Back when I was in grad school I TA'd for a professor's cult films class. One of the most fun classes I was a part of while I was there. I became pretty passionate about these films while in this class and think they're something everyone should know a bit about. So we're all on the same page. Cult films are marked by a couple different, sometimes related, qualities. First, a cult film was almost always a commercial failure when it premiered only to gain a rabidly devoted following over time. Whether it was a success initially or not, cult films are generally marked by a transgressive quality, oftentimes depicting transgressive ideas about sexuality, violence, gender and morality. Sometimes what's being transgressed are basic notions of cinematic competence.
A good cult film challenges your ideas about what's possible or permissible in a film. It takes you deep into the odd and sometimes dark corners of an artist's imagination. Whether they'e technically well produced or not, most cult films feel lovingly handmade, a product of a small group of artists' intense passions.
Here are a few of my top cult films with accompanying clips. All of these are definitely worth checking out! Keep in mind though that some of these, even the clips, are not for the faint of heart.
Rocky Horror Picture Show: If you know any cult film it's this one. It's really the perfect cult film. It bombed when it came out but developed an obsessive following and is full of transgressive sexuality, gender play and a little violence. Is it a good movie? Not exactly. But it has some fun moments, a few good songs and an extraordinary central performance by Tim Curry.
Faster Pussycat. Kill! Kill!: Great art often documents the peculiar obsessions of it's creator. This is absolutely true of Russ Meyer, the director of Faster Pussycat. But where Monet had haystacks and Woody Allen had New York, Meyer's obsessions ran towards amazon women with huge breasts dominating weak men. Hey, give him credit, he had a point of view and he ran with it.
Freaks: This is a one of a kind cult classic. Todd Browning made this strikingly shot film in 1932, with a cast consisting largely of actual circus sideshow performers. It makes a powerful statement about how it is not they but the "normal people" that persecute them are freaks and monsters. Even today there are scenes that have the power to haunt.
Harold and Maude: This is actually one of my all time favorite movies. It's sweet and funny and strange. A quality film. What makes it a cult film is largely it's central transgressive sexual relationship between a death obsessed young man and a much older woman. Funny that we would have very little problem with this if their gender were reversed, huh?
Pink Flamingos: This is John Waters at his best, or worst, depending on how you look at it. The movie involves the hunt for the "filthiest person alive" and includes graphic scenes of sex involving a chicken, a lip synching anus, and Divine, a 250 pound transvestite, eating actual dog feces.
Why would anyone want to watch this? For me it's that handmade quality I talked about. It feels like a group of like minded friends got together and made this over the course of a few days for kicks. It is the perfect antidote to boring, over-produced and over-focusgrouped mainstream entertainments. The below clip is decidedly NSFW.
Blue Velvet: Another of my all time favorite movies. This is a perfect intro the seriously strange world of David Lynch. The whole thing is a relentless Oedipal nightmare fueled by sex and violence, and featuring an unbelievable performance by Dennis Hopper who plays a demonic small time hood named Frank Booth
Un Chien Andalou: This is a foundational bit of weirdness that still has the power to make people squirm. It was made in 1929 by surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. The entire film is available below.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!: I don't care what anyone says, this movie was seriously ahead of its time. For me, it plays like the movie version of a book Tom Robbins never got around to writing. How can you not love a movie about a Physicist/Neuroscientist/Rock Star/Race Car Driver named Buckaroo who saves the world from Emilio Lizardo and the Lectroids from the Planet 10? They don't make pulp like this anymore. I'm still waiting for the sequel they promised me.
Plan 9 From Outer Space: This film is famously the worst movie ever made and if you've ever seen it you'd know why. Made by Ed Wood 1959, it was badly shot, horribly written and acted with astounding woodenness. It is the towering achievement in bad cinema. If you can't bring yourself to see it, at least check out Tim Burton's Ed Wood, a well made and fairly touching bio of the director.
Hope you all enjoyed these! There's so much more out there that's worth exploring. You can find a couple good lists of notable cult films here.
You guys have any favorite cult films of your own?