Upon the release of the recent Movie 43, almost all of the film’s marketing focused on hyping up its ostensible cult appeal, without actually demonstrating why anyone would want to know “what is Movie 43?” (excluding from the absurdly overqualified cast). Yet just as that film came and went with abysmal reviews and awkward promotional Tumblr pages, it’s the latest of many wannabe curiosities in film that have failed to justify the cult momentum they’ve attempted to establish.
The frustrating thing is, some of these movies actually do manage to deliver a trashy good time at the cinema—the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez experiment Grindhouse both indulged in and deconstructed the kitsch of its period homage, albeit to diminishing returns from audience members that didn’t know they had paid for two whole movies. The question remains then, how do you know when these attempted cult movies actually deliver the goods?
Of course, most of your favorite cult movies didn’t come pre-packaged as midnight favorites—from the bizarre and elliptical (Donnie Darko) to the fascinatingly terrible (The Room), these are films that were rescued from oblivion by curious audiences who felt like they had genuinely discovered something, as they were. When a movie arrives already assumed of its own cult status though, some of that sense of discovery is inherently diminished.
In the case of a lot of indie titles though, the cult aspirations feel validated when genuine reverence through homage or ingenuity is demonstrated on the part of the filmmakers. Hobo with a Shotgun and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters may both have one-joke names, but the former is a legitimately clever and witty genre entry, whereas the latter is… well, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. The FP might have a premise that you would think lends itself to empty kitsch—a post-apocalyptic 8 Mile-style trailer park gang movie about lethal competitions of a Dance Dance Revolution-like game—but writers/directors/stars Brandon and Jason Trost (the former of whom doubles as a cinematographer, and shot the gloriously unhinged madness of Crank: High Voltage) demonstrate a consistent command of their distinctly homemade, ridiculous tone, with enough commitment to validate length beyond a Funny-or-Die sketch.
In the case of any cult favorite or attempted underground curiosity, a clever premise can only get you so far, but demonstrating something new with that premise, be it lovably quirky characters, unusual world-building, or a story with some kind of greater resonance, is the difference between Pulp Fiction and one of the numerous Pulp Fiction knockoff that littered the late 90s. (2 Days in the Valley, anyone?) And in the early months of the year especially, as the studios dump their dregs and independent exhibitors look for the new big thing, both the multiplex and the art-house are inundated with movies with eyes at becoming a new midnight classic. But no matter the budget, a title and premise caked in ironic mockery and WTF-wonderment should at least be the means, and not merely an end.