There’s so much to say about cult classic films. In the early 90’s, my neighbor and I sat down late one night and made up a list of favorite/must-see films. The list finally totaled above 50 films, many of which are considered cult classics today. We proceeded to find, borrow or rent them (in the pre-streaming/Netflix days), going straight down the list. As we watched, we added to the list, so it was a never-ending process, and we had some great movie nights that included a range of movies from Freaks to Eraserhead to Surf Nazi’s Must Die. I had the original list for a long time, but I think it’s wandered away somewhere. I was reminded of that list when I read the articles in the “Stories on Film: What Makes a Cult Classic?” in Chapter 2 of Robert Atwan’s Convergences.
In a review of 2001: A Space Odyssey, noted film critic Roger Ebert discusses director Stanley Kubrick’s slow and almost silent use of imagery as metaphor: “What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer.”
In his essay “Out of Kansas,” author Salman Rushdie details the use of metaphoric imagery in The Wizard of Oz to define a cult classic.
For me, a classic metaphoric image is that of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) emerging from the sewers into the pouring rain in The Shawshank Redemption. Dufresne’s Christ-like pose as the cleansing rain washes away his sins and the stains of his incarceration while it literally washes away the filth of the sewers marks his redemption and rebirth. (Rushdie is a fan of metaphor in both film and literature. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this post to a beautiful article he wrote on the passing of Nobel Laureate author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a master of magical imagery.)
Both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shawshank Redemption were box-office flops, and while Shawshank generally received good reviews, critics were not as kind to 2001, some even questioning if Kubrick had lost his mind. Poor critical reviews and weak showings at the box office are often attributes of cult classic films. For some people it’s the so-bad-it’s-good aspect that draws them to turn wretched films into cult classics. This is often the case with horror films like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series or monster movies with cheesy special effects. Indy or limited releases can drive films into cult status, as can early films by directors/writers who later hit it big like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, or Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Sometimes it’s the artsy production, edgy theme or dark nature of a film that attracts a cult following like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
I think the main element determining a cult classic film is its limited appeal to a select group of passionate followers. For some it may be any film that has Danny Trejo or Tom Savini. For me, it’d be a long list, but I’d have to throw in George Romero, Tobe Hooper and Joss Whedon with a topper of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.
What’s on the top of your classic list?
Ebert, Roger. “2001: A Space Odyssey Movie Review (1968).” Rogerebert.com, 27 Mar 1997. Web. 27 Apr 2014. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-2001-a-space-odyssey-1968>.
Rushdie, Salman. “Salman Rushdie on Gabriel Garcia Marquez: His World Was Mine.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 25 Apr 2014. Web. 27 Apr 2014. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10787739/Salman-Rushdie-on-Gabriel-Garcia-Marquez-His-world-was-mine.html>.