Every fifth film nowadays is given the status “instant cult classic,” with films such as The FP, Everybody Wants Some!!, and What We Do in the Shadows attaining “cult” status almost immediately after theatrical release; the label “cult classic” is a huge grey area, so much so that the definition has become muddied leading to countless lists saying “top 30 cult films you MUST see before you die” containing extremely unknown films or the opposite: ultra-mainstream films. The initial definition is “a film that attains a cult like following,” but even that is extremely vague. Let’s examine what the hell is happening with cult films nowadays, and what that flexible definition does for modern cult:
The easiest definition of “cult films” falls to those weird films that are still great, if not under appreciated. They tend to be extremely niche market, catering to a specific demographic and ultimately being financial failures. R-rated animated films like Heavy Metal, Fritz the Cat and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut usually fall under this umbrella, as animation is usually “strictly for children’s entertainment.” Films known as genre fare such as the Evil Dead films, Brazil, Re-Animator, Blade Runner and Welcome to the Dollhouse are also usually known as cult films because of their high water marks for their respective fields. Being unknown is not necessarily bad, and most of these films have gained not only cult status, but a new life through the cult scene.
Sometimes a movie is so terrible on every level that it actually redeems itself; such is the case with the other large type of cult classic films, the “so bad it’s good” crowd. Generally, these films are both critical and financial failures, but are salvaged in the home video market. Most infamously is the late addition to cult status The Room, a film that is notorious for being so poorly executed as a drama that the director eventually started billing his passion project as a comedy. The films tend to be extremely serious in tone, yet outlandish in their story. The excuses for quality come from studio interference, a low budget, a miscast, but they all tend to trend towards the winking knowledge that these films were not made to be viewed comically. Films such as Showgirls, Reefer Madness, and Manos: The Hands of Fate are variants of this genre, leaving audiences not only scratching their heads but rolling with laughter.
Then you have the anomalies, the films that are both critically beloved and legitimate classics in their own right. Films such as American Psycho (above), Easy Rider, A Clockwork Orange, The Matrix, and Reservoir Dogs are all legitimate classics and easily found on any film student’s must watch list. This category also includes children’s films, as they are generally the beloved classics of the past. Films such as The Princess Bride, Labyrinth, The Last Unicorn, and Babe: Pig in the Big City are frequently seen as cult classics. These outliers are the problem; they are indeed very famous films and do have a group of people dedicated to them. However, if the “cult” of people that love a particular film tends to be a large majority of the population, it can be argued that they’re not truly cult films.
So, with all these “different” cult classic types, can anything with a fevered fan base count as cult? No, there are plenty of films that transcend being cult and just end up becoming legitimate classics. The Star Wars series transcended the cult status label to legitimate classic, and depending on who one is talking to, most of the classic cult films such as A Clockwork Orange, Bottle Rocket, and The Shawshank Redemption can no longer be called “cult classics.” The best and still quintessential example of a cult classic is one of the longest running theatrically released films with continual screenings since 1976: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is the one film everyone can agree upon that is still, and probably forever will be “cult.” The fans are passionate and they frequently dress up in costume and re-enact the show with a fevered audience. The movie at the time was a moderate failure, only gaining success in a few target theaters, but was rebilled as a midnight film and re-released into what is now the ritual that has been carried for generations of Rocky Horror fans. It’s the fan base that solidifies a cult film into a legitimate cult classic.
What fate befalls cult classics in the modern age? Well, if you hold The Room up as a modern example of a cult film, the future looks rather bright. While modern marketing allows for some films to be seemingly created specifically for cult classic status, such as Snakes on a Plane and Repo! the Genetic Opera, others come across as underappreciated gems. The prevalence of social networking groups allows word to spread more quickly, so turnaround time for cult films has been drastically shortened. Now, films such as Scott Pilgrim VS the World and Enter the Void get better critical word of mouth, and it’s easier for fans of a film to come together. It does take a sense of mystique out of the films, as attainability is easier, but the love for these movies and more vocal fans allow the filmmakers to continue to grow. At least the sanctity of cult films will never truly fade away, even if it no longer feels as intimate, and the method of discovery of these films changes.