“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
If that line of dialogue doesn’t ring a bell, then you’re obviously not a movie cultist. Granted, by Star Wars standards, The Princess Bride, from whence the said dialogue came, is a film that barely earned enough money to buy a picnic pack of junior Mars bars, but in the 20 years or so since its original theatrical release, it has, defying all sorts of odds, managed to acquire such a massive fan following – thank you, VHS! – it recently landed at no.122 on Empire magazine’s readers’ poll of the 500 greatest movies of all time. While that in itself is an impressive showing for what the Empire editors called ‘the most widely quoted obscure film in cinema history’, even more significantly, consider some of the critical and commercial heavyweights it left eating its fairytale dust: Ben-Hur, The English Patient, Jules et Jim, Titanic, Braveheart, The Lion King, Forrest Gump, The Departed, The Wizard of Oz, Saving Private Ryan, The Silence of the Lambs, and all three Bourne films. The film’s director, Rob Reiner, mentioned on a DVD commentary that one of New York Mafioso John Gotti’s henchmen once walked up to him and quoted Inigo Montoya’s immortal introduction, nearly giving the rotund auteur a coronary. “When one of Gotti’s wiseguys is quoting your lines,” he said, “you know you’ve penetrated the culture.”
In other words, The Princess Bride is, in the true sense of the term, a cult movie.
So what turns your average well-liked, critically lauded movie into a cult piece? Well firstly, there is many a cult film that was neither liked nor lauded upon release, making it squarely an entrant in the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ category. To illustrate, let’s travel back to 1936 and the howler of an ‘educational film’ called Tell Your Children a.k.a. Reefer Madness! This panic-oia gem earnestly and without any attempt at subtlety, strove to drive home the message of the dangers of smoking ‘marihuana’ (“Is that drug – a violent narcotic – an unspeakable scourge – The Real Public Enemy Number One?!”). Depicting a bunch of good, wholesome teens who suddenly turn into wild-eyed, rampaging, sex-crazed delinquents prone to unspeakable displays of public nuisance – oh my God, they’re giggling deliriously! – as soon as they start surfing the ganja wave, this cautionary tale of hysterical proportions barely caused a blip on the Hollywood radar back in the 30s. It was kicked around old repertory movie-houses until, needless to say, it was discovered by the 1960s counter-culture generation (hippie pot-heads to the uninitiated) and quickly gained a fan following on college campuses and midnight-movie circuits, where it was celebrated for its OTT campiness, laughable premise, terrible acting and mindless construction – see the demented suicide scene where a shrieking blonde hurls herself out a high-rise window, only to have her plug-ugly stand-in cloth dummy be startingly obvious even to viewers with acute myopia.
But in the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ stakes, very few can dream of holding a light to the granddaddy of them all, the legend that is Plan 9 From Outer Space – the gloriously off-kilter and astonishingly clumsy epic from Edward D. Wood Jr. – himself often deemed to be the worst director of all time. With a bombastic plot involving aliens resurrecting dead people as zombies and vampires on earth to stop humans from developing a solar-powered bomb, coupled with a singular lack of production values (cardboard airplanes, cardboard gravestones, cardboard porches, cardboard everything), Plan 9 stands alone as a sublime curiosity, a piece of filmmaking so mind-blowingly inept as to make it all the more entertaining and endearing. Not to mention, its screamingly – and, one must assume, unintentionally – funny dialogue. A few gems:
“Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”
“Plan 9? Ah, yes. Plan 9 deals with the resurrection of the dead. Long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary gland of the recently dead.”
“Visits? That would indicate visitors.”
“This is the most fantastic story I’ve ever heard.”
“And every word of it’s true, too.”
“That’s the fantastic part of it.”
Then there are the cleavage-laden shenanigans cooked up by proudly pervy filmmaker Russ Meyer, whose hilariously titled Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) not only gave rise to a slew of karate-chicks-on-a-chopping-spree B-grade soft-porn thrillers, but also inspired, among others, Quentin Quarantino, and the video for the Spice Girls’ ‘Say you’ll be there’. It also didn’t hurt that FPKK starred Amazonian actresses with names like Tura Satana and Haji.
Some cult films fit snugly into the conventional definition of the term by being just plain weird. And there are few successfully weirder than professional weirdo David Lynch’s part-dream-part-nightmare head-scratcher, Eraserhead. A black-and-white enigma of a film filled with seemingly random, and often truly disturbing, surreal images, Lynch’s seminal work remains a puzzle that is still loved by reams of, well, eraserheads I guess.
Of course, cult films are not always by definition incompetent or odd-ball – consider the Star Wars Trilogy (the original, naurally), Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, or, yes, The Princess Bride, and the countless like them that are genuine ‘quality’ films, some of them even commercial blockbusters (defying the other definition – that of a cult film being a box-office loser). The one thing that all have in common is the fandom, and that I guess is the final factor that makes a film into a cult – the fans. Those hordes of rabid, obsessive, internet cloggers who live and breathe the films at the nucleus of their worship, who know its every minute detail, who can quote it to death, whose love and psychotic devotion will keep the film alive even after all its principals are in the ground pushing daisies. After all, that is the ultimate hallmark of a cult film isn’t it? Endurance.