What makes a cult movie a cult movie? I've asked myself this question for years and I've slowly been able to come up with some criteria that can come into play when talking about these films with fervent fan bases. It's a strange alchemy though and I do believe that it's difficult to make a cult movie from the outset. One thing a cult movie needs is to slowly grow an audience over time. Cult movies were often not hugely successful upon their initial release, but though things like revival screenings, cable and home video, they can build a loyal following. Cult films are often a bit offbeat too. They strike a chord with a group of movie watchers who don't necessarily go in for lowest common denominator stuff. This is not to say that cult films can't be low brow - quite the contrary, but they often deal with some more taboo subject matters and can sometimes cross boundaries into less than mainstream territory.
I first discovered WHERE'S POPPA? (as I did with many many films) via Danny Peary and his Cult Movies books. Before reading those books, I was always a bit confused when I'd come across "cult movie" sections at video stores. Peary helped me understand what films had passionate supporters and maybe a little bit about why. WHERE'S POPPA? used to show up a lot in those video store cult sections and after seeing it, I was able to comprehend how it might have stood out from the pack as a bit different than many of the other films that came out around 1970. Case in point, the opening of the movie. We see George Segal getting out of bed, getting a shower and getting dressed. We've seen this kind of "morning routine" business many times before and since, but this movie throws in a twist. Once Segal is just about dressed, we see him rummaging through a box which appears to have furry hands and eventually he pulls out a gorilla mask. Cut to Segal, fully attired in the costume, sneaking down the hallway of his apartment and quietly opening a door. Inside he begins to go completely nutzoid, acting like a real ape and thrashing the room a bit. We quickly realize he's attempting to frighten the old woman (Ruth Gordon) whose room he's in and he ends his tantrum by jumping up and down on her bed. The old woman is his senile mother and his intentions are to scare her to death as to get her out of the picture and stop dealing with her. All that comes out a little later, but the point is, not a lot of big films from this period begin in quite this way. Its the kind of thing that immediately gets your attention and makes you want to see where on earth this outlandish tale could be headed. The closest thing I can think to compare it to would perhaps be some of Woody Allen's films from a few years after. Stuff like BANANAS maybe, especially when it borders on the surreal (both movies have goofy daydream sequences which are entertaining). There's even an odd reference to Cornel Wilde and THE NAKED PREY. WHERE'S POPPA Director Carl Reiner is no slouch in terms of comedy. This was basically his third feature film and his prior efforts were more bittersweet dramas then comedies. In fact, his prior film - THE COMIC - is much more tragic than funny. WHERE'S POPPA? is kind of the beginning for Reiner's truly classic comedies and he would go on to make THE JERK and DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID not too long after this.
One other thing that helps a cult movie get traction is its cast. The aforementioned Segal and Ruth Gordon are a great start, but WHERE'S POPPA? also has folks like Ron Leibman (who is just generally underrated), Trish Van Devere, Vincent Gardenia, Paul Sorvino, Garrett Morris, and Rob Reiner as well. It's a veritable parade of comic talent. Each of them has a memorable scene and it just keeps things clipping right along. Ruth Gordon is especially given some extra room to be crazy, which is quite excellent. WHERE'S POPPA? comes from a much more freewheeling and wacky time for Hollywood filmmaking in general. A time when risque material (containing comedic allusions to matricide, rape and incest for example) could be adapted for the screen and audiences were more open to sort of dark and challenging material. There's a huge lack of political correctness here and it's kind of refreshing in this weird way. The film is a very black comedy and certainly wouldn't play as well for present day audiences, but that's just fine. There are at least a couple scenes and moments that will most likely make you say, "Wait...what?" and one of them involves a rape in central park. It is a truly odd film and one that you won't soon forget after seeing it.