WHAT MAKES A CULT MOVIE?
Certain films hold a very special status among movies in general. They stand out against the usual Hollywood productions. Either torn apart or completely ignored by critics and (as a rule) box-office disappointments, they are nonetheless loved by audiences who worship them as cult films. How can the cult film phenomenon be explained? Which attributes must a movie possess to be classified as a cult film?
Probably the most characteristic feature of cult films is the transgression of common Hollywood conventions. The films are different from the clichéd Hollywood productions and they don’t aim at satisfying the expectations of the mass of moviegoers. Consequently they usually fail at the box-offices and are often considered flops when appearing in the theaters for the first time. Yet, in spite of or (perhaps) due to this fact, they attract the attention of spectators and transform their “failure” into a success during the course of time. Several movies nowadays provoke a real sort of mania and are adored by hordes of crazy fans. The reason lies in the ability and the potential of cult movies to create an entire universe of their own which fascinates the audience.
One of the greatest cult movies of all time and perhaps something like the archetypal example of this genre is unquestionably Orson Welles ’ debut masterpiece Citizen Kane . The retrospective, flashback-operating story about the life and career of a great newspaper tycoon is exceptional in every respect. So significant was the impact of its adoration by cultists that the movie was critically re-evaluated in the course of time, eventually receiving the credit of being the greatest movie ever made which it has held until today.
Fascination, adoration and devotion are the key terms, because money-orientated success and profit are virtually never the driving force in the cult film entity. The main proportion of cult movies are actually low-budget productions. Commercial benefits from theater releases are also the exception rather than the rule (although numerous films were able to make a whole lot of money over the years). Thus the impact of cult movies is carried almost exclusively by their audiences.
The communities of cult movie fans are usually attracted by the exceptional characters of those films and their break with conventional Hollywood production schemes. Cult movies differ from the mainstream productions ;they have a sort of outsider status. They embody a certain independence as they do not stick to commonly accepted rules. The Hollywood ethic is broken down, prototypical procedures are ignored and entirely new patterns are employed.
Cult movies do not only apply an alternative approach and different techniques of story-telling, presentation, and message conveyance than other films but, what is equally important, they are approached differently by their viewers. In fact, their schemes and modes of presentation are often far from successful ;they are characterised by inadequate sets, costumes and effects or by a faint cast. Overall they can often be described as incapable of convincing the viewers. But, in contrast to big-budget blockbusters, that’s exactly where their fascination and their ultimate status comes from. Probably the best example is the film Plan 9 From Outer Space by Edward D. Wood Jr. which was labelled the worst movie ever made by critics (due to incompetent directing and acting, senseless dialogues, a stupid story, features as casting Bela Lugosi in one of the roles in spite of his being already dead at that time, and so on). But anyway, it is still talked about nowadays – 40 years after its release! – and enjoyed by a great number of movie geeks. The actual popularity of Ed Wood is reflected in the fact that his lifework was honored by a biographical film by Tim Burton in 1994, starring Johnny Depp as the notorious director himself.
Although the cultist movement originated from the audience’s devotion for early horror movies (that were low-budget and non-mainstream), nowadays there is no such a thing as an archetypal cult film genre. Rather, it is typical for cult movies to be encountered in a great number of movie categories: horror (as mentioned above), science fiction and fantasy, action-adventure, crime and exploitation movies, to name just a few. The mixture of several genres in a single film is not uncommon, so that the spectator may encounter zombies from outer space or Dracula in the Wild West. Also this feature contributes to the charm and the attractiveness of films labelled cultist.
Several typical ‘cultist’ features were also realised in Quentin Tarantino ’s Pulp Fiction , a good example for a modern cult film. The movie transgressed the usual mode of storytelling by completely breaking the chronology of the plot, featured a number of powerful characters (performed by a great cast) and introduced the revolutionary role of dialogues that should become Tarantino’s trademark. It is an enthusiastic, aggressive, captivating and – above all – realistic insight into the world of crime, and this mixture is the foundation from which its overwhelming popularity derives.