What will be­come of the quirky cult movie?

Small mis­fit movies steadily go­ing ex­tinct in in­creas­ingly dig­i­tal pop-cul­ture ecosys­tem


Any­one who lived through the hey­day of the video store era in the1980s and ’90s will re­mem­ber that in any home video es­tab­lish­ment worth its salt — or its late fees — you’d find a sec­tion spe­cially de­voted to cult movies.

Of­ten stu­diously cu­rated by a pasty but ar­dently film-lov­ing clerk, the cult sec­tion was an eclec­tic is­land of cin­e­matic mis­fit toys, filled with movies that had missed — or just as of­ten spurned — main­stream suc­cess but found a de­voted fol­low­ing among a select group of acolytes.

Out­ra­geously taste­less come­dies like Pink Flamin­gos and Eat­ing Raoul. Twisted, of­ten ul­tra-gory hor­ror movies like Re-An­i­ma­tor and I Spit on Your Grave. Sci-fi odd­i­ties like Dark Star and Bar­barella: Queen of the Galaxy. And films like Repo Man and Eraser­head that de­fied any cat­e­go­riza­tion what­so­ever.

The def­i­ni­tion of cult was al­ways an elas­tic one and could ap­ply to movies in­de­pen­dent of their qual­ity or prov­i­dence: A film like This Is Spinal Tap, an ac­knowl­edged clas­sic, could sit right next to The Beast­mas­ter, a bizarro Co­nan the Bar­bar­ian knock­off, on the shelf. But the one thing ev­ery cult film has is a deep and some­times ir­ra­tional zeal — if not on the screen, then cer­tainly in its au­di­ence.

Those old video stores have vir­tu­ally all dis­ap­peared now, of course, along with many of the in­de­pen­dent movie theatres that in decades past drew steady crowds to such “mid­night movies,” all of it swept away in the tran­si­tion to a fully dig­i­tal, on­de­mand world. And the cult movies them­selves? It seems they’re in dan­ger of go­ing ex­tinct as well.

In a frag­mented, ever-churn­ing pop-cul­ture ecosys­tem, the long tail of home video that once gave odd­ball movies a shot at a glo­ri­ous cult af­ter­life has short­ened to the point of van­ish­ing. With even big-bud­get com­mer­cial films of­ten strug­gling to break through the end­less clut­ter of con­tent, the chal­lenge for smaller, quirkier fare is that much harder. Even when a par­tic­u­lar off­beat film — say, The Babadook or It Fol­lows — man­ages to catch a vi­ral wave, it is al­most in­stantly over­come by the next fresh piece of “must-watch” en­ter­tain­ment that de­mands your al­ready over­taxed at­ten­tion.

Writer-di­rec­tor Don Coscarelli has wit­nessed the rise and de­cline of the cult movie up close over the course of his ca­reer. In a very real way, his life has been de­fined by that arc.

In1979, Coscarelli wrote and di­rected a sur­re­al­is­tic hor­ror film called Phan­tasm about a sin­is­ter un­der­taker who turns dead peo­ple into dwarf zom­bies who do his bid­ding. It be­came a ma­jor cult hit, even­tu­ally spawn­ing four se­quels. But while some of Coscarelli’s peers, like Evil Dead di­rec­tor Sam Raimi, went on to main­stream suc­cess, Coscarelli never quite shook the la­bel of cult film­maker. At this point, he wears it like a badge of hon­our.

“A lot of peo­ple look down on that cult la­bel,” Coscarelli said over lunch in Los An­ge­les on a re­cent af­ter­noon.

“But I equate cult with pas­sion and pas­sion is cool.”

Now 62, Coscarelli still man­ages to get movies made, in­clud­ing, most re­cently, a fifth and fi­nal in­stal­ment in the Phan­tasm series, Phan­tasm: Rav­ager, which he pro­duced and cowrote. But the eco­nom­ics have grown far more for­bid­ding. His last di­rec­to­rial ef­fort, the 2012 sci-fi­zom­bie-com­edy John Dies at the End, earned gen­er­ally pos­i­tive re­views but grossed just $141,951 (all fig­ures U.S.) in its limited the­atri­cal re­lease.

“When I think back about the VHS and early DVD days, any­body could make any movie and take it to one of the film mar­kets and get $500,000 to $1mil­lion back for any piece of junk,” he said. “Nowa­days it’s such a bat­tle to break even.

“The clut­ter has changed ev­ery- thing. All the old modes of cu­ra­tion are go­ing away. Mar­ket­ing movies from a more mod­est level and punch­ing through, it’s re­ally dif­fi­cult.”

In­deed, as the stu­dio sys­tem has re-en­gi­neered it­self al­most en­tirely around mass-ap­peal tent-pole movies, it’s be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to make and mar­ket the kind of idio­syn­cratic, cre­atively risky pro­jects that, in years past, could some­times de­velop cult fol­low­ings. The re­sult has been an ex­o­dus of many edgier writ­ers and direc­tors to the rel­a­tively more wel­com­ing are­nas of TV and stream­ing ser­vices like Net­flix and Ama­zon.

In com­edy, as in hor­ror, the cult movie is in dan­ger of be­com­ing a thing of the past. To find the last off­beat com­edy that truly came out of nowhere and or­gan­i­cally de­vel­oped a ma­jor cult fol­low­ing, you’d prob­a­bly have to reach all the way back to Jared Hess’s 2004 sleeper hit Napoleon Dy­na­mite or 2003’s un­in­ten­tional com­edy The Room.

Speak­ing to the Times last month be­fore the open­ing of his re­cent com­edy, Mas­ter­minds, Hess re­called how his dead­pan di­rec­to­rial de­but about a high school geek with delu­sions of grandeur, shot in Idaho on a shoe­string bud­get of less than $500,000, slowly blos­somed into a phe­nom­e­non.

Gen­er­at­ing that kind of buzz should the­o­ret­i­cally be even eas­ier in the age of so­cial me­dia, but Twit­ter and Face­book rep­re­sent such a pellmell ca­coph­ony of voices they thwart any co­her­ent or sus­tained con­ver­sa­tion. Mean­while, with en­ter­tain­ment con­sump­tion in the dig­i­tal era be­ing such a soli­tary ex­pe­ri­ence, the days of phys­i­cally hand­ing a friend a VHS or DVD copy of a beloved movie to watch, like mak­ing some­one a mixed cas­sette tape of your favourite songs, is a dis­tant mem­ory.


Cult films, like the 1968 sci-fi od­dity Bar­barella star­ring Jane Fonda, may be at risk of be­com­ing a thing of the past.

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