Cult movie is a very flexible, abstract concept which is applied to many types of cinematographic works but which can be easily manipulated for commercial purposes.
Looking at the ads for the new movies, it seems like all of them are cult movies. Triumphal writings appear on trailers: the one or that critic called it a masterpiece. That magazine said it’s a new cult movie.
A cult movie is a work that, regardless of its commercial and critical success at the time of its release, has resisted over time to become the cult object of a group of loyal fans, to the point of becoming the emblem of a subculture, of a fashion or a lifestyle.
It sometimes happens that a group of people completely identify with the content, images and stories of a cult film. He wears the clothes worn by the characters in the film, uses their objects, wants to live like them, sometimes bordering on fanaticism.
Mainstream cult movies
Can a mainstream film be a cult? In its more commercial sense of cult movie, Star Wars, for example, is definitely one of them. Generations of nerds, kids and adults who have always remained children have always collected and adored the gadgets of the film.
I don’t really agree on this: Star Wars is more of a trending film, a fashion created with great commercial resources, rather than a cult film. But it is easy to find, especially in American magazines, someone who says exactly the opposite.
Many film producers would dispute the claim that a cult film cannot be planned at the table. That otherwise the big studios would like every film they distribute to become a successful cult movie. I disagree because there is a difference between a cult movie and a film that creates a fashion.
The hit cult movies
Is an indie horror film like Paranormal Activity, made by a group of young, zero-budget filmmakers grossing $ 250 million, a cult phenomenon? From my point of view no. One of the main characteristics of a cult film must be to last over time, for a very long time, and to establish a special, very special and deep bond with the viewer.
A cult film is not to be confused with the unexpected success of an independent film of extraordinary viral or underground popularity. Is not just a horror that crowds of people lined up to see at midnight screenings. A cult film is a profound connection: it transforms its contents, which are icons of a certain historical period, of a movement, of a subculture, of a generational sentiment, into timeless contents.
There are hundreds of damn movies that are called cult only because their content is out of the ordinary, like some exceptionally violent horror films, but they don’t make a lasting and deep connection with their fans. Although they have provided exceptional entertainment, they do not reach their interior, and after a while they evaporate.
The failures then rediscovered
Then there are cult films that have had a dramatic box office failure and have been rediscovered many years later. Or first or second works by directors unknown at that time who then became very famous. A cult film must necessarily be “cursed”. No.
They can definitely be called cult films because these directors are indeed cult objects for their fans, and their first films are even more so than subsequent films that have been successful. As if they were reserved for a small circle of enlightened people, true worshipers of the master.
For example, two masters like David Lynch and Brian De Palma made low-cost films that have become cult stars at the beginning of their careers: Eraserhead and the Phantom of the stage. These films represent something more than the following ones.
It’s like meeting great directors in their youth, a meeting between university students, having a simple and friendly relationship with them. Or in some cases it may mean knowing their dark side or the period of their creative career when they still had a raw and naive style. Less successful and less well-known films but that fans love to show that their adoration is higher than that of all the other fans of the master.
In short, we understand that in cult films there is an almost religious relationship between disciple and teacher. In these films the master-director transmits something unique to the disciple, the disciple treasures it. The maestro was able to crystallize his fan into his film, the group for which he feels a sense of belonging, perhaps an entire historical period.
Because he knows that something isn’t for everyone. It is something that not everyone can fully understand. Therefore, the meaning that I attribute to the definition of cult film cannot be applied to Star Wars or Indiana Jones.
Is a cult movie a cinema masterpiece?
While a cult movie is a general term that can refer to any type of film, even commercial, especially in the United States, cinephiles, and more generally Europeans, prefer the term cult film. A cult film for cinema lovers, cinephiles, aspiring filmmakers and professionals, however, can still be something different: perhaps it is simply a film that has remained in the history of cinema because it is a masterpiece. Perhaps few had noticed it at the time of its release in cinemas. Perhaps its innovative language that made it a masterpiece made it mistake for a mediocre film. It is a recurring thing in the history of cinema. Audience and critics do not hesitate to crush different, innovative films that are not aligned with the dominant preferences.
We could therefore say that the great ambiguity in the interpretation of the term cult film is due to this: it is love and faith that create cult films.
If a man loves to ride his Harley Davidson, his cult movie will be Easy Rider. For the neorealist cinema scholar, the cult film will be Rossellini’s Rome, open city. If you love the stories of artists manipulated by power then you will be Brian De Palma’s stage ghost.
There is no objective definition of a cult film because everyone has their own cult film, which touches the innermost chords of their soul. If I were really forced to give a definitive definition of a cult film, I would say this: a cult film is a film that deeply touches the hearts of many people, and at the same time marks a historical moment and the history of cinema.
In this way, the circle of cult films is drastically reduced. A film can touch our soul. But how many at the same time have marked a historical moment, a movement, a generation, and the cinematographic masterpieces have also been recognized? Few. Very few.
Is Donnie Darko, for example, a cult movie? Yes, because in it, even if a precise reference is not made to a historical moment or to a subculture, a specific target of people is recognized: adolescents, and adults who have remained adolescents, who experience the same tormented, dark, inexplicable sensations, covered in the film. A cult film manages to create a mysterious emotional and spiritual bond with a certain target of people who watch it.
One of my favorite cult films is The Phantom of the Stage because to these qualities it adds that of representing a subculture. Which is not the paradox of the subculture going mainstream, like the Beat Generation. It is a small, restricted subculture, which only marked a short period, but which became timeless in that film.
Can we define the popular as the masterpieces of cult film history? Some do, some do not, because they lack this characteristic: to influence a limited group of people belonging to a subculture, a lifestyle, a fashion, an era. By ensuring that that style, that fashion, that culture is found to live forever in the film, without time.
But what is really a cult movie?
The characteristic of the cult film therefore we could say is to transcend time to become an icon of a certain phenomenon, for which a group of people feels a special bond, a real cult. That phenomenon and that link have infinite variables and this explains the ambiguity of the term cult film.