If you look into the definition of ‘cult’ in the Oxford English Dictionary you get a particularly clear-cut idea of what contributes to one of popular culture’s stranger fascinations: “a collective obsession with or intense admiration for a particular person, thing, or idea.” Yet, this definition doesn’t really seem to cut it for me and, when it comes to specifically ‘cult’ cinema any kind of precise definition becomes more and more blurry.
Certainly ‘obsession’ is something that comes into it. For example I have been to screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film that even after over 40 years of existence refuses to fall into irrelevance. There was something indescribably odd about my experiences there. Not only would people dress as every possible character on screen, but also the audience seemed to engage in an almost religious ceremony with the film. They followed strict and absolute laws in their engagement with the film, reciting the script verbatim and singing the lines without a flutter of hesitation while a shadow cast danced below the screen. This small group of people, driven by obsession, had salvaged this film from obscurity.
Not only would people dress as every possible character on screen, but also the audience seemed to engage in an almost religious ceremony with the film
I think that ‘admiration’ is a little more contentious in this definition. One thing that has helped to define cult cinema in an Internet age is misappropriating the vision of the author. Often bad directorial execution spawns its own cult followings, and fans will engage in an act of obsession predominantly characterised by schadenfreude – or, laughing at others’ misfortune. This isn’t necessarily with a malicious intent, as films that are ‘so bad they’re good’ gain a wider audience than they could have ever had.
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, for example, has gained huge cultural weight in part borne out of internet culture, which constantly reappropriates and distorts directors’ visions for comic effect. There is still a level of ‘admiration,’ but it is often to the detriment of the film’s initial purpose. Still, if you’re as poor a director as Tommy Wiseau, then you can only expect your film to be admired for its schlock quality rather than its merit. In contrast, films like John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China have attracted wisespread appeal retroactively, which studios aim to exploit through a remake next year. Whether or not the film will pay homage to its cult roots remains a mystery.
The fact that a number of people choose how they read a film and, by extension, give a film cultural traction is very empowering. However, it still suggests that this phenomenon only occurs in small numbers, which is debatable considering fandom that occurs in mainstream cinema. The release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens very recently further obscured the definition of cult cinema.
Not only would people dress as every possible character on screen, but the audience seemed to engage in an almost religious ceremony with the film
Even the biggest release of the year coincided with a renewal of the ‘Star Wars cult’ en masse. People actually bought cinema tickets to watch the film and fans/critics adhered to the ‘no spoilers’ rule everywhere so that others could enjoy the film without knowing anything going in. Perhaps this revival of the franchise, which has lasted in culture for decades, suggests that cultism isn’t just restricted to small numbers or by dark humour, but is something indicative of the wider mythos that surrounds the creation filmic universe.
Certainly, cultism is becoming more mainstream, where films limited by physical releases are now being viewed and reappropriated by platforms like YouTube, but its democratising effects are still allusive yet mesmerising.