Cult Classics: Donnie Darko (2002)

What makes Richard Kelly’s ‘Donnie Darko’ a cult classic?

A Times article stated that: ‘”Cult” used to indicate a secret pleasure, a film you and a select band crept out late at night to see at the scuzziest cinema in town.’ Fatima Fernandez suggests a ‘more including definition‘ in which cult ‘movies were box office-bombs that were rejected by the mainstream media but ultimately embraced by a more obscure audience.’

‘Donnie Darko’  depicts a ‘tangent universe’ (bear with me), a world which is created when the fabric of the fourth dimension becomes corrupt. This new ‘tangent universe’ can only survive for so many weeks on its own before it collapses in on itself under the pressure of the audience’s incredulity.

The seasoned cult fanatic who has read all the information on the (extensive) Donnie Darko website might describe the plot as follows: the majority of Donnie Darko is set in an alternative reality that has been created by a corruption in the fabric of the fourth dimension. In this tangent universe the protagonist (Donnie) is visited by a man in a rabbit costume (Frank) who tells him ’28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes… 12 seconds. That… is when the world… will end.’ Frank guides him on his journey to send the artifact (the jet engine that falls into Donnie’s bedroom) back to the present universe to stop the corrupt fabric of time destroying the real (present) universe.

donnie darko frank

Frank, an individual who has died in the tangent universe while at a costume party, is one of the ‘Manipulated dead,’ someone who understands that they are operating in an alternative reality. Frank, along with the ‘Manipulated Living,’ further Donnie on his journey to fixing the deteriorating fabric of reality. It should be noted that the ‘Manipulated Dead’ have a greater impact upon Donnie’s journey than the ‘Manipulated Living,’ as the former group have a better understanding of what steps need to be taken to repair the reality vortex.

And breathe.

To add another layer to the Richard Kelly’s narrative, at first Donnie does not understand that he is in an alternative reality. It is only with the aid of Frank and the others that he begins to understand that he alone can stop the world ending in ’28 days… 6 hours… 42 minutes’ and ‘…12 seconds.’ No one could understand such a complicated movie on the first viewing: I only understand it (partially) because Kelly created ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel,‘ a book which one of the characters wrote that is only available on the Donnie Darko website. So what drove the first time audience of Donnie Darko to watch it a second, third, or even fourth time?

Donnie Darko was not well received. The Domestic Total Gross was $517,375, nothing compared to Pulp Fiction’s $107,928,762 gross. Both are cult classic films, so what made Donnie Darko’s reception so poor?

The film was released not long after the September 11th attacks, which meant that there was little advertising by the production company and little desire to see the movie for the American public. It only grossed $110,494 on its opening weekend, and all signs pointed to writer and director Richard Kelly’s second film being a ‘box office-bomb.’

Luckily for Kelly, VHS and DVD saved ‘Donnie Darko.’ In New York the Pioneer Theatre held night time screenings of the film for over two years. Peter Bradshaw attributes the renewed interest in the film to its re-release, stating that ‘Donnie Darko has a political and satirical flavour that wasn’t as strong at the time: it is set in 1988, the chastened end of Ronald Reagan’s comforting reign.’ He does not specify what this political undertone is.

donnie darko halloween

‘Donnie Darko’ seems to more accurately fit in with Fernandez’s suggestion that cult classics do poorly at the box office and are then rejuvenated, although the film has too broad an audience to be considered an ‘obscure’ audience. Maybe ‘Donnie Darko’ would have been an immediate hit if the timing had been better, if the advertising had been stronger. Maybe, as Richard Kelly said about his 2002 science fiction, reality bending story about a 16-year-old boy entrusted with saving reality as we know it, ‘Sometimes films need time to marinate.’


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