The defining cult film of the Twenty-First Century is neither a mirror held up to nature or a hammer used to shape reality. The Room, released in 2003, is like a ninety-nine-minute episode of The Real World as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of no one. It is an incoherent broadside against evil women (or all women) and a backwards vindication of all-American male breadwinners who buy their girls roses and befriend at-risk teens. It’s a tragedy not just because it ends with a suicide, but also because sitting through it requires a robust Dionysian death drive. The Room is so bad that when you point out its idiocy, the idiocy of stating the obvious bounces back and sticks to you.
The plot is both simplistic and convoluted. The film’s writer, director, and producer, Tommy Wiseau, stars as Johnny, the only banker in America who’s also a stand-up guy. His fiancée, Lisa (Juliette Danielle), is a gold digger who spends idle days seducing Johnny’s best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero), and shopping with her manipulative mother (Carolyn Minnott). When Johnny learns about the affair, he kills himself. Fin. But first, Wiseau allows himself some inexplicable digressions. Johnny and his friends play football in tuxedos. Johnny and Mark save a teenage boy (Philip Haldiman) from a gun-wielding drug dealer (Dan Janjigian). The mom announces she has breast cancer. There are several endless, poorly blocked sex scenes. Some of this is funny; mostly, though, it’s boring.
It was Wiseau’s performance, mainly the dialogue studded with non sequiturs, that elevated The Room to its current “Citizen Kane of bad movies” status. In one famous scene, Johnny storms onto his building’s roof deck, ranting about a rumor Lisa’s spreading that he hit her, then greets his buddy with a casual, “Oh, hi, Mark.” It didn’t help that Wiseau was a creepy-looking dude in his late forties who styled himself like a romance-novel cover model and cast actors in their twenties as his peers. His accent, which is never explained in the movie, brings to mind a generic “foreigner” in an old sitcom.
Before you protest that I’m picking on a defenseless oddball, you should know how The Room got made and how it became a cult sensation. Wiseau was a wealthy man living under an assumed name, with residences in San Francisco and Los Angeles. An enthusiastic American patriot, he was cagey about his country of origin and claimed, flimsily, to have made his money flipping real estate. Sestero—Wiseau’s friend, collaborator, sometime roommate, and the co-author of The Disaster Artist, a memoir about The Room—once found a driver’s license in his friend’s name listing a date of birth thirteen years later than Wiseau was actually born.
Wiseau spent $6 million on the project—which used few locations and no complicated special effects—because its star wasted hours stumbling over simple lines and its director made dozens of expensive, absurd decisions. The Room was shot simultaneously on 35 mm film and digital video, for no good reason. Instead of filming an exterior scene in an alley outside the studio, Wiseau made his art director build an identical indoor alley set. It’s not that everyone just sat back and let a rich fool wreck himself—Wiseau ignored his crew’s advice, bullied actresses about their appearances, threw tantrums, and lied constantly. Minott once fainted because Wiseau refused to buy an air conditioner for the set.
Cult movies used to be scruffy, desperately original, and intermittently brilliant works of transgressive art that left audiences energized, and sometimes radicalized. The Room—which is bad art, but art nonetheless—does the opposite. The mirror it holds up is the underside of a dirty metal spoon; the reflection you see in it is blurry but genuine. So what’s sadder: that it set the prototype for the twenty-first-century American cult film or that it might wind up being our last enduring cult hit?
When the movie was finally finished, Wiseau paid for two weeks of L.A.-area screenings in order to submit it for Oscar consideration. During that run, The Room earned only $1,800 but caught the attention of film students Michael Rousselet and Scott Gairdner, who Sestero claims were drawn in by a review blurb outside the theater that read, “Watching this film is like getting stabbed in the head.” They spread the gospel of Tommy Wiseau to its rightful audience of bad-movie connoisseurs, who’ve been throwing spoons (in tribute to the living-room set’s inscrutable spoon art) at the screen during sold-out midnight showings ever since. In September 2017, The Hollywood Reporter quoted an expert who estimated The Room was earning up to $25,000 a month. This must have helped Wiseau recoup the $300,000 he spent on the strange billboard advertising the film that hung in Hollywood for five years.
The Disaster Artist has been fictionalized as a well-received buddy comedy that yielded a best actor Golden Globe for its own director and star, James Franco. As midnight screenings of The Room grew ever more popular, the new publicity secured it one day of wide theatrical release, on January 10. (The next evening, the L.A. Times published five women’s allegations of sexual misconduct against Franco, which helps to explain both his apparent amusement at Wiseau’s creepy misogyny and why he didn’t get any Oscar nominations.) But the awards-bait Tommy Wiseau is a lighter character than the mean, narcissistic borderline stalker Sestero describes, and the movie’s tale of a weirdo’s unlikely triumph rings hollow when you consider that people with $6 million of disposable income can do pretty much whatever they want. (Although we now know Wiseau is sixty-two and hails from Poland, the source of his fortune—described in Sestero’s book as a “bottomless pit”—remains a mystery.)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
It makes an unfortunate sort of sense, when you consider our current political reality, that we’ve spent so much time and money celebrating the stupid, misogynistic vanity project of a self-described real estate tycoon with piles of possibly ill-gotten cash. Cult movies used to be scruffy, desperately original, and intermittently brilliant works of transgressive art that left audiences energized, and sometimes radicalized. The Room—which is bad art, but art nonetheless—does the opposite. The mirror it holds up is the underside of a dirty metal spoon; the reflection you see in it is blurry but genuine. So what’s sadder: that it set the prototype for the twenty-first-century American cult film or that it might wind up being our last enduring cult hit?
Cult films once resembled Brechtian hammers more often than Shakespearean mirrors. The history of the form is as disjointed as the shaggiest entries in its filmography, but it’s possible to splice together a rough chronology. Although the phrase “cult film” wasn’t common until the seventies, the idea that movies and their stars could have cultish appeal dates back to the silent era. In the essay “Film Cults,” from 1932, the critic Harry Alan Potamkin traces the phenomenon to French Charlie Chaplin fans in the 1910s. He figures the United States had cultists of its own by 1917, when “American boys of delight,” by which he means populist critics, “began to write with seriousness, if not with critical insight, about the rudimentary film.” Potamkin cites the Marx Brothers, Mickey Mouse, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as early objects of cinephilic obsession.
Over the next few decades, cults formed around stars whose personalities eclipsed their versatility as actors, from Humphrey Bogart to Judy Garland. B movies thrived at fifties drive-ins, spawning genre-loyal cults of western, sci-fi, and horror fans. Exploitation cinema—skeletally plotted collages of sex, drugs, and violence created to “exploit” captive audiences of various demographics—took off in the sixties, especially after the Production Code collapsed in 1968. Then the Hollywood wing of the youth counterculture started to make psychedelic films like Easy Rider and Head. Arthouses showed such sexually explicit, politically radical European movies as I Am Curious (Yellow) alongside the work of Fellini and Godard. Low-budget auteurs, most notably John Waters, combined all of those influences to make self-aware trash with subversive overtones.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mystical “acid western” El Topo wasn’t the first movie to screen at midnight, but its six-month run at New York’s Elgin Theater in 1970 and 1971 set the template for “midnight movies” as a cult ritual. About five years later, The Rocky Horror Picture Show opened a mile away at the Waverly. Interactive midnight screenings in cities around the country followed, and they’re still filling theaters after four decades.
That half a century of cult films preceded any attempt to define the category helps to explain why determining what even makes a “cult film” is so difficult. Cultists’ holiest text, Danny Peary’s Cult Movies (1981), does a solid job enumerating their most common attributes: “atypical heroes and heroines; offbeat dialogue; surprising plot resolutions; highly original storylines; brave themes, often of a sexual or political nature; ‘definitive’ performances by stars who have cult status; the novel handling of popular but stale genres.” Rocky Horror, a retro sci-fi musical that chronicles a prudish young couple’s corruption at the hands of a genderqueer alien/mad scientist who is ultimately vanquished by his own servants, meets all of these criteria.
Still, “cult classic” is an infinitely elastic term that crosses the boundaries of budget, genre, style, language, and intended audience. It encompasses art films like Last Year at Marienbad and unapologetic trash like The Toxic Avenger. It can refer to movies that are popular and acclaimed (Casablanca), critically panned (Hocus Pocus), or too obscure to have mainstream reputations. There are cult kiddie cartoons (The Last Unicorn) and cult porn flicks (The Opening of Misty Beethoven). Punks, stoners, feminists, hip-hop fans, anti-capitalists, and queer people of every persuasion have their own cult canons. For Peary, though, what unites all cult films is that they invite varied interpretations and responses. And the best ones are born out of controversy.
The idea that cult films must have ambiguous messages, subversive themes, or, preferably, both comes up over and over again in early writings on the subject. The underground punk press RE/Search published a volume of interviews and essays called Incredibly Strange Films in 1986. Its introduction is an impassioned defense of movies like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s gore-fests and Doris Wishman’s nudist romps, for the precise reason that they upend bourgeois hierarchies of taste. Editors V. Vale and Andrea Juno point out that “the concepts of ‘good taste’ are intricately woven into society’s control process and class structure.” Lewis’s slasher Blood Feast is a far cry from Costa-Gavras’s satirical thriller Z, but its very grotesqueness posed a similar challenge to the aesthetic conservatism of the early sixties.
The other key element of the most enduring cult films of the twentieth century is harder to articulate. Almost every movie aims to immerse its audience in a self-contained world. But the most potent cult movies take that immersion to an exhilarating extreme. As Umberto Eco put it in an essay on Casablanca, a cult classic “must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world.” I’d go further: that completely furnished world should feel so simultaneously real, fantastical, and vivid that it makes fans want to physically inhabit it. Loving The Big Lebowski isn’t just quoting the movie—it’s bowling and sucking down White Russians in a chunky cardigan at Lebowski Fest as if you were The Dude himself.
Living through cinema has its obvious dangers: it can leave you lonely, complacent, divorced from reality—just look at the stereotypical male film critic. But the immersive and transgressive qualities of the best twentieth-century cult films combined to foster genuinely radical real-world communities. To frequent El Topo screenings was to commune with an audience fascinated by Eastern theology, anti-capitalist polemic, and psychedelic drugs. A gender-nonconforming teen dressed in drag for Rocky Horror could—and, in some otherwise repressive regions, still can—meet a theater full of people who accepted their identity. The neon costumes and angular hairstyles of Liquid Sky defined New Wave-era bisexual chic and inspired the early-aughts electroclash scene. The Harder They Come spread the music, politics, and spirituality of reggae around the world. Born in Flames and Ladies and Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains helped invent riot grrrl. New Queer Cinema gave the LGBT community a shared aesthetic vernacular and a platform for keeping the AIDS crisis in the public eye. The Battle of Algiers was required viewing for Black Panthers.
The Room wasn’t the first sign of cult cinema’s devolution. Like most stories about the death of IRL subcultures in the twenty-first century, this one begins with the rise of the internet. The first real cult sensation of the internet era was The Blair Witch Project, an unremarkable found-footage horror movie that earned almost $250 million on an approximately $35,000 budget. Its popularity can be attributed to an ingenious marketing campaign that lured viewers to a website where they could investigate the supposedly true story of three student filmmakers who disappeared in the woods. Interviews and police reports further blurred the boundary between fact and fiction, creating a Blair Witch cult that preceded not only the film’s release but the revelation that it was not a documentary.
Those fans provided a template for the sort of online cult community that is now ubiquitous, with message boards and Facebook groups that attempt to “solve” puzzle-box TV shows like Westworld and The OA. Subreddits dissecting Donnie Darko, the second-most influential cult film of the twenty-first century, and Primer, the most complicated time-travel story ever committed to video, remain active well over a decade after their release dates. Both bear a heartening resemblance to the cult classics of previous generations—they’re clever, dark, and rebellious. But what’s so subversive about their fans, who congregate in the virtual world to solve plot-based mysteries devised to flatter infantilized viewers’ intelligence and, often, keep them hooked on a serialized product? This culture certainly doesn’t possess the same radical potential as a cult-film community that forges more durable bonds in the physical world, where debates over the meaning of a work with no verifiable solution can nurture independent critical thought.
As the internet eclipsed the cinema as a point of convergence for cultists, DVD-by-mail startups, file-sharing services, and then streaming video platforms made it possible to consume even the most obscure movies without leaving home. If you wanted to see Todd Haynes’s banned Barbie-doll musical Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story in the nineties, you had to wait for an arthouse theater to schedule a secret screening. Now you can usually find it on YouTube. On one aimless night in high school, around the turn of the millennium, I found myself at a screening of The Fabulous Stains at a DIY music venue. Now I can pay $2.99 to watch it online. A few years later, I put down a $50 deposit to rent a bootleg copy of Eraserhead from an independent video store. Now I can stream it anytime I want on subscription sites tailored to cinephilic tastes. That accessibility is fantastic for people who wouldn’t otherwise get to see these movies. It also imperils the physical spaces where cult films and the people who love them can forge communities with real-world agency.
When The Room appeared in the mid-2000s, it wasn’t immediately alarming. What J. Hoberman calls “objectively bad films”—movies with no redeeming narrative, thematic, or technical value, like the oeuvre lampooned in Mystery Science Theater 3000—have long occupied a substantial corner of the cult landscape. Some of these turkeys have a radicalism all their own; Hoberman coined the term in a largely laudatory essay about Oscar Micheaux, the first black feature filmmaker, and Ed Wood, who made the pioneering, yet still quite bad, cross-dressing drama Glen or Glenda.
Even so, the cult of the objectively bad film is apolitical, derisive, and a touch sadistic. Maybe The Room revitalized the midnight movie, but I’ve been to those screenings, most recently after The Disaster Artist’s release. Somehow, hearing young professionals in casual-Friday chinos crack up when Wiseau chuckles inappropriately at the story of a slutty woman’s violent comeuppance doesn’t feel quite as liberating as dancing to Rocky Horror’s homoerotic musical numbers in a sea of sequins.
As the critic Keith Phipps notes in an account of “how misfits lost the midnight movie,” published in The Verge in 2015, The Room only created a market for other objectively bad films, like James Nguyen’s atrocious environmental parable Birdemic: Shock and Terror. On television and home video, a cynical shit factory called The Asylum has realized that making purposely awful, low-budget monster movies (with a sideline in wholesome Christian fare) is easier and more profitable than producing anything of value. Its most famous creation is the Sharknado franchise, starring the fallen teen idols Ian Ziering and Tara Reid, plus a menagerie of crude CGI sharks. When the first movie aired on Syfy in 2013, the network measured its success in tweet volume; “the Nielsen rating isn’t as important as the social media and the engagement,” an executive told Time. The trend feels inseparable from a larger twenty-first-century phenomenon: the economy of public humiliation that fueled reality TV, invaded the internet in the late 2000s with a compendium of vehicular tragedies and misspelled tattoos called FAIL Blog, and then spread to social media, culminating in an insult-comic president who lives to roast his adversaries on Twitter.
Movies with revolutionary cult potential are still getting made, even in these dystopian times. We’re in the midst of a horror renaissance. Anna Biller’s The Love Witch uses immersive, retro production design and exaggerated performances to launch a profound critique of heterosexual love. The European arthouse keeps cranking out neon head trips like Enter the Void and Holy Motors. The Canadian underground auteur Bruce LaBruce subverts both the straight and queer mainstreams with his provocative fusions of radical theory and porn. With its tortured production history, documentary-style immediacy, dark political subtext, and nauseatingly mud-drenched, snot-caked images of the unfortunate denizens of a planet stuck in the Middle Ages, the Russian sci-fi epic Hard to Be a God should’ve been an instant cult classic. One of last year’s best movies was The Lure, a Polish vampire mermaid musical about the horrors of female adolescence.
Most of these films got positive reviews and screened for a few weeks in a few cities before getting drowned out by the massive publicity offensives that accompany mega-budget blockbusters and the dozens of new TV shows that premiere every month (not to mention a social media-driven 24/7 news cycle that has become its own sick form of entertainment). Then they disappeared into the streaming void—a bottomless pit so stuffed with worthless content that LaBruce’s gay-zombie satire Otto; or Up with Dead People could easily get buried under scores of formulaic made-for-TV movies and voyeuristic documentaries in Netflix’s “LGBTQ Movies” section. The vaguely anti-capitalist dystopia Repo! The Genetic Opera stuck around for a bit longer than most twenty-first-century cult hopefuls. It was hailed as the next Rocky Horror upon its release in 2008, but the many so-called shadowcasts that once acted out the movie’s scenes as they unfolded on the screen at midnight showings across the country are now mostly defunct. Repo! certainly didn’t linger in the cultural consciousness like Rocky Horror, El Topo, or The Room.
It’s frustrating that new works of offbeat genius rarely get the attention they deserve, especially now that older cult sensations dominate the automated recycling center we call Hollywood. Some of the biggest releases of this decade have been sequels (Mad Max: Fury Road, Tron: Legacy, Blade Runner 2049), remakes (Evil Dead), and reboots (Ghostbusters, Planet of the Apes) of cult hits. Cult TV has become a voluminous category in an era of infinite content. Some of those shows (Wet Hot American Summer, She’s Gotta Have It, Westworld, Fargo) are just updates of previous generations’ cult movies; others, like Stranger Things, are pure cult-movie pastiche. Even Rocky Horror got remade as a primetime, network-television musical in 2016. When the only American cult films left standing are sanitized relics, geeky puzzle boxes, and objectively bad movies, it’s hard to believe that underground cinema can still be a radicalizing force.
What we’re left with is a cult-film tribute film that’s worse than The Room. The Disaster Artist takes a lying multimillionaire who secretly records his every phone call, concocts elaborate deceptions in order to fire actors, and once inexplicably disappeared for months, and recasts him as a brave outsider artist and loyal friend. In one scene, Tommy (James Franco) describes his private utopia to Greg (Franco’s brother Dave Franco): “I want my own planet,” he says. “Everybody love each other—that’s why it’s the best planet.” It’s a charming, naïve statement. But in Sestero’s memoir, Wiseau says something different: “I always wanted to have my own planet. Call it Tommy’s Planet. Build a giant building there, you see, like . . . Empire Tower. Some casino thing. My planet will be bigger than anything.” I don’t have to tell you who this sounds like.
Meanwhile, The Room thrives in midnight screenings, propped up by a dark populist, Dionysian death cult that celebrates an entertaining monster, elevates a work of art less subversive than the typical blockbuster, and unites itself in a cherished collective pastime: public ridicule. Given the death of IRL counterculture, it is likely the last American cult film, in the Nietzschean sense as well as the literal one. “We have discovered happiness,” say its fans, and they blink.
Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter @judyberman.