Often left of center and coming out of left field, for a movie to be regarded as a cult film, genre is not a prerequisite: comedy, drama, camp, horror, and everything else in-between can fall into this vague but ultra-hip classification. The only real pedigree a film needs to be considered cult is in the following that forms around it. Perhaps the most democratic method of winning fans is through merit and time: almost no film becomes cult overnight, instead persisting through the years and decades as people recommend a little-known film to their friends or drop its title in conversation, and only then because that film had earned a place in their heart and mind.
Cult films are themselves usually labors of love: a strong vision a director has of their story that they then spend years getting it into production and with a concept that may have little popular appeal. Then again, maybe not: there are major studio films that were written, cast, directed, and marketed to be as commercially successful as possible, only for the end product sinking like a stone at the box office but later finding an appreciative audience. Whatever cult is, there’s at least one thing in common with almost all of them: they were not popular at the time of their release.
Which brings us back to the question of time and persistence: what does make a cult film? An outre otherness that fascinates some viewers but deflects the attention of most? A uniqueness that makes it stand out long after the big hits of its day have long since faded from the popular imagination? A low-budget attempt by a director with determination to bring their ideas to life on-screen?
The answer to all of these, of course, is yes, and there is no one attribute that makes a film cult. Some cult films are well-loved because they’re outright terrible and stand as examples of how not to make a film, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space or more recently the utter cinematic disaster The Room; some cult movies are held in high regard because they are fantastic films of their genre that didn’t find the success its fans think it should have, like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension; or they develop a following for nostalgic reasons that have little to do with their quality, such as Troop Beverly Hills.
Pictured: Not Troop Beverly Hills.
Content also plays a part in a film developing a cult following; some films are so bizarre or outright graphic that they would never be accepted in the mainstream. Bad Lieutenant is an ultraviolent, raw, profane film with an NC-17 rating; Gasper Noe’s extreme films I Stand Alone, Irreversible, and Enter The Void all feature shocking, brutal content and presented in increasingly experimental cinematographic perspectives; Battle Royale is literally a film about a group of students killing each other. None of these would ever play at the mall’s cineplex and often find their audience on the secondary markets after being released to the home audience.
And on the other hand, some films are simply too experimental and strange for anyone but the curious and cinephiles to find appealing: most of David Lynch’s career depends on this sort of audience who will seek out his films precisely because they make one think and present something the viewer had never seen before. Some cult films become cult because they present an utterly unique and often strange vision of the world–or some other world entirely.
This is to say that there is no formula to cult films or even any way to successfully predict what films may one day become cult. Plenty of strange, violent, and shocking films have come and gone over the years without dedicated fans singing their praises for decades to come, while a goofy comedy like The ‘Burbs continues to have its fans nearly 30 years after its release.
And this is part of the excitement that surrounds a cult film: you never quite know what you’re going to get until you press play and see for yourself. Most often, from what this writer has been able to put together, this is the most exciting part about being a film fan, especially when one has already seen nearly every combination of trope, style, and storyline a film can produce. Whether comedy, horror, drama, or something outside the norm, if a film has been labeled “cult,” you know it has to have something interesting or else people wouldn’t bother pushing it for years by word-of-mouth and onto other film fans.
With this in mind, in a series of upcoming articles let’s take a closer look at some great cult classics–maybe not the standard ones everybody first thinks of when they hear the word “cult” and “film” put together, like Pink Flamingos or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but maybe some cult films fans of cinema haven’t heard of or seen before–or maybe they have but should watch again, to help keep the cult alive. Upcoming articles in this series will cover True Stories, Meet the Hollowheads, Fantastic Planet, Better Off Dead, Eating Raoul, and Liquid Sky.