Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Examples
Cult Films have limited but very special appeal. Cult films are usually strange, quirky, offbeat, eccentric, oddball, or surreal, with outrageous, weird, unique and cartoony characters or plots, and garish sets. They are often considered controversial because they step outside standard narrative and technical conventions. They can be very stylized, and they are often flawed or unusual in some striking way.
Most cult films cut across many film genres (science fiction, horror, melodrama, etc.), although some film genres are also more prone to being cultish, such as the horror or sci-fi genres. Teen comedies are also more often rated as cult films, such as American Graffiti (1973), (National Lampoon's) Animal House (1978), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and Dazed and Confused (1993), with quotable lines of dialogue, and memorable characters and scenes. A sampling of the wide range of film genres (and sub-genres) covered by cult films includes:
Many cult films feature or effectively showcase the performance of newcomers or other unknown talented actors/actresses. Sometimes, they were revolutionary, brilliant films 'before their time' (i.e., Fantasia (1940)) and not bound by the conventions of their day. Most often, obscure and cheesy cult films are made by maverick, highly individualistic film-makers with low-budget resources and little commercial marketing. And cult films are rarely, if ever, sequels, since then they would have attained mainstream appeal and widespread success. Some directors/producers are more prone to making cult films, such as Roger Corman, John Waters, Ed Wood, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and David Lynch, especially early in their careers, because of their individualistic perspective and style, although they can often make a conventional 'mainstream' film too (such as David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999)).
More about Cult Films:
Many cult films fared poorly at the box office when first shown, but then achieved cult-film status, developing an enduring loyalty and following among fans over time, often through word-of-mouth recommendations. Cult movie worshippers persuasively argue about the merits of their choices, without regard for standard newspaper or movie reviews from critics. There's no hard-and-fast rule or checklist to gauge what makes a cult film. A cult film is often designated as such "in the eye of the beholder" without fufilling any definition. It's often a matter of opinion. One viewer's cult film may not be judged the same by another viewer.
They elicit a fiery and intense passion in devoted fans, and may cause cultists to enthusiastically champion and become devoted to these films, leading to audience participation, fan club membership, and repetitive viewings and showings at repertory cinemas. Cult films have tremendous followings with certain groups, e.g., college campuses, 'midnight movie' crowds, independent film lovers, etc. The first 'official' midnight movie was Alexandro Jodorosky's strange El Topo (1970, Mex.) (aka The Mole) - a mystical 'spaghetti western' about a black-clad rogue gunfighter on a quest to defeat the 'four masters of the gun.' It premiered at midnight in a rundown NYC theatre (on lower Eighth Avenue) and ran seven nights a week for many months. The concept of long-playing, taboo-breaking, eccentric midnight movies designed to appeal to urban film fans was thereby born.
But just because a segment of devoted viewers (pre-teen girls) repeatedly watch a film - such as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) - to view its star Johnny Depp, or Titanic (1997) (to see Leonardo Di Caprio), or to view the latest George Lucas Star Wars film, doesn't make a film a cult film. However, there are the most popular cult films, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and any of the Star Trek films, that have developed cult followings with all the trappings.
One of the biggest, best-known cult films was not intended to become so popular. It was a low-budget, government 'documentary' propaganda film from the mid-30s created to exploit or dramatize the dangers of marijuana use and demon weed - Reefer Madness (1936). However, Tod Browning's grotesque Freaks (1932), was deliberately advertised as "the strangest...most startling human story ever screened," and had alternate titles including Forbidden Love, The Monster Show, and Nature's Mistakes. It used real-life dwarfs, pinheads, and other human freaks (portraying sideshow circus performers) to present a jolting story of revenge.
When first released, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Almost Famous (2000) were almost instantly pronounced as cult films, but as time progressed, they didn't really fit the category. They were highly-acclaimed, award-winning films that were prominently shown in the mainstream, and it had been too early to judge them as cult films. The media often labels an unusual film as a 'cult film' when it really shouldn't. It takes time for a film to reach cult status.
Camp films are cult-type films, but they are often poorly made or ludicrous, yet still enjoyable and appreciated. Cult films follow no rules or pattern - some cult films are popular only among certain limited groups of audiences or friends.
Music-Based Cult Films:
Some cult films are music-based, such as director Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap (1984), a tongue-in-cheek spoof of rock documentaries, following a faux British heavy metal band's disastrous US tour. Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) was a bizarre film based on the popular rock album, and Ken Russell's Tommy (1975) was the Who's rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid who sure plays a 'mean pinball." Many cultists enjoyed the soundtrack of The Blues Brothers (1980), a farcical musical comedy involving two loser musicians who resurrected their old blues band.
The first of two other quintessential rock musical cult films included the transgender The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) - notable for inspiring the craze of interactive 'midnight movie' screenings. The iconic film was essentially a trashy tale set in a mysterious Gothic castle with kinky extraterrestrial Transylvanian transvestites, two stranded young people (including an underwear-clad Susan Sarandon), and a mad scientist. Fans of the film would line up wearing costumes and bearing props to be unleashed during the midnight showings. The second was a rebellious teenage musical comedy titled Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979) that featured a rock band named The Ramones. Perry Henzell's urban-crime drama The Harder They Come (1973) with musical star Jimmy Cliff, featured a reggae soundtrack and a seamy look at poverty and crime in Jamaica.
Well-Regarded Cult Films:
A number of cult films are well-regarded, such as Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), that became popular many years after its initial release due to repeated television showings. Likewise, the classic weeper An Affair to Remember (1957) has developed a loyal following (it was a remake of Love Affair (1939), was paid homage in Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and remade as Love Affair (1994) with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening).
Others include the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet (1956) that has developed wide cult appeal, Kubrick's intriguing A Clockwork Orange (1971) - a surrealistic tale of an ultra-violent future and the danger of psychological reconditioning, Coppola's anti-Vietnam war epic of a terrifying journey into hell in Apocalypse Now (1979), or another Kubrick classic, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964).
Frank Darabont's subversive, allegorical, and life-affirming prison story about two life-sentenced prisoners, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), based upon a Stephen King story, didn't find its audience and failed at the box-office during its original release, but established a strong cult following its video release/sales and widespread word-of-mouth recommendations. [This became the new pattern of promoting cult films when midnight movie showings had died down.] George Roy Hill, the director of such Oscar-winning hits such as The Sting (1973) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), also helmed the comedy-drama Slap Shot (1977) with Paul Newman - noted as one of the raunchiest, most foul-mouthed, macho sports films ever made. Another highly-regarded cult film was Monte Hellman's low-budget Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) - a late 60s to early 70s entry in the road film genre - that was both an existential character study and a car-chase/race film.
A visually rich Philip-Marlowe style detective film, director Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), set in futuristic, proto-punk Los Angeles in 2019, told about an ex-cop (Harrison Ford) who hunted down renegade human replicants - it has developed a wide cultish following. An early 70s big-cult favorite was director Hal Ashby's dark, eccentric and macabre Harold and Maude (1971) about a strange taboo romance between a 20 year-old boy (Bud Cort) and a fun-loving, joie-de-vivre 79 year-old woman (Ruth Gordon) to the tune of a Cat Stevens soundtrack - with ingenious scenes of the spoiled rich boy's mock suicide attempts staged to upset his mother. A year earlier, Bud Cort had starred in Robert Altman's quirky and satirical fairy tale Brewster McCloud (1970) as a bespectacled boy living in the Houston Astrodome where he was building a machine to escape and fly away. The Sound of Music (1965) when re-released in the late 20th century was presented as a sing-along version (with subtitles) along the lines of the participatory Rocky Horror, with fans dressing up as nuns, lonely goatherds and Nazis.
Conversely, some of the most praised films have pornographic
origins, such as the ground-breaking Behind the Green Door (1972) due
to its star Marilyn Chambers appearing in her first adult role (she was a
former All-American Girl and Ivory Snow detergent model). Also in the early 70s during the height of a sexual revolution, the X-rated Deep Throat (1972) became one of the most influential (and successful) porn films of all time, attended by middle-class whites - it featured an unlikely plot about a sexually-dissatisfied young woman (Linda Lovelace) with a misplaced sex organ who required 'deep throat' fellatio for fulfillment.