Adoration of the absurd
A trio of aliens lure unsuspecting newlyweds into their hyper-sexualized science convention. A man with a bizarre accent watches his marriage fall apart after his wife cheats on him with his best friend. A cheerleader is sent to conversion therapy. A high-school student becomes possessed by a demon after a failed sacrifice and enacts her revenge.
All of these plotlines originate from movies that we now consider to be cult classics. It’s a term that gets tossed around often, for a lot of different movies and different reasons. So, what
exactly is a cult classic? How do they happen, and why are we so obsessed with them?
One of the numerous issues in trying to write about cult classics is the overwhelming variation in what qualifies a film for ‘cult status’, and what ‘cult status’ means. One of the few commonalities that all cult classics share, however, is that almost all of them are box office failures that have found new life years after release. What the cause of this new life stems from is where things get complicated. For instance, some movies are known for simply being incalculably bad beyond the point of simple mistake, while others are renowned for being avant-garde masterpieces that were not appreciated enough in their time.
Take, for instance, Tommy Wiseau’s infamous feature “The Room.” By any standard, it is an impossibly bad film. None of the actors are at all convincing, the plot is paper thin and Tommy Wiseau’s own screen presence is bizarre at best. Yet, this completely inept attempt at making a movie was not swept under the rug or forgotten. Instead, “The Room” has found new life as a cult classic, adored by many for its bizarre lines, scenes and even props, ranging from the now-iconic Tommy Wiseau rooftop monologue that ends with “Oh hi Mark,” to the framed photo of a spoon that hangs in Wiseau’s character’s apartment. The film has spawned its own cult of personality around the mysterious filmmaker and his even more mysterious accent, with some fans going as far as to theorise that he may just be infamous airline heister D.B. Cooper.
Another, perhaps alternative, example of a bad movie gone good is 2009’s Jennifer’s Body which has been given a second chance in recent years through a feminist embrace, as fans interpret the titular Jennifer’s monstrous revenge on those who would seek to exploit her as a reclamation of her own power. Its newfound popularity encouraged a retrospective look at how and why it failed, to which the consensus has been that it was a movie marketed by and for men, despite it not being a movie necessarily made for men. In fact, the film has even taken on new weight in response to the #MeToo movement, as well as being reclaimed by LGBT+ fans as a modern queer classic. What was originally derided as a box office flop by primarily male critics has found a home among feminist critics and horror lovers alike, carving out its own niche despite past failures.
Of course, I would be remiss in writing about cult classics to not discuss perhaps the archetypical cult classic movie, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” This 1975 musical horror comedy features a slew of colorful and culturally defiant characters, campy music and colorful scenery-all twisted far and away from the understanding of the traditional movie musical that had been produced so often decades earlier. Rocky developed its own cult, transforming into a movie often shown annually with actors portraying the onscreen roles alongside the movie (something done every Halloween here at Ithaca), with the audience shouting back at the screen in between oddly-paced lines, and an overall cathartic experience that has come to be known by many as a rite of passage into the world of cult movies-or even adulthood itself. None of these examples however, dear to their own cult audiences as they may be, actually answer the question of how a movie becomes a classic, or what makes a cult classic cult. The answer offered here may be simpler than it seems: camp.
One of the only real commonalities these films share is a full-fledged embrace of camp, whether that be intentional or unintentional. These movies are renowned and loved for their overblown performances, colorful aesthetics and frankly overwhelming absurdity. The idea behind camp is finding beauty in something that intentionally clashes with the contemporary cultural ideas of beauty, and that feels like something at the heart of every cult classic. The audiences that flock to these pictures praise them for their flaws as much as for their beauty, acknowledging how endearing camp can be. However, I think it’s also important to ask why exactly camp equates to the cult classic, and how that relates to the cult classic. First, the term “camp” as we currently understand it originates from LGBT POC culture, specifically New York’s ball culture shown in cult films like “Paris is Burning.” It is a word often and heavily associated with queer experience, something that asks the question of the relatioship between queer and cult. Cult films are often rejected upon their release (if I wanted a painfully bad pun, perhaps it’s better written as their coming out) only to find a new, smaller, yet far more devoted audience. In a way, the progression of acceptance mimics the lived experience of many queer people, and in turn, LGBT+ audiences are offered new ways of seeing themselves onscreen. Perhaps the emergence of the cult classic is a form of queer reclamation, of groups not often represented finding themselves on the screen and claiming these movies as their own.
However, to say that this is the only possible way for a movie to become a cult classic is extremely reductive. If you ask for people’s favorite cult classics, you will get movies of all genres and all varieties. Maybe that is where it started, but since then it has become so much more. ‘Cult’ has become the culture for all of the weird and wonderful to be fully embraced despite their varied and often numerous flaws. Cult is devoted far beyond the normal “fandom” of films, something that can really only be attested to by looking at the individual experience of a cult fan. So, in order to show just how strong the cult classic subculture has become, I did just that: reached out on Twitter and asked for people’s favorite cult classics, and why.
“Ginger Snaps because it’s low budget and works it really well. it feels realistic in the way it portrays teenagers and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, plus I love the character building.” -@goiabada1111
“Rocky Horror bc it has an unapologetic trans main character and the music and outfits are just fantastic” -@snailconvertor
“Mortal Kombat. As a comedy it succeeds on every level. It’s almost a parody of action films at points.” -@RaleighBoyMayor
“Little Shop of Horrors and Coneheads. Both movies had EXTREMELY funny people/premises that were used to kind of tell a deeper meaning about society….with coneheads being a fictionalized take on the immigrant experience and little shop using extraterrestrial life to critique capitalism, its as if the subjects threatening america’s image is not digested well? either that or because the movies are just really campy.” -@fuckeryadvocate
“Speed Racer. i think i like it because i’m a huge fan of animation and this is like an adaptation of something that’s originally animated and it actually leans into the animation influences through its anime-style effects.” -@kikikrazed
As one can see, there’s no coherent ‘type’ of movie in any of these answers. All were box office failures or small-scale films, all in touch with their campy side. Beyond that, they have very little in common. And yet, they are all cult movies. In that case, maybe that means that our love for the cult classic does not stem from a specific type of movie, rather it stems from something that was initially rejected that we come to love and adore. It stems from something outside the usual Hollywood binary of failure/success. They’re willing, in ways that sometimes fall flat or are sometimes too adventurous, to try things that we don’t always see on screen.
Cult classics are not loved for being masterpieces, but because they become more than movies. They become communities; movies that you show to friends because you can’t believe they got made, you can’t believe they exist and sure they’re flawed but you love them so much. Perhaps these flaws make them more real to us, and more accessible: even within often fantastical plots, their flaws can feel less like the Hollywood veneer and more like a product of intense devotion by its creators. No matter where they came from or why we love them, the cult classic will always be here to stay.
Conor Cadigan is a second year Writing for Film, TV and Emerging Media major who thinks cult classic films are definitely worth the hype. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Art by Art Editor Adam Dee.