I've been thinking about cult film this week. Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco has said of them, "The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It 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 world ...." which is an interesting definition.
The term is often used to describe films that failed at the box office when they were released but then go on to attract a significant following among film fans. The Star Wars films are an obvious and well known example, as is 'The Rocky Horror Show'.
Less well known perhaps are the films of Edward D Wood – such as 'Plan 9 from Outer Space', once dubbed 'the worst film ever made' by Michael and Harry Medved, in their wonderful book, Hollywood's Golden Turkeys (Wood also gains the award for worst director ever) – which have attracted cult status because they are so obviously bad, characterised by really cheap effects and poor production quality.
Wood was an interesting character in his own right, and became the subject of 'Ed Wood ' a 1999 Tim Burton film, which starred Johnny Depp in the title role. It is an affectionate and rather sad portrait of a complex man with boundless optimism and zero talent.
However, the reason I have been thinking about cult film is because Film Society is about to screen a film that is about a cult, and the damaging influence that being involved with such groups can have.
'Martha, Marcy May, Marlene' was released in 2011 and is director Sean Durkin's first feature. It's a really impressive debut, almost as good as Bryan Singer and The Usual Suspects.
It's the story of Martha, played with great skill by Elizabeth Olsen, and takes place over a three-week period after she has escaped a cult with whom she has been living for the previous two years.
On the surface, the community she belonged to looks very attractive. They live in idyllic surroundings, grow their own food and provide their own entertainment. They personify the sense of escape from the rat race that surely explains why so many young people are attracted to join such groups.
It is clear though that the members of this group are in thrall to Patrick, the group's leader (a chilling performance by John Hawkes ('Winter's Bone', 'The Sessions') and will obey his every word. He reveals himself to be controlling and manipulative and it is soon clear that he sees Martha as another person to dominate.
As the film unfolds, we see that Martha is in an extremely confused emotional and psychological state, as the result of her experiences. Durkin uses flashback and superb editing to show different episodes from her time with the 'family' and we see her state of mind develop as she wrestles with the growing realisation that the group is something she needs to be free of.
Eventually, she makes her escape and finds her way to the home of her sister and her husband. She is welcomed into their family where she tries to come to terms with her new liberty and cope with the contrast between the unusual world she has left and the real world she is rejoining. But freeing herself from the clutches of the group proves to be a lot more difficult than she bargained for.
Martha, Marcy May, Marlene (15): showing at The Venue, Friday, May 3, at 7.30pm
Also showing at The Venue is The Hobbit (12a) 7.30pm on Saturday, May 4; A Late Quartet (15) at 2.30pm on May 8 and Trance (15) at 7.30pm on May 9.