What Makes a Film a Cult Film?
A cult film is one that when first released in theaters was a flop. No one went to see it, studios lost money, critics and the general public either loved or hated it. But something happened. Maybe on second viewing the brilliance shined through or it was so very, very bad that it holds a special place in people's hearts - and so a cult film is born.
Although cult films were initially financial flops some achieve fame and fortune once on video or when shown at midnight movie theaters. Studios learned from these films and now some less successful ones get special attention and midnight showings in hopes of a cult following.
Independent filmmakers who refuse to compromise their vision for fame or fortune. Films so violent they alienate the general public. Films so beautiful and smart that they get lost in the sea of big budget studio movies. All of these make up films true fans like to keep to themselves - after all, a cult film is something very special and we hate to see our favorite cut up for viewing on local tv stations! No two are alike and they defy categorization, so I will only use categories in a general way.
The original midnight movie - Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - was so controversial in its use of sex and violence that it could only be shown at the witching hour. It created such a following that other controversial films followed suit and were exclusively shown at midnight.
The best known cult film has to be Rocky Horror Picture Show. This sci-fi musical satire was a flop on its initial run, the film went over studio and most audience member's heads. Still a following of rabid fans dressed as their favorite characters and breaking into dialogue and song have made this a favorite midnight movie and Halloween's favorite treat.
Cult humor is a tricky thing. It has to be smart, satirical, witty and funny. Psycho Beach Party is a homage to 1950's beach films mixed with psychotic serial killers and transgender cops. Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke spawned sequels but the original is still the exploitation comedy that made it ok to drive a van made entirely out of pot. Kevin Smith's opus to the slacker in all of us, Clerks became an indie hit even though filmed in black and white with unknown actors and a non existent budget. The dark comedy Heathers is a satirical look at high school cliques and how a little murder can help you climb the social ladder. It usually takes years (if not decades) for a cult hit to happen but recently Office Space has become a favorite. Mike Judge's satirical look at the cubicles that run our lives and the indifference that can tear them down.
Horror films have long been deemed "cult" by those who do not care for them. But some are too mainstream, others are too dumb and others are just plain bad. Horror cult films are gory but smart, funny with a social conscience. They scare you to the bone and leave a lingering sense of doom. Near Dark is a gritty look at a traveling vampire family. Freaks is the 1932 classic that has creeped out people since its release. Carnival of Souls is a mind trip of supernatural proportions that will leave you in a cold sweat. A spoof of UFO films, Bad Taste (directed by the now famous Peter Jackson) deals with aliens in search of human meat for their fast food franchise.
Animation is not immune to becoming cult films. The Nightmare Before Christmas is the perfect example of quirky and smart with a wicked sense of humor. While Heavy Metal is geared towards teenage boys and their hormones, the immortal battle of good vs evil set to rock music has become a major cult fave for the midnight crowds.
Blaxploitation is exploitation with an African American cast. So they are violent, sexual and superfly! Shaft, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones and Dolemite are examples of a term so popular it has become a genre of its own.
Average violence will not cut it in cult films. The violence has to be disturbing and gut wrenching, total disregard for the rating system is the norm. Oh, and it helps if there is nudity involved. Switchblade Sisters is the quintessential girl gang film. El Mariachi is the brilliant tale of mistaken identity that unleashes the wrath of a simple musician. And Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange offers a glimpse of a bleak and disturbing future where free will is a thing of the past and repression will only lead to more violence.
While most of the films above are considered classic of cult cinema there are others that have been considered Classics not only by cult fans but by critics too. An oldie but goodie, Reefer Madness is the hilarious film first released as propaganda. Made in 1936 to show the effects of pot on young people, this film show how pot causes car accidents, rape, insanity and suicide - not to mention loose morals! The love story between a suicidal young man and a woman 60 years his senior was a major flop but Harold and Maude is sweet and quirky. The beautiful cinematography of Days of Heaven has made it a classic of love, betrayal and murder set in the Depression era. As my favorite cult movies, these two show us a world full of beuracratic shenanigans of the most disturbing kind. Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Brazil have since become a bit more mainstream as audiences have rediscovered them and their irreverent humor.
These filmmakers have too many classics under their belt to just be a one-cult-hit wonder. They work outside the system and follow their own rules. Their ideas are original, groundbreaking and cutting edge intended for the fringes, not the masses. To name just one would be a disservice to their genius.
Dario Argento- The Italian master of horror. His use of gore and frightening storytelling is unmatched. Films - Suspiria, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Tenebre, Opera
Coen brothers - Director Joel and producer Ethan create quirky and smart films that stay with you long after the credits roll. Films - Miller's Crossing, Fargo, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, O' Brother Where Art Thou, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple
Roger Corman - As a producer he has been involved in some heavy duty cult films with some up and coming directors. Films - Caged Heat (Jonathan Demme), Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese), Dementia 13 (Francis Ford Coppola), Fall of theHouse of Usher (director)
David Cronenberg - Grotesque and wonderful with the most unique view of life. His films are not for the faint of heart or those who lack imagination. Films - Rabid, Videodrome, Scanners, Naked Lunch, The Brood, The Fly, The Dead Zone
David Lynch - For films that will make you scratch your head and leave you inspired to create art. Films - Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Dune, The Elephant Man, Lost Highway
Sam Peckinpah - While widely known as a master of western films, his true cult roots show in his use of extreme and gruesome violence. His characters transform into instruments of revenge and retribution. Films - Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch, Cross of Iron, Bring Me the Hed of Alfredo Garcia
George A. Romero - The undisputed "Zombie King". Not only are his films gory and scary but their social commentary are what true great films are made of. Films - Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, The Crazies, Monkey Shines
John Waters - Campy guerrilla filmmaking at its most disturbing. Disgusting, funny, satirical, smart and the grittiest of them all. A true cult filmmaker in every sense of the word. Films - Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom, Pecker, A Dirty Shame, Hairspray, Cry-Baby
Ed Wood - The grandaddy of all cult filmmakers. While his films have been ridiculed his legions of fans are proof that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Films - Plan 9 From Outer Space, Necromania, Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait, Night of the Ghouls, Bride of the Monster
Could've Been, But Were Too Successful in Theaters
Quentin Tarantino. I bet he never thought his films would be received the way they have been. His use of violence and unsavory characters are signs of a cult filmmaker at work. Reservoir Dogs was an instant classic, then came Pulp Fiction and his fate was sealed.
Tim Burton. Same as with Tarantino, a truly original mind that can mix genres to create his own vision. The only one that can be a true cult classic would be Nightmare Before Christmas but he was not the director. Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure - all had the makings of cult classics but found an audience and hit it big in theaters.
As for individual films, well there too many to list them all. Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, The Graduate all have the essence of cult filmmaking but all were hugely succesful. Citizen Kane, arguably a masterpiece of American cinema was a flop when first released. Young Orson Wells did things his own way. Never one to compromise, he ran afoul of studio heads and masters of the universe alike. His unique vison and powerful storytelling would make this a cult classic of the biggest kind. But its eventual success and acolades by Hollywood, critics and the general public made it a mainstream classic.
Who would think that tv could also become a medium for cult classics? David Lynch's Twin Peaks and Joss Whedon's Firefly are just two cult series that spawned films by sheer fan force. Thanks to dvd releases we can now obsess about Freak and Geeks, Arrested Development, My So-Called Life, Kids in the Hall, Sling and Arrows and Johnny Staccato (with indie god John Cassavetes).
I recommend all of the titles above, but to start ask yourself if cult films are for you. Do you like cutting edge storylines or cutting edge special effects? Actors and directors who forego huge salaries to be in a project they believe in or those who prefer mega paychecks and budgets to match? Then again if you have to ask yourself those questions maybe cult is not for you.