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“What exactly is a cult film?” my friend Michelle asked as I was telling her that I had to watch a cult film for my theater class on that evening. At that moment, I must admit, even I wasn’t sure what characteristics elevated a movie to the status of “cult film”. After a minute of reflection I decided that the best way to answer her question was just throwing examples at her and so I did. “Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Liquid Sky, Casablanca, Pink Flamingos, Switchblade Sisters and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, all of them are cult films” I told her. Unfortunately, this little smoke screen did not do the trick and of course she noticed the very distinct genres that were all contained under the category “Cult films”

Indeed she was right! There is in fact not a specific genre that is labeled as the Cult film genre. Furthermore, most of the genres contain cult movies that fit their specific style. For example, the adventure/romance genre was the basis of Casablanca (1942), the horror movie genre also was represented in cult movies with “the Texas chainsaw massacre (1974)” or even way before that, in the 30’s, we had Frankenstein which is the most classic of horror films. The genre of animated movies was the basis of Fantasia, which also can be catalogued as a cult film and the list goes on and on. In fact, it is well known that authors who studied cult films openly disagree, as to what a cult film is, how we should define it, and especially whether a project might be designed from the start as a cult piece.

Indeed, I believe that a film is not created in the mind state that it will eventually become a cult movie. Yet some traits and characteristics of these movies just seem to attract a legion of devoted fans. Not typical fans like the ones who seem to enjoy a movie greatly. Not typical fans such as the ones who would go watch any movie with Meril Streep (a greatly talented actress she is!). No, Cult film fans are different! They worship not the actors, not the genre, they worship the film as a whole experience. J. P. Telotte who studies cult films explains the nature of the cult and uses a quote by Andrew Sarris stating that cultist loves film “beyond all reason”. Indeed, it is quite difficult to understand the relation that the cultists have with the movie. What would make them stand in line for hours? What can attract them so much that they actually wait until midnight to be able to see a movie? Because it is mostly when those features are shown in remote small theaters?

“What the film cultist embraces is a form that, in its very difference, transgresses, violates our sense of the reasonable. It crosses boundaries of time custom, form, and - many might add – good taste says J. P. Tellotte.
Indeed, this statement is true of most, if not all, of the movies that one considers to be cult films. The two movies that I will be contrasting in this paper will both have those elements to them yet in many ways they are two very different movies. Those differences and contrasts are the theme of my study. However this comparison will be done under the scope of Cult films to give us even more of an understanding of the elements that constitute such a film.

Let’s first start with the more “conventional” film of my comparison: Rosemary’s baby, directed by Roman Polansky in the late 60’s (1968 to be exact). Adapted for the big screen from a novel by Ira Levine, this is the story of a young couple moving to a new apartment. It just so happens that their neighbours, two old people, are recruiting a couple to have the devil’s baby. Rosemary’s husband decides to make a pact with the devil, where in exchange for his movie career suddenly improving, he has his wife carry the devil’s baby. Of course Rosemary has no idea what is happening and the film takes us through her thoughts and suspicions, and how the devil’s advocates protect their secret until the baby is born and Rosemary realizes everything.

The overall atmosphere of the movie is very smooth and refined. Rosemary who is played by a young and quite sweet Mia Farrow. She defines the whole softness of the movie. Indeed, every shot of our heroin inspires sweetness and purity. Roman Polansky purposely has painted her as the image of good, and in a movie that most of the time is very intense, on numerous occasions the camera will focus on her face when she is reflecting on the “absurdity” of her thoughts and we, the viewers, are absorbed in her character and start to doubt our thoughts too! Furthermore, the film as a whole is rather hypnotic in the way it draws the viewer in the story. Here, we can feel one of the key elements of a cult movie, which is the viewer-movie connection that seems to be established from the start of the movie. The viewer, male or female, is very rapidly drawn into the character played by Rosemary and goes through the same emotions she does. This connection is so strong that we, the viewers, even feel very uncomfortable during some scenes. For instance I can remember feeling very uneasy during the scene where Rosemary was waiting in the street to meet her dear friend from her old neighborhood. My feelings were intensified even more when the news of his sudden death arrived. Furthermore, the way the movie was directed was excellent in not only putting the viewer in Rosemary’s place but also in producing the impression that everything around this character was spinning around in a daze. The scene where she is running to the phone booth and trying to call her old doctor is a great example of the culmination of that world that is just crashing around her, while she is trying to remain sane! Did Roman Polansky purposely want to make us feel uncomfortable in our chairs? Probably. After all we are dealing with the devil!

Another criteria of Cult movies is the taboo subject that is debated in such films. Here, we are presented with the classic fight between good and evil. The dilemma presented is that of the soul and the devil. Shall one sell his soul to the devil to reach his life goals? The obvious answer would be no! Of course no! But it is important to consider the time and place where the movie took place. The United State, in the late 60’s, were in a transition period with the strong rise of the peace and love movement. In a time when the cold battle between communism and capitalism was the primary topic of discussion, more than ever the fight between good and evil was on people’s mind. Just out of the war, the majority of the population was trying to focus on the future and the good issues in the world. Yet such a film reminds every one of the power of Evil and mostly to what extend the devil will go to reach his goal. Another very vivid image depicted is that anyone of us, very much like Rosemary, could be carrying evil intentions inside of us without knowing. And this message probably marked a lot of the fans who saw that movie in a period of time when the only focus was to heal all the wounds of the war.

On another level, we can also consider the financial implications that are made in the background of this movie. From the very beginning there is an allusion to the tight financial situation of that decade. Rosemary and her husband want to move in the new apartment but can barely afford it. This element, even though very subtle, is very important in relating the movie to the actual time period in which it took place! Furthermore, it may have been one of the factors leading the husband to make a deal with the devil just so that he could afford the apartment that appealed so much to his wife.

Pink Flamingos, directed and produced by John Waters is a completely different genre of film but definitely one of the most essential Cult movies of all time. This movie came out in 1971 and very quickly became a success. Pink Flamingos is the very twisted story of Bab Johnson, also known as Devine, who is a transvestite known to the world as being the most filthy person on earth. Indeed, murder, perverse incestual sex, and all type of disgusting fetishes involving meat and dog excrements are on her list of typical activities. But not everyone is happy that she is the most filthy person on earth. Across town from Devine’s trailer, lives a couple who is also in the hunt for the title of most filthy people on earth. Raping women and kidnapping them to later sell their babies, as well as perverse flashing and foot fetishes, are on the “to do” list of that couple who’s decided that they will prove to all that they are THE most filthy people on earth. The story ends with Devine murdering them on TV and moving to a new town where she can spread her filthiness even more. Pink Flamingos, from start to finish, is made up of one shocking scene after another. These shocking scenes are the most noticeable parts of this very extreme movie, and consequently are also what causes the most contrast with other films such as Rosemary’s Baby which uses psychology rather than imagery to reach it’s audience.

Indeed, we are faced here by two very different movies and yet both fulfill the criteria that all cultist looks for. In many ways, Pink Flamingos is the exact opposite of his predecessor in time. It is a very raw, cheap looking film that contrast with Rosemary’s Baby’s very smooth style. Furthermore, here the viewer is extremely detached from the picture and at no time are we ever identifying with the characters of Devine or anyone else in the movie! Evidently, we are faced here with a movie that is taking the essence of cult films to an extreme. As we said, most cult films tend to push the envelope of what is acceptable and what is taboo in a society. Pink Flamingos, with no subtlety just blows all the limits. For John Waters nothing is taboo or out of the realm for this film, and with a very obvious desire to taunt the viewer’s mind, he follows every shocking scene by another one even more shocking aimed at breaking taboos. For instance, after having stuck a piece of raw meat in between her legs while shopping, Devine goes even beyond all expectation when she takes it out from under her clothes and eats it. Later she also explains the feast to her family saying that she seasoned it with her own juices! In another example of shocking scene after another, we are presented with Devine’s brother as being a sexual deviant during the “sex and live chicken” scene. However, we are even more shocked when, during their investigation of the enemy’s house, Devine and her brother get so turned on that she performs oral sex on him. This scene is as good as it is disturbing to the viewers! Indeed, it is hard to conceal the arousal that one feels, but on the other hand this arousal is contradictory with the very deranged and incestual sexual act happening before our eyes! Finally, as the ultimate way to end the film, John Waters shows us Babs eating dog crap, shocking his audience all the way through the last minute of this small budget movie and breaking all physical taboo that exists!
Ironically, here very differently from Rosemary’s Baby, we are not dealing with the fight between good and evil, but instead we witness the fight between bad and worst evils! Another very interesting symbol of this early seventies movie is the persona of Devine. Indeed, the use of a transvestite blonde bombshell is nothing more than a joke to mock the sexual stereotype of the mid 50’s. Even the song used in the film is “the girl can’t help it!” of the 50’s decade!

In conclusion, I would like to restate that, as we’ve seen it here, there is no clear-cut definition of what a cult film is! It is merely, a movie that attracts a wide variety of faithful fans that, for one reason or another, seem to identify with the story. Is it because the story violates taboos? Maybe! Or maybe it is because it brings up very controversial topics to the screen. Or maybe even, it is because of the exotic nature of the film! All these factors, enter the equation of Cult films and make such movies as Pink Flamingos and Rosemary’s Baby timeless!