The Enduring Appeal of the Cult Film

Cult movies aren’t the most popular or most polished flicks, but they’re the ones that last. The films people will watch 10 or 20 times. Fans recite the dialogue, buy the DVD and the T-shirt, make gifs and/or blog posts and cite their love for it as part of Facebook or Tinder profiles.

But it’s hard to say exactly what makes a cult film, because it is the audience, not the producer or director, who bestows that status. Also, there is no prevalent source or style. Absurdist comedies rife with obscure references and in-jokes, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Visionary, art-house “what does it mean” surrealism, such as Eraserhead. Action-film fodder for drive-ins and Times Square grindhouses, like Enter the Dragon. Hollywood products that have overblown into glitzy melodrama elephantiasis, à la Valley of the Dolls.

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Mommy Dearest swag.

The cult films that come out of the conventional movie industry usually develop followings through camp. Mommie Dearest was originally intended to be a serious biopic that could win Faye Dunaway another Oscar, but, once a few early screenings provoked more laughter than tears, the ad campaign was redone with “No wire hangers … ever!” right on the poster. Then, of course, there’s Showgirls, which had a top director as well as a $3.7 million script and was resoundingly reviled upon release. After losing money and winning Razzie Awards, someone had the sense to organize midnight screenings with drag queens, and a cult was born.

The midnight movie more commonly springs from the underground, from a director/writer/producer with a distinct vision and the will to pull it off. David Lynch has become an institution and an adjective through his blending of the banal and the bizarre. John Waters created an entire universe with a rigorous aesthetic of bad taste and a comedic flair that went past eccentric to demented—all presided over by Divine, perhaps the greatest cult actor of them all. To top Divine as a drag queen or as a movie star, you’d have to go to RuPaul or Elizabeth Taylor.

The stars of cult film are something of a species all their own. Sure, some are actors on their way up or down in Hollywood, but many remain midnight-movie staples. Tura Satana’s malevolent performance as a bodacious bad girl in Russ Meyer’s classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! should have led to a career pointing sharp objects at Sean Connery or Clint Eastwood. Pam Grier’s star quality is indisputable—a blend of beauty and authority that makes it impossible to look away from her when she’s on screen. Yet, while she made Coffy and Foxy Brown blaxploitation classics, she never got the big-budget roles. Bruce Campbell’s arrogant yet likable persona and ability to launch snarky comments while kicking ass powered Evil Dead and Army of Darkness; countless younger, bigger stars have emulated his swagger, but none have done it better.

Not every cult film is so-bad-it’s-good. Roger Ebert wrote of one memorable, low-budget noir, “Detour is a movie so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school,” yet he included it in his collection, The Great Movies. Pauline Kael compared the New York City street-gang epic The Warriors to the work of Akira Kurosawa and D.W. Griffith.

And, of course, the sound, image and style of cult films are appropriated in other works. You may not have seen Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat, but you’ve likely seen Janet Jackson or the Spice Girls imitate her performance. You may not have watched The Night of the Hunter (and you should!), but you already recognize the widely stolen shot of a drowned Shelley Winters, hair floating amongst the weeds, and noticed countless rip-offs of the “LOVE” and “HATE” knuckle tattoos on Robert Mitchum’s psychotic preacher. Seemingly half the dialogue from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was lifted directly from Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

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A still from Eraserhead

But there seem to be fewer cult films made these days, despite some deliberate attempts to create them. Snakes on a Plane, with its outrageous plot and quotable catchphrase, aimed for the mark, but missed. Cult movies must find their own audiences, and who is going to allow that in our era of market research, audience metrics and social media campaigns? And, of course, the focus now is on getting everyone’s attention for five minutes, rather than getting five people’s lifelong devotion. Add in the fact that availability of everything on YouTube/Amazon/Netflix has eliminated the white whale hunts for a screening of Chelsea Girls or a VHS bootleg tape of Who Killed Teddy Bear, the swapping of tales about half-remembered, late-night weirdness: “Did you ever see this movie that …?” It’s all unnecessary now, and that which is no longer rare often doesn’t seem as valuable.

Finally, consider what John Waters wrote in his 1981 book, Shock Value: “I’ve always tried to please and satisfy an audience that thinks they’ve seen everything.” Now that everything can be seen with a few clicks and swipes, it’s quite possible people have seen everything. Or think they have.

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