People tend to get attached to certain films, books, TV shows and music to the point of obsession. We find something we like and just can’t get enough of it. Facebook groups, fan conventions and online clubs sprout up over just about anything. For proof, look at things like “Game of Thrones,” “Star Trek,” the Marvel superhero films and the James Bond flicks, to name a few. Many of these fall into the category of cult classics.
A cult classic is defined as something that is obscure or unpopular with mainstream audiences, but develops a dedicated fanbase through repeated exposure and word of mouth. After failing at the cinema, some cult films have become regular fixtures on cable television or profitable sellers on home video. The term cult film was first used in the 1970s to describe the culture that surrounded underground films and midnight movies. With the increase in cable TV channels in the ‘80s, and the need for inexpensive programming to fill air time, many of these films got another shot. Some movies that fit into this category are “The Night of the Hunter,” “Toxic Avenger,” “I Spit on your Grave,” “Mad Max,” the 1940s noir crime films “Detour” and “D.O.A.” and the Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” It may surprise you to know that “It’s a Wonderful Life” was once considered a cult classic. It bombed at the box office and didn’t become popular until the copyright expired and TV stations could show it free every year at Christmas.
Sometimes, a film will develop such a following because, in the words of critic Michael Medved, “It’s so bad it’s good.” Many of them were made on a minus-zero budget which made cheap special effects necessary, with wooden acting to match. “Night of the Living Dead” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” are prime examples, but a better one is “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959). It was made by Ed Wood, probably the worst filmmaker ever. He was responsible for the forgettable gems “Bride of the Gorilla” and the cross-dressing melodrama “Glen or Glenda.” Wood began “Plan 9” with a home movie of his idol, Bela Lugosi, made shortly before his death. He listed him as the star to increase box office appeal, even though his screen time was less than two minutes. Wood then doubled the actor with a guy who was taller, thinner and younger than Lugosi. He also used hubcaps suspended from thread to mimic flying saucers. You have to see this one to believe it.
I found a DVD collection of films from the 1970s, called “Drive-in Cult Classics.” These were ultra-cheap flicks that were shown as the third feature at the drive-in, or at college midnight movie fests. The casts are comprised of C-list actors, the kind that popped up as supporting players on TV shows or in commercial crowd scenes. These were what we used to call sexploitation movies, the ones that took advantage of the recently-abolished censorship code, giving moviemakers free reign to put out just about anything.
The plots are confusing, most of the acting isn’t good enough for community theater, and some of the sex scenes produce more laughs than heat. One featured a bedroom encounter between a husband and wife, but the guy never took off his pants or shoes while wriggling atop his naked spouse. How realistic is that? Gratuitous nudity also abounds. In another film, an actress walked across the screen topless for no reason. That scene came at a place where the story bogged down, and the director probably couldn’t think of anything else to do.
And those titles! “Pick-up,” “The Sister-in-law,” “The Teacher,” “The Stepmother,” “Trip with the Teacher,” and “Malibu High Hookers,” to name a few. Check out these poster teaser lines:
“She destroyed her husband’s brother by the most immoral act imaginable!”
“She corrupted the youthful morality of an entire school.”
“She forced her husband’s son to commit the ultimate sin!”
“This high school senior worked her way through the faculty lounge.”
A prime example of a cult classic is “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975). A local theater used to hold midnight screenings of this one every year as part of their summer classic film series. I’d seen people showing up in costume and reciting dialogue along with the actors, so it wasn’t surprising. What did surprise me was when I attended a Sunday afternoon showing of “The Wizard of Oz.” I didn’t expect to see so many kids dressed in calico dresses, ruby red slippers and pigtails, accompanied by their mothers decked out as the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with brooms. I felt like I had entered an alternate universe.
I guess a cult classic can be anything you’re passionate about. What’s yours?