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The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts, plays a sold out showing of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room . You have likely heard of this infamous feature film because a lot of people talk about it and the word “bad” seems to be the primary descriptor. It holds a 33% out of one hundred on the popular critic score aggregator Rotten Tomatoes — the six “fresh” reviews from eligible critics are an obvious joke. “Plan 9 From Outer Space gave me nowhere near as many belly laughs. Tommy Wiseau is a bit like Shatner or Schwarzenegger before they became self-aware,” writes LytRules contributor Luke Thompson. The film seemed to strike Thompson’s funny bone faster than a tennis ball shot across a court, but as Wiseau originally sought financing, shot his film, and edited it, he was not laughing. If The Room is a drama so critically panned, then why is The Coolidge Corner Theater playing it and why are those showings all sold out? “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” Screams Wiseau’s character in one scene. The audience mouths the words – they know these lines by heart and quote them endlessly – and throw spoons at the screens. Films like The Room are a phenomenon not many understand, but can all empathize with; they are cult classics.
Hal Ashby’s sophomore outing as director in 1971 resulted in, at the time, a small film starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort called Harold and Maude. It was the taboo romance about a boy at the cusp of adulthood who falls in love with a septuagenarian nearing the age of eighty. The film released on the 20th of December 1971 to middling reviews and less-than-stellar box office receipts, the film was a commercial disappointment. Roger Ebert himself, a well respected critic in the film community who is also arguably the most well-known one, said “the visual style makes everyone look fresh from the Wax Museum, and all the movie lacks is a lot of day-old gardenias and lilies and roses in the lobby, filling the place with a cloying sweet smell. Nothing more to report today,” giving it a one and a half star rating. Although that did not stop others from seeing the film for what it truly was.
The film, in 1983, developed a cult following where it then earned a profit, twelve years after its original release, and was given a lengthy re-release in cinemas. The real question, though, is what makes Harold and Maude worthy of such a cult following? A cult following is a highly dedicated group of fans to a specific area of culture. In this case Harold and Maude had a very small, yet passionate fanbase.
The biggest similarity cult films share is that they are quotable. While devout The Room fans take every chance they get to yell “you’re tearing me apart Lisa,” Harold and Maude fans tattoo lines fresh from Colin Higgin’s screenplay. The most popular quote being: “The earth is my body; my head is in the stars.”
Some films, from inception to conception are made with the sole purpose of being in the cult category. 2010’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror, set out to shock viewers with its bare and simple CGI birds. The film’s premise is set out to alienate anyone who takes interest in it: a city in California is attacked by rabid eagles and vultures. Birdemic did gain some popularity heretofore, but is no longer in the eyes of the media as others still are. Its marketing campaign invited all to watch the worst movie ever made and to this very day holds a 1.8 out of 10 rating on the Internet Movie Database. It is clear a lot of cult films aren’t very good, but none of them set out to be bad in the first place.
The Room was Tommy Wiseau’s brainchild. According to a Wired interview with Wiseau, the millions of dollars spent on The Room came from Wiseau illegally importing Korean leather jackets to the United States. His intention was not to make a bad film, but to make a movie he thought would be perceived as good, which is why he chose the genre of drama in the first place. A mix of bad, quotable dialogue, actors who knew nothing about acting, and shoddy cinematography is what gave the film attention from those not involved with the production.
In some scenes one of the characters is pregnant, where in a few others she is not. Wiseau shot the movie on 35mm stock film roll side-by-side a digital camera, because he was not sure which was better. These inconsistencies and the fascinating stories behind production of Wiseau’s incompetence gave the film a point of interest. In the case of Harold and Maude, it was simply an overlooked classic. Both Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon were nominated for Golden Globes the subsequent year. The Room is so well-known and interesting to the general public that James Franco is making a film based on a book, The Disaster Artist, which is based on the making-of The Room itself.
Not only do most cult classics have these interesting stories behind them, they are so bad it’s great or just fantastic, yet overlooked in a market that is oversaturated with films. Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was a cult classic before it even hit the silver screen. There was an innumerable amount of hype and excitement surrounding it. People quoted even the trailers (although the source material was a bit popular in its time). The film was expected to open well in theaters, but for very obvious reasons, was beat by Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables, a film about tired 80’s action heroes making a comeback. It opened in fifth place to $10,609,795. It does not stop fans from keeping the film alive on message boards and Universal has continued to re-release the film on Blu-ray with different special editions because those who love the film continue to double-dip on multiple copies.
Some cult films have simply been suppressed and kept alive by dedicated fans. Ranging from the newer A Serbian Film, a movie that supports the concept of “newborn porn,” in which adults sodomize babies right after their birth (banned in New Zealand, Brazil, Norway, Spain, Finland, and many other countries), Battleship Potemkin (banned in France, Germany, Finland, South Korea, Spain), to Marquis de Sade’s Saló Or The 120 Days of Sodom (banned in six countries and available in the United States with numerous cuts). These films, although banned in many countries, are still here because of those fans and continue making money to this day. It could be argued that these films are art or just the opposite, made for shock value, but at the end fans still want to watch them.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cult media should have enduring appeal to a relatively small audience and must be “non-mainstream,” but it’s apparent that a lot of cult media maintains a huge internet presence.
While browsing on Reddit, you could easily spot references to Fox’s Emmy Award winning Arrested Development, which stars Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, David Cross and Jeffrey Tambor — some of whose careers were jumpstarted by the program itself. Arrested Development was cancelled in 2006, after three seasons, due to a lack weekly viewers and was brought back in 2013 by Netflix for a fourth season because of its popularity on the website, being one of the most consistently viewed programs on the internet subscription service. Arrested Development was also, before the fourth season premiered, the top rated television program on the Internet Movie Database next to The Wire.
Some films have tried and failed to become cult hits, while some others still fill seats in theaters forty years after their respective release. All are quotable and those that aren’t cult hits are not. The public chooses with their wallets, although a niche market, what films they want to keep alive and which filmmakers to idolize. One thing that is a fact is that there is no specific recipe to making a cult film. Those just happen.
Peary, Daniel. “Cult Movies: the Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful.” August 1981. Print. 12 April 2015
Baker, Bentley. “Bright Lights Film Journal: What is Cult Cinema? A Checklist” 31 July 2010. Web. 13 April 2015
Haigh, Ian. “What makes a cult film?” 3 May 2010. BBC News. 13 April 2015.
Jupp, Emily. “Terrible acting, flimsy sets, wanton misogyny… Tommy Wiseau’s The Room becomes a cult hit!” 01 March 2013. The Independent UK. Web / Print
Mathijs, Ernest. “Threat or Treat: Film, Television, and the Ritual of Halloween.” Flow TV. Print. 14 April 2015.