Cult Classics: The past, present and future of cult cinema

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Jun 25, 2017, 1:49 PM EDT (Updated)

You know that scene from Black Sheep where David Spade and Chris Farley don't realize they're very high? And they start saying the word "roads" over and over until it sounds like garbled nonsense and loses all meaning?

That's kind of what happened, to some degree, with the term "cult film."

A clarifying example: While I was having conversations for this very article about what a cult film is, someone told me there was a site (not ours, thankfully) that offered them a job that considered The Breakfast Club and Ghostbusters to be "cult classics."

Friends, I am not sure of a great many things in this world, but I can tell you that neither The Breakfast Club nor Ghostbusters can lay claim to the title "cult classic," as quite literally everyone on Earth has seen both of them about a thousand times at this point.

That's what this article is about -- it's about what cult films actually are, what they've been, how the term has transformed over the years, how it's stayed the same, and how cult films might find purchase within the cultural lexicon in the years to come.

To begin, let's re-establish what a cult movie has been and what, at its core, it always will be. I spoke with Brad Jones, who has written a number of micro-budget films and has a popular digital series, The Cinema Snob, which often deals in cult cinema. Here's his definition:

"The original definition that still carries into today which is, a movie that when they came out, didn't find a huge audience. They're movies that find their little audience that talk about the movie and pass it along to their friends. Something that has a core audience who would show up for some kind of midnight showing. A movie that isn't mainstream, but they (the audience) treat it like it is. They show it as much love as a mainstream audience would show a Hollywood blockbuster."

That's about as tight a definition as you can get. But let's dive into the origins of cult cinema to understand how people would find, and then later share, lesser-known flicks with each other.



Let's say you're firmly of the Baby Boomer generation. When you were a kid, chances are you went to see movies at the drive-in. And when you go to the drive in, there's first the A-picture, and then also the second feature, the B-movie, which is second tier, weird, maybe horror or sci-fi, and almost definitely a little sexy. The title probably has an exclamation point in it, maybe a woman is screaming on the movie poster.

And if you were a kid, you were maybe supposed to be asleep in the back of the station wagon by the point the B-movie started rolling. So, even if the B-movie was cheesy and you could see the strings the UFOs were attached to, you were probably still enthralled specifically because you weren't supposed to be watching.

And then, just like that, the movie is gone into the ether. Poof! Maybe you'd get your parents to drag you back, but once the movie left the screen, it was kinda ... gone.

The only way to hang onto the memory of that B-movie? You talk about it! You find other people who saw it! And then you tell everyone who didn't see it how amazing it was (even if it maybe wasn't all that amazing). And so the legend grows.

And a cult film is born. Stuff like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Plan 9 From Outer Space and the first-ever splatter film, Blood Feast.

That's how it started out.

Then, as the drive-ins faded out, VHS came rushing in. The B-movies found a new home at your local mom-and-pop video rental shops. Some shops had different tapes, some tapes would get stolen or broken or would just be out for rent all the damn time.

But you'd find movies that were wild, weird, sexy and also pretty gory and gross, especially in the '80s. And you'd find the other people who watched those movies and talk about them before telling everyone else, "YOU GOTTA SEE THIS @#!$ED-UP MOVIE, MAN!"

And, once again, a cult film is born. Stuff like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama and Troll 2 and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

So at this point, cult movies are mostly born by word of mouth. And occasionally through shadow casts where fans re-enact moments from the film, like with Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But as we transition into the 1990s, this is when we star to see an evolution in how people discover and consume cult cinema



While Mystery Science Theater 3000 technically debuted in 1988, it wasn't until the early '90s that it took its hold in the cultural consciousness.

And can we all take a moment to marvel at the fact that a man pretending to be on a space station, forced to watch cheesy movies with robot-like puppets, took off the way it did? The sheer originality of the concept definitely made it noteworthy at first blush, but it was the writing and performances from Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Mary Jo Pehl, Elvis, Trace, Frank, Kevin, Bill and everyone else that made it a hit.

And this concept of publicly riffing on a movie throughout its running time, a thing people had been quietly (and not-so-quietly) been doing in theaters for years, had a big impact on the way we thought of cult films.

Yes, there was always an element of cheesiness to the movies that garnered the slavish worship of movie dweebs (looking at you here, me), but now there was a formalized interaction with the films, one wherein everyone was trying to outdo one another at making fun of the films we loved best.

There was a familiarity to the concept of telling people what movies to watch, but now it was being done by a third party of people who were experts. And there was that phrase in every MST3K episode: "Keep circulating the tapes." It was a rally cry to make sure people knew what movies were the right blend of "so bad they're good" that made for the most interactive and unintentionally hilarious experiences you could get out of a movie viewing.

But I want to home in on one aspect here, because it takes us to the next phase of cult movie discovery -- this idea that someone can tell you what's worth watching beyond the usual Siskel and Ebert crowd. Because Joel and Mike effectively made it so you could stop looking and trust them to find the best genre trash for you.

And so cult movies were born. Stuff like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Parts: The Clonus Horror.

This also led to a real bane of the world of B-movie cinema -- the reprobates who set out to make movies specifically so MST3K would riff them. I don't know a lot to be true, friends (didn't think I'd be saying that twice in one article, but here we are), but I know you can't make a "so bad it's good" movie on purpose. The only thing you'll wind up with is a bad movie.

And that is not how cult movies are born.

But! As for people who could reliably tell you what to watch, there was a new generation of those coming along and, with them, another evolution to cult cinema.



In 2007, Doug Walker and his brother Rob began a video series built around a fictional-ish character called "The Nostalgia Critic." The series' core concept was stated at the beginning of more or less every episode: "I remember it so you don't have to."

And while Doug's team dealt predominantly in films that had mainstream appeal at some point and were, therefore, prime to be nostalgic over, the other thing worth noting is that this brand of online video-making was about to get immensely popular. And that meant that people who dealt in things more obscure would also pull focus.

That's where folks like Brad Jones and his series, The Cinema Snob, grabbed a firm foothold. While Doug was reminding you of the kid shows and movies you grew up with, Brad catered to sleazier fare: for those people who were either a little older or, like me, kids whose parents didn't pay too much attention when we made our selection at the mom-and-pop VHS shops.

There's an important synergy, two sides of the same cult coin that emerges here. While online reviewers are swaps to trade VHS for new things to watch and review, companies like Shout Factory, Vinegar Syndrome, Arrow and Synapse start buying up the rights to excavate these VHS films, use the original film elements and release vastly improved, restored copies of "lost" films on Blu-ray.

So, for example, while Brad Jones is reviewing the Sleepaway Camp series, Scream Factory is making it more accessible by releasing restored versions of the films filled with extra features on Blu-ray. I would say that to some degree at least, the Sleepaway Camp franchise was already known, but the combination of a popular online video series covering the series and it being more accessible (and easier to watch thanks to the video clean-up), Sleepaway Camp became a much larger cult hit than it had ever been before.

Full-blown video series are not required for a film to find popularity online. Take, for example, Brian W. Collins, who for years ran a site called Horror Movie a Day. As you might have surmised, Collins watched and reviewed a horror movie every day. During that time, he watched a Canadian tax shelter, Exorcist rip-off film called Cathy's Curse. We've talked about Cathy's Curse before, but it's worth mentioning again. Previous to HMaD, the film had been relatively unheard of. It started to find interest thanks to Collins, but it's only now beginning to have a shot at true cult status now that Severin Films has found the original film materials and given Cathy's Curse a full restoration.

In the present day (and at least the short-term future), these are the ways that classic films are remaining, regaining and even establishing cult status. But that leaves off a very important part of the equation.



I asked another video content producer, Allison Pregler (who created the series Movie Nights), what she thinks are some more recent films that have obtained cult status. Her first two responses were The Room and Birdemic.

If you are unfamiliar, those two movies are incredibly bad. They are perhaps two of the best modern examples of the "so bad it's good" type of filmmaking. But Allison is absolutely correct. Both films have seen such popularity that, in addition to multiple online critics finding success off mocking them, some of the writers and performers from Mystery Science Theater 3000 have used their Rifftrax brand to equal success.

This isn't somehow dangerous to filmmaking or to cult film, but it's interesting to look at the difference in what types of movies have become the most successful cult films in recent years.

Let me give you two examples. These are two films from two different time periods that are both cult hits and were directed by the same man.

In 1988, David DeCoteau, who is part of the Roger Corman school of B-movie filmmaking, released a movie called Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama. It is a relatively well-made film featuring three of the most famous '80s scream queens (Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer and Brinke Stevens) that was briefly in theaters but was mostly designed for the VHS market.

Sorority Babes found its cult success in large part thanks to USA Up All Night, which was a kind of late-night Elvira, Mistress of the Dark program on the USA Network. One of the hosts, Rhonda Shear, was, well ... she was a woman who dressed provocatively and made jokes that were of the low-hanging-fruit variety.

Rhonda often had stars from B-films on to talk about their films in between commercials and the movies themselves, and frankly she titillated the audience. USA Up All Night was a space you could go to for some eye candy (if you wanted it) but also to find the kind of movies that cult fans could get into.

In 2013, DeCoteau released a movie called A Talking Cat!?!, whose biggest star was Eric Roberts as the talking cat. Not only does Roberts' voice sound like it was literally phoned in, but the movie itself was filmed on a micro budget in DeCoteau's house.

Unlike Sorority Babes, A Talking Cat!?! is not a good movie by any measure. And yet, thanks in part to the "!?!" on the title, both Allison Pregler and Brad Jones would go on to review the film, all while constantly repeating the title with a funny voice. And people loved the funny voice!

And a cult film is born! No, really. A lot of people love watching that movie. A Talking Cat!?! became so popular that DeCoteau went on to make A Talking Pony!?! to keep riding that wave of unexpected success.

All of which is to say that the memefication of films can inspire pretty intense cult followings. Brad told me he always considered Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 to be a bit of a cult film, but it certainly became better known when the "Garbage day!" clip found its way to YouTube.



I don't want you to think that only "so bad it's good" movies can gain success in the modern world of memefying cult film. Let's talk about The Babadook for a moment. The Babadook was a 2014 art-house horror movie that wound up being quite a critical darling thanks to the way it used horror to deal with the story of a widowed mother coping with a mentally ill child. It's a beautiful filmed, tightly written and fantastically performed film that found a resounding success the year it came out.

But, frankly, good (and not-so-good) art-house horror movies come out every year: It Follows, Green Room, The Witch, Under the Skin and on and on. So just being a critical darling is hardly enough to cause a film to find cult success.

However, The Babadook was accidentally listed on Netflix as an LGBT film recently, which led to Twitter dot com deciding that The Babadook is gay. And then the creators of The Babadook, it had turned out, actually claimed the character was gay back in 2015. Fan art got shared around and, before you knew it, the Babadook became a gay icon.

I don't want to shock anyone, but gay folks are *~*~kind of~*~* the tastemakers of our society. There's a reason the most famous cult film of all time is still The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The Babadook is a good movie, and horror fans had definitely rallied around it upon its release, but I don't think it was until this "The Babadook is gay and it's got me Babashook" meme occurred that it became clear that The Babadook was going to stand the test of time.



I used to work in a comic book store called Forbidden Planet. Back at the start of the 21st century, the shop I worked in didn't do tons in the way of video sales. But in recent years the video section has grown and grown and is now, I think, my favorite spot in the shop to visit. Part of that is because the famous Kim's Video closed a few years ago and something needed to take its place, but there's also something happening that relates to cult movies that's causing video stores to prime for a resurgence.

I called my old boss from Forbidden Planet NYC, Matt D, to ask him about the video section, since he was the one responsible for fostering and raising it up from nothing. Was it possible that video stores could once again become the place for people to find their next cult favorite? After all, there's such a glut of movies streaming and, likewise, so many web shows all talking about what you should watch next, it can all start to sound like noise. Matt D was completely confident that, yeah, absolutely, his shop and ones like it were the perfect place for people to find new movies to fall in love with. After all, not every movie in a video store is old or even new and streaming. There are those movies whose filmmakers still prefer physical media above all.

Meanwhile, not in New York City, Brad reminded me that video stores like Family Video still very much exist throughout the Midwest and carry all manner of unrated novelties both old and new that are (or could become) cult films.

Matt D and I mulled over the future. We wondered what semi-recent film might find cult status in the future and agreed on The Taint (NSFW), a well-shot film that is absolutely filthy; it's just a reprehensible, ghastly movie and we both love it. And yet, other than one online video review from Diamanda Hagan (also NSFW) that I can recall, The Taint largely slipped through the cracks. But there's something about its sleaziness and its originality (it is a movie about men becoming sick with a disease that causes their genitals to engorge and for them to attack all women) that makes it feel ripe for future success. All it will take is for the right sales clerk and the right customers to start a conversation about it.

Or it could be another film entirely that finds that success. But, if the recent success of Syfy's own Blood Drive (an in-your-face Roger Corman homage) is anything to go on, exploitation films are probably due for a major cult comeback. After all, look at how much people love (and love to hate) the Fifty Shades of Grey movies.

In the end, though, cult movies will become cult movies the way they always have: Two people will see a crazy film that got lost in the shuffle, and then they'll tell two friends about it, and they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on. Only the specific nature of the exchange will change.