Film & TV

What is a Cult Film?

You know even before sitting down in front of the TV that a film which has been classified as having achieved ‘cult status’ is going to provide a good couple of hours’ peerless entertainment.

After all, it’s not a description which is bandied around without having previously worked hard to receive such an audience/generation-spanning accolade.

We’re all au fait with cult films, whether wittingly or not, with most movie fans being able to reel off at least a handful (please see below) of those titles universally acknowledged as having realized such a lofty position in the movie lovers’ conscience.

According to experts, there’s no tried and tested formula devised to determine what defining qualities actually contribute to the making of what cinema-goers across the globe widely regard to be ‘cult films’.

Not a single mathematical calculus or scientific experiment exists to ascertain what might qualify a movie, aside from the one all-encompassing rule of thumb. That being the film in question has developed a fiercely devoted audience that hasn’t just watched it the once.

On the contrary, such is their obsession with said flick the chances are such obsessives know pretty much every twist, turn, nuance, and line delivered; while perhaps unnerving, the uninitiated is considered the primary motivator in this context.

Not only do fans of cult classics repeatedly view their favorite film, but there’s also a strong possibility that they’ve not watched these movies alone but rather have shared a packed cinema with other die-hard fans, traditionally after midnight during cult-favorite ‘special viewings’.

It’s not unheard of for disciples of films such as Clerks (1994), Blade Runner (1982), Donnie Darko, (2001, A Clockwork Orange (1971) and, arguably the most habitually-discussed in cult film terms, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), to attend extra screenings and fan-organised conventions dressed as a character from the movie.

More traditionally, however, the films are watched on a continual loop, together with being analyzed on the internet, where cult film groupies can talk endlessly about their cinematic crushes.

According to Italian philosopher and critic Umberto Eco’s 1984 essay Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage, cult films:

Provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world.

One person who pretty much nails what key components comprise a cult film is Dan Bentley Baker, whose What is Cult Cinema? article we borrow for the below; largely for its eight-point checklist for determining what core principles amount to cult film status.

These are – in no particular order of preference:

  • ‘marginality’ (content falls outside general cultural norms)
  • ‘suppression’ (subject to censor, ridicule, lawsuit, or exclusion)
  • ‘economics’ (box office flop upon release but eventually profitable)
  • ‘transgression’ (content breaks social, moral, or legal rules)
  • ‘cult following’ (generates devoted minority audience)
  • ‘community’ (audience is/or becomes self-identified group)
  • ‘quotation’ (lines of dialog become common language)
  • ‘iconography’ (establishes or revives cult icons)

When Did Cult Films Become ‘a Thing?’

The answer being: a very long time ago.

Although, some would argue that cult films first broke their waters in the early 1980s, thanks in no small part to the advent of technology that became available to the average film viewer.

Yes, we’re talking about the otherwise unassuming videocassette recorder or VCR. With VCR owners suddenly being able to have personal copies of their favorite films, a by-product of this was that they’d inevitably happen upon obscure films, which would subsequently become inexplicably popular because of word-of-mouth. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) is one such example; it flopped at the box office in the 70s yet found a new lease of life a decade later.

Now, we must travel back to the early 1920s to find out exactly when cult films were invented, as it was in then (1922, to be precise) that the German expressionist horror film, Nosferatu, was released; and thus, became the first of its (yet unclassified) genre.

This unashamed – yet unauthorized –adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) quickly found itself in court, with Stoker’s estate suing and the German courts ordered all copies to be destroyed. Cue the notoriety being a precursor to what later came to be known as ‘cult’.

Essentially, anything pushed underground, as was the case with Nosferatu. Just one print of the film survived; thereafter, bootleg copies began circulating in Europe.

10 All-time Cult Film Classics

Some might immediately declare anything by David Lynch, Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, and Tim Burton an all-time cult classic, and almost always The Toxic Avenger (1984) series will crop up in related cult film conversation. But we’re going to ignore these and, instead, concentrate on the movies below:

  • Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978) – The story of killer tomatoes terrorizing America.
  • Withnail and I (1987) – A couple of resting actors have a bad holiday experience in Cumbria.
  • Donnie Darko (2001) – A surreal movie which initially grossed a mere $514,545 in five months of US cinema screenings yet. A 2002 re-release, including 28 consecutive months of midnight screenings in New York, saw the tragic, teen-disenfranchised film achieve cult status.
  • A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic came to be after the director withdrew the film in the UK soon after its release; ergo denying it a place in the mainstream. Countless battered VHS tapes (passed reverentially between teenagers) propelled movie into rites of passage-esque territory until it was eventually re-released some three decades later.
  • Reefer Madness (1936) – Long considered a cult classic, the original aim of the 1936 film (released by a well-meaning church group) was to highlight the dangers of marijuana. In the event the stoner community readily embraced the sensationalized propaganda and it instantly became a hit amongst those who partake in recreational drugs, and remains as such today.
  • Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) – The so-bad-it’s-good Ed Wood cinematic vehicle is a perennial candidate for the title of worst film ever made, tragically. Yet, historically, fans are awe-struck by the sheer volume of continuity errors (and scenes where actors visibly read from scripts) in the legendary 1959 film set in Turkey. Remember, this a movie which replaced its lead actor, Bela Lugosi (who sadly passed during filming), with a significantly taller man.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – Arguably one of the most cult-like films ever, Rocky Horror was another that failed to appeal to a broad demographic on its original release in 1975, yet within a year the film’s fan base showed significant signs of improvement as audiences began warming to it. Not content with merely warming to it, fans then reveled in turning up to midnight screenings donned in fishnet stockings and leather, as per the lead characters, and so starting a trend, which has endured some four decades and counting.
  • The Big Lebowski (1998) – The Coen Brothers iconic breakthrough comedy about a lead character known only as ‘The Dude’ went on to inspire an annual festival full of trivia contests and bowling, in his honor. This cult classic always featured prominently in Top 10 lists.
  • The Blues Brothers (1980) – John Belushi’s Jake reunites with brother, Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), after the former’s prison release in this seminal buddy movie. Defined by a musical score which has spawned many a karaoke session, this cult film is as popular now as it was in 1980.
  • This Is Spinal Tap (1984) – An insightful fly-on-the-wall documentary-cum-alternative travelogue which throws the spotlight on a metal band struggling to return to the charts. This cult classic includes their complicated history of ups and downs, gold albums, name changes, and under-sold concert dates, to further expose their groupies, promoters, and hangers-on.

Actors with Cult Status

As well as the label’s films, numerous actors are commonly associated with cult films:

  • Malcolm McDowell – The leader of the violent Droogs gang in Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking A Clockwork Orange; an aged Paul Bettany in Gangster No. 1 (2000), and characters in the Hughes Brothers’ The Book Of Eli (2010) and Time After Time (1979), plus many more.
  • Hugo Weaving – Starring roles in The Matrix trilogy (1995-2005) and V for Vendetta (2005).
  • Milla Jovovich – Leading roles in The Fifth Element (1997) and Resident Evil franchise (2002).
  • Danny Trejo –Trejo earned his cult film actor stars in such classics as From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), the Machete franchise (2010), and Con Air (1997), to name but three.
  • Kurt RussellThe Thing (1982), Escape From New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and Tango & Cash (1989). Need we say more?
  • Sigourney Weaver – From Alien (1979) to Ghostbusters (1984) and Galaxy Quest (1999), Weaver has been instrumental in enhancing her cult actor credentials for a long time now.
  • Christopher Lee – From 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein through to the more recent The Wicker Man (1973) and Sleepy Hollow (1999), few actors have achieved such cult success.
  • Bela Lugosi – The star, albeit replaced in part, of Ed Wood’s revered cult masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Lugosi also made the role of Dracula in Dracula (1931) his own.

Why Are Cult Films So Popular?

Variously described as films with a rabid fan base, select audience appeal and/or those that routinely embrace the genre of cult (trashy, low-fi, shocking, offensive, etc.), cult films are movies that have transcended simple box office popularity and become features with a dedicated and engaged fan-base that engages in an elaborate sub-culture surrounding the film.

More than this, they stand repeated viewings and passages from such film effortlessly work their way into daily vocabulary and perception of the world around them. And notwithstanding, cult films do have a pleasingly recurrent habit of poking fun at suburban middle-class values that display cheap replicas of luxury objects connected with the elites.

Due to systematically breaking outside of more normative conventions of cinema, people feel a sense of belonging when submersing themselves in the auras certain cult films foster; especially when demonizing the frippery of suburbia in both cultural and environmental styles.

Richard Hammond

I am the founder of 9Mousai and am deeply interested in creativity and what inspires it. My main passions are writing, film and music but I have huge respect for all the arts. I'm also an animal lover and have a little cat called Winston and enjoy the occasional whiskey or two...

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