"Rocky Horror Picture Show" starring Tim Curry

How Cult Movies Connect Us To Our Identities

Superhero fans know the excitement of going to a midnight release of the latest Marvel or DC movie. Fans crowd the theater, and the fandom creates a kinship among all of the attendees. Everyone is there for the same reason: for the love of the franchise.

As these movies are out longer and longer, the theater starts to get less and less crowded. Fewer people will dress up, and, though some may see it multiple times, many will simply see it once and move on.

However, some movies capture our interest far beyond the initial release. Fans will keep crowding theaters decades later, and instead of t-shirts, fans will come dressed in movie-accurate costumes and come prepared with toast, plastic spoons, or whatever other accoutrement the fandom deems appropriate for a repeat viewing. These movies are cult movies: movies that have accrued a devoted fan following even years after being released.

Popular Cult Movies

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The most well-known examples of cult movies are The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room. Rocky Horror, despite coming out over 40 years ago, still plays in theaters worldwide on a regular basis. The film is about an engaged couple, Brad and Janet, who accidentally stumble across Dr. Frank N. Furter and his monster. Despite its campy nature, the movie does seriously examine sexuality and gender. This movie draws heavily on science fiction B-movies, and has since spawned countless shadow casts (performers acting out the movie in front of the screen), AP lines, and midnight showings.

The Room

Fan response has been just as enthusiastic as Rocky Horror, even though The Room is a much more recent film, which came out in 2003. The film is more or less incoherent and most of the set-up lacks a pay-off. But still, fans have become enamored with the film and its star/director/writer/producer Tommy Wiseau. It’s unclear how aware the film is of itself, but there are, intentional or not, running themes. Johnny lives the American dream, but it all comes crashing down around him. Also he plays football in a tuxedo in an alleyway for some reason.

The Love Witch

Even more recently than The Room, there is The Love Witch. The Love Witch is campy and gory and absurd, but the film is also very tightly constructed. Every shot and moment is clearly planned and the movie, rather than stumbling onto cult status by accident, confidently claims its place in cult movie history. In addition to the movie being technically strong, the themes of gender and power throughout the movie connect strongly with audiences.

Why Do We Like Cult Movies?

Cult movies, by definition, are not for everyone. They don’t have mainstream appeal, and they don’t necessarily want to have mainstream appeal. However, when these movies do connect with fans, they connect strongly. The films are transgressive and counter-cultural, and often come from a very specific genre. They break cultural taboos–not only about what a movie needs to do to be enjoyable, but also what is acceptable behavior for the characters. Fans connect with Brad Majors exploring his sexuality or Johnny feeling disillusioned by doing everything right and still failing. Of course, these themes are masked under a layer of absurdity, but they’re still present.

Moreover, there is a want to keep films that reject mainstream sensibilities alive and to celebrate them. These films are often low budget and have limited releases, but there is a definite want from fans to keep them in the cultural conversation. The Room, for example, debuted in only one theater and arguably broke every rule of filmmaking, but it also made Tommy Wiseau a well-known figure because he made a film that was almost entirely nonsense. Likewise, The Love Witch, despite being a love letter to Technicolor 60s horror films, something that the average movie goer is likely not familiar with, has received similar treatment from fans.

Paracinema And You

There is a concentrated effort to keep these movies alive. Enjoying paracinema in many cases becomes an enjoyment nested in a larger love of film. Fans of cinema can connect to one another through a love of paracinema or movies-that-are-so-bad-they’re-good like they can connect to other fans of Marvel movies or Game of Thrones. This type of movie, however, is not just limited to one franchise. Fans can have their favorites based on quality (good or bad) or because the transgressive nature of the film hits on a part of their identity. Rocky Horror has themes about sexuality while The Love Witch is about gender and power dynamics. These are all things that the audience can relate to. And, because the movies are counter-cultural, it’s likely that no one else is giving out the same messages.

What are some of your favorite cult movies? Let us know in the comments below or tweet @geekgalsco.

You can read more articles from Fiona L.F. Kelly here.

Featured image credit: 20th Century Fox

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