around the country for six years, helping spur the popularity of reggae in the United States. While the midnight-movie potential of certain films was recognized only some time after they opened, a number during this period were distributed to take advantage of the market from the beginning—in 1973, for instance, ‘Broken Goddess,’ ‘Dragula,’ ‘The White Whore and the Bit Player,’ and ‘Elevator Girls in Bondage’ (as well as ‘Pink Flamingos’) had their New York premieres at midnight screenings. In 1974, midnight opener ‘Flesh Gordon’ evidenced how the phenomenon lent itself to flirtations with pornography.

The picture, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ satirizes conventions of science fiction and horror films, and includes elements of transvestism, incest and homosexuality – all within the context of a musical film. The film received little critical attention or mainstream cinema exhibition when first released in 1975, but built up a base of fans who repeatedly showed up at midnight screenings at inexpensive neighborhood cinemas, dressed in costume and ‘participating’ in the film by doing such things as throwing rice during its wedding scene. In this case, the film intentionally ridiculed its own subject matter, thereby entering into the spirit of sarcastic fun often surrounding the attainment of cult status. Much of the attention has stemmed from the fanbase, rather than the film itself.

Network television, cable television and pay-per-view stations have also changed the nature of cult films. David Lynch’s experimental ‘Eraserhead’ (1977), an example of shoe-string surrealism was a flop both critically and commercially, yet was saved from obscurity thanks to home video in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Comedy films have also been cult classics. In 1979, Steven Spielberg, after two blockbuster hits (‘Jaws’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’), decided to try the comedy genre with 1941, set days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film, spoofing popular film genres of the 1940s (and World War II in general), is considered by critics as Spielberg’s first flop, although it made a small profit for Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios compared to Spielberg’s earlier (and later) blockbuster hits. It gained a cult following after it aired in an extended version on the ABC network, and years after on Laserdisc and DVD.

The commercial viability of the sort of big-city arthouses that launched outsider pictures for the midnight movie circuit began to decline in the late 1970s as broad social and economic shifts weakened their countercultural base. Leading midnight movie venues were beginning to fold as early as 1977 – that year, New York’s Bijou switched back permanently to the live entertainment for which it had been built, and the Elgin, after a brief run with gay porn, shut down completely. In succeeding years, the popularization of the VCR and the expansion of movie-viewing possibilities on cable television meant the death of many additional independent theaters, which as a result, developed a stream of newer cult films. Possibly the first of these was the biographical ‘Mommie Dearest’ (1981), which details the life of Joan Crawford and her alleged abusive relationship with her adopted daughter. The over-acting by Faye Dunaway as Crawford gave the film a campy tone, and critics were very negative towards the film. While Dunaway garnered some critical acclaim for her astonishing physical metamorphosis and her portrayal of Crawford, she also received a Razzie Award for Worst Actress and caused considerable damage to her career. It did manage to develop a cult classic status, especially with gay audiences and became famous for Dunaway’s emphasis on the line ‘No wire hangers, ever!,’ when urging her daughter not to use them in her closet.

While ‘Rocky Horror’ soldiered on, by then a phenomenon unto itself, and new films like ‘The Warriors’ (1979), ‘The Gods Must Be Crazy’ (1980), ‘The Evil Dead’ (1981), ‘Heavy Metal’ (1981), and ‘Pink Floyd The Wall’ (1982)—all from mainstream distributors—were picked up by the midnight movie circuit, the core of exhibitors that energized the movement was disappearing. Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) was financially unsuccessful upon its initial release. The film was, however, re-released in 1992 and achieved cult status. It has since become a leading example of the science fiction genre.

In 1984, ‘The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,’ starring Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai, whose latest experiment opens the door to the 8th dimension and unwittingly starts an interstellar battle for the world. Directed by W.D. Richter the film has since received cult status.

Also in 1984, Dino De Laurentiis released ‘Dune,’ based on Frank Herbert’s best-selling sci-fi novel. Directed by David Lynch, the film was a big-budget flop, partially because the movie had already been edited from an intended three-to-four hours to 137 minutes, leaving the story virtually incomprehensible. Knowing that a great deal of footage had been deleted, Universal Studios took it upon themselves to release a longer version for syndicated television and thereby, return some of the cohesiveness to the story. Thus, ‘Dune’ became a cult classic, albeit too late, as David Lynch had removed his name from the credits of the television cut. Both major versions have been successful thanks to a recent DVD release.

1985 saw the making of two Arnon Milchan films that were, like ‘Dune’ before it, substantially altered by Universal Studios in an attempt to find a mainstream audience. Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ (1985), a dystopian science fiction film about a man’s relationship with the woman of his dreams became a huge failure (largely because of the difficulties involved in marketing the film), yet was critically acclaimed and subsequently revitalized by video releases. Then, by the time ‘Legend,’ directed by Ridley Scott, opened in European theaters, it had already been edited by 20 minutes by Universal. Having failed at the U.K. box office, it was further edited by five minutes for U.S. release a year later and Jerry Goldsmith’s original orchestral score replaced by a rock score by Tangerine Dream. Interest in the missing footage and score helped to build the film’s cult status, which paid off when in 2002, DVD audiences finally saw ‘Legend’ in a version closer to director Scott’s intent.

A year later, David Lynch’s highly influential neo-noir thriller ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986), having initially failed at the box office (because of its limited release in theaters), was revitalized with video releases in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The film became hugely controversial and well-known because of its bizarre, often graphic depiction of small town America and male–female relationships featuring a psychotic Dennis Hopper and his drug-fueled sexual relationship with Dorothy Vallens, played by Isabella Rossellini. Lynch continued his career with various other cult films: ‘Wild at Heart’ (1990), ‘Lost Highway’ (1997), and the critically acclaimed ‘Mulholland Dr.’ (2001) as well as his short lived cult phenomenon television series ‘Twin Peaks’ (1990–91), and its subsequent movie adaptation: ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’ (1992). Another cult item is the Jim Jarmusch film from 1989 ‘Mystery Train,’ which includes Joe Strummer and Tom Waits.

Alan Parker’s hybrid mystery/horror film, ‘Angel Heart’ (1987), starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, fared poorly at the box office, only just breaking even. Despite this, the film became a hit once released on VHS, and has become a cult classic since, known for its eerie tone, Michael Seresin’s cinematography, the sad and spooky score by Trevor Jones, and an unusual but effective blend of genres. Two of the movie’s producers, Andrew G. Vajna and Mario Kassar, also produced the cult film ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ which had a similar narrative structure, as well as a ‘twist’ ending.

Michael Lehmann’s satirical teenage comedy ‘Heathers’ (1989), starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, was intended to take on the John Hughes teenage films (‘The Breakfast Club,’ ‘Sixteen Candles’) and give them a much darker, realistic and comedic approach. However, the film was a failure at the box office (mainly because of its limited release). Despite this, it was hugely popular on VHS in the early 1990s and launched cutting-edge dialogue spoken by its characters (‘What’s your damage?,’ ‘I love my dead, gay son!’) into mainstream popular culture.

One of the most successful of the 1990s generation of cult films was the Australian drag queen road saga ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ (1994). Writer/director Todd Solondz, a favorite cult director, had his first major success with the black comedy ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ (1995), a brutally-honest look at the persecution of a young junior high student by her classmates. His next film was the challenging, controversial dark comedy of sex and perversion in American suburbia—titled ‘Happiness’ (1998). ‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998) was a flop on its initial release, yet became a cult classic and has been called ‘the first cult film of the Internet era.’ Disney’s ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’ (2001) had a disappointing box office performance but is considered to be a ‘cult favorite’ because of its unique art and animation style inspired by comic book artist Mike Mignola.

Older films are also popular on the circuit, appreciated largely in an imposed camp fashion—a midnight movie tradition that goes back to the 1972 revival of the hectoring anti-drug movie ‘Reefer Madness’ (1938). Tod Browning’s 1932 horror classic ‘Freaks,’ the original midnight movie revival, is both too dark and too sociologically acute to readily consume as camp. Where the irony with which ‘Reefer Madness’ was adopted as a midnight favorite had its roots in a countercultural sensibility, in the latter’s place there is now the paradoxical element of nostalgia: the leading revivals currently on the circuit ironically include clearly non-cult films like John Hughes oeuvre, which were major studio productions and popular and financially successful during their original releases, and the teen adventure film ‘The Goonies’ (1985).

Occasionally, a film can become the object of a cult following within a particular region or culture if it has some unusual significance to that region or culture. An example is the cult status of British comedic actor Norman Wisdom’s films in Albania. Wisdom’s films, in which he usually played a family man worker who outsmarts his boss, were some of the few Western films considered acceptable by the country’s communist rulers, thus Albanians grew familiar and attached to Wisdom. Curiously, he and his films are now acquiring nostalgic cult status in Britain. Another example is the place of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) in American and British gay culture, although a widely viewed and historically important film in greater American culture. Gay men sometimes refer to themselves as ‘friends of Dorothy.’ ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is another film adopted by American gay culture which used to regularly be shown during the 1980s and early 1990s for extended runs.


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