100 YEARS OF CULT CINEMA FROM KENJI MIZOGUCHI TO CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
By Shailik Bhaumik
Image (above) Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
We all like classics but some of us also have our guilty pleasures; the inclination towards camp or transgressive content. There is just something about a film that reeks of nostalgia or a film that’s so bad it’s good. In the taxonomy of film, cult cinema is something of a superclass, not a genre, but it still needs careful definition. Cult Film is a film that has acquired a cult following. Cult films are known for their dedicated, passionate fan base, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation. Cult audiences are highly committed and rebellious in their appreciation; they are frequently at odds with cultural conventions – they prefer strange topics and allegorical themes that rub against cultural sensitivities and resist dominant politics.
Cult films trace their origin back to controversial and suppressed films kept alive by dedicated fans. In some cases, reclaimed or rediscovered films have acquired cult followings decades after their original release, occasionally for their camp value.
Cult Films have limited but very special appeal. They are usually strange, quirky, offbeat, eccentric, oddball, or surreal, with outrageous, weird, unique and cartoony characters or plots, and garish sets. They are often considered controversial because they step outside standard narrative and technical conventions. Cult films transgress common notions of good and bad taste, and they challenge genre conventions and coherent storytelling. Cult films frequently break cultural taboos, and many feature excessive displays of violence, gore, sexuality, profanity, or combinations thereof. Over time, the definition has become more vague and inclusive as it drifts away from earlier, stricter views. Increasing use of the term by mainstream publications has resulted in controversy. In spite of its limited accessibility, Cult films have a continuous market value and a long-lasting public presence.
Although the term cult film was first used in the 1970s to describe the culture that surrounded underground films and midnight movies, the term Cult was in common use in film analysis for decades prior to that. Modern cult films grew from counterculture and underground films, popular among those who rejected mainstream Hollywood films. These underground film festivals led to the creation of midnight movies, which attracted cult followings. The term cult film itself was an outgrowth of this movement. These films were more concerned with cultural significance than the social justice sought by earlier avant-garde films. Midnight movies became more popular and mainstream, peaking with the release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Film Critics describe midnight movies as a reaction against the political and cultural conservatism in America. They identify the movement as running the gamut from Anarchist to Libertarian, united in their anti-establishment attitude and punk aesthetic. These films are resistant to simple categorization and are defined by the fanaticism and ritualistic behaviours of their audiences. Midnight movies require a night life and an audience willing to invest themselves actively. Some scholars state that these films took a rather bleak point of view due to the living conditions of the artists and the economic prospects of the 1970s. Like the surrealists and Dadaists, they not only satirically attacked society but also the very structure of film – a counter-cinema that deconstructs narrative and traditional processes.
ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF CULT CINEMA
Although the term cult film was first used in the 1970s I’ll argue that Cult films have existed since the early days of cinema. It could be traced back to 1910s France. Films of early masters like D.W Griffith, F.W. Murnau, Charlie Chaplin, George Melies and Buster Keaton also carries few features of Cult Cinema. Many of these films fared poorly at the box office when first shown, but then achieved cult-film status, developing an enduring loyalty and following among fans over time, often through word-of-mouth recommendations. Cult movie worshippers persuasively argue about the merits of their choices, without regard for standard newspaper or movie reviews from critics. There’s no hard-and-fast rule or checklist to gauge what makes a cult film. A cult film is often designated as such “in the eye of the beholder” without fulfilling any definition. It’s often a matter of opinion. One viewer’s cult film may not be judged the same by another viewer.
“Nosferatu” (1922), by F.W. Murnau
Film Nosferatu, made in 1922 was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker’s widow sued the production company and drove it to bankruptcy. All known copies of the film were destroyed, and Nosferatu become an early cult film, kept alive by a cult following that circulated illegal bootlegs.
In late 20s and early 30s the works of few filmmakers portray features that tend to be associated with cult films more than others For example Un chien andalou (1928) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) by Kenji Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi developed his signature “one-scene-one-shot” approach to cinema. The meticulousness and authenticity of his set designer Hiroshi Mizutani would contribute to Mizoguchi’s frequent use of wide-angle lenses. Cult films contain an element of innovation, aesthetically or thematically; they challenges conventions and instigate new techniques. Contrary to films that insert small and careful innovations to avoid upsetting viewers, cult films are shocks to the system. Many extremely progressive ‘arthouse’ films have gained a status of cult.
Film academician identifies the Marx Brothers as making other early cult films. On their original release, some highly regarded classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood were panned by critics and audiences, relegated to cult status. The Night of the Hunter (1955) was a cult film for years, quoted often and championed by fans, before it was reassessed as an important and influential classic. During this time, American exploitation films and imported European art films were marketed similarly. Although some critics argued against arbitrary divisions into high and low culture, American films settled into rigid genres; European art films continued to push the boundaries of simple definitions, and these exploitative art films and artistic exploitation films would go on to influence American cult films. Much like later cult films, these early exploitation films encouraged audience participation, influenced by live theatre and vaudeville.
Modern cult films grew from 1960s counterculture and underground films, popular among those who rejected mainstream Hollywood films. These underground film festivals led to the creation of midnight movies, which attracted cult followings. The term cult film itself was an outgrowth of this movement and was first used in the 1970s, though cult had been in use for decades in film analysis with both positive and negative connotations. These films were more concerned with cultural significance than the social justice sought by earlier Neo Realist films or Social realist films. Midnight movies became more popular and mainstream, peaking with the release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which finally found its audience several years after its release. Eventually, the rise of home video would marginalize midnight movies once again, after which many directors joined the burgeoning independent film movement or went back underground.
Home video would give a second life to box office flops, as positive word-of-mouth or excessive replay on cable television led these films to develop an appreciative audience, as well as obsessive replay and study. For example, The Beastmaster (1982), despite its failure at the box office, became one of the most played movies on American cable television and developed into a cult film. Home video and television broadcasts of cult films were initially greeted with hostility. They were seen as turning cult films mainstream – in effect, feminizing them by opening them to distracted, passive audiences.
John Goodman from “The Big Lebowski” (1998)
Coen Brothers’ Film The Big Lebowski (1998), which was distributed by Universal Studios – has become a cult films when it failed at the box office but develop a cult following through reissues, such as midnight movies, festivals, and home video. Hollywood films, due to their nature, are more likely to attract this kind of attention, which leads to a mainstreaming effect of cult culture. With major studios behind them, even financially unsuccessful films can be re-released multiple times, which plays into a trend to capture audiences through repetitious reissues. The constant use of profanity and drugs in otherwise mainstream, Hollywood films, such as The Big Lebowski, can alienate critics and audiences yet lead to a large cult following among more open-minded demographics not often associated with cult films, such as Wall Street bankers and professional soldiers.
Thus, even comparatively mainstream films can satisfy the traditional demands of a cult film, perceived by fans as transgressive, niche, and non-commercial. Academicians state that this acceptance of mainstream culture and commercialism is not out of character, as cult audiences have a more complex relationship to these concepts: they are more opposed to mainstream values and excessive commercialism than they are anything else. In a global context, popularity can vary widely by territory, especially with regard to limited releases. Mad Max (1979) was an international hit – except in America where it became an obscure cult favourite, ignored by critics and available for years only in a dubbed version though it earned over $100M internationally.
Foreign cinema can put a different spin on popular genres, such as Japanese horror, which was initially a cult favourite in America. Asian imports to the West are often marketed as exotic cult films and of interchangeable national identity, which some academicians criticize as reductive. Foreign influence can affect fan response, especially on genres tied to a national identity; when they become more global in scope, questions of authenticity may arise. Filmmakers and films ignored in their own country can become the objects of cult adoration in another, producing perplexed reactions in their native country. Cult films can also establish an early viability for more mainstream films both for filmmakers and national cinema. The early cult horror films of Peter Jackson were so strongly associated with his homeland that they affected the international reputation of New Zealand and its cinema.
From “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)
As more artistic films emerged, New Zealand was perceived as a legitimate competitor to Hollywood, which mirrored Jackson’s career trajectory. Heavenly Creatures (1994) acquired its own cult following, became a part of New Zealand’s national identity, and paved the way for big-budget, Hollywood-style epics, such as Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. One excessive film that came close to equalling the degree of techno-horror found elsewhere was the black comedy Re-Animator (1985), an outrageous zombie film that answered the question: “Can a severed head make love?” Tobe Hooper’s very early, low-budget slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) dramatized in documentary-style (since it was based on the real-life murder spree of Ed Gein) the terrorizing of a group of hippies by a clan of cannibalistic freaks (led by Leatherface) in the Texas badlands.
Additional cult favorites include the quirky, nihilistic and lunatic sci-fi comedy by Alex Cox, Repo Man (1984), a story about an LA teenage punkrocker who is apprenticed in the craft of repossessing cars – in particular, the tracking down of a 1964 Chevy Malibu; or Tim Burton’s directorial debut film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), an odyssey of nerdish, boy-man Pee Wee’s search for his Red Rocket bicycle in the basement of the Alamo; or Martha Coolidge’s Real Genius (1985), a witty tale of campus physics nerds whose experiments are unwittingly being used for a US government death weapon; or the silly horror spoof Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1979).
Another cult director, Darren Aronofsky, contributed the Kafka-esque Pi (1998) – his debut film, shot in grainy B/W, about the slow disintegration into madness of a paranoid and neurotic mathematician-genius. His next visually-striking film, the initially NC-17 rated Requiem for a Dream (2000), which was recognized with a Best Actress nomination for veteran actress Ellen Burstyn, adapted Hubert Selby’s own novel of the same name, about the escapist descent of various lives by drug use.The term “cult classic” has likely jumped the shark in terms of it’s original definition. But for today’s purposes, I think the term can be used to describe a movie that didn’t necessarily garner extreme box office success and/or notoriety, but for whatever reason, ends up having considerable staying power.
In that sense the films of Christopher Nolan fall in the Cult film category. From his indie cult-hit Memento in 2000, to his mid-2000s re-imagining of Batman with the Dark Knight trilogy, to original sci-fi works like Inception and his latest release, Interstellar, Nolan’s films have been almost as much of a cultural talking point as the enigmatic director himself. There’s no modern director who earns this kind of loyalty, at least not at this scale. The term “cult film” or “cult director” typically applies to artists on the margins; they might inspire intense dedication, but only from a faithful few. Nolan’s fan base is cultish and enormous.
Another recent director who has the greatest success in turning cult films into mainstream is Quentin Tarantino. Quentin Tarantino has his own ways when it comes to filming a scene, no flimsy drama raw human emotions embedded within a human psyche is depicted in all his movies. In 90s Tarantino used his fame to champion obscure cult films that had influenced him and set up the short-lived Rolling Thunder Pictures, which distributed several of his favourite cult films.
Though they often exist in the margins, cult films stick around forever in fetish markets where they maintain in constant demand. One important characteristic of this long tail reception is the constant stream of tales around a film. Scanners (1981) or Natural Born Killers (1994) for instance remained hotly debated for years after their release, becoming associated by proxy with several kinds of scandals. Such continuous presence often convinces producers there is room for serialization of franchises through sequels and remakes, all of which of course add to the attention the original receives. The numerous sequels to Friday the 13th (1980), including tie-ins with that other franchise Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the stream of Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films, like Ring (1999) or Dark Water (2003) have given the originals an almost endless reception tail. In addition, retrospectives, restorations, revivals, re-releases, director’s cuts, spin-offs, rip-offs, and spoofs solidify their reception presence, making cult reception one of the most sought after reception conditions in filmmaking.
CULT FILM: ART OR EXPLOITATION? – NEXT MONTH
Join us next month for Part II of 100 Years of Cult Cinema from Kenji Mizoguchi to Christopher Nolan
Shailik Bhaumik is an award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur. Known for his feature film “Dasein”, Shailik is the founder and Chairman of Human Lab Corporation, a Multinational Film Company whose mission it is to help Independent Filmmakers survive and thrive in this highly competitive industry. Shailik oversees worldwide operations including production, distribution, and marketing for HLC’s live-action films, as well as films released under the HLC banner.