From “Plan 9” to “Cocaine Bear”: What Makes a Cult Classic?

Take a walk with me to the year 1959. That hip cat Elvis Presley is taking a “Big Hunk O’ Love” out of the music charts, and there are still 62 years before anyone first utters the word “cheugy.”

You and your date just finished sharing a malted milkshake and are about to catch a flick at the local drive-in. All the fellas at school have been talking about it. That film. Plan 9 From Outer Space. You figure it’ll be a fun action movie to set the mood before you take Stacey Lewis to Make-out Point! Ooh-la-la!

Unfortunately, the movie is bad. Like really, really bad. So bad that Stacy demands that you drop her off at home and never speak to her again. Well, so much for second base. Here’s a silver lining, though: at least nobody will ever talk about that stupid movie again! 

Let’s keep walking through time and stop somewhere in the 1970s. That groovy daddio Elvis Presley is crooning “Burning Love,” and while we’re slightly closer to the invention of “cheugy,” we’re also closer to the end of polio. Silver linings! We stroll past the theater and see posters for Star Wars, Jaws, and…oh no. 

Plan 9 From Outer Space? That awful movie that ruined your date night all those years ago? And not only is it still playing, but there’s a line of people around the corner, dressed as B-movie aliens, waiting to buy a ticket. Are you losing it? What is going on?

What Is a “Cult Classic?”

Plan 9 From Outer Space is one of the first examples of a “cult classic” film, meaning it has a dedicated following of fans, even though it was not received well by critics or mainstream audiences. While low-budget films in the 50s and 60s usually received a limited run, many saw a renaissance in later years. 

Sometimes a movie was initially considered “bad” but was reassessed by later audiences to be good. Sometimes the movie was terrible but gained notoriety as being “campy” or “so bad, it’s good,” like Plan 9. Sometimes it had nothing to do with the quality of the movie; people just identified with the characters, themes, or motifs.

The funny thing is, sometimes having enough of a cult following can turn previously underground movies mainstream! I know, I know — none of this takes away the pain of getting snubbed by Stacey Lewis back in 1959. If it’s any consolation, she’s, like, 90 now. 

What Are Some Films That Define The Genre?

Cult films have existed for about as long as movies have existed. Some consider the Dracula knock-off Nosferatu (1922) among the first examples of a movie gaining cult status, despite Bram Stoker’s widow doing everything she could to stop it. Regardless of the fact that all original copies of the film were destroyed, Nosferatu was kept alive by sheer willpower. And by “willpower,” I mean “illegal bootlegging.” 

But let’s talk about the movie you probably thought of first when you hear the phrase “cult classic,” a little film called Rocky Horror Picture Show. A horror/comedy/musical starring Tim Curry as a “sweet transvestite” (his words) went over the heads of many audiences in 1975 when the film premiered.

While it initially bombed at the box office, it gained new life as a staple of the “midnight movie.” It’s considered now to be one of the greatest musicals of all time and is still playing in limited theaters almost 50 years later, making it the longest-running theatrical release in film history. 

Like with Rocky Horror and another Tim Curry-led favorite, Clue (1985), many cult films are reassessed after their original release as being underrated. However, many cult films were critically panned for good reason. A shining example of this is Tommy Wiseau's 2003 film, The Room, which is widely considered one of the worst films of all time. It was so critically and financially panned that it inspired a movie called The Disaster Artist (which, ironically, ended up being nominated for an Academy Award!).

Cult classics come in every genre: LGBTQ black comedies like But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), surreal sci-fi like A Clockwork Orange (1971), or family-friendly adventures like The Princess Bride (1987) have all achieved cult status.

While these are all vastly different films, there is one thing they all have in common: despite low financial performance or critical reception, all of these films have a dedicated following and have made an impact on culture in some way. 

What Recent Film Will Become a “Cult Classic” Later?

I’m so glad you asked! 

Slowly but surely, we see a reassessment of 21st-century films as they apply to our current mainstream society. Movies like Jennifer’s Body (2009)  and The Incredible Weight of Massive Talent (2022) are both already moving into cult status even a short time after their original runs. However, a new champion is entering the ring – and boy, is he angry. That’s right, folks. It's time to talk about Cocaine Bear

To me, Cocaine Bear has every necessary ingredient for a cult classic. The Elizabeth Banks-directed vehicle is a wild ride with an all-star cast including Kerri Russel, the late Ray Liotta, and esteemed character actress Margo Martindale. The sheer chaos of the plot, which is based on a true story, created free word-of-mouth for the film.

While the film itself received mixed reviews from critics, it’s an undeniably fun time, and could be enjoyed by future audiences down the line — maybe even more than it’s being enjoyed today. 

Was Elizabeth Banks the first ever director to set out to make a cult classic — and succeed? I suggest watching the film for yourself before you decide. And then maybe watch it again — who knows? Maybe there’s something you missed the first time. 

Watch Cocaine Bear in theaters now

This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Alexandria Love is a writer, comedian, and actor from Oakland, California. She's been a featured stand-up comedian in numerous clubs and festivals. Her comedic writing is seen on Netflix, ABC, and NBC. She has contributed essays to an upcoming "She Series" book compiled by Karen Hellion. Alexandria currently resides in New York City.