Kind of a big deal

Christina Amoroso

The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Reefer Madness. Donnie Darko. What do these films all have in common?

They all fall under the greater category of “cult films.” But this term is almost more mysterious than the films themselves and raises many questions, the most important of which is: What exactly is a cult film, anyway?

The traditional definition of a cult film has been a film that appeals to a small, very specific demographic. Such flicks have generally been unknown except to the group to which they appeal – either because of films’ tacky sense of humor, their B-level blood and gore, or their mocking of popular culture – and thus they’ve often been accompanied by failure at the box office. However, this common definition of “cult film” has gradually changed over time, especially due to the increasing popularity of mainstream hits. In the past few years, quirky Hollywood films have been elevated to cult status and morphed into our generation’s cult classics.

Films such as Anchorman, Napoleon Dynamite and Wet Hot American Summer have had widespread success with audiences in the past few years. But because of their widespread – though offbeat -popularity, many film enthusiasts argue that the concept of “cult” has lost its significance.

Communication junior Brock Wilbur, a student in the RTVF department, says he thinks these movies have cult appeal.

“Anchorman and Napoleon Dynamite did well at the box office, and many people are familiar with the films, but the intensity with which the fans regard these flicks is what bumps them into cult status,” says Wilbur, who is currently an intern at Universal Studios in California, in an e-mail. “These are not small cults, as you can probably hold an entire quote-based conversation with your average college student about either (one).”

Films such as Napoleon Dynamite, though they did well while in theaters, were popularized later on by media organizations, augmenting the powerful effect of mainstream media in recent years. Additionally, old-fashioned word-of-mouth helped make Napoleon Dynamite the hit it has become. The tendency among young people to quote lines from such films is only one example of how they became hit movies.

Of Anchorman, McCormick senior Ankur Shah says, “(My friends and I) quote it incessantly.” He also says he believes popular movies have the potential to attain cult status.

Shah and his friends aren’t the only ones who love to quote Anchorman – a group, “I recognize quoting Anchorman as a social skill,” had 204 members in a recent count.

Other mainstream hits have the potential to attain cult status, including films starring famous, well-established Hollywood actors. This is a trend which has accompanied the overall evolution of big-budget, popular films to cult classics.

Shah says he thinks Fight Club, though it stars popular, highly acclaimed actors like Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, could be a cult film because “it’s something you can discuss with people” – he says it’s not straightforward and has deep, underlying themes.

However, Communication junior and A&O Productions Film Director Wyatt Ollestad says he doesn’t believe such mainstream films could – or should – be considered the cult classics of our generation.

“They’re popular right now, but they may go by the wayside,” he says. “They’ve reached too wide an appeal right now to be considered ‘cult’ in the future.” He suggests films such as Donnie Darko and mentions how films like this – with dark undertones or eccentric humor – reflect the problems of Generation ‘Y.’ Ollestad also says he thinks Kevin Smith films such as Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back could qualify, and that he loves flicks such as Storytelling, Happiness and Palindromes – ones that “embody the true, pure cult aesthetic.”

Sociology professor Wendy Espeland, who includes cultural trends in her sociology curriculum, says she has found a movie which may fit this cult aesthetic requirement. “I don’t know if it qualifies as a ‘cult film,’ but lately I’m really taken with The Real Dirt on Farmer John – I like its intimacy and the gentleness of the protagonist/filmmaker,” she says in an e-mail.

Besides this aesthetic criteria, other artistic qualifications make cult films what they are. Ollestad says he believes the definition of a cult film has a lot to do with the period during which it was made. Many of the cult films from a certain decade, for example, have one or a few characteristics in comMonday, such as a horror theme. “They all have a very distinct sense of the times when they were made,” he says.

Horror and science-fiction films are particularly popular with filmmakers because fans of these genres are so devoted. However, films from other genres can also become cult classics.

For example, the ’90s saw the rise of what Ollestad calls “slacker” cult films, such as Clerks and Mallrats. These “very much independent” movies, Ollestad says, are almost like indie films.

Another quality inherent in a cult film is the sense of obsession that the movie creates among its fan base. Shah says he believes the obsession that stems from a film is the true mark of a cult classic and that it makes no difference whether the film is a Hollywood blockbuster or an unknown independent film.

“The story or characters are so unordinary or so amazing in some way that there’s an obsession,” he says, citing Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Communication junior Jill Greenfield agrees with the more traditional definition of what a cult film is. “It has to have a specific group of people who like it,” she says. However, she says she believes the films “can’t have wide, general mass appeal.”

Other students also agree that an essential component of a cult film is the appeal it creates for a small, specific group of people. Wilbur says “a film’s levitation to cult status implies that across the country there are small random conglomerations of people who can quote lines from the flick.” He says he believes This Is Spinal Tap is a good example of this kind of movie. He also says he thinks the aspect of financial failure is an essential component of a cult film.

“A perfect film for this category is Office Space, whose box office failure marked a period of ridicule and embarrassment for its creator Mike Judge, only to experience Phoenix-like rebirth upon video release,” Wilbur says.

Sometimes films become cult classics simply because they are seen as just plain awful – those that fall under the category, “So bad, they’re good.” Examples include box-office disasters such as Showgirls and Freddy Got Fingered. Michael Medved, a film critic, popularized this genre of “so bad, they’re good” cult films through his 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, which was co-authored by his brother, Harry.

If such films are seen as so terrible and tasteless, it raises the question of why these movies appeal to people to begin with. Certain qualities present in these cult classics appeal to audiences, including their ability to remain popular over a long period of time.

“Part of the appeal comes from the nostalgia,” Ollestad says. “That’s what makes these movies amusing and historical.” He says he believes they have attracted the independent audience, and their longevity is perpetuated by the audience themselves.

Wilbur also agrees with this idea. “Part of being a cult film is its ability to transcend time and place, and the strongest of them will find diverse audiences across different time periods who form strong bonds with the film by finding a connection to their own lives,” he says.

Shah says cult films are so popular because they’re so unique. “They’re so different from ordinary stories,” he says. Despite its broad appeal, he says Star Wars is a good example because so many people obsess over it. “There’s something to talk about with other people,” Shah says.

A film’s ability to bring groups of people together based on common interests is also part of what makes it a cu
lt classic with audience members. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is popularly considered the first cult film. First released in 1975, it received little attention but subsequently became a hit when fans attended midnight screenings of it, sometimes dressing up in costume as characters from the film.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is still popular today among young people. Thus, it too could be considered one of our generation’s modern cult classics, despite the fact it was released more than 30 years ago. Many students agree that any film has potential to become “cultish” no matter when it was made.

“It would be hard to make an argument for our generation not having a buy-in to The Rocky Horror Picture Show since there’s plenty of us who celebrate the film,” Wilbur says.

Ollestad has another take on the appeal of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He says he believes the mere act of watching this movie has made it a cult classic.

“The actual act of dressing up and going to see these films is more of the cult ethos than the film itself,” he says.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not the only film that became successful through non-traditional means. Nowadays, television jumpstarts the process of turning a box-office failure into a cult hit. Films such as Office Space, which stars mainstream actress Jennifer Aniston, air repeatedly on Comedy Central, helping to catapult them into the cult film category.

While people differ on which films could be considered the cult flicks of our generation, they all agree that the films must possess a strong, truly devoted following dedicated to the uniqueness of the film.

“They’re typically movies that definitely, blatantly, strive to go against the norm,” Ollestad says.

Medill freshman Christina Amoroso is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected]