Cult movies: what makes a film a cult classic?
The latest instalment in the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant, is now in cinemas. Which brings me on to today’s topic, films of the cult science-fiction genre (of which Alien falls into). To start off, we must ask the question: what qualifies a sci-fi film to gain a cult following and why specifically certain features? Well that’s what we’re about to find out today, as we dissect the notion of cult science-fiction.
There are many characteristics of cult films, not just science-fiction pieces, but others too. Firstly, intertextuality is frequent in many of these pictures, most of them pastiches with other film genres (or hybrids for those of you who don’t speak film language).
Given we’re on the subject of Alien, this would be a prime example of this, along with Ridley Scott’s other film Blade Runner, which delves into both the slasher (it came out a year after John Carpenter’s Halloween) and German Expressionist (especially with HR Giger’s artwork) horror genres, while Blade Runner pillages from the film-noir genre (the mystery storyline, paraphernalia and the fact Robert Mitchum was considered for the role of Deckard at one point). Woody Allen’s Sleeper would also fit as an example, since it’s a satirical look at a dystopian future with elements of silent comedy thrown in (such as chase scenes being filmed in double speed).
Some cult sci-fi films can even be homages to other films, such as Re-Animator taking cues from the story of Frankenstein (H.P. Lovecraft borrowed from Mary Sherry for the source material, so director Stuart Gordon does the same with James Whale), and even Alfred Hitchcock (such as the Saul Bass style opening).
Other examples would be Forbidden Planet; a science-fiction retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (and also gave its name to a chain of shops frequented by my sister), Brazil parodying Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Donnie Darko drawing from the superhero genre.
Some can even take cues from other sci-fi films, such as Metropolis (one of the major landmarks in sci-fi cinema) influencing the scenery of Blade Runner and Alex Proyas’s Dark City (which in itself acted as an influence for The Matrix) and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys being a virtual remake of Chris Marker’s 1963 short film La Jetee.
Some films can even achieve cult status with outlandish premises, such as the surrealist narrative of Fantastic Planet, Charlton Heston in a world ruled by apes in Planet of the Apes and the John Carpenter films Escape from New York and They Live.
But one of the most prominent aspects of any cult sci-fi feature is a particular extension of the horror genre: Body Horror. The pioneer of this subgenre is Canadian director David Cronenberg who pushed it into the mainstream with the likes of The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and most notably his 1986 remake of the Vincent Price vehicle The Fly.
Often this is used as a means of shock, to make a statement (such as The Fly’s subtext surrounding the AIDS epidemic) or to create tension as demonstrated by John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing where (unlike the Howard Hawks original), we don’t see the monster, just twisted deformities of the people and animals it has possessed.
Other notable examples of body horror in cult sci-fi films include Re-Animator, anime movie Akira, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (or Braindead), Starship Troopers and has even been used for comedic effect on the animated sci-fi comedy Rick and Morty (the team of which yours truly has sent his portfolio and voice acting reel to).
Sometimes, a film’s cult appeal can stem from the circumstances of the time it was released (such as the release date and time period it came out in). A particular example of this would be the situation experienced by two sci-fi pictures released in the summer of 1982: the aforementioned Blade Runner and The Thing.
At the time of their release, Steven Spielberg’s E.T The Extra-Terrestrial had received critical acclaim and was dominating the box-office, in part, thanks to its uplifting tone. This was not the case for both Blade Runner and The Thing since, thanks to their darker tone and (in the case of the latter) graphic violence, they were both virtually ignored by critics and audiences and joined numerous features (including the Spielberg produced Poltergeist) to be buried by the success of E.T.
It also didn’t help matters that the producers of Blade Runner also heavily re-edited the film to feature a tacked on happy ending (from unused footage from The Shining) in order to try and compete. However, thanks to critical reappraisal and the release of the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, both films managed to achieve cult status as the ignored classics of the science-fiction genre.
Speaking of critical re-evaluation, some cult sci-fi films take time to gain traction over the years, especially when initial reviews either miss the point or aren’t sure what to make of it. For instance, when it was first released, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (an adaptation of a right-wing novel by Robert A. Heinlein) divided critical opinion and was a financial disappointment, based on the excessively violent content and (like some of Verhoeven’s other works) overall narrative. Since its release, however, the film has been re-evaluated and seen as a clever parody of far-right politics (Verhoeven’s original intention) and as one of the most underrated films of the nineties.
Even misaimed marketing can add to a film’s cult-status and reputation over time. Examples include John Carpenter’s Dark Star and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, both of which were marketed as serious, cerebral sci-fi fare rather than the comedic 2001 send-up and a campy, over-the-top adventure (featuring Bruce Willis in the wrong place at the wrong time and Gary Oldman in full ham mode) they both respectively turned out to be. Shame I wasn’t born in 1973 and only four in 1997, otherwise I would be apologising to a lot of misled audience members and requesting they take a second look.
This has to be one of the most major aspect of a cult film, science-fiction or otherwise. This is especially true if the film itself was intended for a very niche demographic. You may recall I wrote a post listing Arrow Films’ five best features; they specialise in re-releasing very niche films in the action, horror and sci-fi genres (such as DVD and Blu-Ray (and dual format) releases from their now discontinued Cult Arena label).
These films are very self-aware and know that the premise is absurd, but will entertain nonetheless, sometimes with a tongue-in-cheek style execution. They may not appeal to everyone, but if you enjoy massacres using microwaves, cheap titillation and copious amounts of blood and guts, then I’m sure there are a few titles waiting to be unearthed. The same can also be said for Barbarella and Flash Gordon, who play up the camp to the high heavens.
We’ve all heard of the phrase “so bad its good”. That is also applicable to the appeal of a cult sci-fi film, especially to two in particular. The prime example would be Plan 9 From Outer Space, one of the trademark features of notorious filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. Made by Wood as a serious sci-fi, monster movie, his ineptitude shines through with numerous flubbed takes, a shadow of a boom mic, stock footage of the late Bela Lugosi (with Wood’s wife chiropractor in the graveyard scenes shot in a studio) and extremely rapid transitions from day to night. However, there is a certain charm to it, with the knowledge that Wood was trying his best.
The second example is John Boorman’s baffling 1973 feature Zardoz, meant as some sort of serious, intelligent sci-fi film on oppression, but the results are anything but, as its place in The Razzie Film Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood’s Worst demonstrates. Featuring Sean Connery in a red nappy, a floating head and Wizard of Oz references, this film is so full of itself with so much preposterous dialogue and ideas (just like Boorman’s other feature Exorcist II: The Heretic) that it really gets us thinking. Thinking what possessed Boorman to create such a film? We’d also recommend you watch the dinner scene, where the film goes completely bizarre and features some of the most laughably awkward acting ever put to celluloid.
Finally, some cult sci-fi films can achieve cult status through notoriety amongst the mainstream audiences. Our first example is Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which caused a massive stir due to its scenes of ultra-violence (both physical and sexual) and a spree of copycat crimes that led to Kubrick pulling the film from circulation until a year after his death.
And speaking of the year 2000, Battle Royale (an adaptation of the Japanese manga of the same name) is another feature which sparked controversy for having a plot where schoolchildren fight to the death. Their cult followings can stem from a sense of danger watching the feature and taking risks that most folks who stick to the mainstream won’t. In fact, Battle Royale’s popularity is so immense, that Arrow re-released the film to tie in with the release of the first instalment in the Hunger Games franchise (although that film series is a lot tamer than the film that inspired it).
So with that final sentence, type ‘cult sci-fi’ into an internet search engine, and may you go in peace my film-watching flock.
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