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Cult movies often come from outside Hollywood mainstream

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
Christopher Guest and Michael McKean in 'This is Spinal Tap.' Credit: MGM
Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Donnie Darko.' Credit: Pandora Cinema
Harrison Ford in 'Blade Runner.' Credit: Warner Bros.
'Pink Flamingos,' which starred Divine, was an early film from director John Waters.
'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' starred Tim Curry (center) as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Credit: 20th Century Fox
George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead' was made in Pittsburgh and sparked the current zombie obsession.
Jeff Bridges starred in 'The Big Lebowski.' Credit: Working Title Films
Elizabeth Berkley starred in 1995's 'Showgirls.' Credit: United Artists
'Office Space' DVD cover
'Clerks' DVD cover
Joan Crawford on 'Mommie Dearest.'
Valiant Pictures
Film poster for 'Plan 9 From Outer Space'
'Slap Shot' DVD cover
'The Princess Bride' DVD cover

You may not realize it, but you're probably in a cult. Not a creepy, evil cult like in “The Omen” (1976) — but certain movies are said to have a “cult following” (like, well, “The Omen”). Unless you only watch fluffy romantic comedies starring Sandra Bullock, you're probably a part of at least one movie's cult following.

If a movie isn't an immediate box-office smash, this is perhaps the next best thing — a dedicated following who keeps watching your movie over and over again, years after its release. Here's a simple test: If a movie can fill a theater for a midnight screening at least 10 years after it's released, it's probably a cult movie. Especially if it flopped on its first release.

They're usually not “hits,” tend to be impervious to critics, and are often outright failures upon first release. They can be ahead-of-their-time masterpieces like “Blade Runner” (1982) or uproariously awful disasters like “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959).

The only unifying characteristic is that cult movies tend to originate somewhere outside the Hollywood mainstream. They usually come out of somewhat-disreputable genres like science fiction or horror, or out-of-the-way places like art cinema and low-budget indie filmmaking.

According to Danny Peary, who literally wrote the book on them (“Cult Movies,” 1981), these are films that “are born in controversy, in arguments over quality, theme, talent and other matters. Cultists believe they are among the blessed few who have discovered something in particular that the average moviegoer and critic have missed — the something that makes the pictures extraordinary.”

Some types of the major species of cult movies (which can overlap):

Unsung Innovators

What it is: Changed the game, but not all at once.

Case study: “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). Gave birth to the modern horror movie (slasher/splatter edition), the ubiquitous zombie genre, and independent regional, do-it-yourself filmmaking (in Pittsburgh). “Night” also featured a black man as the lead, considered a bold, risky choice at the time.

See also: “Blade Runner” (1982), “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (1994), “Office Space” (1999), “Akira” (1988), “Freaks” (1932), “Carnival of Souls” (1962), “Clerks” (1994)

Almighty Train Wrecks

What it is: Accidental comedies, B-movie beasts, camp classics, exercises in poor taste

Case study: “Showgirls” (1995). Your basic sexy stripper-turned-showgirl clawing her way to the top in Vegas story. Yet, somehow it all went awry and ended up looking like a two-hour cat-fight between drag queens. Widely considered one of the worst movies ever made — though there's also a vocal faction of critics (including Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch) who contend that it's actually a brilliant, nasty satire.

See also: “Reefer Madness” (1938), “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1958), “The Room” (2003), “Pink Flamingos” (1972), “Mommie Dearest” (1981)

Quote Factories

What it is: Too weird to be a hit (at first). Too catchy to be ignored.

Case study: “The Big Lebowski” (1998). Film-noir mystery meets raunchy screwball comedy, about a philosophical post-hippie gumshoe called The Dude, who just won't let it slide when someone urinates on his rug. Features characters so vividly drawn that it spawned annual Lebowski Fests and even a religion, Dudeism. If someone ever says to you “Donny, you're out of your element,” blame this movie.

See also: “Slap Shot” (1987), “Monty Python & The Holy Grail” (1975), “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975), “Evil Dead 2” (1987), “Heathers” (1989), “The Princess Bride” (1987), “This is Spinal Tap” (1984)

Underground Juggernauts

What it is: Redeemed/re-animated by a fan's love, sometimes very, very slowly.

Case study: “Donnie Darko” (2001). Released to no notice, championed by a few film nerds, this absurdly ambitious little puzzle of a movie combined teen angst, suburban satire, '80s nostalgia, time travel and esoteric philosophy about the nature of the universe. Great early performances from Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and a surreal cameo by Patrick Swayze. Found life on DVD.

See also: “The Harder They Come” (1972), “Grey Gardens” (1975),“Shock Corridor” (1963), “El Topo” (1970), “The Warriors” (1979), “Blue Velvet” (1986), “Battle Royale” (2000)

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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