I struggled with this question when I wrote a short book on the film This Is Spinal Tap
, because that movie didn't seem to jibe with any of the prevailing theories about the nature of film cultishness. It isn't beloved by only a small, devoted audience; it doesn't contain esoterica graspable only by those "in the know"; it is certainly not "so bad, it's good"; it does not court controversy; it is not a "lost treasure," rediscovered by fans after failing to receive its due in its original release. But I think few film lovers would deny that This Is Spinal Tap
is indeed a cult film.
Ultimately, I concluded, rather plainly, that a cult film is simply one that, for any number of reasons, attracts a devoted following. Furthermore, the term "cult" implies no particular scale: A film's cult may be small (like that of, say, the oddball semi-satire The Wizard of Speed and Time
) or large (I see no reason why we can't call films in the Star Wars
series "cult films"; same for The Lord of the Rings
movies, and even for beloved classics like Casablanca)
. All of these films have inspired devotion in a certain segment of their audiences in ways that movies such as, say, 27 Dresses
do not. Cult films, it seems to me, can achieve that status in any number of ways. If they strike the right note with their audiences, they're in the club. A few weeks ago, I saw, for the first time since approximately 1990, one of the definitive cult films of the 1980s: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
. This film, in a word, sucks. I thought so when I was in high school and I still think so now. That is not, in itself, a problem for its cult status, as there are lots of sucky films that have achieved that mantle: the oft-trotted-out Plan 9 from Outer Space
, the MST3K-bolstered Manos: The Hands of Fate
, the marvelously daft Troll 2
. The weird thing about the cult of Buckaroo Banzai
is that the members of that cult seem to me to have granted the film cult status for all the wrong reasons.