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A clear and complete definition of what a cult film is does not exist. Authors have often debated what defines a cult film and even though they are still arguing that very question, only one thing is accepted: cult films, most often push the limits of what is socially correct and accepted. In fact, even across genres we can recognize this quality.

At times, cult movies can define an era by the messages that they convey. Other times they make a statement so bold that it withstands the passage of decades without ever being affected. Consequently, Taboo subjects and cult film go hand in hand. Taboos are, in fact, one of the most recognizable traits of a film that would fall under the umbrella of cult movies. We’ve had John Waters’ Pink Flamingos in the early 70s, a little later in 1983, Liquid Sky was another taboo filled movie. In reality, it would be very easy to find cult films for every decade and most of them would have an element that society considered to be taboo during that period. Along with this very free way of expressing themselves, the directors of cult films often develop a following of fans that identify themselves to their movies. It is a social phenomenon that is, still to this day, very common for certain movies.

In the 90’s for instance, we have seen the impressing expansion of social involvement and activity around the “Star Trek” saga. But not all films instigate the same type of behavior from their audience. Yet, in a very personal way, we are touched and affected by movies such as Reefer Madness (1936). This example however, is very specific to the decade in which the movie came out. Indeed, watching such movie today, will affect us in a very different way. But why is that one might ask? Simply because people’s perception of life has dramatically changed during the last 60 years. Taboos are different, society has tremendously evolved and finally the film industry has also been revolutionized many times since the mid 30s. Having said that, it is also important to remember that the majority of cult films have dealt with taboos decade after decade after decade, and some of those taboos still to this day are very factual!
Indeed, after seeing in their entirety or in clips the following three films : Frankenstein from the 1930s, as well as Freaks and Reefer Madness also of the 1930s, one idea seems to stand out more than others : one must not forget the existence of the soul and its powers! First in Frankenstein, our genius scientist engages in the quest to create life. Using science as well as numerous body parts put together, he, indeed, gives life to the body that he has assembled. Unfortunately, he chooses the wrong heart, and, his creation, even though sweet lacks sanity and soul. The monster, as it is called, becomes crazy and starts a path of inevitable destruction as it travels around town trying to understand what everything around him is. As much destruction as he may be causing, the message sent here is directed more towards Henry Frankenstein. This message is clear: life and creation are not to be underestimated! It is not talking, nor seeing, nor even our appearances that makes us humans, it is our inner soul, and without it we are only driven to catastrophe! It is worth noting that, even though written in the 30s, this topic is suddenly very actual as we are nowadays dealing with the possibilities of cloning human beings and the ethics that goes with this revolutionary science. The taboo that one is not defined by his appearance but more by his inner self is very obvious in that movie. We even have a clear imagery when the heart that is stolen to be used in the experiment is labeled to be the bad heart!
Frankenstein presents the subject of the inner self in a rather subtle way which can be overlooked. Freaks on the other hand is extremely visual! So visual indeed that most of the actors are actual real freaks. From the man with no lower body, to the midgets, and to the half man half woman character, all except a few of the people present in this 1930s cult film are physically abnormal! Did the director have in mind the purpose of shocking his audience? It is safe to assume so. But more importantly, he also had in mind the desire to emphasize the principal theme of the film: A person is not defined by their outside appearance but rather by their inner personality! Again we have the same taboo previously visited in Frankenstein but this time no science is involved just freaks of nature. In fact, Todd Browning (who also directed the original Dracula movie) directed the movie Freaks as if it were a two hours long moral!
Indeed, the physical abnormality coupled with society’s stereotypes leads us to first blame the freaks when something starts going wrong. Very quickly howerer, we see that the manipulations are mostly the work of the most normal woman! The trapeze lady, recognizing that one of the midgets is rich seduces him and goes so far as to get married with him! Todd Browning here mixes greed and manipulation to the main taboo dealing with physical appearance. Another characteristic of cult movies is present in the sumptuous feast that is the marriage between the two characters. Cult movies often contain one or two scenes that are the backbone of the film. In Freaks, the wedding scene where the freaks “accept” the normal woman in their circle is definitely one such visual scene. But mostly it is also an ironic symbol of the taboo. Instead of the freaks being accepted by the normal people, it is the opposite. Again here we can assume that the director is using the irony of the situation to make the powerful statement that maybe we (normal people) are the ones who are out of place! As the story progresses the newly inducted wife then plots with her normal lover to kill her freak husband and take his money. The plan falls short of success and as the community of freaks discovers her intensions, they turn her into a real freak show as the ultimate punishment!
Does this script automatically make for a cult film? Definitely not as there has been many movies that flourished around the subject of morale manipulation, betrayal and greed. What defines Todd Browning’s film as a cult film are all the little extra details that are embroidered around the main taboo subject of the outside physical appearance not being a way to judge a person. The great way in which he contrasts the freaks versus the normal people of this circus and finally in the middle of the movie how those two distinct groups come together during the wedding creating the incompatibility that arise due to the bad intensions of the normal looking people! Symbol after symbol, we are witnessing the unfair way we as a society deal with abnormal people. Another probable reason why this movie is defined as a cult film is the fact that, like Frankenstein, the main story and messages that we get from it do not seem to be phased by time. It is a story still as vivid today as it was in the 30s!
This quality, though, is not shared by all cult films. A movie like Reefer Madness, even though dealing also with the taboo of the soul within oneself, does not stand the passage of time. Here we are dealing with a very different type of film! Reefer Madness is a movie made in 1936 as a way to scare people from drugs, especially marijuana! And as a typical cult film, it was, for that period, rather extreme! Even more interesting however, is the fact that the movie was produced in conjunction with the FBI as a warning against the side effects of drugs! The picture takes us through the adventures of teenagers experimenting with marijuana and how their entire life is turned upside down by this unreasonable behavior. The director shows us picture perfect young men who are suddenly going in a path of delinquency leading all the way to death in some cases. The very powerful message here ties again with the taboo studied previously: the power of the inner self! Those young boys use marijuana to open up the window to their soul but loose control. This illicit drug activates the evil inside of them and their entire lives are ruined.
Very effective during the 30s, this film viewed today looks more like a satire of the effects of that drug. Even though still illegal, marijuana has nowadays become a household topic and almost everyone is aware of its side effects. Some would even go as to say that marijuana is not even taboo anymore. I, personally, disagree with that statement but it is true that the way drugs such as marijuana are described in this cult film is greatly idealistic nowadays. The taboo that we see in this, now funny, movie is not the drug itself but the way our inner self can be accessed and inadvertently turned bad!.
One of Frankenstein’s morals was that the inner soul can be either bad or good! Freaks’ main theme was how the outside world should judge others on the quality of their personality not their looks. Reefer Madness goes even further on those ideas by stating that if not careful and responsible, we can turn a good person and their good soul bad!
Did Reefer Madness change teenager’s opinion about marijuana? Probably a bit, but judging from today’s statistics we can safely assume that this film had better success making it into the “cult films hall of fame” than scarring teens off drugs! But as we can see the 30s was a decade rich in classic cult films that all explored the theme of the soul that hides behind our physical appearance! A topic, rarely discussed until then, but which became very popular with the success of those movies.
In conclusion, it is once again one clear fact that comes out of these cult films: no two cult movies fulfill the same exact criteria! Yet, they all seem to share a place in the heart of avid fans that will, in some way or another, be touched by the taboos or other ideas expressed by the director! Unfortunately, nowadays (in the 90s), we are seeing less and less of those creative taunting films. Has the greed of big movie houses contributed to this reduction? Definitely! There will, however, always be tiny local theaters that take pride in showing those less glamorous yet more meaningful stories that cult films are made of. San Diego and its own Ken’s theater are the perfect example of that, and as I understand more and more about movie’s history, I can only take my hat off to the owners of this city landmark!