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The History—and Heart—of the Cult Movie

From ‘Freaks’ to ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ from ‘Showgirls’ to ‘Donnie Darko,’ the films considered to be cult favorites are, by definition, the ones that inspire fervent, highly emotional attachment

Harrison Freeman

This week on The Ringer, we celebrate those movies that from humble or overlooked beginnings rose to prominence through the support of their obsessive fan bases. The movies that were too heady for mainstream audiences; the comedies that were before their time; the small indies that changed the direction of Hollywood. Welcome to Cult Movie Week.

“Are you afraid to believe what your eyes can see?”

The tagline for Freaks is not so much an enticement as a challenge. Watch this movie if you dare. In 1932, Tod Browning’s thriller was the most dangerous movie around, hastily reedited for theatrical release and banned for decades in multiple countries; the original version has never been fully reconstructed.

Viewed nearly 90 years later, Browning’s story of sideshow performers taking revenge on members of their own troupe remains uniquely unsettling and moving. For all of its brazen alienation effects, Freaks is ultimately a movie about solidarity, getting inside a desire for community and belonging. By casting real-life circus veterans, including the microcephalic actor and P.T. Barnum alum Schlitzie, to play versions of “themselves,” Browning split the difference between hard-sell, Barnum-style showmanship and a radical, quasi-documentary realism; exploitation interlaced with empathy.

Passing around a cup of wine at the nuptials of the sweet, small-statured Hans (Harry Earles) and his ischemic glamour-queen bride Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), Schlitzie had his fellow “freaks”—a long-tenured collective of “bearded ladies,” conjoined twins, and amputees—try their best to make the statuesque trapeze artist feel welcome. “We accept you,” they chant in unison. “One of us, one of us.”

No overview of the history of cult movies would be complete without Freaks, which is not the first horror or cult movie ever made but still feels like the primal scene of a cinema defined equally by transgression and membership. Making a list of movies that seem underrated or underappreciated is one thing; accounting for the ones that generate religious fervor is another. Freaks most famous line is a rallying cry for the idea of being inside and outside at the same time. Cult films come in all varieties—and sometimes with vigorous debate about their status attached—but genuine, possessive devotion is the baseline.

It’s no coincidence that so many officially ratified cult classics are literally about cults—stories of secret societies eager for new initiates. Think, for instance, of the ecstatic snake worshippers in 1944’s mighty Cobra Woman, hidden away on a remote island, surging in hypnotic thrall to the serpentine goddess played by Maria Montez—the “Queen of Technicolor,” whom director Robert Siodmak claimed “couldn’t act from here to there” but flaunted a fierce, undulating artificiality that entranced avant-gardists like Jack Smith, who paid the actress tribute in his underground landmark Flaming Creatures.

Or think of the pansexual revelers of the Annual Transylvanian Convention in The Rocky Horror Picture Show—literal Riff Raff inviting the scared virgins in their midst to time warp out of the repressive, Norman Rockwell 1950s, past the Age of Aquarius and toward the same retro-’70s decadence flaunted by David Bowie (one of the clear inspirations for Tim Curry’s performance as Dr. Frank-N-Furter). Or the joyous pagans of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, gleefully serenading the pious, soon-to-be-incinerated big-city police officer they’ve tricked into participating in their annual harvest ritual.

Or think of Nomi Malone, the intrepid, exotic-dancing heroine of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Over lunch and champagne at Spago, a girl who claims to be from “different places” trades barbs with her mentor-slash-rival Cristal Connors, whose residency at Las Vegas’s Stardust casino represents the kind of stardom Nomi yearns for. Cristal is billed as a “Goddess” but she’s also a Cobra Woman—a venomous showbiz lifer who can’t wait to get her fangs into some fresh meat. “You and me, we’re both exactly alike,” she grins at Nomi. The newcomer looks horrified by the compliment, perhaps because, subconsciously, she knows she’s looking into a mirror: This Cristal is a reflective surface.

Critically reviled, commercially unsuccessful, and uniquely spacious and open to interpretation, Showgirls is surely one of the key American cult movies of the last 30 years, the toast of film culture’s equivalent of an exclusive after-hours club. It’s no wonder J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum called their landmark 1983 critical study Midnight Movies: While there’s no one way to define or categorize cult cinema, it’s often associated with movies too weird, dreamlike, or intoxicating for the waking world. In my own book, It Doesn’t Suck, I argue that Showgirls—which lost tens of millions of dollars and won seven Razzies, each one manfully accepted on stage by Paul Verhoeven with a turn-the-other-cheek serenity befitting a man who once wrote a book about the life of Jesus Christ—blurs and obliterates the line between bad, good, so-bad-it’s-good, and something else. For me, the best way to describe a movie that I love unreservedly is as a “masterpiece of shit.”

The same tawdry, NC-17 rated vision that rendered Showgirls a pop-cultural punch line in 1995, when dogpiling critics tried to convince readers (and themselves) that it was the “worst movie ever made,” now makes it look daring, subversive, and satirical. In 2012, the critics at Slant Magazine selected Showgirls as the 14th best film of the 1990s, a few spots ahead of Heat and one notch below Pulp Fiction. “Now that Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has been embraced by every hipster-than-thou cinephile in an orgy of self-congratulatory bad-movie worship,” wrote Eric Henderson, “a legitimately disreputable masterpiece like Showgirls still needs all the help it can get.”

If Showgirls is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla of contemporary cult cinema—a heavyweight contender in the category of misunderstood greatness—The Room is, well, the elephant in the room: a lumbering, massive target for mockery whose creator is blessed with extremely thick skin. The case of vampiric super-weirdo Tommy Wiseau and his ostensible disaster artistry has been recounted enough times that going into it again seems unnecessary, but one common denominator between The Room and Showgirls is that their respective reputational 180s were powered by their programming as midnight movies. Hoberman and Rosenbaum not only analyze the transgressive aesthetics of filmmakers like Browning, Luis Buñuel, and David Lynch—whose beautiful, heartbreaking commercial breakthrough The Elephant Man serves as a spiritual sequel to Freaks—but also a vivid history of participatory exhibition, where attendees are obliged to express a mix of ambivalence, reverent obsession, and contempt for the subject of their gaze.

Last year, I participated in Jeffrey McHale’s documentary You Don’t Nomi, a tribute to Showgirls and its cult, featuring testimonies by a number of critics, fans, and artists eager to discuss their relationship to Verhoeven’s film and its resurrection via Rocky Horror–style screenings where fans come in costume and talk back to the screen. You Don’t Nomi’s video-essay style, which almost exclusively features clips from Showgirls (and some other relevant cult movies), recalls the approach of Rodney Ascher in his brilliant 2012 documentary Room 237, which goes even further in showing how in cult cinema, it’s often what’s in front of the screen that counts.

While it’s true that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was a bit underrated when it came out in 1980, it’s a more established classic than something like Showgirls—a movie that routinely makes best-of lists and whose great torrents of blood run through the DNA of modern horror cinema. But by focusing on a group of viewers compelled to read The Shining against the grain—as an allegory for the Holocaust, or a barely disguised mea culpa for its creator’s role in helping to fake the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, or a work of psychosexual analysis in which the Overlook’s monsters have visible boners—Room 237 recontextualizes and repossesses its subject matter. It’s easy to mock the interpretations of the film’s extremely online narrators, but it’s also easier—and more fun—to get sucked into Ascher’s ingenious montage, which replicates the hallucinatory qualities of Kubrick’s film and its idea of everyday reality as a looking glass to be passed through. Are we afraid to believe what our eyes can see?

The thin line between laughing at a movie and laughing with it is at the center of cult cinema history and discourse. Where a movie like Freaks deliberately toed the line between art and sensationalism, 1936’s Reefer Madness—a moralistic anti-marijauna drama depicting a group of high schoolers descending into mania, murder, and ruin one toke at a time—is helpless, irresistible camp. Its warnings about the dangers of drug use play as an invitation to puff and pass. “Yes, I remember,” says a doctor of a former pothead patient. “Just a young boy ... under the influence of drugs ... who killed his entire family with an ax.”

One of countless feature-length PSAs produced during the 1930s, Reefer Madness was purchased and recut by the seminal schlockmeister Dwain Esper, a marketing genius who fabricated “educational” mandates as a cushion against the era’s censorship. Working in the same enterprising tradition as P.T. Barnum, Esper perfected a ratio of risk to reward and flooded theaters with sex, violence, and worse; his 1934 directorial effort Maniac, loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, is a weird tale whose twists defy description. (It’s honestly one of the most unhinged movies I’ve ever seen; if you don’t believe me, here you go.)

Reefer Madness played for decades in independent cinemas under various aliases: Tell Your Children, Doped Youth, The Burning Question. Because Esper didn’t protect the film’s copyright, it was snapped up decades later by marijuana-reform advocates who screened it under a thick veil of irony on college campuses. Universities have historically been countercultural taste-incubators; in the late 1960s, distributors saturated college towns with a healthy diet of foreign-language, art-house, and sexually explicit indies and imports, catalyzing a transformative moment in American film culture. The connection between the youth-in-revolt hysteria of Reefer Madness and the rebellious iconoclasts of cult favorites like Easy Rider and The Wild Angels is easy to see.

In a poetic development, a young distributor named Robert Shaye obtained a print of Reefer Madness for his fledgling start-up New Line Cinema. The money Shaye earned repurposing a vintage cautionary tale as a post-modern laugh riot laid the foundations for a company that would eventually grow into an industrial institution capable of producing the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In 1978, when Ralph Bakshi created his own animated version of The Lord of the Rings, the film’s stylized 2-D imagery and its director’s transgressive reputation as the maker of the X-rated adult cartoon Fritz the Cat (1972) marked it as a cult item, with an imagined audience of bookish children, stoners, and Tolkien devotees. That Peter Jackson’s live-action rendering of the same material went on to earn billions of dollars—and a Best Picture Oscar—says less about Bakshi’s and Jackson’s artistically divergent approaches than a narrowing of the boundaries between cult and mainstream in the second half of the 20th century. Exhibit A: Jackson’s own upwardly mobile arc from an obscure New Zealander whose splatter-flick breakthrough was literally called Bad Taste to the guardian of a priceless pop-literary intellectual property.

The sudden, significant elevation of B-movie tropes and subjects—thrillers, horror, and especially fantasy and science-fiction—during the New Hollywood’s heyday rewrote the rules of moviemaking in permanent marker. In the 1950s and ’60s, enterprising independent filmmakers had tapped into a profitable youth market looking for lowbrow thrills, leading to the proliferation of all kinds of disreputable little movies. By the middle of the 1970s, studios were bringing on counterculture-minded directors to helm expensive productions and effectively cannibalizing and regurgitating the stuff being produced on the margins. Whatever else you could say about movies like The Exorcist, Jaws, and Star Wars, they were all, at heart, state-of-the-art updates of previously cheesy or dispensable templates. When the genial genius schlock impresario Roger Corman first saw Jaws, he supposedly whispered to a friend that his glory days were over. He then promptly turned around and produced Piranha, a vital satire of Spielberg’s great white blockbuster featuring a million voracious little fish instead of one giant shark—clever, defiant metaphors for B-movie tenacity.

It’s no coincidence that an era representing the high-tech streamlining and sequelizing of the Hollywood blockbuster was also fertile territory for cult-cinema production and appreciation. The bigger and more accessible that movies got, the more motivated certain directors became to push the envelope. Speaking of cults, the characters in John Waters’s Pink Flamingos are vying for the title of “the filthiest person alive.” The literally shit-eating provocations of the Baltimore stalwart’s 1972 shocker Pink Flamingos were an attempt to resensitize taste buds numbed by fast-food filmmaking. Waters’s elevation into the friendly public face of American cult cinema was a matter of doubling down on his uncompromising approach; ditto David Lynch. A movie like Eraserhead isn’t trying to convince anybody of anything, which is of course why it ended up becoming a sort of hipster Star Wars, opening in a galaxy far, far away, and featuring a memorable special-effects character (although Lynch, unlike Lucas, never explained how he pulled off his freaky animatronic monster).

In 1980, film critics Michael and Harry Medved published a snarky, best-selling tome called The Golden Turkey Awards, an inventory of supposed cinematic ineptitude citing Edward D. Wood Jr., the writer-director of Plan 9 From Outer Space, as the worst filmmaker of all time. Around the same time, the Golden Raspberry Awards popped up as a sardonic foil for the Oscars, channelling the same performative, petty contempt for “Bad Movies”—the subject of a sympathetic Film Comment essay by J. Hoberman that positioned Wood not as an abject failure but the purveyor of a profound, personal vision. In place of Pauline Kael’s famous contention that “trash” movies were useful because they whetted the larger appetite for art, Hoberman and other like-minded critics—like Michael J. Weldon, publisher of the underground fanzine Psychotronic Video or Danny Peary, author of Cult Movies—refused the existence of boundaries altogether. Psychotronic Video extolled the virtues of the same movies targeted in the Medveds’ turkey shoot; Peary placed Wood alongside Orson Welles and the feature porn-landmark Behind the Green Door alongside The Wizard of Oz. While far from definitive—and inevitably dated and incomplete 40 years after its release—Cult Movies captures the fluid, elusive essence of cult, of taking deep dives into murky, bottomless pools of insight and interpretation and washing up on the rocks of supposed taste: biker movies, softcore porn, kung-fu, and blaxploitation; has-beens and never-weres; the filthiest people alive.

The one year that I taught a course in cult cinema at the University of Toronto, I tried to get my students interested by showing them movies that made a fetish of excess. These included Freaks and Showgirls as well as a few that pushed even further: Georges Franju’s poetic French shocker Eyes Without a Face, about a mad scientist trying to graft fresh skin onto the damaged visage of his beloved daughter; and Claire Denis’s notorious 2001 neo-vampire movie Trouble Every Day, which unforgettably literalizes the idea of a sexually assertive woman as a “man-eater.” Denis’s film scandalized the prestige crowd at Cannes, while Franju’s classic was originally promoted in the United States under the more psychotronic moniker of The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus; in both cases, exploitation and art are joined at the hip.

The biggest reaction, though, came courtesy of Doris Wishman’s ferocious 1965 sexploitation drama Bad Girls Go to Hell, which pushes a confrontational mandate from the title on down. Shot on a shoestring budget during a period when softcore movies were getting harder-edged (with Wishman a major figure in the transition), the film follows a suburban housewife (the amazing Gigi Darlene) who commits murder in self-defense before descending into the seamy underbelly of New York City, where further adventures and abjection await. With its off-center framings and drifting attention span, Wishman’s spare, minimalist style seems amateurish unless you get on its dreamy wavelength, at which point the mix of misanthropy, mystery, and circular, existential melancholy becomes positively Lynchian.

Bad Girls Go to Hell is obscure by historical and industrial circumstance, as well as by artistic design. There are, of course, cult movies with higher profiles and bigger tents, and, on the other side of the 1980s, plenty that are deliberately questing for the kind of WTF effects achieved more organically—and ambiguously—by their predecessors. Like, for instance, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, a well-played game of Mad Libs (time travel + apocalypse + imaginary rabbit) that attained instant cult status; ditto Kelly’s even more ostentatiously bizarre follow-up Southland Tales, a future-shock comedy pivoting on the activities of a cabal of neo-Marxists (led by Amy Poehler) who get inveigled in the apocalypse alongside Seann William Scott, Justin Timberlake, and a never-better Dwayne Johnson. Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson reviewed Southland Tales at Cannes in 2006 and praised it as “the new Showgirls”; this week, Kelly’s original, nearly three-hour cut will be released on Blu-ray, pleasing cultists to no end.

It’s not necessarily fair to exclude a self-reflexive, strategically wild stylist like Kelly from the cult movie conversation, or big-time, Oscar-ratified talents like the Coen brothers, whose wonderful The Big Lebowski has transcended its mild reception to become a cultural touchstone, yielding ironic best-selling books like I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski, which at once parodies and peddles the idea of White Russians for the Soul. These and other more mainstream cult movies are worthy of appreciation and analysis, but the thrill of stumbling upon—or being guided toward—something truly unusual remains unmatched, especially in a moment when the internet has made everything (and every film) that much less obscure.

Which is why I so enjoyed the new book Motern on Motern by the Toronto-based film writers Will Sloan and Justin Decloux, which profiles the New Hampshire–based team of Charles Roxburgh and Matt Farley (who also happens to be the world’s most prolific songwriter). The duo’s lo-fi movies come fully drenched in the spirit of psychotronic cinema, occupying a realm at once narrow and bottomless—a self-carved niche that’s also a rabbit hole. The title of 2012’s Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, about a fake-looking monster lumbering through a waterfront community, is technically a warning, but it’s also a winking invitation to be captured and maybe even converted by the same DIY-slash-WTF spirit that has always possessed those who believe in art for its own sake: one of them, one of them.

Ultimately, conversion is the ecstatic essence of cult cinema: the feeling of trying to share something rare and precious with somebody else; the excitement of having it offered to you. “Give me that cobra jewel,” hisses Maria Montez at one point in Cobra Woman in the ardent tone of someone who’ll never let her precious go. For anyone who believes that they love a movie more than anybody else in the world—and that that love means never having to say you’re sorry— that voice will sound familiar; it’s the voice inside our heads.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.