This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.


Gagging on the Kool-Aid: Cult Films We Just Don’t Get

Posted by on

By Aaron Hillis, Michelle Orange, Matt Singer, R. Emmet Sweeney and Alison Willmore

IFC News

[Photo: Rutger Hauer in the original “The Hitcher,” a slasher cult favorite that inspired a remake opening this week. ®TriStar Pictures, 1986]

Cult movies and independent films are rarely grouped together, but let’s drop the pretensions and face it — they’re basically the same thing. Or at the very least, they grew out of same world; the fertile soil first tilled by the exploitation directors. These traveling hucksters, snake oil salesmen and genuine artists (sometimes all wrapped up in the same conflicted figure) did basically the same things that independent and cult films do today: produced a motion picture outside the Hollywood studio system and catered to an audience not satisfied with the tame product of said system.

Most figures of either movement could just as easily be appropriated by the other. John Cassavetes is as much a figure of cult adulation as he is a pioneer of true independent, artful moviemaking; Russ Meyer may have made pictures about the catfighting lifestyles of abnormally busty women, but he was as financially successful as any independent director of the 20th century. Many of today’s biggest indie directors are also our biggest cult icons; consider Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, whose upcoming collaboration “Grindhouse” is a direct callback to the heyday of cult films.

Indie movies always have a bit of cult to them. The best ones are still seen at film festivals, acquired at grungy video stores, or distributed on YouTube, well off the beaten path of mainstream respectability. Sal Piro, one of the architects of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” cult (more on it later) had a definition of cult films (as transcribed in J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Midnight Movies,” an indispensable resource on this topic) that could easily apply to the indie world: “A cult film is a movie that has developed a following outside of the mainstream of popular films. The plots usually require a sustained suspension of disbelief. These films contain a sense of irrationality and nonconformity.”

As fun as cult films are as part of a group, they’re confusing, even frustrating, on the outside looking in. This culture of insiders and outsiders are crucial to cult films, because part of what makes them so appealing within their insular world is the way they’ve been rejected by everyone else. “They don’t get it,” the cultist says, “but I do.”

IFC has always celebrated cult movies, but even dedicated cultists like the IFC News staff have cult blind spots, movies, both old and new, whose feverish appeal to a dedicated group of devoted followers completely baffles us. Here now, out of our own curiosity and an urgent need to belong to the collective, we voice our bewilderment:

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)

It is unquestionably the most famous, most watched and most celebrated cult film of all time. To this day, 30 years after its first release, it’s still playing regularly in over 60 theaters all over the world. And I flat out don’t get it. I’ve seen “Rocky Horror” a few times, and most times it’s a struggle to get through the picture, whether I’m by myself or in a group. It plays on a lot of the primordial ooze of cult that I love (monster movies, tacky dialogue, stilted acting), but it just doesn’t resonate with me in this form. The problem may lie more in the cult than the film itself. My own excursions into cult are about the discovery of something lost or misunderstood; “Rocky Horror” is more about ritual. By the time my generation came to “Rocky Horror,” the rules had been so rigidly established that to stray from them could cause “virgins,” as they’re called, public humiliation or bodily harm. There’s a meanness to the “Rocky” cult; a few years ago, a roommate of mine got pelted with eggs at his first “Rocky Horror” screening, which sounds more like a frat house hazing ritual than a cheeky welcome for the uninitiated. “Rocky Horror” seems like a great cult to be on the inside of, but I’m still trying to figure out the secret handshake without getting egg on my face. Then again, if something is the most famous, most watched, and most celebrated cult film, can it still even be considered a cult film? —Matt Singer

“Waiting…” (2005)

I understand cult films, sort of, though I must admit the “so-bad-it’s-good” argument has always eluded me. What I have also never gotten are films that become cult films largely on their merits when viewed under the influence of marijuana, weed, grass, ganja, schwag — especially when they’re also about marijuana (“Half Baked,” the Cheech and Chong oeuvre). Perhaps it’s too early to call this one a cult film, but if it isn’t already, I am betting, based on credible insider information, that it will be soon. “Waiting…,” Rob McKittrick’s 2005 service industry epic, stars Ryan Reynolds, Anna Faris, Dane Cook, Justin Long and Luis Guzman as employees at an Applebee’s-type restaurant, and that’s about all I’ve got for you in the way of plot. Long’s character is on the brink of becoming a lifer (assistant manager) and has to face some choices about the direction his life is going in, all the while deftly avoiding the good look at their privates the line cooks keep trying to give him. The kid from “Freaks and Geeks” shows up as a new hire, and he takes a lot of shit before learning to stand up for himself…The End. I mean, it’s not a horrible movie, but I will never understand why anyone would want to watch it more than once, even with herbal enhancement. That shit just puts me to sleep anyway. —Michelle Orange

“Wet Hot American Summer” (2001)

I’ve been a hopelessly devoted fan of the comedy troupe “The State” since their short-lived show on MTV (93-95) tapped into my adolescent love of absurdist humor that wasn’t above the occasional poop joke. I’ve savored every project these men (and lady) have pursued since the group broke up after their CBS special tanked in 1995, from the silly improv comedy of “Reno 911” to the deadpan surrealism of “Stella.” I even find myself watching those endless “I Love the…” VH1 specials simply because of the presence of Michael Ian Black. All of which is to explain why it pained me that “Wet Hot American Summer” failed to elicit the full-throated laughter of the troupe’s other work. This parody of 80s summer camp movies piles on non-sequiturs at a tiring pace, failing to capture the spontaneous insanity of the MTV show. But the film caught on quickly, garnering great reviews and running for seven months in 2003 during a wildly successful NYC revival. It’s the group’s biggest hit, alas, while I still fruitlessly wait for those three seasons of “The State” to arrive on DVD. —R. Emmet Sweeney

“The Warriors” (1979)

Can you dig it? Because just I can’t. I do get that themed gangs should equal all kinds of awesome, like themed parties, except with more violence. But “The Warriors,” with its episodic trip through 70s goth-fantasy New York, always seemed oddly lifeless and deflated to me, like the sound had been turned down — I’ve never been able to make it through the film in one sitting. The Warriors, a Coney Island gang fond of wearing vests without shirts on underneath, are framed for the murder of another gang’s leader and have to fight their way across the city to get home. They battle the bat-wielding Baseball Furies, the overall-sporting Punks, and on, and on, and it’s no surprise that the film was eventually adapted into a video game — it was already halfway there to begin with. One of the more charming (if enigmatic) aspects of “Warriors” fandom is that the film, which is rife with camp and unintentional (barely) homoeroticism, seems more than ripe for co-option by the gay community, but continues to attract fans from all walks of life, even ones who would rather die than admit that the climactic battle is between gangs essentially modeled after two members of The Village People. —Alison Willmore

“Napoleon Dynamite” (2004)/”Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)

Plenty of backlash has come out against Wes Anderson’s films by those getting their hate on for hipsterdom, but somehow their Sundance-born offspring have crossed over into mainstream cultural events with relatively none of the same disapproval. To me, “Napoleon Dynamite” is a vibrant tableau of forced whimsy that condescends to each of its cartoonish characters; it’s a wannabe “Rushmore” with Jason Schwarzmann’s insecure and eventually humbled know-it-all replaced by a charmless, self-important, mean-spirited jerk. Personal taste aside, I’d be willing to accept that it’s for a generation younger than myself, one that shops at Hot Topic and finds 80s kitsch exotic, but then why are there so many older fans drinking the punch, eating the tots, etc.? I’m also totally baffled by the love-fest over “Little Miss Sunshine,” a vibrant tableau of forced whimsy that feigns intelligence and realism from its poorly drawn characters; it’s a less ambitious “Royal Tenenbaums” grafted over the dysfunctional-family road trip framework of “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” with less laughs. It peaks with an awkward dance sequence (as does “Napoleon Dynamite”) and falls into unbelievable melodrama as if it didn’t know how else to end, which explains the four alternate endings on the DVD. Why do people care about these fake personalities? The unashamedly stupid “Snakes on a Plane” featured a germaphobic hip-hop superstar, so how is that any less relatable than characters as superficial as their quirks, like the “junkie grandpa” or “suicidal gay Proust scholar?” “Napoleon” has the family-friendly vibe that’s en vogue, so I suppose that fills a need, but “Sunshine” aims to be edgier than convention, though it’s perfectly safe enough for the filmgoing meek. Whatever, I’ll happily be the head-scratching curmudgeon on this matter, even if I find it troubling that arthouse-lite fluff like this is becoming synonymous with “indie film.” —Aaron Hillis

Watch More

Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

Posted by on
GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

Watch More

A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

Posted by on
GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

Watch More

WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

Posted by on

Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

Watch More