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

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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

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Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Lane 27: Broken Windows

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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