Cult Movies in the Internet Age

Recently on Twitter, Dan McLaughlin asked: what would you regard as cult classic films made after 2000? As Sonny Bunch notes, this very much depends on how you define “cult” films. As it turns out, I’ve written about this before:

Cult films are (generally) commercially unsuccessful movies that have limited appeal, but nevertheless attract a fiercely loyal following among fans over time. They often exhibit very strange characters, surreal settings, bizzarre plotting, dark humor, and otherwise quirky and eccentric characteristics. These obscure films often cross genres (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc…) and are highly stylized, straying from conventional filmmaking techniques. Many are made by fiercely independent maverick filmmakers with a very low budget (read: cheesy), often showcasing the performance of talented newcomers.

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.

Not a bad explanation, but the whole thing is still a bit subjective. Sonny observes that modern cult movies have an additional obstacle:

In our modern, hyperconnected age, however, a key component of “cult” is lost. If you’ve heard of a film, you can see it. It’s on TV and if it’s not on TV it’s on a streaming service and if it’s not on a streaming service it’s on DVD and if it’s not on DVD you can probably torrent it. That element of discovery, of being in on something no one else is in on, is lost.

In many ways, the cult classic has been replaced by what I like to call the cable classic: There is a certain class of film that was lightly attended in theaters and derided by critics only to find a huge audience on cable and DVD. Zoolander is probably my favorite example of this phenomenon: Zoolander has gone on to find a huge audience in home viewings, is highly quotable (a key component to any “cable classic”), and is constantly the subject of sequel rumors.

He’s very right about how connectivity plays into this. A big part of why something would be considered cult was that you really had to work just to get a chance to see it. For example, nowadays everyone knows about the 80s and 90s Hong Kong action movie scene (and even if you haven’t directly seen them, you’ve seen a million Hollywood movies influenced or just plain ripping off those movies). But back in the 90s, a buddy and I used to ride the train into Philly and skulk around Chinatown trying to find crappy bootleg VHS tapes of movies we were never quite sure what to make of… I mean, the internet existed and it didn’t take long to figure out who John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat were, but who’s this Tsui Hark guy? Ringo Lam? Johnny To? What the heck is Wu Xia Pian? It’s not like we had iPhones and internet connections. We just saw a poorly labeled VHS with a title on it and took a chance. We ran into our fair share of duds that way, but more often than not, we found some fascinating stuff.

Nowadays? You just throw Full Contact into your Netflix Instant queue and marvel at the bullet-cam shots, all from the comfort of your couch.

Of course all the other elements of cult still apply. The quirky, non-mainstream sensibility, the passionately loyal fanbase, the obsessive analysis and debate on the internet. Of course, even that element has been eroded by our connected age. Lost fanatics were endlessly analyzing numerology or recording episodes and going over them frame by frame like they were the Zapruder film. These are cult movie tendencies gone mainstream.

And indeed, cult movies don’t always stay cult. No one would consider It’s a Wonderful Life a cult classic these days, but despite it’s pedegree, it had a lackluster release and languished in obscurity for decades. It wasn’t until some observant TV execs noticed that its copyright had expired without being renewed that it started to become mainstream (and how could it not – apparently multiple stations would air that thing repeatedly during the holiday season). This might give another clue as to why the internet is breaking down cult movies: on the interwebs, no one gives a crap about copyright!

Anywho, we should probably get to the meat of the question. As a working definition, I’ll say that a movie must enjoy a certain degree of obscurity as well as a small but fiercely loyal and dedicated fanbase (as evidenced by large-scale public demonstrations, obsessive analyses, comprehensive wikis, etc…) I’ll start with Sonny’s first batch of suggested post-2000 cult movies:

  • Requiem for a Dream – This is a tough one. One reason it did so poorly at the box office was that Aronofsky refused to cut the film when the MPAA gave it an NC-17, instead releasing it as just an “unrated” movie (which would effectively doom any movie, as the big theater chains would never exhibit those movies). On the other hand, as Sonny notes, this movie is a mainstay on “brilliant films I never want to see again” lists that are constantly being compiled by internet nerds. To me, this is borderline cult. There’s enough here that there are probably people watching it on a dare, which is kinda cultish, but on the other hand, you don’t see a lot of people obsessing over this one film and going over it frame by frame like you do with some other movies…
  • Pootie Tang – This is an interesting choice. The only reason this is even known about is that it was written and directed by Louis C.K., whose star has been on the rise the past few years. Lots of people obsessed with his TV show are thus seeking this out. I think it still remains to be seen if this congeals into an enduring cult classic, but it’s got potential.
  • Black Dynamite – I certainly do love this movie, and it ticks that obscurity card well enough. My question is just how obsessive its fans are. I really don’t know the answer to that, though it’s worth noting that there’s an Adult Swim animated series that might be an indicator. Of what, I’m not sure!
  • Hard Candy – I’m really not sure about this one. I liked the movie enough to put it on my top 10 list that year, but is it really cult? It’s certainly obscure, but I don’t see a lot of passionate public discussion on this movie. But who knows? Maybe teen girls all put on their red hoodies and organize viewing parties on college campuses or something.
  • Idiocracy – This is definitely what Sonny calls a “cable classic”. For whatever reason, the studio only did a half-hearted theatrical release, but people in love with Office Space sought this out on DVD, and it’s gradually gained a big following, to the point where most people know what you’re talking about. Perhaps not a cult classic due to the trappings of the information age, but pretty close.
  • Oldboy – As Sonny mentions, this is a bit of a cheat because it’s foreign. However, in the film nerd community, there is a pretty slavish dedication to the Korean film scene in recent years. Unfortunately, the ease of access to this movie kinda deflates its cultish tendencies. You don’t see college kids trolling around, er, Koreatown(?) looking for bootlegged copies anymore.
  • The Room – This is the only pure, undadulterated cult classic in this post. Along with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this movie is the poster child of cult movies.

One of the things that’s tough about this is that I feel like cult movies take a while to establish themselves, and these movies have only been around a few years. They need time for people to discover and subsequently obsess over them. That’s why, even in the above list, most of the movies are from before 2005. With the exception of The Room, I don’t think that any of them are sure bets, but they’ve all got a certain potential. Here’s some others that have come up in this discussion, or that I just want to talk about:

  • Firefly (and I guess Serenity) – I’m not entirely sure this meets the “obscure” criteria, though I will say that it is almost definitely not appreciated by a mainstream audience, which kinda does earn it some cult cred. Plus, the fanbase that does exist for this is the very definition of cult. Small, passionate, and obsessed. Not only do the fans have a name for themselves (Browncoats), but they are still, a decade later, obsessing over the short-lived, 14 episode series. Even the original Star Trek had 3 (long, 25+ episode) seasons for fans to sink their teeth into. But these Browcoats almost make those Trekkers look like mainstream folk. To this day, there are multiple podcasts dedicated to the show that have been running for years. Think about that. A series that was cancelled after just 11 episodes (3 were unaired) has inspired multiple people to prattle on and on about the show for almost a decade now. What the heck are they still talking about? I don’t really know, but this is pretty cultish! And that’s before we get into the way they try to incorporate Firefly lingo into their speech (“Shiny!” or “‘verse” and probably lots of others) or tediously transcribing and translating all the Chinese language lines in the episodes. The list goes on. Cult classic, right here.
  • Primer – This ultra-low budget, twisty time travel tale is obscure enough to qualify, and the lengths to which fans go to understand the narrative (and all its timelines) is impressively cultish. A solid choice.

There are a lot of other movies that I think have potential, but which haven’t quite attracted the right level of obsessiveness to really qualify as cult (like Rian Johnson’s Brick and The Brothers Bloom).

In the end, I agree that the internet is a bit of a game changer for cult movies. The internet trends towards the Long Tail and ever-smaller niches (not just in entertainment), which are traditionally the domain of things like cult movies or other underground scenes. Of course, none of this is going away, it’s just changing. In accordance with Kaedrin law, I will end with an appropos Neal Stephenson quote from The System of the World:

“It has been my view for some years that a new System of the World is being created around us. I used to suppose that it would drive out and annihilate any older Systems. But things I have seen recently … have convinced me that new Systems never replace old ones, but only surround and encapsulate them, even as, under a microscope, we may see that living within our bodies are animalcules, smaller and simpler than us, and yet thriving even as we thrive.”

2 thoughts on “Cult Movies in the Internet Age”


    There are definitely more modern cult classics out there. Consider “Birdemic,” for instance. That’s a one without a doubt, and it’s as recent as 2010. “Thankskilling” from 2009 comes to mind as well. Odd that both films would be about killer birds, now that I think about it.

    It’s possible that, as a member of the 80s and 90s “cult” audience, you’re no longer at the forefront of what is kitschy and ironic. You might need to find a hipster Bagger Vance-type character to help you get your groove back.

    Either way, I get the argument that you’re making. It is much easier today to find any given film, but I hope you don’t think that devalues the experience of watching them somehow. Delivery systems are just a way of getting the media to you–best to just enjoy the convenience than lament the days of searching through VHS bootlegs. The bootlegs never went away, anyway–they just changed into torrent files.

  2. Ohhhh, Birdemic! Yes! I completely spaced on that one. Excellent choice. Thankskilling has been in my Netflix Instant queue for a while, but I had no idea there was a big following for it.

    Is Legend of Bagger Vance a hipster cult movie? Maybe I am out of the loop!

    Or maybe it’s just that there are levels of cultitude or something. Like, not everything can be Rocky Horror, Eraserhead, The Room, or Birdemic. But that doesn’t make something like Brick completely non-cult.

    Oh no, I don’t think this devalues the experience of watching cult movies at all. But easy access does change some things. In a lot of ways, I feel like the internet’s tendency to break things down into smaller and smaller niches is making “cult” experience more common. Some people might take umbrage with that, but I think it’s an awesome development.

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