What Makes A Movie ‘Cult’?

­­❉ How do you define what makes a film truly ‘cult’? Nick Clement scratches the surface.

What makes a “cult movie” truly “cult” is certainly open for debate. Movies mean so many things to so many people, so it’s impossible to say that something is “great” or “bad” because what one person loves or merely enjoys might not correspond to another person’s cinematic desires. And vice-versa. No two opinions can ever truly be the same, so when discussing movies that hold a certain cult appeal, it’s interesting to note just how far that term really extends, and as a result, the definition of the phrase can mean many things depending on whom you’re discussing cinema with.

Does it take a critical drubbing and then critical rediscovery years later to earn a film cult status, like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate or John Carpenter’s The Thing? Are cult films those fringe efforts that only a select group of people really admire, something like Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, or Leos Carax’s Holy Motors? Or are they movies that are essentially objectively terrible, like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space? Does it take singing along in the theatre a la  The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or a T&A romp like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls to qualify?

And then there are box-office losers like David Fincher’s hard-hitting Fight Club, Tony Scott’s hyperactive sort-of-biopic Domino, Richard Kelley’s wild and prophetic Southland Tales, and Mike Judge’s pair of social satires Office Space and the even more incisive Idiocracy, which have taken on new lives because of the DVD and Blu-ray world, with more adventurous viewers seeking these titles out, and many others like them, for a chance to walk on the wild side.

And then there are the times when master filmmakers make a movie and nobody turns out, only to have time reveal how special those movies are in retrospect. Keep in mind that nobody went to see Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, and critics were muted in their praise; now it’s routinely seen as one of his most underrated efforts, to say nothing of After Hours or The King of Comedy.

Films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View certainly had their champions at the time of their release, but those are films that have grown in so many ways over the years it’s hard to fully describe. And nearly half of Robert Altman’s stunning filmography might be seen as being either underappreciated or deserving of cult status.

The world of cinema is so rich and varied that it invites the head to spin. There are so many wonderful pieces of work from all over the world, from so many decades, that have the power and capacity to inspire obsession, awe, and appreciation.

Fans of Golan-Globus shlock are just as entitled to sit down and watch a Merchant Ivory production as anyone else, and that’s one of the most exciting things about chatting with other movie lovers – you get a real sense of what other people find valuable and engrossing, and you’re susceptible to seeking out titles that you might not otherwise have even heard of had it not been for that discussion or connection being made to another cinemaniac.

I’ve been watching films for over thirty years and I’m still discovering what kind of film lover I am, and learning about new filmmakers and their undiscovered work is something that inspires me in ways that’s hard to form into words.

Cinema is one of the most expressive art forms ever devised, and its power should never be taken for granted, and someone’s excitement for a particular title should never be shunned because there could be something personal or important about a piece of work that speaks to that individual on a personal level, regardless of critical or societal opinion. I’ll never stop loving movies, and I know I’ve just basically begun to scratch the surface.

 Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

 He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.


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