A cynic might suggest that the term ‘cult’, when used in reference to books, music and, of course, films, was coined by marketing men struggling to find a way to promote things that were either too odd for mainstream taste or that had already utterly failed to recoup their promotional budgets and so needed to be advertised to a new audience. And, being a cynic, I’m happy to believe that explanation. I mean, what’s the other definition of the word? It basically means a group run by a deranged demagogue to whom you’ve surrendered your life, thoughts, individuality and money and who will more than likely do weird sexual things to you before shooting you, poisoning you or convincing you that a passing comet is actually a spaceship coming to take you to Eden and that all you need to do to board it is kill yourself. I’m pretty sure that when someone refers to, say Withnail and I, as a cult film they don’t mean that.WII
I once read a short story collection in which, according to the author biographies, everyone who’d written for it was a cult author who had written a cult novel; which is to say they had all written a piss poor book that no one had read. But at around the same time I read a book called Cult Rockers, which, as I perused the pages, caused my housemate to say ‘oh, is that about all those ‘cult’ acts like the Velvet Underground that absolutely everyone has heard about?’. Indeed it was. When it comes down to it, the term ‘cult film’ pretty much covers the same ground as a cult novel or cult band, which is to say it still has to be pretty well known. But beyond that, what qualifies a film as a cult? Initial lack of success followed by a slowly building video/DVD following? Making a statement beyond the predictably Hollywood fare? Or being something that students annoy you with by endlessly quoting from in the pub?
WMAnThis certainly applies with perhaps the cultiest film of all time – the eminently quotable Withnail and I – but have you ever heard a group of students in a pub quoting from The Wicker Man? Shouting out ‘oh, Jesus Christ, no! A wicker man!’ or mentioning that they’re protected by the ejaculation of serpents? Probably not. So maybe there’s more to it than that. (Actually, I once tried to direct a film that had it ever been finished would probably have qualified as a cult film in that the subject matter involved a man who, overcome with hunger, sets about eating himself, starting with the legs, then moving onto the torso and arms until only his head is left and he realises he can’t finish the meal off. Now, the footage for that film never got edited, so does the fact that it’s still languishing in someone’s cupboard or hard drive, without anyone actually having seen it, make it one of the great cult lost films? Probably not.)
Part of me thinks that low budget indie films shouldn’t count as they’re too obvious, so Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch can be struck off based on that. And any film starring Tom Waits is probably trying a bit too hard. And Harmony Korine’s latest film, Spring Breakers, is already being described in some adverts as a cult classic. But you can’t say that about a film that’s only just come out. That’s just morally reprehensible.
So, how about films that were planned as blockbusters but fell flat? Well, that could include Waterworld, John Travolta’s Scientology film (whatever the hell that was called) and even that recent Disney thing about Martians from Mars or something. So I think we can discount those too; indeed, one of my pet hates is when studios try to repromote a film as a cult film after it flops at the box office. Showgirls is probably the best example of that; poor box office and terrible reviews followed by a rebirth as a kitsch classic though, in all fairness, I think a film that’s basically two hours of pole dancing and jiggling breasts was always going to struggle for an audience in a public auditorium just as it was likely to do well on the video market, where the discerning viewer could purchase it for an, ahem, ‘private’ viewing.
What about Todd Solonz’s Happiness? He’s a fairly well known filmmaker but this film is a black comedy about a paedophile; indeed, I once sat some friends down to watch it only for them to sit in stony and embarrassed silence as they realised what it was about. But it should almost certainly be disqualified by the fact that although it features a scene where a man commits an act of onanism and goes on to use the ejaculate to stick a picture to his wall, the actor in question was the later-to-win-an-Academy-Award actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. So what about a film with unsettling subject matter and nothing to make it more palatable? Freaks by Todd Browning was banned for decades due to its controversial portrayal of the employees of a circus freakshow ganging up to take their twisted revenge on a colleague who has double crossed them. It’s got a man with no arms and legs in it amongst other interesting characters, and as it was made in the thirties it’s safe to say there was no CGI involved. Some would say the Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cult film. And despite its commercial success, some say the same about Fight Club. So if a film has Meat Loaf in it, does that automatically qualify it for cultdom? Probably not, as then you’d have to include Spice World.
How about a cool or interesting soundtrack? Well, it’s got to help. Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude would surely count due to its subject matter (teenage boy sort of falls in love with a seventy year old woman) but the brilliant soundtrack by Cat Stevens just adds to its appeal. Then you’ve got the psych-folk stylings of the aforementioned Wicker Man. Or how about Aimee Mann’s soundtrack to Magnolia that features an ensemble singalong including Tom Cruise flexing his vocal chords?!
So, in conclusion, we’ve looked into what makes a film a cult and learned nothing. You disappointed? Well, I don’t think you should be. I say just watch a film because you like it. And what’s wrong with that? Which is to say, by all means watch and enjoy Withnail and I, but remember that there’s a scene in that where Withnail narrowly avoids a beating when he annoys a local in a pub, so if you go into a hostelry and shout ‘I demand to have the finest wines known to humanity!’ then you’re not only missing the irony but you’ll probably deserve the beating you’ll undoubtedly get…

Paul Herringshaw

3 posts since March 25, 2013
Despite being so damned old that my earliest cinema trips took place the same year most people writing for this site were born, I was still touched to be asked by Wilfred Goodwin to contribute. I suppose that makes me the site's resident grumpy old man. I have bile for blood and specialise in pretentious and obscure films that most people aren't sad enough to have seen.

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