Cult Cinema & Ed Wood Jr.
What is Cult Cinema?
Genre and cinema are one with each other as film genres are generally used as the way in which we can classify a film. Once a film is classified under specific genre it is quite easy to expect certain nuances, I.e. When watching a western you expect guns, hats and landscape shots. These nuances are what allow us to characterize a film as we are able to pick out common place aspects that can be found in films of a similar nature, and genre.
Unlike these easily characterized genres, the “cult” genre cannot be defined based on specific details. Defining cult cinema is not an easy task, but one could start by looking at the name itself. What is “cult” and how does it relate to film?
In the dictionary the word “Cult” is defined as “a person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society”. When taking this definition into account one can clearly see that cult cinema is branded “cult” solely based on the devoted following of fans that each of the films acquire. The cult film website Cultographies sets the notion that “Highly committed and rebellious in their appreciation, cult audiences are frequently at odds with cultural conventions – they prefer strange topics and allegorical themes that rub against cultural sensitivities and resist dominant politics.” This notion is true for many cult films as one can see that the themes attracting these audiences are usually completely un-conventional.
“Cult films transgress common notions of good and bad taste, and they challenge genre conventions and coherent storytelling.” (Cultographies.com). The blurred line between what is good and what is bad is one of the aspects that attracts such large audiences to these usually terrible films.
Unlike other genres it is difficult to place one sole definition on cult cinema. Cult films are really only characterized based on their active and live allegiant followings. In order to classify a film as being cult one would have to not only look at the notions of what makes a film cult but would also have to view it in terms of the following of fans it has. Many films today that are considered cult have widespread fan bases that pass through generations. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, Sharman) is an example of one such film as its fan base has passed down through generations, and has transcended beyond time as it has remained as one of the most popular cult films of all time
How can we define a cult film as being “cult”?
Many films are classified in their specific genres by using a checklist of nuances and aspects that the film must contain. One could possibly say that to make a film “Cult” it would have to meet certain checkpoints. The Bright Lights Film Journal created a checklist in which we could use to classify a film as being cult, through looking at the content, sales, and following of each film;
- Marginality – The content of the film must fall outside the cultural norms of society.
E.g. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, Sharman)
- Suppression – The film is subject to ridicule, lawsuit and is excluded due to its content.
A Clockwork Orange (1971, Kubrick) is an example of this as the film suffered from much rejection based on the violent and disturbing images contained in the film. During release in the 1970’s Kubrick himself attempted to exclude the film from British release as he himself believed that the images in the film were too shocking for certain audiences. After its release in the United Kingdom, the film was linked to many cases involving murder and violent crimes which made the viewing of the film almost impossible until Kubrick’s death in 1999 when the film was re-released to cinemas and on VHS.
- Economics – Film does not succeed in the box office but eventually becomes profitable after its release on VHS/DVD.
E.g. Fight Club (1999, Fincher) is a perfect example of this as initially it was seen as a major box office flop. It wasn’t until its life on VHS/DVD that it saw a return. With a budget of $63 million, and a mere return in box office sales of $37 million, the film only made a profit later when it saw over $100 million in video sales.
- Transgression – When the film breaks cultural rules; i.e. moral, legal and religious. E.g. Freaks (1932, Browning) is an example of a film that “breaks rules” as many film critics and audiences believed that the film broke moral standards as it “preyed” on the real-life deformities of the actors playing the “freaks”. Apparently the original cut of the film is so extreme and explicit that today there is no copy of it to be found.
- Cult Following – The film gains a devoted minority of society as an audience.
E.g. It is clear to see that many films today gain large audiences with the majority of films being parts of larger franchises, I.e. Star Wars, yet films like these are considered as major parts of “Pop Culture” which in itself stops them from being considered “cult”. An example of a film that has gained a large cult following is The Big Lebowski (1998, Coen). This films devoted audience has grown largely over the last decade with a yearly festival being set up in its honor.
- Community – The films following/audience becomes a self-identifiable group.
E.g. The Rocky Horror Picture Show can be seen as a perfect example under many of the headings for the checklist. This film has become a phenomenon as it has generated more and more fans throughout the decades. This group has become so large that the fans have formed somewhat of a community as they have become self-recognizable.
- Quotation – Dialogue and speech from the film becomes common place and part of everyday language.
E.g. Many films today become popular based on that one whole important line, the line that passes down through generations and becomes a part of our everyday language.
“My momma always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”- Forrest Gump (1994, Zemeckis)
- Iconography – A face or character from the film gets established or revived as a cult icon.
E.g. Many film icons today were established through being “cult”. Characters such as Michael Myers (Halloween, Carpenter, 1978) today are seen as famous faces from film as their characters are thrust upon mainstream culture.
One can see that through using this checklist that the characterization process can be made a lot simpler. Using this checklist one could identify which cult films are in a sense more “cult” then others based on the amount of checkpoints that the film meets.
Using this checklist on any film can allow us to decide whether a film is “cult” or not. It can be quite an arduous task to classify a film as there are many films that blur between the lines of genre. Although a film like Star Wars may meet many of the criteria, in that it has a large following of devoted self-recognizable fans, its content and storyline falls outside cultural norms, and that quotation from the film becomes part of everyday language it cannot be characterized as “cult” as Star Wars and its franchise has spread beyond pop culture and is not as marginalized as required.
Once a film has become such a large part of everyday life and culture it can no longer really be seen as a true cult film as the whole point of a film being “cult” is that it is, to a large extent, marginalized.
Ed Wood Jr.
In film, many directors are synonymous with specific genres in which they tend to stick to. Film makers such as John Ford, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino are often attached to specific genres as they continuously make and release films that are often related to each other and their individual genres. I.e. John Ford is seen as being one of the most prominent film makers of all time, particularly in the genre of the Western, with films such as The Searchers (1956), and Stagecoach (1939) he is seen as on the most “western” filmmakers in this specific genre. This is true for many filmmakers as often they are attached to definitive genres. One filmmaker that can be seen as a prominent figure in the “Cult” genre is Ed Wood Jr.
Ed Wood Jr., director, actor, novelist, screen-writer, and producer is seen as one of the most “cult” film makers of all time, with films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), and Glen or Glenda (1953) pushing his work to the foreground of the cult genre.
Critics today often say that Wood made every mistake possible when making his films and is truly seen as one of the worst filmmakers of all time, even winning a “Golden Turkey” with the exact title.
From the beginning many have critiqued him in saying that from birth he was bound to make mistakes in his career. In the biography “Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.” (1994, Grey, R.) On Wood, Grey alluded that part of the reason for Wood’s transvestism was due to the fact that his parents were “hoping for a girl”, thus dressed him in girl’s clothing. “If you’re dressed up in little girls’ clothes at the age of five you really don’t have much choice in what happens afterwards.” (Wood, 1949)
Wood’s first film, The Sun Was Setting (1951) was released with his first directing credit accompanied by a writing credit alongside Ben Brody. This television short gave him his first piece of recognition leading to the large audience of devoted fans he acquired with the release of his first full length feature Glen or Glenda (1953).
Glen or Glenda (1953), other than Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) is seen as one of his most recognizable films to note. The film centers around two stories; one of a transvestite (Glen or Glenda) and that of a pseudo hermaphrodite (Alan or Anne). Wood himself was cast in the role of Glen or Glenda, under which he was credited under the pseudonym Daniel Davis. It is said that Wood cast himself in the role as the first story based around Glen or Glenda was in relation to his own cross dressing. This heartfelt introduction of Wood to the big screen truly shows his film “genius” as one could argue that his un-intentional comedy, is comedy gold. Although the film is characterized as a drama in terms of genre one can see that Wood was inspired by a mix of several genres, making this film a true “Cult Classic”.
Although many see Wood’s films as being comical of sorts, it is said that this was not the intention of the filmmaker, as he wanted to be taken seriously by both audiences and other filmmakers. Wood’s use of stock footage truly adds to the comedic aspect of his films as anyone watching them can clearly see that the misplaced and over use of them adds to the cluttered style of his films. Glen or Glenda is a good example of his over use of stock footage as the film contains over fourteen minutes’ worth.
When searching for “Cult” films, Plan 9 from Outer Space is often one of the first films to appear. This is notably Woods most famous film as it is seen as a cult classic and has one of the largest dedicated audiences of any cult film. “The epitome of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, Plan 9 from Outer Space is an unintentionally hilarious sci-fi ‘thriller’ from anti-genius Ed Wood that is justly celebrated for its staggering ineptitude” (Rotten Tomatoes).Although it flopped during its initial release Plan 9 from Outer Space later gained its cult following in the 1980’s when Michael Medved declared it “the worst film ever made” in his book The Golden Turkey Awards (Medved, M., 1980)
If one were to take Woods’ Plan 9 and compare it against other cult films using the checklist created by Bright Lights Film Journal, it would clearly show that compared to other cult films of its time, Plan 9 from Outer Space is one of the biggest “cult” films of all time.
Although Wood’s films from the 50’s gained large audiences many of his films from the 60’s and 70’s were seen as exploitative and did not gain “cult” recognition. Later in his career he released many exploitative and pornographic films, E.g. Take it out and Trade (1970) & Orgy of the Dead (1965) that did not gain him the “Orson Welles status” he had always wished for.
When looking at Wood’s long career one can see that his terrible filmmaking makes him one of the best cult filmmakers of all time, as he gained the one thing that truly matters in the cult genre; devoted followers. Even after such terrible exploitation films, such as Orgy of the Dead, Woods’ fan base continued to grow as his filmmaking was appreciated for its “so bad-its good” quality.
Since Woods’ death in 1978 his legacy has lived on as many people still play homage to him to this day with a festival even being put in place in 1997, The Ed Wood Film Festival. In 1994 with the release of the Tim Burton film Ed Wood, Woods films were brought back to the forefront of cult cinema as people were once again reminded of the ridiculous yet genius films of the filmmaker.
Through looking at Woods’ career one can say truly that he is and always will be synonymous with the cult genre as nothing makes a cult film anymore “cult” than a terrible one.
“One is always considered mad when one perfects something that others cannot grasp” – Ed Wood
Medved, M. Et al, (1980), The Golden Turkey Awards, United States, Berkley
Grey, R. (1994), Ed Wood: Nightmare of Ecstasy (The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.), United States, Feral House.
Barker, M. Et al, (N.D), Cultographies’ Definition of Cult Cinema, Cultographies, Retrieved on 17/4/2016 from http://www.cultographies.com/definition.shtml
Baker, B, D., (July 31 2010), What is Cult Cinema? A Checklist, Bright Lights Film Journal, Retrieved 17/4/2016 from http://brightlightsfilm.com/what-is-cult-cinema-a-checklist/#.VxUV7PkrLIU
White, M. (Producer) & Sharman, J. (Director), (1975), The Rocky Horror Picture Show [Motion picture], UK & USA, Michael White Productions
Kubrick, S., (Producer & Director), (1971), A Clockwork Orange [Motion picture], UK & USA, Polaris Productions & Hawk Films
Linson, A. Et Al (Producers) & Fincher, D. (Director), (1999), Fight Club [Motion picture], USA & Germany, Fox 2000 Pictures, Regency Enterprises & Linson Films
Browning, T. (Producer & Director), (1932), Freaks [Motion picture], USA, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.
Coen, E. (Producer) & Coen, J. (Director), (1998), The Big Lebowski [Motion Picture], USA, Working Title Film & PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Finnerman, W. (Producer) & Zemeckis, R. (Director), (1994), Forrest Gump [Motion picture], USA, Paramount Pictures
Hill, D. (Producer) & Carpenter, J. (Director), (1978), Halloween [Motion picture], USA, Falcon International Productions
Whitney, V, C. (Producer) & Ford, J. (Director), (1956), The Searchers [Motion picture], USA, C. V Whitney Pictures
Wanger, W. (Producer) & Ford, J. (Director), (1939), Stagecoach [Motion picture], USA, Walter Wanger Productions
Wood, E. (Producer & Director), (1959), Plan 9 from Outer Space [Motion picture], USA, Reynolds Pictures Inc.
Weiss, G. (Producer) & Wood, E. (Director), (1953), Glen or Glenda [Motion picture], USA, Screen Classics
Bowren, M, Et al (Producers) & Wood, E. (Director), (1951), The Sun was Setting [TV Short], USA, Empire Productions
Ashdown, E. Et al (Producers) & Wood, E. (Director), (1970), Take it out and Trade [Motion picture], USA, Ashdown-Gonzalez Productions
Stephen, A, C. (Producer & Director), (1965), Orgy of the Dead [Motion Picture], USA, Crown International Pictures
Burton, T. (Producer & Director), (1994), Ed Wood [Motion Picture], USA, Touchstone Pictures &
Burton/Di Novi Productions