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.