What exactly IS a cult film? The definition is up for grabs — highly subjective — and since the Net has a way of building cult-like enthusiasm around the least thing (Nike Air Force 1S’s for example), we’re all better off making a personal cult movie list of our own.
I think everyone would agree that a true cult movie (unlike the aforementioned specs) has to prove itself by surviving its own time. Some films — like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which we held over for a second week in June, 1976 at the SGT — were already showing evidence of doing just that.
By the time we got ahold of Chainsaw, it was two years old. Leatherface had a permanent rep, and Tobe Hooper’s low-budget ($300,000) thriller was already on its way to cult status. Banned at various times in a long list of countries, including Canada, Britain, Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and West Germany, Chainsaw initially caused audiences in several U.S. theaters to walk out in disgust. The movie featured unknown actors and had the distinction of being panned — for gory content — by important critics, some of whom simultaneously praised it for its direction, cinematography and acting. Ultimately, the film garnered $30 million in profits. In old box office parlance, it “has legs” which, whatever you say, has got to be part of the definition of a cult film. Experts seem to disagree on which films actually are cult films, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is on all the lists.
To quote Tim Dirks, cult films “....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. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a classic by these standards. They can be very stylized, and they are often flawed or unusual...” Sounds like Chainsaw, Reefer Madness, and Night of the Living Dead to me. Wikipedia’s list of cult films, numbering some 1, 535, is way too inclusive (Being John Malkovich — are you kidding?). Most of the films are clustered in the 1970‘s and forward — when, in all probability, the notion of cult films commenced.
A handful of 1930’s films (Blonde Venus, for instance) seem to have made the cut; then there’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Bedtime for Bonzo, and a paltry few other movies before Eisenhower. There are other lists, readers’ polls and so on, which often include a small number of films from the 1970’s and the bulk of entries from the eighties and beyond, when readers were growing up. Obviously, when you were born has a lot to do with what you include on your list.
Eleven of the films on the Wikipedia list played at the St. George in 1976 and the early part of ’77, while we were tearing tickets at the door:
Bananas (Woody Allen, 1971)
Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 19 74)
The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie, 1976)
Carrie (Brian DePalma, 1976)
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973)
The Giant Spider Invasion (Bill Rebane, 1975)
Reefer Madness (Louis Gasnier, 1936)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorcese, 1976)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970)
Other films we ran which have, arguably, generated cult followings include:
Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)
Don’t Open the Window, aka The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (Jorge Grau, 1974)
Smile (Michael Ritchie, 1975), a gem starring among others a young Bruce Dern. It ought to be a cult film, if it isn’t.
We almost ran Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1976) — which is on the Wiki list, but ended up with Cooley High instead, arguably a cult film if there ever was one. Spike Lee lists it on his “List of Films All Aspiring Filmmakers Should See.” If you haven’t read this list, you should. We can all learn a thing or two from Spike, whose movies, alas, didn’t come along until after we went bankrupt at the theater. To have seen Do the Right Thing on our screen — now that would have been a fine thing.
I never did answer the question, “What is a cult film?” Sometimes I think it’s just any movie you yearn to see more than once. By that measure, I’d like to add Casablanca (seen it about fifteen times) and Two for the Road (at least fifteen) and Becket, and In the Heat of the Night and and... (well I could go on and on) to my personal list.