In the last couple of days, I’ve watched both Rubber and Paul on DVD. Both films brought to mind the concept of cult films in very different ways. I picked up my copy of The Rough Guide to Cult Movies and asked Google to define “cult” in order to bring my thoughts into coherence. Google gave me 20,400,000 possible definitions of cult, and The Rough Guide has a couple of pages of explanation. To my mind, cult means an obsessive or a powerfully held belief in something. What cult is not, clearly, is something that is simply different, or even surreal or Dadaist. Dictionary.com suggests cult means an instance of great veneration or devotion to something. The book puts forward several points along the lines of “so-bad-it’s-good”, “quasi-religious worship”, or “knowledge hidden from the masses”. There are even seven “rules” to define a cult movie!
To me, all good definitions and concepts around the idea of cult and cult movies should be reactive rather than proactive. Cults are born, they are not made. I can no more design a cult than I can sing. Believe me, my voice is terrible.
Rubber, for those who don’t know, is a faintly Dadaist piece about a serial-killing tyre. There is no apparent motive for the murders and no explanation as to why the tyre has the ability to move, kill, and fall in love. I like that. I embraced the idea and found the exercise interesting. I enjoyed the film too. It wasn’t great, but I was entertained. I can’t say what the specific motivations behind the film were as I haven’t read or heard any interviews with the filmmakers, and I won’t go into more detail as it would involve spoilers, but it does appear that some elements of the film were made with the cult following in mind.
Paul, however, which is about a couple of geeks on a road trip who find an alien, is clearly a double-edged sword. While it has Hollywood sensibilities, there are enough in-jokes and actor references to ensure repeated viewing by a section of the audience which is often associated with cult films. Paul was not made for a cult audience, but to be a commercial success. I don’t imagine Paul will ever be called a cult classic — it was good but not great — but I imagine DVD copies will sit on the shelf next to Shaun of the Dead, which is one. But can you actually set out to make a cult film?
I think several films over the past decade have certainly tried, and to all intents and purposes, failed. My top 10 in this category of failures are Sucker Punch, Black Sheep, Megashark vs Giant Octopus, Bubba Ho-Tep, Save The Green Planet, Brick, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Southland Tales, Death Race, and Adaptation. There are some decent films on the list, especially Brick, but none could be called cult films now, despite obvious offbeat appeal in each of them.
For example, in Bubba Ho-Tep, cult-favourite Bruce Campbell plays a “never died” Elvis fighting a mummy in a nursing home, with the help of a “never died” JFK, who happens to be black. What’s not to like? Well, it’s just not that great. In Adaptation, Nic Cage plays actual screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother. Lovely. Brick has been called neo-noir and was a darling of the Sundance Film Festival. Each of these top 10 has its novelty appeal, yet at the end of the day, for whatever reason, they have not become cult classics or even just cult. Admittedly, some of them are not good quality films.
Take a bow, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Plan 9 from Outer Space. The latter comes under the so-bad-it’s-good category, and the former, while it has the appearance of a bad film, is skilfully crafted, intended as a spoof of B-movies. In fact, its raison d’être is similar to Rubber.
From the opposite angle in the debate, here are a couple more top 10s. First, a reputable film magazine’s top 10 cult films in reverse order: Repo Man, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Freaks, Showgirls, A Clockwork Orange, Withnail and I, Fight Club, Quadrophenia, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Big Lebowski. Now, my personal list, also in reverse order: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Leon, Brazil, Shaun of the Dead, Blade Runner, This Is Spinal Tap, The Big Lebowski, Blue Velvet, LA Confidential, Fight Club. I suspect none of the above films were made with a cult audience in mind. Even Rocky Horror was intended as a homage to Hammer Films. The film-makers never imagined it would still be showing in theatres 35 years later. So, what do these films have in common? In my opinion, simply as movies, not much at all. They might have a similar political sensibility. They don’t have the same audience. They have a less than mainstream world view. They aren’t all of a non-mainstream genre. From the magazine’s list, I wouldn’t watch three of those films. Why are they cult? What is their appeal? To answer that question, I must ask another.
What exactly is a cult film? A film obsessed over by a small number of fans. A film that has remained popular over a long time period, beyond that normally expected of a film of its type. A film loved by geeks. A film that has a skewed perception of reality. A source of inspiration for its fans. Of course, there is no ideal definition of a cult film.
I believe that you cannot predict what will be a cult film, so don’t try to make one. Make the film you want to make for yourself, and not for the word cult.