What is a cult movie?

According to critic Danny Peary (author of “Cult Movies” 1, 2 and 3 and something of a cult figure himself), films can inspire a cult following by being outrageous, unconventional, groundbreaking or even ungodly awful, but they almost always have one trait in common.

Failure.

Blockbusters don’t develop cults; if a movie made $100 million, that means nearly everyone is in agreement that said movie was worth seeing, even if it’s then immediately forgotten. No, a cult movie has to tank and tank hard. And for cult comedies, the road to cult-dom is even harder because they have to be great.

Other genres can inspire a “so bad it’s good” following (see “The Room,” “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” “Showgirls”), but a really bad comedy doesn’t inspire anything but sadness. A truly hilarious but criminally neglected movie will continue to draw rabid fans forever. “The Big Lebowski” bombed, but now there are Lebowski Fests all over the world. “Office Space” was ignored but is one of the perennially best-selling DVDs ever.

And Bayside Bowl’s free outdoor screening at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday of 2001’s “Wet Hot American Summer” is testament to that brilliant but ignored comedy’s continuing cult classic status. After pulling in about 2 percent of the gross of the same year’s forgettable “American Pie 2,” “Wet Hot” has become one of the most highly and intensely lauded comedies of its decade. (Just ask your author, who works in something that still exists called a “video store” — we can’t keep it on the shelf.)

Set during the last day at a 1981 Maine summer camp, “Wet Hot” is the brainchild of Michael Showalter and David Wain, two alums of the influential, short-lived (read: “cult”) sketch comedy series “The State.” While it’s ostensibly a parody of ’80s summer camp movies (like “Meatballs”), its sketch comedy sensibilities allow for a succession of astoundingly varied and successful comic set pieces that give its uniformly talented cast of funny people the chance to strut their stuff.

Packing the camp’s bunks are the likes of Paul Rudd (“I Love You Man”), Elizabeth Banks (“30 Rock”), Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover”), David Hyde Pierce (“Frasier”), Molly Shannon (“SNL”), Chris Meloni (um, “Law & Order: SVU,” but really hilarious here), Amy Poehler (“Parks & Recreation”), Janeane Garofalo and former “State” members Showalter, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black.

All gleefully throw themselves into the shenanigans, whether it’s lovelorn counselor Showalter suddenly realizing the camp’s big baseball matchup against their “anonymously evil” rivals at the rich kids’ camp is too much a cliche to go through with, Meloni’s deranged vet cook having a heart-to-heart with a can of mixed vegetables or Rudd’s classic physical bit as a spoiled jerk who really, really doesn’t want to clean up his lunch tray.

A nonstop parade of hilarious silliness that only really smart people can make, “Wet Hot American Summer” is just the sort of movie that inspires silly-but-smart people like Bayside Bowl (and co-sponsor Space Gallery) to make its showing an event. Like with any cult movie worth the name, they know its followers will come.

Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.

 

 

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