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. 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 several thousand, is way too inclusive (Being John Malkovich — are you kidding?). It’s interesting to compare the cult classics on that site with three other entries: B-Movie, Underground Film and Sleeper Hit. 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, and one title by Fritz Lang), then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Bedtime for Bonzo, and that’s it for 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)
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)
Many of these don’t qualify as cult films by my standards; they may have built loyal followings, but a number were big-budget.
Other films we ran which have, arguably, generated cult followings include: Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), and 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, 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.” 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 something.
The cultiest cult film of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was already in the world by 1975, and on screen at the Waverly Theater in Manhattan, just across the water, in 1976, while we were trying to keep the St. George alive; but Manhattan was, of course, a beat ahead of poor old Staten Island, where our midnight shows (Woodstock, Yellow Submarine, Reefer Madness) were as campy as we got.