Almost by definition, they're not popular at the time of their release, usually because they exist outside the box, eschewing typical narrative styles and other technical conventions. They achieve cult-film status later, developing a loyal fanbase over time, often through word-of-mouth recommendations (and, as we'll see, the actions of fans themselves). They elicit an eerie passion among their fans, who enthusiastically champion the films, leading to repeated public viewings (midnight movie showings are particularly prevalent in cult films), fan clubs, and active audience participation (i.e. dressing up as the oddball characters, mercilessly MST3King a film, or uh, jumping around in front of a camera with a broomstick). Cult movie followers often get together and argue over the mundane details and varied merits of their favorite films.
While these films are not broadly appealing, they are tremendously popular among certain narrow groups such as college students or independent film lovers. The internet has been immensely enabling in these respects, allowing movie geeks to locate one another and participate in the aforementioned laborious debates and arguments among other interactive fun.
One of the first examples of a cult movie is Tod Browning's 1932 film, Freaks, which was deliberately made to be "the strangest...most startling human story ever screened," and featured real-life freaks as circus performers. Perhaps the most infamous cult film is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a 1975 film which inspired a craze of interactive, midnight movie screenings where members of the audience dress up as any of the garish and trashy characters and sing along with the music.
Sometimes a cult film will break out of its small fanbase and hit the mainstream. Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life didn't become popular until many years after its initial release. Repeated television showings during the Christmas season, however, have become a holiday tradition.
Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and Frances Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now are all considered to be classics of modern cinema today, yet were all largely ignored by audiences at the time of their release.
Most cult films don't fare that well, though I can't say that bothers anyone. Their unpopularity is generally considered to be a part of their charm. They're strange beasts, these cult films, and their appeal is hard to pin down. They're often very flawed films in one way or another, yet they strike a passionate chord with specific audiences, and their flaws, strangely, become endearing to their fans. Outsiders just don't "get it".
This doesn't just apply to movies either. Many authors don't become popular until after their deaths (Kafka, Lovecraft) and many works are initially shunned, but eventually pick up that devoted cult following through word of mouth and interactive fun and games. The Lord of the Rings was massively unpopular when it was published, but a small but extremely devoted fanbase grew, and it wasn't too long until people were creating role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons based in part on Tolkien's enormously imaginative universe. D&D itself garnered a cult following of its own, as has role-playing in its own right. Lord of the Rings is now immensely popular, and its stunningly brilliant movie adaptations by cult filmmaker Peter Jackson (known for his disgusting work in Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive, among others) which have met with both popular and critical success.
One of my favorite cult films is the cheesy 1979 horror flick, Phantasm. Several years ago, as I first began to explore internet communities, I realized that I needed a "handle," as it was called. I was watching said horror flick almost every day at the time, so I chose tallman as my handle, despite the fact that I do not resemble the nefarious Tall Man present in the Phantasm films (and that, uh, I'm not tall). It is inexplicably one of my favorite films of all time, and it is a dreadful movie. The effects are awful, the acting is often laughable, and the plot is incoherent at times (especially the ending). But I still love the film; I cherish the creepy, surreal atmosphere and to this day, the Tall Man haunts my dreams (nightmares, actually). The bad effects and acting make me laugh, but there are some genuinely brilliant moments in the film, and the unreality of the ending actually serves to heighten the tension of the film, providing an eerie ambiguity that lasts long after viewing the film. The film has its moments of brilliance as well. The score is especially haunting, and the mortuary sets, when combined with director (and producer, and writer, and cinematographer, and editor, and did I mention that cult filmmakers are often fiercely independent?) Don Coscarelli's talented visual style, are stunningly effective.
Like many cult films, it has become a cinematically important film, sparking the rise of surreality in many horror films from the 1980's (most notably A Nightmare on Elm Street, which lifted the ending almost verbatim).
Another favorite cult hit is Sam "For Love of the Game" Raimi's (er, I guess that should be Sam "Spiderman" Raimi's) Evil Dead films, featuring the coolest B-Movie actor ever, Bruce Campbell. Raimi's inventive camera-work and Campbell's gloriously over-the-top performance make these films a joy to watch.
The reason I started this post, which has gotten completely out of hand as I've laboriously digressed into the nature of cult filmmaking (sorry 'bout that), was because of a new film, destined for cult success, in which Phantasm director Don Coscarelli and Evil Dead actor Bruce Campbell join forces.
The new film is called Bubba Ho-Tep, it looks like a doozy. Based on a short story by cult author Joe R. Lansdale, tells the "true" story of what became of Elvis Presley (he didn't die on a toilet) and JFK (he didn't die in Dallas). Oh, did I mention that JFK is now black (THEY dyed him that color; the conspiracy theorists should love that)? We find this unlikely duo in an East Texas rest home which has become the target of an evil Egyptian entity ("Some sorta... Bubba Ho-Tep," as Campbell's Elvis opines). Naturally, the two old coots aren't going to just let Bubba Ho-Tep run hog-wild through their peaceful nursing home, and so they rush forward on their walkers and their wheel chairs to save the day. Its got that mix of the absurd that just screams cult film.
The trailer is great, and it features some of those trademark Coscarelli visuals (which I never realized he had before, but he does. Its tempting to throw out the term Auteur, but I'm way too subjective when it comes to Coscarelli), music that sounds suspiciously like the Phantasm theme, and Campbell's typically cheeky delivery (including Elvis-fu, complete with cheesy sound effects). I can't wait to see this film. Alas, it doesn't look like its coming to Philly very soon, but I'm hoping it will eventually make its way over here so that I can partake of it in all its B-Movie glory. The King lives!