I think there are very few movies that can still be considered cult classics in a true sense of the word, such as Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eating Raoul, or Eraserhead. My own definition is films that had moderate, or even poor success at the box office, but picked up a following when released on video. However, I'm not sure films like Star Wars, or The Matrix qualify as cult in any sense.
Favorite Cult Movies
Cultographies' Definition of Cult Cinema
The Short Definition:
A cult film is characterized by its active and lively communal following.
Highly committed and rebellious in their appreciation, cult audiences are frequently at odds with cultural conventions – they prefer strange topics and allegorical themes that rub against cultural sensitivities and resist dominant politics.
Cult films transgress common notions of good and bad taste, and they challenge genre conventions and coherent storytelling.
Among the techniques cult films use are intertextual references, gore, loose ends in storylines, or the creation of a sense of nostalgia.
Often, cult films have troublesome production histories, coloured by accidents, failures, legends and mysteries that involve their stars and directors.
In spite of often-limited accessibility, they have a continuous market value and a long-lasting public presence.
The Somewhat Longer But More Precise Definition With Examples:
A cult film is defined through a variety of combinations that include four major elements:
- Anatomy: the film itself – its features: content, style, format, and generic modes.
- Consumption: the ways in which it is received – the audience reactions, fan celebrations, and critical receptions.
- Political Economy: the financial and physical conditions of presence of the film – its ownerships, intentions, promotions, channels of presentation, and the spaces and times of its exhibition.
- Cultural status: the way in which a cult film fits a time or region – how it comments on its surroundings, by complying, exploiting, critiquing, or offending.
We do not propose that all of these elements need to be fulfilled together. But we do suggest that each of them is of high significance in what makes a film cult.
The Anatomy of Cult Film
There are some features that tend to be associated with cult films more than others. The first is Innovation. Cult films contain an element of innovation, aesthetically or thematically; they challenges conventions and instigate new techniques. Contrary to films that insert small and careful innovations to avoid upsetting viewers, cult films are shocks to the system. Many extremely progressive ‘arthouse’ films have gained a status of cult. Examples include Un chien andalou (1928), Salo (1975) Le weekend (1967) or In the Realm of the Senses (1976).
A second quality is Badness. Cult films are often considered bad, aesthetically or morally. Of particular interest are those films being valued for their ‘ineptness’ or poor cinematic achievement, which places them in opposition to the ‘norm’ or mainstream in that they attain a status of ‘outrageous otherness’. ‘Bad’ films quickly gain a status as cult (though far from all ‘bad’ films achieve that status). Examples are Reefer Madness (1934), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), or Showgirls (1995).
Transgression goes beyond the basic poles of good and bad. A lot of the competence of a cult film lies in its ability to obliterate any possible comparison with any other films – so they are not better than others, nor worse, they are off the planet. This involves ignoring 'conventions' of filmmaking, which may include stylistic, moral, or political qualities, either through crudeness (Thundercrack, 1975) or inventiveness (Eraserhead, 1977). Transgression often connects cult cinema with US avant-garde cinemas, like the films of Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and the Kuchar Brothers. It also relates to unusual films like El Topo (1970) or The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Cult films are often made within the constraints and possibilities of Genre, and as such they adhere to well-structured regimes of production. Yet they blur and push the generic conventions by mixing genres (Alien, 1979), exposing and/or mocking a ge-nre’s unwritten rules satirically (Blazing Saddles, 1974) or hyperbolically exaggerating those rules (Barbarella, 1968). Instead of taking culture seriously, cult films carnivalize culture, turning it into one big uncontrolled mess. The most popular genres that lend itself for these treatments are horror, science-fiction, and fantasy because of their utopian and dystopian opportunities (Blade Runner, 1982; Labyrinth, 1984); and melodrama and musical because of their overplaying of the emotional states of characters and situations (Gone With the Wind, 1939; Sound of Music, 1965). Often, generic styles are upset by the use of decidedly artificial motives. Surrealist imagery and deadpan existentialist performances are favourite techniques (The Blues Brothers, 1980; The Big Lebowski, 1998).
Cult films are Intertextual. They invite comparisons, connections, and linkages with other films and other parts of culture. This involves the inclusion of references to other film texts in the form of quotes or cameos but also the calling into reflection of cultural myths, historical backgrounds, and archetypes. At its most subtle, intertextuality offers playful inside jokes for avid audiences. Good examples are the layers of references in From Dusk ‘till Dawn (1995) or Ginger Snaps (2000). Exquisite use of intertextuality puts cult films at the centre of fashions, such as swinging London in Blow Up (1966), hippiedom in Easy Rider (1969) or Generation X in Slacker (1993), making them a true ‘testimony of the times’. At its extreme, intertextuality turns the story into a direct address of films or media, like in Videodrome (1983).
Many cult films leave room for narrative and stylistic Loose Ends: the impression the film is unfinished. Abrupt, insultingly conformist, or dissatisfying or puzzling endings are good examples of loose ends. They are also typical for scenes that show obvious signs of inclusion, or deletion of material at a later stage (caused by censorship, studio interference, wear, or force majeure). Loose ends violate continuity, disrespect narrative cohesion (either a sign of integrity, incompetence, or of selling out). Ironically, these interventions become badges of honour. They give viewers the freedom of speculating on the story, and polishing or radicalizing the style on the film’s behalf. It puts hilariously bad movies (Maniac, 1934) shoulder to shoulder with films that received harsh censorship treatments (Last House on the Left, 1972), and films whose story is simply too complex or convoluted for a straightforward narrative (2001, A Space Odyssey, 1968).
A core feature of many cult films is their ability to trigger a sense of Nostalgia, a yearning for an idealized past. The nostalgia can be part of the film’s story. Humphrey Bogart’s remark, in Casablanca (1942), that he and Ingrid Bergman will “always have Paris” is perhaps the best example. But most likely it is an emotional impression. Much of the cult reputation of Sissi (1955-1957) and The Sound of Music (1965) relies on their ability to evoke nostalgia for the glamour and picturesque scenery of traditional Austria, encapsulated in the cities of Vienna and Salzburg (which have since becomes sites of pilgrimage for fans). Cities oozing grandeur, such as Rome (Roman Holiday, 1953) or Venice (Don’t Look Now, 1973) add to films’ cult appeals. Painstakingly authentic historical epics, such as Das Boot (1981), while not evoking nostalgia in the same way, also draw a lot of their cult appeal through their ability to submerge audiences in a ‘past world’.
A trope often appearing in combination with nostalgia is Time-Travel. Because it creates loose ends and defies logic and cohesion of narration and space-time continuity, it is an ideal technique for cult films. It allows for visualizations of past, future, or a parallel present, and it is a guaranteed way of generating speculation on how to interpret the story, and where (and when) it belongs, as evidenced by the cult followings for Donnie Darko (2001), Back to the Future (1985), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
‘Yukkie stuff’ or Gore is a sure way to grant films a cult status. This not only relates to films that transgress on the level of explicit violence or presentation of uncomfortable materials (like horror films), but also to films whose content and style invokes a sense of ‘impurity’ or ‘endangerment’ of the human body’s physical integrity, in the sense that they contain explicit violence, decay, mutilation, or cannibalism and they involve lots of fluids that cross the border between the inside and outside of the body: tears, sweat, spit, urine, blood, pus, and other excretions. Examples are The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), or the gory special effects of Evil Dead (1982), The Thing (1982), and Scanners (1981).
My own definition is films that had moderate, or even poor success at the box office, but picked up a following when released on video. However, I'm not sure films like Star Wars, or The Matrix qualify as cult in any sense.
I agree. I think Princess Bride does qualify here as does Napoleon Dynamite because college kids will get together and bounce the dialogue off each other and they will watch the movies over and over.
Harold and Maude is a very favorite cult movie of many, released only in select art theaters in 1972, it still has a following. The dark humor and dim look upon the military and war kept it from being a wide release film. Also, some could not handle the idea of a May/December love affair involving a much older woman and very young man.
Although I agree with certain aspects of Satanus' quoted definition the most defining feature of a cult film is it's limited appeal. Cult films are not mainstream hollywood cinema.
It's such a shame being on the other side of the planet, missing comments while sleeping.
OK OK I will stick to the definition being put up here (LOL) and once again put up In the Realm of the Senses.
Now if that don't qualify nuthin' does!!!
I always liked blade runner. I'm surprised that it's on the list. I thought that it was popular.