What cult classics can teach us about art, representation — and failure

They’re weird. They break the rules. They’re kinda bad. They are cult movies. Dive into the stories of films from ‘Troll 2’ to ‘The Last Dragon’ to the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ to learn what drives people to watch these oddball films again and again. Producer Matthew Lazin-Ryder looks at the history, future, and function of cult movies.

They’re weird, break the rules and are kinda bad ... yet cult movies are watched over and over again

'A cult film can be whatever it wants to be. If it gets turned into a cult film by an audience, that's cult,' says Ernest Mathijs, co-author of Cult: An Introduction. (Wikpedia/Warner Bros/Tri-Star Pictures/de Passe Entertainment/Universal Pictures)

* Originally published on May 19, 2020.

Blade Runner, The Last Dragon and Repo Man.

Just a few examples of what are known as "cult classics." Movies that many may not even notice when they hit theatres — but an exclusive club of hardcore fans certainly have been anxiously anticipating their release. 

Cult films are surprisingly difficult to define. They generally break the rules, are unique and tend to be bad.

Ernest Mathijs' first cult film was Videodrome — a Canadian movie that aired, perhaps accidentally, on the Belgian public broadcaster. (Wikimedia/Universal Pictures)

They also come in different genres: horror cult films like The Evil Dead, comedy cult films like Idiocracy and romance cult films like The Princess Bride.

The one thing that is certain is that a cult movie becomes a cult movie when people decide that it is.

"It's a film that wants to go beyond the boundaries of what is considered typical or normative in a film story, said Ernest Mathijs, professor of Film Studies at the University of British Columbia.

"And on the other hand, it's a film that's received by a curious audience, which is willing to engage with that. You know, that curates it, that turns it into something for their own purposes. So they become a compass to life."

Mathijs tells IDEAS contributor Matthew Lazin-Ryder that cult films are overindulgent and overreaching — trying to achieve grandiose things that tend to bomb at the box office.

"They don't do too well. They are critical failures. Sometimes they are misunderstood. So there's hyperbole, there is failure, and then there is the desire for innovation. These are films that try to tell stories in ways that haven't been tried yet," Mathijs explained.

Bad film appreciation

Failure is a big part of the cult experience: a commonality. 

There is a whole cult-subgenre called "bad film" — movies that are celebrated for their badness. 

"One of the really core things about bad film appreciation is that the best bad movies are the ones that seem to fail sincerely, that they want to be taken seriously and they fail utterly to achieve that, said Becky Bartlett, a Lecturer in film and television studies at the University of Glasgow.

Bartlett's favourite bad cult film is Troll 2:

The perfect bad film should feel as though it were made sincerely and wants to be taken seriously, she says.

"That there really was an effort behind it to achieve something that wasn't just possible or tolerable or functional, but really creative and artistic even. Something that's really good, that the people who made it feel passionate about."

Escaping Stereotypes

Cult movies often succeed because they present a viewpoint or characters that mainstream movies don't. 

Robyn Citizen who is a manager of festival programming at the Toronto International Film Festival, and points to the 1985 movie The Last Dragon, and how it spoke to African-American viewers, as an example. 

"It's largely modelled after The Chinese Connection, the Bruce Lee film in which he plays a Chinese character who is going up against the forces of Japanese imperialists who are in Shanghai in 1910," said Citizen.

She tells Lazin-Ryder that the characters in the film represented a wide variety of types and personalities that were not common in 1985 films.

"The Last Dragon managed to escape all of those really narrow stereotypes in kind of a way that wasn't trying too hard to make a point, but was just incredibly innocent."

"A lot of these martial arts films played in second run theatres, and second run theatres were often found in minority neighbourhoods. People of colour, working class neighbourhoods and sometimes these films would be played like the double bill to a blaxploitation picture."

One of the odd quirks of the film is how it uses the symbols of the original Bruce Lee movie — Chinese workers versus Japanese imperialists — to tell a story about modern-day America.

"This was something that was clearly supposed to be a reference directly to those films. And what people who liked martial arts cinema was familiar with — this kind of struggle between China and Imperial Japan," said Citizen.

She added that there's also a thematic resonance, where people can understand what it's like to be the underdog against a huge imperial force.

A matter of taste

One barrier that keeps cult movies from mainstream success is their violation of boundaries of taste and acceptability. For instance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But according to David Church, a film and media scholar at the University of Indiana, Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn't break the rules in the way you might think.

"I seem to recall liking Texas Chainsaw quite a lot the first time that I saw it, but I think I had expected it to be something else, something more violent or more gory, especially given its overall reputation. But the film really sort of latched into the back of my mind," said Church.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre centres on a cannibal family, who got laid off from the local slaughterhouse and had no income. To Church, the film still resonates today because it speaks to the decline of rural America, and traditional values.

"Beneath all of the horror that's depicted in the film, we can see Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a sort of pitch-black satire of American values. And that, I think, is one reason why it's still potentially a politically transgressive film even today," he told Lazin-Ryder.

Church points to examples of family values that the Chainsaw family has: a tight-knight family with a sense of self-sufficiency and hard work ethic, small business ownership.

"The Chainsaw family's house is itself almost like the film. It's a place that we want to continue to revisit precisely because it represents some strangely inverted sense of ourselves as Americans."

There are no rules on what art should or should not be, according to Mathijs and it is why cult movies violating expectations and norms is so important.

He says cult films show us that taste is unfinished.

"You can't format taste. You can't straight-jacket taste. You can't put strict boundaries in terms of morality and law around taste," Mathijs said, adding that taste is often expressed in terms of a certain form or type of story.

"And cult films sort of put the middle finger to that."

Guests in this episode:

  • Ernest Mathijs is a professor of Film Studies at the University of British Columbia, co-author of the books Cult: An Introduction and 100 Cult Films." He is co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Cult Cinema.
  • Robyn Citizen is the manager of Festival Programming at the Toronto International Film Festival.
  • Becky Bartlett is a lecturer in Film and Television at the University of Glasgow.
  • David Church is a Film and Media Scholar, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Gender Studies, University of Indiana.

* This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

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