I guess I should define my terms a bit here.
First, I’m not talking about camp. Cult and camp can overlap, but they are two different things. Rocky Horror is camp; Troll 2 is not. Secondly, cult films are not always films that have developed viewing rituals or interactive performances, but are films that have developed a dedicated following outside of a typical critical and commercial success – films that seem to have been marginalized or disregarded in mainstream cinema practices, but found an audience despite (or because of) this institutional rejection.
Thirdly, cult films are not always “beloved ‘bad’ movies,” like Troll 2. Eraserhead has been mostly accepted as a work of considerable artistic merit, though it was a dejected stepchild in 1977. And when great bad movies are celebrated by cults, they can verge on condescending (The Room) or a combination of genuine fascination and an appreciation for the uncanny (again, The Room). It’s exactly these loose parameters that make the designation of what constitutes a “cult film” so uncertain and subject to debate.
The films that I discuss below fall variably into a special category of great bad movies that have fallen into common practices of cult appreciation – movies that are both genuinely beloved and enjoyed at the expense of perceived imperfections, a disregard for conventions of “reputable” cinema, incoherent employments of narrative logic, and/or general over-the-top-ness.
Melon-Farming Sharks in a Melon-Farming Tornado
Miami Connection seems to be an interesting limit case for the cult film because it readily overcomes aspects of the cult film’s evolutionary process. The film was shown several times through Alamo Drafthouse cinema events (via programmer Zack Carlson) until it gained enough notoriety that it was acquired for its first legitimate American distribution through Drafthouse films. Miami Connection has all the textual markers that makes it fitting company for the great bad variety, particularly because its glorious excesses and seeming displays of incompetence are manifested through such palpable sincerity. With its un-egomaniacal intentions, it’s perhaps one of the most genuine great bad films ever made.
Yet the film did not acquire a cult organically, but institutionally. Miami Connection surmounted the wide gap between near-total obscurity and potential ubiquity (the film is now available to stream on Netflix) through its legitimation by a movie theater brand uniquely equipped with a distribution arm.
It’s as if Miami Connection were a film ready-made for a certain type of cult consumption based upon the niche popularity of similar resurrected films. It’s also as if Miami Connection’s predictable appreciation no longer required the typical evolutionary path of long-term grassroots reception of cult films, but only demanded the inevitable satisfaction of an existing audience on the lookout for the next curious object that narrowly escaped obscurity. After all, there can only be so many Birdemics.
A more striking example of this practice is, of course, SyFy and The Asylum’s Sharknado, two companies whose long-term synergistic work has seemingly been made in anticipation for its surprising, yet totally calculated, success.
With titles like Transmorphers and Sherlock Holmes, The Asylum’s work essentially banks off of a presumed confusion with a more “legitimate” cinema. However, their shark narratives suggest a different practice entirely, as both a response to a strange televisual obsession (is it Shark Week yet?) and an embrace of decided, winking excess. There’s no doubt that – unlike The Room or Troll 2 or Manos, none of which were intended to be bad and all of which were discovered subsequent an initial effort/failure at legitimate success – literally everyone, including the filmmakers, was in on Sharknado’s joke.
Common wisdom – or, more specifically, Snakes on a Plane – says intentionally bad films don’t work. But what resulted in the case of Sharknado was something seemingly unprecedented: a mass simultaneous performance of initiation and ritual. On social media, everyone from Mia Farrow to Philip Roth to TPM’s Josh Marshall (and, of course, all of us) were watching Sharknado, documenting and commenting upon it along the way. The space for being initiated into a cult film ritual privately – the home television – was now the common ground for public engagement.
The crowd mentality of theater that was reduced by TV now expanded again because of Twitter.
Building a Legend
I won’t downplay the degree to which SyFy/The Asylum intended for and predicted such a response, but the fact that the bait was taken (and largely enjoyed) says a great deal about the changing grounds on which cinematic objects traditionally identified as cult might be shifting. Sure, Sharknado and, to a lesser extent, Miami Connection may not be cult films in the strict sense of the term – neither developed a cult, but instead decidedly called upon a particular audience – but they do look and sound like cult films, and can be enjoyed as such.
It’s the myth of a film’s cult status, not its reality, that matters here. We don’t actually have to believe that somebody, somewhere was meant to treat Sharknado seriously in order to enjoy it as a reckless cinematic investment. And in an age when it seems no film is secret, when exposure and renown can occur instantaneously, when anything “grassroots” is suspect, maybe the myth of cult cinema is all that matters.