Several years ago Harold and Maude (1971) was recommended to me as a cult classic. I'm usually up to snuff on my cult classics, but I honestly had never heard of it. I put it on my movie list, but hadn't got around to watching it until recently. Now I can't imagine why it's not more widely known.
Self-destructive and needy, but wealthy, seventeen-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) is obsessed with death. He spends his leisure time attending funerals, watching demolition of buildings, visiting junkyards, having sessions with his psychologist, and simulating suicides to try to get the attention of his indifferent, snobbish, and egocentric mother (Vivian Pickles). When Harold meets the anarchic seventy-nine-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon) at a funeral, they become friends and the old lady discloses other perspectives of the cycle of life to him. Meanwhile, Harold's mother enlists him in a dating service and tries to force him to join the army. As Harold and Maude's friendship grows, he finds the truth about her life as it begins to draw to a close.
This movie is categorized as a romantic comedy. I really don't see how this is a romantic movie at all; romance is about two people sharing a mutual love and admiration for one another. The relationship in Harold and Maude was about these two fairly unique characters sharing a mutual love and contentment for life itself. The comedy element is certainly there, and more often than not it's rather dark. The scenes where Harold stages fake suicides are funny but bleak. There are other scenes that are more lighthearted, but the overall tone of the movie is dark. Having said that, the movie is rated PG. As I detailed in my review of The Jerk, the PG-13 rating didn't exist before 1984. Given the dark comedy and the faked suicide scenes, I think it would qualify for a tame PG-13. It's not graphic, but it's tonally dark sometimes, and probably not something to watch with small kids in the room.
I simply adored the themes in Harold and Maude. Harold embodied nihilism; he believes that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. Existentially, he is without meaning. This was very typical of the doomed outlook of the alienated youth of the era during which this movie was released. Maude embodied a purpose driven life full of optimism having overcome some truly hard times in her past. The two characters are therefore at different points on the same path. Harold is part of a society in which he has no importance. Maude has survived and lives a life with meaning and deliberate choice. It's easy to get drawn into philosophical analysis here, but suffice it to say that it's well implemented and will make you think about life.
The humor is certainly amusing. Easily my favorite scene is when Harold's mother is filling out the information form for the dating service she is signing Harold up for. She's answering all the questions they way she would answer them. She asks Harold how he would answer, but doesn't bother to wait for his input. She indicates that Harold is in favor of capital punishment, thinks women should run for presidential office, and that he has head and back pains after a stressful day. Meanwhile, Harold is loading a handgun and aiming it at himself. His mother takes no notice, until Harold apparently shoots himself. She doesn't even look up and snaps, "Harold! Please!" and calmly continues with the questionnaire. The humor ranges from dry, to dark, to silly, to ironic. It ends up being pretty funny overall.
Harold and Maude was an excellent movie. It's funny, it's interesting, it's dark, and it will make you want to go live life to its fullest. The characters are unique, the script is well written, and the story is fun. It's not perfect, though. The visual style makes everyone look fresh from a wax museum, and the camera work is anything but inspiring. While the characters and story have aged beautifully and are still relatable today, the 1970's cars and fashions have not. Nevertheless, Harold and Maude is a good movie that is worth seeing if you aren't put off by the dark humor. It was a box office bomb in its day, later developed a cult following, and finally started earning a profit in 1983. It's now a cult classic, and I may consider getting a copy of this for my personal collection.
What's the oldest cult classic movie that you enjoy watching? Comment below and tell me about it!