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Causes of Film Cult Status: Donnie Darko

Film Donnie Darko


The following dissertation developed out of an enthusiastic interest in “Cult” film fandom and, in particular, Donnie Darko (Kelly: 2001). The desire to study the film in depth through a case study into its fandom came from my own curiosity and ambition to decipher and understand the level of fandom that surrounds the film, and how that formulated.

Through reviewing and studying other academics work in the field and their own theories on cult films it acknowledged the diverse work when trying to find a solid definition and the complexities that follow the term “cult”. The research was used as the core of my study whilst examining Donnie Darko throughout the dissertation, using the work as not only a definition for cult but also theories on reception and fandom.

.. By looking at the pre release of the film itself and the critical reception that followed an interesting debate is revealed: Was Donnie Darko created to become a “Cult” film? By conducting a study into the critical and fan reception of Donnie Darko it became apparent of the impact this had on the film’s cult status and also of how the cult fandom communities communicate and operate with each other in the form of dedicated fan web sites and fan message boards.

By taking into consideration the various components of Donnie Darko, pre release, distribution, fan and critical reception, the conclusion of how much Donnie Darko can be represented as a Cult film can be found. It is plain to see what impact the internet had on the success of its reception with fans and revivals for re-releases, all of which point to the film being deliberately manufactured to adhere to cult sensibilities.


In contemporary film and media there has always been an interest in fan studies and audience reception but there has been limited work on the specific genre of cult fandom and cult films. The research that is already available on the subject of cult films is inconclusive and does not share a common definition of what cult film is. I believe that it is possible to make a structured framework of what makes a film cult from existing research but there is insufficient study in respect of how cult films can be seen to be deliberately made.

It is my hypothesis that film makers now have the knowledge to be able to construct and manipulate their films into gaining a cult audience, and that by researching this it will inform future academic discourse in the area of cult film. This piece of work will endeavour to map out the techniques used to create a cult film and thereby gain a cult audience and from this it will be possible to determine whether or not cult films are a carefully constructed and marketed text.

In this dissertation, which takes the form of a case study, the 2001 Richard Kelly film Donnie Darko will be analysed in terms of how it has achieved the perceived status of being branded a cult film. The aim of this will be to define what a cult film is, and what attributes constitute a cult film, whilst looking at levels of fandom and considering whether or not cult is more ordinary than first perceived.

The first section of this paper will discuss existing definitions of what cult films are, and also the problems faced when defining them. Having arrived at a solid definition of what a cult film is it will be used as the reference point when considering cult film in terms with Donnie Darko for the rest of the paper.

A film’s cult status is not dependant on textual aspects alone and, in the final section of the paper, I will take a look at the reception of Donnie Darko amongst critics and general fans; this is, arguably, the most essential element to consider in terms of understanding how the status of cult film was conferred upon Donnie Darko. By referring to academic journals and contemporary reviews of the film in commercial film magazines and on websites it will be possible to arrive at an idea of how the critics formed the cult idea.

Lacking a formal outlet, fan reception is harder to analyse, but by surveying fan communities online in the form of a dedicated fansite and one specifically created forum for Donnie Darko fans, it will be possible to analyse the fandom surrounding the film. Also, through analysis of focus groups of self proclaimed Donnie Darko fans, it will, through their discourse and opinions, be possible to map how cult fans react and use the text, in order to find out whether the film was constructed for this purpose.

Literature Review – What Is Cult?

When studying Cult Film it is first important to arrive at a robust definition of the term in order to provide clarity throughout this study. “Cult Film” is a phrase that is often used, in the context of certain films, by film reviewers, critics and the film fans alike, but arriving at an academic definition of what the terms exactly means, and the attributes a film must be seen to have to conform to a notion of a cult framework, is a difficult task. Many theorists have proposed their own notions and definitions of what makes a film cult, each formulating a different variation of what they see as essential to the make-up of a cult film. Some suggest that a “cult film” is created through its overall consumption, whilst others attribute prominence to other elements that feature within the text themselves.

In their work in the area of cult film Jancovich, Stringer, Willis and Reboll also recognise that the term cult has many different meanings and connotations, asserting that “(Cult) would include entries from such seemingly disparate subgenres as “bad film”, splatterpunk, “mondo” films, and sword and sandal epics, Elvis flicks…” (Sconce 1995 cited in Jancovich et al 2003:1) the list goes on but the point they are trying to make is that an overwhelmingly large group of films could potentially be considered as cult.

In their work they do not set out to completely define the exact characteristics of any specific movies, describing cult films as an “essentially eclectic category” (Jancovich et al 2003:1) the work also goes on to propose that there is no one single signifier or characteristic that is occupied by every cult film but that they are formed by the viewers and critics via a “subcultural ideology” (Jancovich:2003:1), and that, in terms of film, this ideology is formed when the audience or even the film maker choose to view the films in opposition to what is thought to be mainstream cinema. An example of this would be Hollywood cinema stories that have a beginning, middle and an end whilst following a set path which leads to a resolved and happy ending in most cases.

Jancovich goes on to also describe how film fans claim the title of being a cult fan by suggesting that there are two separate groups. The first set of fans that are ones that can be seen to “revere specific films as works of true artistic and political independence” (Jancovich et al: 2003:2). Examples of such works would include Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and more recently Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), these films although having gained much popularity can be perceived as being quite obscure and different. These differences are aesthetically pleasing for certain viewers that consider it cult.

The other group of fans he describes are fans that watch films that can be viewed and celebrated for the simple fact that they have not adhered to mainstream cinema, these films, in a lot of cases, do not even have recognisable quality in terms of story or acting but are again enjoyed due to the over-the-top and often clichéd acting and effects. An example of this would be Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead Trilogy in the 1980’s, which included over the top gory scenes and also clichéd catchphrases such as when the main character Ash (Bruce Campbell) is confronted by a demon who tells him that he will “swallow his soul” before Ash replies “Swallow this” kills the demon with a shotgun blast.

Such celebration and viewings of these films, known as cult fandom, came from a direct opposition to main box office Hollywood hits and certain areas of movie fans seemed to crave these over-the-top and unusual films more than the epic blockbuster.

This market for alternative films was not left unnoticed by film exhibitors and the emergence of art screenings began to emerge or, as Jancovich put it, they “turned to wealthy specialist audiences through the creation of art cinemas” (Jancovich et al 2003:3). The creation of such picture houses channeled the fans of these alternative films together and became their first forum to engage with each other. This can be considered a critical step in cult fandom emerging and is pertinent in terms of this study as it can be seen to correspond with the online forums that are now widely available for fans to discuss their passions. A phenomenon which is discussed in detail below.

Jancovich et al goes on to touch on the spate of technological advances that have recently begun to have a bearing on whether films gain the status of cult. For example new media outlets such as digital television, art cinemas, VHS, DVDs and most recently the internet that allow higher distribution of films, regardless of the film’s success in the mainstream cinemas. This technological revolution of distribution is described by Jancovich as “a powerful market force” (Jancovich et al 2003:4). Such a market force means that films that completely failed at the box office and have been written off by critics can nevertheless go on to gain a loyal fan base simply through buzz generated by fans telling each other about the films. A phenomenon which has become increasingly prevalent with the rise of the internet fan bases.

Jancovich et al acknowledge a number of problems with the new rise in technology, the first of which being that the wide array of possible ways for the films to be seen now “threatens distinction and exclusivity”(Jancovich et al 2003) something which cult movies and their fans depend on. This is a particularly interesting notion, as it suggests that although the available media outlets allow fans a base on which to share their film interests on, it can also mean that film makers can market carefully constructed films, which adhere to all the attributes that have made many other cult films successful, directly in order to tap into a specific, pre-identified cult audience.

There are examples of films being made for the specific purpose of gaining a cult status or a highly niche audience to form a cult, this warps the notion of what cult film is due to the deliberate attempt to create a fan base rather than one being spontaneously generated. This can lead to films appearing to have the textual elements of a cult film but not have the same following of that of a cult film but, rather, that of a failed mainstream film.

A fan base which is essential to the idea of cult. An example of a failed cult film would be I Heart Huckabees (Russel:2004) its confusing, multi level narrative and overall unusualness, whilst seeking a cult market, has not generated any significant fan support, so cannot be considered cult as loyal fan base is a reoccurring element in any cult definition. One film that might been seen to be a successful manufacturing of a cult was The Blair Witch Project, using alternative technology, with the use of the handheld cameras, not seen before in modern Hollywood. This film can be also said to be the first film to properly use the internet as a tool for advertising their film, through a cult medium. h

Be that as it may, it is not to say that any film with a fan base will be considered cult. Films such as Star Wars (Lucas) which has perhaps the biggest, obsessive fan base of any film could be perceived as being far too popular in the mainstream to be even considered as cult. This is one of the many difficulties in investigating what a cult film is but despite of this it is still essential to investigate films on many levels to identify and confirm a films cult status.The reception of a film after its release represents perhaps the biggest part in the creation of a cult film and this happens through two groups – The Fans and The Critics. First of all the viewing public play a major part in the cult success of a film and only through fandom can a film achieve a true cult status.

Cult films could be labeled through critics calling it so in a review, this can cause a domino effect and influence fans to begin acknowledging the film as having cult status, due to the academic labeling of cult. Critical approval though is not as concrete evidence of a films status, as the slating of a film by a critic could in turn create a higher cult following for that film.Harper and Mendik in their work have put forward a number of characteristics of films that are considered cult after analyzing a number of cult films. They point towards futuristic ideas, the paranormal, scattered and complex narratives, gory violence and events that cannot be explained, this are seen to be essential to being able to put films into a cult category (Harper & Mendik 2000:8 to10).

This work along with Jancovich et al’s approaches cult film as a type of counter culture. An alternative culture to Hollywood and its principles and practices in terms of film and also counter to the norms of the rest of western society. Although there are many differing views on what a cult film is, this is the definition that will be used and acknowledged throughout the rest of the study and is the template for what will be considered “Cult”.

The definition above is not complete however as , although it does describe what elements the film has to have for the reader of the text to describe it as cult, it does not entirely show what cult fandom is, and as a result it is essential to read the text as what Barry Grant describes as the “supertext”. What is meant by the “supertext” is that more than just the text is studied and in relation to cult film its distribution, consumption and reception all play a pivotal role in its cult definition or as Grant himself describes “Because cult films, by common definition involve some intense devotion on the part of their audience” (Grant 2000:14)

It is Grant’s view that the supertext, in the form of a cult film can transport the viewer away from their own reality by using a certain text to escape from their norms as Grant states in his work on The Rocky Horror Picture Show in which he contends that “it is a fundamentally ambiguous text that can comfortably accommodate opposed readings. Because of its well-known phenomenon of audience participation, the move also is perhaps the clearest demonstration of the cult films supertextual significance” (Grant 2000:19). This view ties in with audience reception theory and the Uses and Gratifications model to be exact.

Throughout this study fans’ behavior will be looked at in relation to the Uses and Gratifications (UG) which is a body of approaches underpinned by the basic idea that people use texts and the media to gain specific gratifications out of them or as Blumler and Katz state “It presents the use of media in terms of the gratification of social or psychological needs of the individual (Blumler & Katz 1974). In their work on UG Jay G Blumler and Elihu Katz put forward four sub-sections when considering in what areas the audience were gaining gratification from media texts; these include surveillance, personal relationships, personal identity and diversion.

The element that relates closest to the work on cult film and in particular Grant’s work is the Diversion section, which is described as a media text which allows the user an escape from reality. Also the section on personal identity is relevant to this study as it is described as a person creating their own identity from things they find attractive in the media. These two sub-sections will be considered when studying fans that use Donnie Darko as it demonstrates the cult fan’s relationship to the text as being active and is the closest media theory to the work already studied on cult film.

Finally, in considering the phenomenon of online fandom, it is worth noting Matt Hills work on newsgroups which describes online fandom as something separate and new from offline fandom, or as Matt Hills states “The mediation of ‘new media’ must be addressed rather than treated as an invisible term within the romanticised ‘new’. (Hills 2002:172). This particular study was useful to me in that it was the first to open my eyes into the usefulness of the data online when studying fans. Here Henry Jenkins explains the wealth of data that can be accessed “the computer net groups allow us to observe self-defined and ongoing interpretive community….. {Whose} discussions occur without direct control or intervention by the researcher, yet in a form that is legitimately open to public scrutiny and analysis” (Jenkins 1995 cited in Hills 2002: 174).

I found this quote particularly useful when deciding on methodology and despite having already decided on focus group research to research fans face–to-face it became apparent that the internet also would have a wealth of data to be analysed without any interference from academics, making the data more valid.Overall what I can take from the literature review is the following definition of cult that will be used as a template for the study of Donnie Darko. Having studied many different theories, it is the following template that will be used when considering fans in relation to the film

“A cult film is characterised by its active and lively communal following. Highly committed and rebellious in their appreciation, cult audiences are frequently at odds with cultural conventions….Cult films transgress common notions of good and bad taste, and they challenge genre conventions and coherent storytelling. Among the techniques cult films us are intertextual references, gore, loose ends in storylines, or the creation of a sense of nostalgia” (Cultographies: Cult Definition: Web: Accessed 10/03/08)

As it is this definition, combined with the Jancovich’s theory that cult films can be deliberately made in a marketing attempt to gain a cult following, that will be used in relation to fans using Donnie Darko as a supertext to see how film makers can now manipulate a fan base, using new media technology as a base.

Project Aims

The aim of this study will be to follow the case study of Donnie Darko, it being a contemporary example of a cult film, and map out its reception as a cult film from its early cinema release to the reception of both fans and critics alike of subsequent releases of further editions of the film. By mapping out the film in this way it will become clearer not only how it adheres to the cult formula but also how cult is established or even in some cases manipulated. By studying fans of the film in relation to Grant’s work on the supertext it becomes clear how the film makers have influenced the level of fandom involved and also perhaps most importantly the fans’ contribution.


To maximise the potential for results that hold quality and validity throughout my case study of Donnie Darko a number of different methods are used to gain the evidence I need to conclude this study. The purpose of focus groups in this study is to question fans of Donnie Darko on their level of fanaticism and also to find out how they were influenced by the film to become such a fan. The constitution of the focus groups is derived from personal networks, family and other university goers. My target population has no class, race or gender requirements, targeting the fanatical fans of Donnie Darko and as the film itself when it was released was targeted at teens and tweens the source group is taken from university students and their peer group. Focus groups were determined to be the optimum methodology, representing a practical and relatively inexpensive way to do research due to lack of a budget; the participants can be sought out and assembled quickly.

The insights that are needed to make are immediately available, the insights in this case is what makes the film so important to their lives and the reasons behind them buying into the Donnie Darko cult.The benefits of using a focus group rather than just a survey revolve around the degree of interviewing flexibility as; during the focus groups it is possible to play clips from different films and to be able to study body language and interactions between the fans in relation to the enjoyment of different elements of cult films.

Arthur Asa Berger describes the usefulness of this particular technique “The aim of the discussion is not to build a consensus, but just the opposite- to find out what each member of the focus group thinks about the topic under discussion, to elicit from each person in the group his or her descriptions of behavior of interest.”(Berger 1991:91)The contents of the transcripts obtained from these focus groups are then read through and analysed using content analysis trying to draw distinction between a cult films being deliberately manufactured

The attendees of the focus groups included five fans of the film that I had considered to be deeply involved with their fandom in regards to Donnie Darko. They were obtained by the sending of emails, Attached at Appendix B, to all students of Bath Spa University, asking them if they consider themselves fans of Donnie Darko and if they did if they would like to take part in a research project that would not take up much of their time. Their anonymity was also assured, as their gender was neither at issue nor who they were.

Many replies were received,32 in all, and a response was sent back outlining the intentions of the study, how the findings would be used and what would be required of those willing to participate Potential participants were also sent a set of questions designed to test their level of fandom. These questions were derived from the largest Donnie Darko fan list (website) on the internet and required the respondent to possess a degree of knowledge necessary to being considered a “true” fan of Donnie Darko. The replies that were considered to most correspond with a high degree of fandom were subsequently selected to take part in the study.

During the focus group session a number of set questions, Attached at Appendix A, were asked that were considered essential to my study. These questions were used as they facilitate an analysis of how the film makers attracted this cult market and what elements inspired the fans.

The reasoning behind using the interview technique mixed with the focus group rather than questionnaire is that the interviews enabled participants to answer in their own words and language structure in favour of a mark out of 10 on a questionnaire sheet. This affords the findings a richer meaning as well as allowing for the clarification of certain meanings or, as Berger puts it, “The depth interview, on the other hand, is highly focused. It is conducted to get at matters such as hidden feelings or attitudes and beliefs that respondents may not be aware of or that are only dimly in their consciousness” (Berger 1991:57) The responses that are sought in order to prove the hypothesis that cult films are manufactured to directly gain a cult fan base are ones that relate to the film in terms of the definition of cult previously stated for example enjoyment of the loose plot or the sense of nostalgia that film brings to the viewer.

Critical Reception

Donnie Darko is firm cult fan favorite and has been named in numerous cult film list including coming 9th in Film Four’s 50 films to see before you die (channel 4: web). The film, set in 1988, takes place in a small town in the USA which is about to witness the end of the world. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled youth who is plagued by visions of a giant rabbit named Frank who warns him of the worlds impending doom. Along with his girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone), and other people that help him along the way, he must try to understand the strange happenings at home, at school and his life. It is a struggle against time and life as he gets led closer to the end of the world.

Donnie Darko was the debut film of director and writer Richard Kelly. It premiered at 2001 film festivals, generating a high level of “buzz” and picking up a number of awards; most notably the grand jury prize at the renowned Sundance Film Festival. The film generated a lot of hype arising from this festival buzz, and this hype in turn damaged the commercial success of the film. Film distributors were put off by the film’s multi-genre format and, arriving around the time of the terrorist acts of 9/11, the scenes of plane crashes at the start and end of the film, as one commentator states “Donnie Darko, a story of death and crashing jets, flopped in the US, not least because it came out just after 9/11” (Danny Leigh: 2004: Web). Because of this the film was considered a box office flop, only being able to amass $110,494(source IMDB) in its first weekend as it was only shown on 58 screens in the whole of the United States and, subsequently, only given a few weeks run, it was in danger of slipping off the radar.

Under these situations, the press and critics may not have given Donnie Darko the attention and acclaim that is arguably deserved. At the time of release Richard Kelly had not explained that the film was open to interpretation and reviewers seemed at odds with the film, especially with what the film was trying to say or if indeed that the audience was required to create their own meaning.

Searching for reviews of Donnie Darko it becomes apparent that few critics were agreed on the films agenda. The British Film Institute’s magazine Sight and Sound wrote that “(Donnie Darko is) about seemingly inconsequential but secretly connected details, and divine forces that compel characters to actions they don’t understand” (Felperin 2002 web)

Others do not share this view, with one reviewer deciding that Donnie Darko is merely a general teen movie and that “Donnie Darko” may be the Everest of adolescent angst movies. A smart, emotionally troubled suburban teen wrestles with the usual stuff — identity issues, bullies, well-meaning but clueless parents and various school absurdities” (W. Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle 2001) and some clearly articulating their confusion, asking “Is it a horror film? A black comic parable of Generation X angst? A teen drama with a psycho edge? If not, what the hell is it? Looking in my notebook, I see I have scribbled: “David Lynch, The X Files, Prozac Nation, My So-Called Life, Ghost World….none of these quite nails the genre, and perhaps more importantly the tone of this very strange movie.” (Bradshaw: 2002 Guardian: Web)

The confusion that was exhibited by the film critics can be attributed to the multifaceted and multi genre format that can be seen in most cult films. Donnie Darko’s mix of sci-fi, horror and comedy is reminiscent of other recent cult films such as Starship Troopers and Critters and apparent in reviews of an older cult favourite The Evil Dead which state that “The influence of The Three Stooges on its comical creative trio of director Raimi, producer Robert Tapert, and lead actor Bruce Campbell gives the film a playful but unsettling feeling” (Glanville 2001: BBC: Web).

It is this unusual mix that gives cult films an ingredient that mainstream Hollywood lacks, cult films can be seen to go against these ideologies and critics did not miss this within Donnie Darko from the outset, claiming that “The product of first-time writer-director Richard Kelly’s fertile imagination, Donnie Darko is one part 1980s Hollywood teen movie, one part sci-fi flick, with a dollop of David Lynch and a twist of Catcher in the Rye. If you were cynical you might call that cocktail the “instant cult classic” (Slater 2002: BBC Web). With reviews such as this the Donnie Darko cult begins to take shape in the public consciousness whilst the fact that the film seems to have been designed as a cult is also recognised by the reviewers.

After the critics have their say it is down to the fans to make what they want of the film and whether or not the reviewers have a direct influence on the fans when calling films cult is another issue, but they can be seen reacting to Donnie Darko as they had with numerous cult films to go before it.

By looking at Donnie Darko, we are looking at the most contemporary film to become such a cult success and much of the onus has been pointed towards the increase in new media technology and in particular the internet. The internet has enabled large groups of fans in fan communities that can easily support, critique and help each other to come to understand films, especially Donnie Darko. Not only can fans talk to each other about the film, the interest in film can be seen world wide and the buzz created helps spread the word and in turn influencing many sales on DVD “Following the success at the Pioneer, midnight screenings popped up across the country, fueling domestic DVD sales to more than $10 million” (Burnett: 2004 indiewire Web) these sales have since gradually increased in America and gaining a huge following in the U.K.

In much the same way as the critics were split and at odds with each other, the audience also lacked consensus, with some arguing that the plot holes and the general mystery around the film should be celebrated for making the film special and those who did not subscribe to this concept and expected the film to be resolved for them. Such oppositions in taste between fans and critics alike creates the perfect grounds for a cult to form and to be celebrated, this becomes clearer when studying the fan communities themselves.

Study Phase 2

Returning to the internet, as represent the primary vehicle and forum for fans to communicate with each other, often in the form of dedicated fan sites. Such sites are created by individual wishing to share their fandom of the film with others and seeking to explain Donnie Darko in their own way. Perhaps the main source of discourse between fans takes place on interactive message boards, an online version of the ‘book club’ model for example.

By analysing and describing the audience reception to Donnie Darko, it gives us additional insight into the level and type of fandom that is associated with cult films. More now than ever before, due to technological advances, fans are able to discuss and interpret their views on the film, and even doubters of the film can read the views of fans and be drawn into the mystery of the film. Such debates not only invoke discussion but allow the fans to obtain pleasure from the text and becoming more literate in it.

The internet discussion rooms help breed the cult in more ways than the discussion itself. The debates between fans lead on to other events such as the viewing of the film again, evaluating and developing new ideas obtained from reading other fan theories. Subsequent development of their own new ideas to share with other fans is encouraged, not only adding value to their own reading of the text but also boosting the pleasure of the community as a whole.

It can be argued that such close inspection and dismantling of the text, leads to the film being used in a way that was not the intention of its author, Richard Kelly, but it is this hardcore following of fans online that have created the success for Donnie Darko and without their keen following and debates the film would not be ascribed cult status. Here it may be pertinent to refer back to the idea of the supertext as we can identify the fans’ reception as showing the commitment and passion required to form the cult of Donnie Darko using the internet as the foundation for the fans personal but maybe imagined affiliation with the film.

When searching the internet, on a search engine, typing in “Donnie Darko Fansite” brings up thousands and thousands of pages and, after reading through many of them, it seeme

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