Classic Cult Films

Max Schreck as Count Orlok, the first confirmed cinematic representation of Dracula.

The world of cult flicks is as varied as it subtly nuanced and controversial. Similarly, it is as interesting as the fans are devoted and loyal to their favourite genres. When it comes to cult films, the genres range from the dark and disturbing to the viciously camp and theatrical to the “so bad it’s great to watch”: this is to say that the attributes which go into the creation of a cult film are an unpredictable mixture of eccentricities that combine to beget a steadfast and ardent fan base. There do seem, however, to be a few identifiable similarities that exist in the wide plethora of films that are considered cult movies.

The first of these is that the films are often commercial, if not critical, failures. Cult classics are often box office flops upon theatrical release, and, worse yet, the world of art journalism has been known to direct its cruelly articulate wrath towards the unusual and experimental. This isn’t always the case, however, as many art house movie frequenters will note. In fact, it would seem as if positive, informed and insightful critiques by members of the press often spell commercial failure for a film, which at least makes it a contender for cult film status.

Moreover, in certain circles, the rejection of a project by the press and public (which contrary to all indicators does contain noteworthy aspects) only serves to strengthen the possibility of the film attaining some sort of cult status. There is no “governing body”, though, that has the magical ability to confer a particular status upon a film (or any item of culture): a movie can only become known as a cult flick if an admiring audience, in prolonging its commercial life by renting the movie out or forming in/formal fun clubs, etc., can be seen to be implicitly stating that the film has a value that escapes the public at large.

Bearing this in mind, it should be relatively self-evident that the saving grace for many of the films that do attain cult status is that in due course, often by word of mouth “advertising” in social circles, they gain exposure through their small screen release: this is to say that the film’s success is dependent on video accessibility and reproduction. The life of a cult film often begins several years after studio release when their widespread availability on video format spreads the popularity of the film in circles of enthusiasts who appreciate the very idiosyncrasies that had ensured the film’s initial failure. To turn to an analogy, counter-culture cult fans are of the personality type that would search for Bohemian digs rather than Sandton property for sale.

A second feature quite common to cult films is that their fan base identifies an aspect of the film that could be seen as quintessentially counter-culture: indeed, cult film lovers would be the types to install solar garden lights while the majority are still using tungsten bulbs. The lack of mainstream acceptance of a film, in a certain sense, suggests that something about film evades the appreciation of an audience with commercial sensibilities despite the fact that it has an appeal to certain subset of the population. These subsets could be impressed with the film either because it has a perceived artistic integrity, a particular theme, a specific aesthetic or because it is of a cult genre. Horror movies often fall into this last category (think “Candyman”, and the likes) and despite being produced on shoestring budgets with less than stellar crews and casts, are, in the eyes if its fans, worth the time and money spent watching it more so than the resources spent on most other celluloid (or digital) offerings available. In short, the existence of cult classics is an explicit affirmation that the commercial success of a film shouldn’t be the sole judge of its artistic, cultural, personal, aesthetic or filmic value.

This site is dedicated to some of my own personal favourite cult flicks, and although there are so many, I’m going to try and narrow the list down to just a few. In addition to this process of reduction, I’m also going to endeavour to give a reasonably broad section of thematic content. In light of this, some of the content will be dedicated to sci-fi, some to political films, some to deeply introspective art house stuff, and some to the surreal. Enjoy!