"So bad it's good"
The critic Michael Medved characterized examples of the "so bad it's good" class of low-budget cult film through books such as The Golden Turkey Awards. These films include financially fruitless and critically scorned films that have become inadvertent comedies to film buffs, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and The Room (2003). Similarly, Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) bombed in theaters but developed a cult following on video. Catching on, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer capitalized on the film's ironic appeal and marketed it as a cult film. Sometimes fans will impose their own interpretation of films which have attracted derision, such as reinterpreting an earnest melodrama as a comedy.:212 Jacob deNobel of the Carroll County Times states that films can be perceived as nonsensical or inept when audiences misunderstand avant-garde filmmaking or misinterpret parody. Films such as Rocky Horror can be misinterpreted as "weird for weirdness' sake" by people unfamiliar with the cult films that it parodies. deNobel ultimately rejects the use of the label "so bad it's good" as mean-spirited and often misapplied. Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has further said that any film which succeeds in entertaining an audience is good, regardless of irony. The rise of the Internet and on-demand films has led critics to question whether "so bad it's good" films have a future now that people have such diverse options in both availability and catalog, though fans eager to experience the worst films ever made can lead to lucrative showings for local theaters and merchandisers.
Camp and guilty pleasures
Chuck Kleinhans states that the difference between a guilty pleasure and a cult film can be as simple as the number of fans; David Church raises the question of how many people it takes to form a cult following, especially now that home video makes fans difficult to count. As these cult films become more popular, they can bring varied responses from fans that depend on different interpretations, such as camp, irony, genuine affection, or combinations thereof. Earnest fans, who recognize and accept the film's faults, can make minor celebrities of the film's cast, though the benefits are not always clear. Cult film stars known for their camp can inject subtle parody or signal when films should not be taken seriously. Campy actors can also provide comic book supervillains for serious, artistic-minded films. This can draw fan acclaim and obsession more readily than subtle, method-inspired acting. Mark Chalon Smith of the Los Angeles Times says technical faults may be forgiven if a film makes up for them in other areas, such as camp or transgressive content. Smith states that the early films of John Waters are amateurish and less influential than claimed, but Waters' outrageous vision cements his place in cult cinema. Films such as Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) can experience critical reappraisal later, once their camp excess and avant-garde filmmaking are better accepted, and films that are initially dismissed as frivolous are often reassessed as campy. Films that intentionally try to appeal to fans of camp may end up alienating them, as the films become perceived as trying too hard or not authentic.
According to academic Brigid Cherry, nostalgia "is a strong element of certain kinds of cult appeal." When Veoh added many cult films to their site, they cited nostalgia as a factor for their popularity. Academic I. Q. Hunter describes cult films as "New Hollywood in extremis" and a form of nostalgia for that period. Ernest Mathijs instead states that cult films use nostalgia as a form of resistance against progress and capitalistic ideas of a time-based economy. By virtue of the time travel plot, Back to the Future permits nostalgia for both the 1950s and 1980s. Many members of its nostalgic cult following are too young to have been alive during those periods, which Emma Pett interprets as fondness for retro aesthetics, nostalgia for when they saw the film rather than when it was released, and looking to the past to find a better time period. Similarly, films directed by John Hughes have taken hold in midnight movie venues, trading off of nostalgia for the 1980s and an ironic appreciation for their optimism. Mathijs and Sexton describe Grease (1978) as a film nostalgic about an imagined past that has acquired a nostalgic cult following. Other cult films, such as Streets of Fire (1984), create a new fictional world based on nostalgic views of the past. Cult films may also subvert nostalgia, such as The Big Lebowski, which introduces many nostalgic elements and then reveals them as fake and hollow. Nathan Lee of the New York Sun identifies the retro aesthetic and nostalgic pastiche in films such as Donnie Darko as factors in its popularity among midnight movie crowds.
Author Tomas Crowder-Taraborrelli describes midnight movies as a reaction against the political and cultural conservatism in America,:27 and Joan Hawkins identifies the movement as running the gamut from anarchist to libertarian, united in their anti-establishment attitude and punk aesthetic.:223 These films are resistant to simple categorization and are defined by the fanaticism and ritualistic behaviors of their audiences. Midnight movies require a night life and an audience willing to invest themselves actively.:27–30 Hawkins states that these films took a rather bleak point of view due to the living conditions of the artists and the economic prospects of the 1970s. Like the surrealists and dadaists, they not only satirically attacked society but also the very structure of film – a counter-cinema that deconstructs narrative and traditional processes.:224–226 In the late 1980s and 1990s, midnight movies transitioned from underground showings to home video viewings; eventually, a desire for community brought a resurgence, and The Big Lebowski kick-started a new generation. Demographics shifted, and more hip and mainstream audiences were drawn to them. Although studios expressed skepticism, large audiences were drawn to box office flops, such as Donnie Darko (2001), The Warriors (film) (1979) and Office Space (1999). Modern midnight movies retain their popularity and have been strongly diverging from mainstream films shown at midnight. Mainstream cinemas, eager to disassociate themselves from negative associations and increase profits, have begun abandoning midnight screenings. Although classic midnight movies have dropped off in popularity, they still bring reliable crowds.
Art and exploitation
Although seemingly at odds with each other, art and exploitation films are frequently treated as equal and interchangeable in cult fandom, listed alongside each other and described in similar terms: their ability to provoke a response. The most exploitative aspects of art films are thus played up and their academic recognition ignored. This flattening of culture follows the popularity of post-structuralism, which rejects a hierarchy of artistic merit and equates exploitation and art.:202–203 Mathijs and Sexton state that although cult films are not synonymous with exploitation, as is occasionally assumed, this is a key component; they write that exploitation, which exists on the fringes of the mainstream and deals with taboo subjects, is well-suited for cult followings. Academic David Andrews writes that cult softcore films are "the most masculinized, youth-oriented, populist, and openly pornographic softcore area." The sexploitation films of Russ Meyer were among the first to abandon all hypocritical pretenses of morality and were technically proficient enough to gain a cult following. His persistent vision saw him received as an auteur worthy of academic study; director John Waters attributes this to Meyer's ability to create complicated, sexually charged films without resorting to explicit sex.:5–7,14 Myrna Oliver described Doris Wishman's exploitation films as "crass, coarse, and camp ... perfect fodder for a cult following." "Sick films", the most disturbing and graphically transgressive films, have their own distinct cult following; these films transcend their roots in exploitation, horror, and art films. In 1960s and 1970s America, exploitation and art films shared audiences and marketing, especially in New York City's grindhouse cinemas.:219–220
B and genre films
Mathijs and Sexton state that genre is an important part of cult films; cult films will often mix, mock, or exaggerate the tropes associated with traditional genres. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are known for their large and dedicated cult followings; as science fiction films become more popular, fans emphasize non-mainstream and less commercial aspects of it. B films, which are often conflated with exploitation, are as important to cult films as exploitation. Teodor Reljic of Malta Today states that cult B films are a realistic goal for Malta's burgeoning film industry. Genre films, B films that strictly adhere to genre limitations, can appeal to cult film fans: given their transgressive excesses, horror films are likely to become to cult films;:33 films like Galaxy Quest (1999) highlight the importance of cult followings and fandom to science fiction; and authentic martial arts skills in Hong Kong action films can drive them to become cult favorites.:157–159 Cult musicals can range from the traditional, such as Singin' in the Rain (1952), which appeal to cult audiences through nostalgia, camp, and spectacle, to the more non-traditional, such as Cry-Baby (1990), which parodies musicals, and Rocky Horror, which uses a rock soundtrack. Romantic fairy tale The Princess Bride (1987) failed to attract audiences in its original release, as the studio did not know how to market it. The freedom and excitement associated with cars can be an important part of drawing cult film fans to genre films, and they can signify action and danger with more ambiguity than a gun. Ad Week writes that cult B films, when released on home video, market themselves and need only enough advertising to raise curiosity or nostalgia.
Animation can provide wide open vistas for stories; the French film Fantastic Planet (1972) explored ideas beyond the limits of traditional, live-action science fiction films. Phil Hoad of The Guardian identifies Akira (1988) as introducing violent, adult Japanese animation (known as anime) to the West and paving the way for later works. Anime, according to academic Brian Ruh, is not a cult genre, but the lack of individual fandoms inside anime fandom itself lends itself to a bleeding over of cult attention and can help spread works internationally. Anime, which is often highly franchised, provides its fans with alternative fictional canons and points of view that can drive fan activity. The Ghost in the Shell franchise, for example, provided Japanese fans with enough bonus material and spinoffs that it encouraged cult tendencies. Markets that did not support the sale of these materials saw less cult activity. Ralph Bakshi's career has been marked with controversy: Fritz the Cat (1972), the first animated film to be rated "X" by the MPAA, provoked outrage for its racial caricatures and graphic depictions of sex, and Coonskin (1975) was decried as racist. Bakshi recalls that older animators had tired of "kid stuff" and desired edgier work, whereas younger animators hated his work for "destroying the Disney images". Eventually, his work would be reassessed and cult followings, which include Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, developed around several of his films. Heavy Metal (1981) faced similar denunciations from critics; Donald Liebenson of the Los Angeles Times cites the violence and sexual imagery as alienating critics, who did not know what to make of the film. It would go on to become a popular midnight movie and frequently bootlegged by fans, as licensing issues kept it from being released on video for many years.
Sensationalistic documentaries called mondo films replicate the most shocking and transgressive elements of exploitation films; they are usually modeled after "sick films" and cover similar subject matter. In The Cult Film Reader, academics Mathijs and Mendik write that these documentaries often present non-Western societies as "stereotypically mysterious, seductive, immoral, deceptive, barbaric or savage". Though they can be interpreted as racist, Mathijs and Mendik state that they also "exhibit a liberal attitude towards the breaking of cultural taboos". Mondo films like Faces of Death mix real and fake footage freely, and they gain their cult following through the outrage and debate over authenticity that results. Like "so bad it's good" cult films, old propaganda and government hygiene films may be enjoyed ironically by more modern audiences for the camp value of the outdated themes and outlandish claims made about perceived social threats, such as drug use. Academic Barry K. Grant states that Frank Capra's Why We Fight World War II propaganda films are explicitly not cult, because they are "slickly made and have proven their ability to persuade an audience." The Mr. B Natural became a cult hit when it was broadcast on the satirical television show Mystery Science Theater 3000; cast member Trace Beaulieu cited these educational shorts as his favorite to mock on the show. Mark Jancovich states that cult audiences are drawn to these films because of their "very banality or incoherence of their political positions", unlike traditional cult films, which achieve popularity through auteurist radicalism.