How does one decide that a film has become a cult classic? While there are some who may consider “cult film” to be a genre of sorts, it is usually a designation that is added long after the film’s original release. It’s probably safe to say that when the decision was made to bring Richard O’Brien’s 1973 West End stage musical The Rocky Horror Show to the big screen, that the filmmakers wouldn’t have expected that The Rocky Horror Picture Show would still be having monthly midnight screenings four decades later. While there have been attempts over the years to manufacture a cult following for a film, such as the brief period when Repo! The Genetic Opera attempted to mimic Rocky Horror‘s monthly screening format, a true cult classic is created by an organically developed fan base
That is where Richard Kelly’s 2001 debut film Donnie Darko comes in. After making its premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, the release of Donnie Darko was seriously affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, thanks in no small part to a plot point involving a plane engine crashing into the titular character’s bedroom. Donnie Darko‘s theatrical release date was October 26, 2001, however the release was heavily limited to a few dozen screens in the Los Angeles area. Those who saw Donnie Darko reaped immense praise onto the film, although the film seemed destined to die a slow death.
However, Donnie Darko gained a new lease on life when it was released on VHS and DVD in March of 2002. It should be noted that this was a period when DVD was starting to really take off, resulting in a peak period for home media. Donnie Darko quickly became a word of mouth success on the home video market and began to cement its status as a cult classic, which included much more successful theatrical releases in the UK and other international markets in the fall of 2002. Altogether, Donnie Darko earned more than $10 million in home video sales and the success resulted in both the release of a director’s cut of the film in 2004 and the much less successful direct-to-video sequel S. Darko in 2009.
However, the downside of creating one of the first true cult classics of the 21st century, resulted in there being a lot of expectation for Richard Kelly’s next film. Richard Kelly would follow-up Donnie Darko by writing the screenplay for Tony Scott’s action film Domino, which received a mixed response at best. Kelly’s name was attached to a number of projects for his sophomore directorial credit, including Knowing, which would go on to be directed by Alex Proyas in 2009. Finally, it was announced that Richard Kelly’s next film would be a projected entitled Southland Tales, which would star Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Seann William Scott. Southland Tales ended up being one of the worst ever sophomore slumps for a filmmaker, as it was not only booed at its premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, but it was shelved for over a year, before quietly being released in late 2007. While Southland Tales also developed a bit of a cult following, it was nowhere near as well liked as Donnie Darko.
Richard Kelly had one last kick at the filmmaking can with 2009’s The Box, which is the only one of his films to receive a fairly wide theatrical release, probably thanks in no small part that it starred Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella. After The Box, which had another mixed response, Richard Kelly seemingly disappeared, having yet to surface with his fourth directorial credit, even though his name has been attached to a wide variety of projects over the last seven years.
In some ways it can be argued that the cast of Donnie Darko benefited better by the film’s cult success than Richard Kelly. At the time the film was released, the only big names in the cast were Drew Barrymore, who was also one of the film’s producers, and Patrick Swayze, in what would turn out to be one of his final notable roles. When he was cast as the titular character, replacing originally cast lead Jason Schwartzman, Jake Gyllenhaal was a former child actor whose only notable credits were 1991’s City Slickers, 1999’s October Sky, and the teen comedy Bubble Boy, which was released just a few months prior to Donnie Darko. The cult success of Donnie Darko gave Jake Gyllenhaal more mainstream recognition, leading to roles in films such as The Day After Tomorrow, Brokeback Mountain, and Jarhead. Despite becoming a full fledged movie star, Gyllenhaal still makes some interesting film choices, whether it be 2013’s Enemy or 2014’s Nightcrawler. Donnie Darko was also beneficial to Gyllenhaal’s older sister Maggie, whose career would take off a year later after her role in the dark comedy Secretary.
As for Donnie Darko‘s female lead Jena Malone, her career went in a different direction, as she chose to stick to more independent projects, such as 2002’s The Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys and 2004’s Saved. It has only been in recent years when Jena Malone started appearing in more mainstream films, such as 2011’s Sucker Punch, 2013’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and this year’s Neon Demon. It should also be noted that Donnie Darko featured a pre-fame Seth Rogen, fresh off the TV series Freaks and Geeks, playing one of the school bullies.
Fifteen years later, Donnie Darko has firmly established its reputation as a cult movie, which still maintains a loyal fanbase, which includes this very writer. While it is sad that Richard Kelly has been unable to properly follow-up Donnie Darko‘s cult success, the film still had a positive affect on the careers of those involved. Sadly, the recent decline of the home video market means that it will be unlikely that another film would get a second lease on life like Donnie Darko did, instead disappearing in the vast void of VOD releases.