The definition of a cult movie is hard to pin down. But some basic requirements would probably include box-office or critical failure upon original release and a devoted fan base that’s grown over time. Key, however, is how many times you can watch a film without it losing its initial thrill. That's why ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ fans still line up every Saturday night: They’ve found a movie that they can't resist coming back to. No matter what the hook (a great soundtrack, a controversial plot, a brilliant but overlooked performance), a cult movie -- like 'Gummo,' above -- can only gain a following if there’s an audience willing to watch it over and over again . . . and with enough confidence in its appeal to warrant sharing it with friends. Even if it’s so bad it’s good, you want to watch it again. But how exactly did these movies make the cut and earn cult status?
'Harold and Maude' (1971)
'Harold and Maude' is saccharine slop in undertaker’s clothes -- the kind of movie Wes Anderson might make if he were clinically depressed and suicidal. This twee, shudder-inducing horror show attempts to mix romantic and dark comedy, and then throws some Cat Stevens music on top to ensure it offers something everyone can hate. Outstanding as Ruth Gordon always is, the idea of a love affair between elderly Gordon and young Bud Cort carries an undeniable ick factor, despite Stevens’ “If you wanna be free, be free” up-with-people soundtrack. Forced quirkiness fills in for authentic laughs and even if you're able to choke down the implied (thank God) visuals of the May/November relationship at the movie's center, you find 'H&M' doesn't function very well as a romance either. Things are made all the more frustrating by the fact that Harold's funny faked suicides in the opening scenes show promise the rest of the movie is either unwilling or unable to keep.
If 'Faces of Death' really was what it insinuates it is -- snuff film as documentary -- it would belong on an altogether different list. (Top 10 Illegal Movie Concepts?) But it’s not even much of a documentary. It’s essentially a mondo movie -- the type being cranked out like crazy in the ‘60s and early ‘70s -- in which stock footage and bogus, poorly crafted reenactments are thrown in a blender and reconstructed under a loose theme. 'Faces' combines public-domain newsreel footage of stuff you shouldn’t want to see with laughably fake-looking vignettes (like the one featuring a table of folks enjoying a warm skull of live monkey brains). There are dozens of movies like 'Faces of Death' out there (not to mention its sequels and copycats). Why it specifically struck a chord with VHS renters in the ‘80s is anyone’s guess. Maybe it simply boils down to freaky box art.
'The Toxic Avenger' (1984)
'The Toxic Avenger' is about a health-club mop boy who gets thrown into a vat of toxic waste before emerging as “New Jersey’s first superhero.” It’s a cult-movie premise by design, and you just can’t set out to make a cult movie. Lloyd Kaufman and the folks at Troma either don’t know this or don’t care. (We suspect the latter.) To their credit, the production company has bought up several legit B movies and repackaged them for redistribution, but almost all of Troma's original output is pointlessly over-the-top, with obnoxiousness standing in for hilarity and gross-out gags that seem styled for 12-year-old boys.
'Army of Darkness' (1992)
‘Army of Darkness’ ups the ante on the ‘Evil Dead II’ goof factor with more cartoon-inspired gags while completely wiping out the signature claustrophobic scares of the prior two entries. (Wacky as 'Evil Dead' I and II are, both are horror movies at heart.) The result is an oddity that's never as clever as it seems to think it is, let alone imaginative enough to qualify as entertaining. What’s worse, it's too self-aware to qualify as true camp. The jokes aren't funny, the monsters aren't scary and the script is spattered with too many intentionally quotable one-liners. Despite a sort of ambitious shoestring sincerity and the vibe that everyone involved is having a good time, 'Army of Darkness' is a tough slog for the viewer. Never trust anyone who says it's their favorite 'Evil Dead' movie.
'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (1993)
Even though he didn’t direct it, Tim Burton’s black-and-white-spiraled fingerprints are all over this inexplicably loved “holiday” movie that doesn't really fly as a seasonal standard for Christmas or Halloween. Directed by Henry Selick, this is still Burton’s baby and marks an important turning point where his auteur style started to look like a hacky brand. Danny Elfman’s songs aren’t catchy or memorable, and his score is familiar and typical of his style. (LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!) Our hero, Jack Skellington, is a virtually expressionless stick figure with a voice and very little character. What might have worked as a 24-page children’s book feels overstuffed with filler as a feature. It is beautifully animated and colorful eye candy, but as a modern fairy tale for kids, it’s a drag.
'Clerks' was noteworthy when it was released because of its budget and production backstory. That Kevin Smith was able to make the movie he wanted was impressive -- and still is. But with distance and perspective, it's impressive for different reasons. (Pssst! Smith is a bad writer and director.) Good actors would later give embarrassing performances in Smith films; the roster of bad actors in 'Clerks' (mostly friends of the director) never had a chance. Amazingly, the success of 'Clerks' opened doors that allowed Smith to keep making movies, and animated series based on his movies, and comic books based on his movies' characters -- all while encouraging disturbingly meta, pop-culture cross-pollination involving Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Lucky for us, it looks as though Smith is beginning to fade back into the Internet woodwork as more of a fanboy-branded pop-culture commentator than a filmmaker.
One has to assume that the untimely death of star Brandon Lee plays a substantial role in 'The Crow' gaining almost instant cult status. The few moments in the movie to actually resonate with sinister dread are borne of the realization Lee (as a vengeful dead rock star) didn’t know what was coming. Strip the tragedy away, and you have a completely ineffectual goth fantasy with flat characters, a limp story and no memorable action sequences. Some gave it high marks for production design, but time reveals an MTV aesthetic that hasn't aged well. Its biggest crime? 'The Crow' is boring as hell.
Harmony Korine, who wrote the Larry Clark-directed ‘Kids’ and wrote and directed ‘Gummo,’ is responsible for two of the most depressingly cynical and grotesque indie sleepers of the late ‘90s. Where ‘Kids’ at least works (unintentionally, we're guessing) as a throwback to juvenile-delinquent/sexual-hygiene exploitation movies, 'Gummo' is a big ol' dirty bathtub of spilled spaghetti. The slack, virtually nonexistent narrative has something to do with Xenia, Ohio -- a real Dayton suburb that was leveled by a tornado in 1974 -- and how its inability to recover (reality check: It recovered nicely, thanks) has given rise to a nightmare-scape of shocks for shocks’ sake. The degradation of the mentally handicap and preteens killing neighborhood cats are all part of the fun.