Morbius Proves Why You Can't Force A Cult Classic Into Existence

Over the weekend," Daniel Espinosa's film "Morbius" was re-released in theaters to utter indifference. When "Morbius" was first released in early April of 2022, it was met with critical dismissal and relatively modest numbers (when compared to other movies based on Marvel Comics). The film was roundly mocked for its bad writing and silly vampire shenanigans, and it didn't take the irony-mongers very long to begin sarcastically overpraising the film. The phrase "It's Morbin' Time" began to enter the temporary lexicon, even to the point that star Jared Leto playfully shared a video of himself reading a fake script with that very title. Other memes declared "Morbius" to have achieved a 203% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 800 million reviews (its actual rating is 17%, based on 258 reviews) with an audience approval rating of 142% (in actuality, 71%). That same meme also declared that the PG-13-rated film was rated NC-17, and that its running time was four hours and 56 minutes ("Morbius," mercifully, only runs 104 minutes). #MorbiusSweep appeared on Twitter, mockingly congratulating the film for its inevitable awards season dominance, and we all had a good chuckle. 

Living by the adage that there is no such thing as bad press, Sony leaned into the ironic non-affection social media was heaping onto "Morbius," leading to the above-mentioned nationwide re-release. In 1,000 theaters again, "Morbius" added a scant additional sum to its earnings. The film's secondary flop was proof that, despite the overwhelming chatter about it, "Morbius" was not the ironic cult film that studio heads might have assumed it to be. Audiences were in no mood to rewatch the Living Vampire, even if it was to mock him.

The lesson here is simple: Cult films cannot be forced. They must happen organically.

Showgirls

This author is old enough to remember the fiasco that was Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls," one of 1995's more notorious bombs. A big-budget, oversexed showbiz story, "Showgirls" told the story of the unscrupulous Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkeley) as she attempted to rise to stardom through the Las Vegas strip revue world. The film was bloated, expensive, and, despite its copious nudity (the film was rated NC-17), not at all sexy. It bombed horribly, and attracted the attention of the notorious Golden Raspberries. 

Not long after "Showgirls'" initial theatrical run — once its infamy was cemented — MGM, in their finite wisdom, attempted to pull a Morbius, and re-released the film as a camp classic. The advertising shifted to a kitschier leopard-print motif, and the studio attempted to roll with its immediate reputation as a turkey. Here in Los Angeles, "Showgirls" was booked as a Friday midnight movie at the Nuart Theater, the venue that hosts "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" every Saturday. The intent was clear: You can't hurt us if we're in on the joke. "Showgirls," however, tanked a second time. 

It took many years of reconsideration and repeated analysis of "Showgirls" before audiences came to understand how strange, campy, queer, and enjoyably terrible the picture actually was. The studio's re-release of "Showgirls" didn't bolster its reputation as a camp classic. It was the film's fans that did it. After the culture had generally shifter over the course of a decade did special edition DVDs of the movie finally begin to sell.

Snakes on a Plane

It's worth noting that both "Morbius" and "Showgirls" have looked to Jim Sharman's 1975 musical "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as a model of success. "Rocky Horror," against all odds, remains the unchallenged queen of the midnight movie set, attracting large crowds of curious teens and aging perverts for decades (and I use "pervert" with the utmost affection). That film's mixture of music, oddness, celebrity, over-the-top performances, and aggressive queerness allowed it a permanent toehold in the pop consciousness. It has become its own scene; a movement unto itself. 

Over the years, several films have attempted to sell themselves as pre-packaged cult movies, as the next "Rocky Horror." They never paused to realize that, well, we already have a "Rocky Horror."

What the studios sought was a low budget oddity, or unapologetic exploitation film that audiences can laugh at and with simultaneously. Example: New Line Cinema released David R. Ellis "Snakes on a Plane" in 2006 with scuttlebutt in the industry as to its outrageousness. Once the SyFy-ready title took hold in the joke centers of the public's brain (this was prior to its release), New Line dumped money into a campy ad campaign, and even added campier content to the movie itself (the sex scenes were added after the fact, as was Samuel L. Jackson's notorious "motherf***in' snakes" line of dialogue). Jackson recorded personalized phone calls you could order for friends. The film was released to modest success. Few have talked about the film since, and it did not become a midnight staple. 

Repo! The Genetic Opera

The closest a studio ever came to manufacturing a cult movie was probably Darren Lynn Bousman's "Repo! The Genetic Opera" in 2008. Set in the future, the opera was about a medical system run amok, forcing people into surgeries they can't afford, and the repo man who repossesses said organs when payment lapses. The film came with a cult pedigree of the highest order. Bouseman was already known for his work on the "Saw" movies, the star was Anthony Head from fan favorite "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Paris Hilton had a supporting role, there was a lot of rockin' music, and Joan Jett even appeared in a cameo. 

Like "Rocky Horror," "Repo!" began seeing live shadowcast performers accompanying screenings with customers arriving in costume to celebrate. For a short while in the late '00s, a few theaters hosted "Repo!" performances. And while the film does have its fans, the shadowcasting felt forced. Like they were trying to make "Repo!" happen. Why it never caught on in the same way as "Rocky Horror" is a matter of critical speculation, but one might say that "Repo!" was too self-aware. Too pleased with its place as an oddity. 

There's a difference between a weird film made by genuinely weird people trying to share their weird interests, and a normal person trying to make a "weird film" to shock normal audiences. "Repo!" is certainly the latter.   

Notes on Camp

If we are to abide by Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," then it should be instinctually understood that cult appeal cannot be manufactured. The distributors of "Morbius" were operating on the false assertion that an aggressive ad campaign could simply conjure a cult out of thin air. "Rocky Horror" didn't set out to be a cult hit. It happened by dint of its fans. It was exhibitors, not studios, that asked for multiple screenings.

Cult films gain traction among their followers typically because they are a little ... "off" somehow. Off-center. They either need to be made by a weird person, as stated above, or they need to possess an element of fascinating failure; The filmmakers sought to make something genuine and entertaining, but made so many bad, unusual decisions, that the finished product comes out the sewer pipe with no resemblance to common entertainment. Your "Plan 9 from Outer Spaces." Indeed, your "Showgirls." 

Morbin' time has run out

"Morbius" had the potential to be of the latter camp. It was certainly a bad film. The irony is, unfortunately, that "Morbius" is almost too competent. It's easy to wrap one's head around a mad scientist who turns himself into a half-vampire bat monster, even within the context of a superhero universe. And while there are some truly weird things in "Morbius" (the cop who attempts to attract a cat by shaking its litterbox, then surmising the owner is gone when the cat doesn't come ... to its litterbox), there's nothing so odd as to be fascinating. 

That's the central problem with "Morbius": It's not a fascinating failure, nor is it weird. It's just bad. Films that are merely bad don't become cult hits. At best, they'll be the subject of "redemptive" essays in 20 years, claiming that all this time, they were good, actually

One can re-release "Morbius" all they want, hoping that ironic memes are the same thing as a cult audience. But it's not the studio's job to dictate to the people how they feel about a crappy vampire movie, and it will never be up to them to decide that "Morbius" is a cult hit. Let it gestate. Wait a decade. If the cult audience is there, it will come. If it isn't ... then Morbin' Time is at an end.