So I was musing over the last couple of days once again on the nature of the appeal of what I’m (extremely) broadly defining as cult movies. I’m not explicitly looking for a Grand Unification Theory here, though I wouldn’t turn my nose up at one if it turned up. There are some easy answers, but they’re very much only partial ones.
Let’s deal with them first. Yes, there are plenty of cult films that are extraordinary works, classics by any definition, even if they tend to escape the mainstream’s notice. But these are purely and simply fine cinema, and one need not look far to see why people like these movies. After all, why wouldn’t they?
Then there’s the so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon. Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda?, Robot Monster, The Swarm, and so on and on and on. The examples, for good or ill, are legion. These are films that fail so spectacularly in their goals that they succeed just as spectacularly as a very particular brand of comedy. This is rarely a comfort for the creators or the backers, but every once in a while, a bad film becomes a huge financial success during its initial run. Thus the case of Mommie Dearest, which audiences discovered was very, very funny, and the studio smartly capitalized on that discovery.
But okay, fine, quality and comedy, those are two valid reasons. But what about the vast majority of films that don’t fall at either extreme? I am thinking particularly of the exploitation films from the sixties to the eighties, European or otherwise, that are keeping many a DVD company active and happy. Some of the titles here are so obscure, if they have a cult, said cult is likely only forming thanks to the DVD release itself. What draws us to these films? Why do so many of us develop a great love for them? Many of them aren’t that good. But they aren’t bad enough to be hilarious. Many are competent at best, mediocre at worst. And yet still they draw their viewers. Why?
A few possibilities come to mind. Nostalgia is one, whether based on actual memories or on recalled fantasies. Many collectors of about my age are old enough to remember when many of these films snuck into theatres, but would have been too young to actually see them. So if the titles of the movies bring our youth back to us, there is now finally the opportunity to screen these things. If the reality rarely lives up to the fevered imaginings of decades past, that doesn’t seem to matter very much. To say, if only to ourselves, that we have seen these movies is enough.
Another possibility concerns the actual subject matter. For anyone tired of cookie-cutter mainstream releases, these films offer a breath of fresh air. Even when they are shamelessly ripping off a bigger film (as is very often the case with Italian movies), the execution almost always has something off-kilter that gives the films their own wonky brand of originality. The clumsiness, the low budget, the dubbing, whatever element that makes these films less slick and more raw also gives them a certain honesty, even when they are at their most unapologetically sleazy.
Sometimes, honest sleaze is far more satisfying than empty showmanship.