What makes a cult film

Recently I saw the latest work of so called ‘Cult’ director Edgar Wright; Baby Driver. Hugely enjoyable, a film that showed much verve and panache and written about by some as Wright’s latest cult offering. Now, this director has form. Even IMDb refers to his oeuvre as a three-flavoured cornetto trilogy – and at the time of their release they were talked about using the ‘C’ word. Having spent his formative years working in British TV comedy His 2004 debut, Shaun of the Dead, was hailed as a great British film comedy. It didn’t make me laugh. Hot Fuzz, three years later seemed to reach the hearts of young and old employing the same suite of talent and the third colourful flavour, The World’s End, released in 2013 did less well and I think had no claim to have been a cult movie. When I mention these films to the millennials I know they all, however, hail then as cult movies.

So, is Wright a genuine cult director and if so, how come? Funnily enough, I think his latest offering has more originality and directorial surety than any of his other films and I can imagine it being awarded the ‘c’ word in good time. Yet, Wright reminds me a little of another British director who made a cult movie, Alex Cox. Repo Man, his low-budget debut made in 1984 and well worth a watch on a wet and windy night in front of the TV was followed two years later by Sid and Nancy which could be argued became a cult film too. He had made in that same year a risible ‘B’ exploitation movie, Straight to Hell, which helped mark him out as the Enfant Terrible of British talent cutting their cloth in the seedier side of Hollywood, but his career as a movie director floundered. Cox subsequently became an almost establishment figure with his own TV film programme and as an observer of film culture he had much to contribute.

I am sure we all have our own list of favoured cult directors and films; the more obscure, the greater one’s cineaste credentials. I am not going to reveal mine, but I do wonder what credentials are needed for both the creator and the created. Does the Coen Brothers’ 1984 debut, Blood Simple, remain a cult film or just a classic in the gore genre? Is it a pre-condition that to become cult the film has to be a debut? Another favourite in the gore-fest genre although in reality not that gory, is the hugely influential The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper a decade earlier. Not in the strictest sense a debut. He had made an experimental film, Eggshells, in the late sixties which I was lucky to see when a student at the London film School. Of its time, a hippy political polemic I remember that caused much debate amongst the WRP (Workers Revolutionary Party) members at the school at the time! But, it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which cemented Hooper’s reputation and influence as a cult director.

And if not always debut, are cult films by their very nature low-budget too? A film that demonstrated the genius and talent of Steven Spielberg made in 1971 was the TV movie Dual. Again, a film worth finding on DVD or streaming. I am finding it hard to include in my list of cult films and/or cult directors anything that cost a lot of money to make. Also, thinking now just in the English language, is there something intrinsic about a British cult movie as opposed to an American one? Could a Brit ever have made Daniel Myrick’s 1999 debut, Blair Witch Project, a film, made fo next to nothing that re-wrote the language of cinema using consumer cameras and the faux-documentary narrative of found footage? Could there be a more British cult movie than Withnail and I, the 1987 debut by Bruce Robinson? Answers on a postcard please.


Also published on Medium.

5 Comments

  1. Gareth 22 August 2017 at 10:51 am

    I’ve been pondering this question for a few days now Adam and have a tentative answer; at some level the cult film appeals to our inner child.

    One of the things that is striking about children’s viewing of films is that it doesn’t seem to matter how many times they have seen a film before. Something I had reason to be exasperated about quite some time ago. Then I realised that I feel entirely the same way about Withnail and I. I have seen it so many times that I can quote whole sections off by heart. Somehow the appeal of ‘Are you the farmer?’ doesn’t seem to wane.

    Reply
  2. CliveW 22 August 2017 at 12:15 pm

    ‘Answers on a postcard please.’

    I think Donald Cammell’s Performance is pretty cult.

    Reply
  3. Richard Brown 23 August 2017 at 11:03 am

    “Could a Brit ever have made Daniel Myrick’s 1999 debut, Blair Witch Project, a film, made fo next to nothing that re-wrote the language of cinema using consumer cameras and the faux-documentary narrative of found footage?” Not made for next to nothing but Glazer’s “Under The Skin” is I think, destined to become a cult movie, if it isn’t already.

    Reply
  4. adam Alexander 25 August 2017 at 12:06 pm

    I love performance but cannot get as excited about Under the Skin. For me, the most memorable scene from Performance is Jagger singing across his office table. Perhaps seeing Scarlett Johnasen emerging naked from the black pools will remian with me until eternity. Hopefully!

    Reply
    1. CliveW 28 August 2017 at 5:00 pm

      So many memorable moments in Performance and so many quotable lines I still use today.

      James Fox gives a tour de force performance literally!

      ‘Spot on ‘arry’ ‘Address my remarks? sniff’ ‘ ‘He wuz a game boy, Chas.’ ‘With him it’s double personal’ ‘that’s it… be…. placatory’ ‘I like that Rosie… turn it up’, ‘I juggle’ the list goes on and on.

      Lot’s of ‘shut your ‘ole’s and flashes of Borges. That was strong lesson for me, you can reference without resolution, just like putting a dash of chilli in a recipe.

      Great sound track too. Come On In My Kitchen, sadly not on the album of the sound track I’ve got. Randy Newman Gone Dead Train, great final scene and the first ‘rap’ track I’d ever heard, The Last Poets and Memo From Turner of course that you referenced, fantastic words too that summon up the ghosts of the Beats and Burroughs and the genius sleazy feel of the gang undressing in a scene that presages Twin Peaks by decades.

      Yeah good film. Hahaha

      Reply

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