Cult Films: What Are They and Why Are They Loved?

Cult film appreciation isn’t a new phenomenon in the slightest. The idea of a film not achieving initial mainstream attention, yet garnering a pocket of devoted fans who keep its legacy alive essentially began in the early 1980s with the advent of technology that became available to the average film viewer, most notably the Videocassette recorder (otherwise known as the VCR). With many films being remastered and released to the public, it unleashed an interest of film home viewing, a concept that initially frightened theaters into believing the VCR would damage the sale of tickets. While VCR owners were able to have personal copies of their favorite films, they inadvertently stumbled onto obscure films that ultimately became popular as a result of word-of-mouth.

One primary example of this was 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. To 2015 mainstream audiences, this seems absurd, yet the 1971 film was a financial flop when it was first released in theaters. It was upon its VHS release in the early 1980s that the film began to gain some recognition and propelled it into appreciation by a very devoted following. As a result, Willy Wonka evolved from being a commercial flop to being a recognized film, otherwise known as a cult film that has a following that kept its very existence alive. However in recent years, especially after its 2005 remake,Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has further evolved from being a cult classic to simply being a classic film, with Gene Wilder’s performance in the title role achieving iconic status.

Willy Wonka

This begs the question: what is a cult film? According to Ian Haigh in his article ‘What Makes a Cult Film?’ he argues such films primarily fall into two categories: obscurity and “so bad it’s good.” He further argues that cult film status is entirely reliant upon its fans who are “active,” opposed to the typical “passive” film viewer. Very often this “active” participation with such films can come in the form of mainstream quotation use, as is often done with the dialogue from Mean Girls (“Is butter a carb?”). This form of “active” participation with cult films is meant as an homage to the film, although not necessary in a positive manner.

Mean Girls is an exception to this considering the film was well-received. The opposite can be said of the 1981 film Mommie Dearest, that evokes the “so bad its good” mantra with cult film enthusiasts. Mommie Dearest was supposed to be an exposé on Hollywood acting legend Joan Crawford, but instead has become the source of unintentional hilarity. The film was a tremendous flop with even Faye Dunaway claiming the film ruined her career, yet the film has a cult following that relishes upon quoting the film’s most unintentionally funny lines that were meant to be dramatic within the narrative of the film. Quotes such as, “Tina, bring me the axe!” or “No wire hangers, ever!” have become invoked within pop culture due to this devoted following of the film.

Mommie Dearest

Another aspect of the “active” spectator comes in the form of dress-up parties or role-playing. However, this very definition taps the line of cult and commercialism, especially when contrasting this definition with mainstream films such as the Harry Potter or Star Wars franchises that have large followings of people who dress-up as their favorite characters and quote on the universes of the film, as if they were genuine entities.

The only deviation from cult and mainstream is that such franchises were made with superior production and released with the intent of having a following. The following of a cult film stems from an organic interest, in which the film viewers nominate it to cult status amongst themselves. This is why Quentin Tarantino, despite his efforts to have his films achieve cult status, cannot ever be described as such. The deliberate efforts of Tarantino, such as the embellished violence he utilized within his Kill Bill films, immediately disqualify such films from being cult films due to Tarantino’s desire to have them classified as such. In order for a film to achieve cult status is for it to gain a following without the mainstream media or production telling fans to see films in such a way.Snatch Poster

In contrast to Tarantino, Guy Richie’s 2000 crime comedy Snatch is a prime example of a film that went beyond its intentions. The film technically works against the working definition of what is a cult classic in that Snatch was well-received by critics. However, the film is functional within the definition because its followers can easily quote the film’s off-beat comedy and the very notion of the unintelligible Brad Pitt and the “Pikeys” have been a recurring source of love with fans of the film. Haigh further explains in his article that the reasoning for this falls in that “a group will pick up on incredibly diverse parts of a movie so that it meets their needs.” Such fan followings pick up upon certain components within a film and elaborate on it to ensure it becomes a reference point that only has exclusive association with the film.

Such is the case with 1985’s Clue, which was based upon the popular board game. In retrospect, Clue isn’t a funny film and many of the components of the film are horrid to watch, yet the viewer cannot help but continue to watch the film progress, and many times, they watch it again for the same experience. Tomas F. Crowder-Taraborrelli describes this occurrence in his article Midnight Movies and the Phenomenon of the Cult Film as films being “…more than mere representations of a fictional world. They allow viewers to create new cultures within the confines of likeminded enthusiasts that extend the meaning of the film itself.” In the example of Clue, the maniacal, highly-animated environment of the film evokes a sense of euphoria with the viewer, to which they cannot help but find themselves immersed in the culture the film provides them. This reiterates the concept of the “active” spectator, to which fans of Clue go beyond quoting the film, but very often have “Clue parties” that involve a viewing of the film with its guests dressing up as one of its various characters.

Clue Film Poster

Crowder-Taraborrelli elaborates further by describing cult films embodying the “midnight film” component to its overall appreciation. By “midnight film,” Crowder-Taraborrelli is referring to theaters, mostly small independent theaters, having midnight viewings of cult films. Often this is an opportunity for devoted fans to go to the theater and see the film in its original format of how it was intended for audiences to see it. Other times, the theater uses the film viewing to additionally provide live entertainment during the film viewing, usually as a homage. The best example (and most obvious) of a midnight film is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It ought to be further noted that the only reason RHPS stays within the cult film canon is due to its midnight film status.

This is particularly because, like Willy Wonka, RHPS is widely recognized and Tim Curry’s performance as Dr. Frank N. Furter has become iconic with film enthusiasts. Furthermore with television shows such as Glee devoting episodes to the film’s music or it being selected for preservation at the National Film Registry in 2005, it can be argued that RHPS is more mainstream than cult. However, with its continuation of midnight showings, any argument against RHPS not being a cult film can easily be dismissed. Also in support of RHPS still being a cult film is that like Willy Wonka, RHPS was critically panned when it was first released and it wasn’t until its VHS release in 1983 that it gained a devoted following.

Rocky Horror Picture Show

This now asks the question as to why cult films are accepted and loved. When observing the conventions of popular cult films, the argument can be made that it is due to their rejection of the normal conventions of film. Instead, cult films adopt their own aura and completely ignore what is the expectation of their film. Crowder-Taraborrelli adds onto this with his claim, “generally, cult films tend to poke fun at suburban middle-class values that display cheap replicas of luxury objects connected with the elites.”

In the context of 1999’s Office Space, this is a true assessment. The environment of the burnt out office workers resonated with many with its satirical take on the ordinary. As a result, Office Space is synonymous with imagery of punching out malfunctioning office machinery or knowingly irritating someone with the quotation, “Looks like someone has a case of the Mondays.” The idea of satirizing the suburban is precisely why John Water’s 1994’s Serial Mom has become a cult film with its concept of the happy clichéd housewife (Kathleen Turner) actually being a serial killer who murders anyone who hasn’t adequately conformed to the conventions of living in suburbia. Taking suburbia to such an extreme is the very definition of breaking film and social norms.

Office Space

What will ultimately aid this feature in identifying what truly allows for a film to be part of the cult canon is Dan Bentley Baker’s article What is Cult Cinema? that includes his 8-point checklist for “Determining ‘Cult Film’ Status:”

1. Marginality           Content falls outside general cultural norms
2. Suppression           Subject to censor, ridicule, lawsuit, or exclusion
3. Economics             Box office flop upon release but eventually profitable
4. Transgression        Content breaks social, moral, or legal rules
5. Cult following        Generates devoted minority audience
6. Community            Audience is or becomes self-identified group
7. Quotation                Lines of dialog become common language
8. Iconography           Establishes or revives cult icons

When using this list against the 2001 film, Donnie Darko, a known cult film, this is how the film fared with the 8-point checklist:

Donnie Darko Poster
1. Marginality           Time travel, “End of the World” motif
2. Suppression           N/A
3. Economics             Initially only shown in 58 theaters nationwide
4. Transgression        Vandalism and chaos is somewhat celebrated
5. Cult following        Yes
6. Community            Both physics and horror groups
7. Quotation                “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!”
8. Iconography           Frank, the 6 foot rabbit

Therefore, this 8-point list is a functional tool that can provide assessment and further establish what complies within the realm of cult film status.

What ultimately functions as the working definition of what a ‘cult film’ is falls in its viewership – a viewership that is devoid of mainstream influence. Cult films can attain mainstream appreciation, but it is directly correlated to a devoted viewership that propels it upwards to such a status. That is because the films were initially “obscure” or “so bad its good,” to which they were adopted by interest groups. These interest groups adopt such films due to their breaking outside of the normative conventions of cinema, and very often, they enjoyed the aura the film provides in cultural/environmental deviation or the satirizing of suburbia. To summarize: cult films are not necessary ‘bad films,’ but are rather an acquired taste that may or may not appeal to the senses.

Works Cited:

Bentley-Baker, Dan. “What is Cult Cinema? A Checklist.” Bright Lights Film Journal. 31 July 2010. Online Source.

Crowder-Taraborrelli. “Midnight Movies and the Phenomenon of the Cult Film.” IN: Cult Pop Culture: How the Fringe Became Mainstream. Ed. Bob Batchelor. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2012. Pg. 27-36. eBook.

Haigh, Ian. What makes a cult film? BBC News Magazine. 3 May 2010. Online Source.

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  1. I never made the connection with the VCR but that is precisely the tool that made The Princess Bride so quotable and cult followed.

  2. I love this post – super informative and helpful to fellow film reviewers, like myself. Thank you

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