A cult film, also commonly referred to as a cult classic, is a film that has acquired a highly devoted but specific group of fans. Often, cult movies have failed to achieve fame outside the small fanbases; however, there have been exceptions that have managed to gain fame among mainstream audiences. Many cult movies have gone on to transcend their original cult status and have become recognized as classics; others are of the "so bad it's good" variety and are destined to remain in obscurity. Cult films often become the source of a thriving, obsessive, and elaborate subculture of fandom, hence the analogy to cults. However, not every film with a devoted fanbase is necessarily a cult film. Usually, cult films have limited but very special, noted appeal. Cult films are often known to be eccentric, often do not follow traditional standards of mainstream cinema and usually explore topics not considered in any way mainstream—yet there are examples that are relatively normal. Many are often considered controversial because they step outside standard narrative and technical conventions.
A cult film is a movie that attracts a devoted group of followers or obsessive fans, often despite having failed commercially on its initial release. The term also describes films that have remained popular over a long period of time amongst a small group of followers. Although they may only have a short cinema life, cult films often enjoy ongoing popularity through long runs on video, thus being issued in video "runs" with more copies than other movies. The movie Office Space (1999), which lost money during its box office run, managed to turn significant profits when word-of-mouth made it a popular video rental and purchase. Harold and Maude (1971) was not successful financially at the time of its original release, but has since earned a cult following and has become successful following its video and DVD releases. Many cult films were independent films and were not expected by their creators to have mainstream success. Sometimes the audience response to a cult film is somewhat different than what was intended by the film makers. Cult films usually offer something different or innovative in comparison to mainstream films, but cult films can also be popular across a wide audience.
A film can be both a major studio release and a cult film, particularly if despite its affiliation with a major studio, it failed to achieve broad success on either the theatrical or home video markets but was championed by a small number of dedicated film fanatics who seek out lesser-known offerings. It is also true that the content of certain films (such as dark subjects, alienation, transgressive content, or other controversial subject matter) can also decide whether or not a film is a "cult film", regardless of the film's budget or studio affiliations. An example may be Paul Verhoeven's big budgeted, highly sexualized Showgirls (1995), initially intended to be a drama film about the rise of a Las Vegas stripper, that flopped both critically and commercially when released theatrically; afterward, it enjoyed success on the home video market, generating more than $100 million from video rentals. Today, it is a favorite of gay audiences and audiences in general have considered it to be a comedy thanks to frequent midnight movie showings. According to activist writer Naomi Klein, ironic enjoyment of the film initially arose among those with the video before MGM, the film's chief marketer, capitalized on the idea. MGM noticed the video was performing all right, since "trendy twenty-somethings were throwing Showgirls irony parties, laughing sardonically at the implausibly poor screenplay and shrieking with horror at the aerobic sexual encounters."
1959 to 1970s
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and other films by Edward D. Wood, Jr. were considered cult classics,[by whom?] attracting devotees who reveled in his incompetence. Other low-budget science fiction and horror films of the 1950s (for example Robot Monster), along with exploitation films of the 1930s, which resurfaced in the home video market of the 1980s (including the infamous Reefer Madness), were accorded that status.
The low budget horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968) directed by George A. Romero earned moderate box office takings but was critically polarized at the time. However, the culture of Vietnam-era United States had a tremendous impact on the film and the film was given a cult status after playing frequently at midnight movie circuits. It is so thoroughly laden with critiques of late-1960s American society that one historian described the film as "subversive on many levels." While not the first zombie film made, Night of the Living Dead influenced countless films and is perhaps the defining influence on the modern pop-culture zombie archetype. The film is the first of six Dead films (completed or pending) directed by Romero.
John Waters' Pink Flamingos (1972), was wildly controversial (being an exercise in "poor taste") featuring incest and coprophagia, became the best known of a group of campy midnight films focusing on sexual perversions and fetishism. Filmed on weekends in Waters's hometown of Baltimore, with a mile-long extension cord as a power conduit, it was also crucial in inspiring the growth of the independent film movement. In 1973, the Elgin Theater started midnight screenings of both Pink Flamingos and a crime drama from Jamaica with a remarkable soundtrack. In its mainstream release, The Harder They Come (1972) had been a flop, panned by critics after its U.S. distributor, Roger Corman's New World Pictures, marketed it as a blaxploitation picture. Re-released as a midnight film, it screened around the country for six years, helping spur the popularity of reggae in the United States. While the midnight-movie potential of certain films was recognized only some time after they opened, a number during this period were distributed to take advantage of the market from the beginning—in 1973, for instance, Broken Goddess, Dragula, The White Whore and the Bit Player, and Elevator Girls in Bondage (as well as Pink Flamingos) had their New York premieres at midnight screenings. In 1974, midnight opener Flesh Gordon evidenced how the phenomenon lent itself to flirtations with pornography.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show satirizes conventions of science fiction and horror films, and includes elements of transvestism, incest and homosexuality – all within the context of a musical film. The film received little critical attention or mainstream cinema exhibition when first released in 1975, but built up a base of fans who repeatedly showed up at midnight screenings at inexpensive neighborhood cinemas, dressed in costume and "participating" in the film by doing such things as throwing rice during its wedding scene. In this case, the film intentionally ridiculed its own subject matter, thereby entering into the spirit of sarcastic fun often surrounding the attainment of cult status. Much of the attention has stemmed from the fanbase, rather than the film itself. Network television, cable television and pay-per-view stations have also changed the nature of cult films. David Lynch's experimental Eraserhead (1977), an example of shoe-string surrealism was a flop both critically and commercially, yet was saved from obscurity thanks to home video in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Comedy films have also been cult classics. In 1979, Steven Spielberg, after two blockbuster hits (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), decided to try the comedy genre with 1941, set days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film, spoofing popular film genres of the 1940s (and World War II in general), is considered by critics as Spielberg's first flop, although it made a small profit for Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios compared to Spielberg's earlier (and later) blockbuster hits. It gained a cult following after it aired in an extended version on the U.S. ABC network, and years after on Laserdisc and DVD.
1980s to present
The commercial viability of the sort of big-city arthouses that launched outsider pictures for the midnight movie circuit began to decline in the late 1970s as broad social and economic shifts weakened their countercultural base. Leading midnight movie venues were beginning to fold as early as 1977 – that year, New York's Bijou switched back permanently to the live entertainment for which it had been built, and the Elgin, after a brief run with gay porn, shut down completely. In succeeding years, the popularization of the VCR and the expansion of movie-viewing possibilities on cable television meant the death of many additional independent theaters, which as a result, developed a stream of newer cult films. Possibly the first of these was the biographical Mommie Dearest (1981), which details the life of Joan Crawford and her alleged abusive relationship with her adopted daughter. The over-acting by Faye Dunaway as Crawford gave the film a campy tone, and critics were very negative towards the film. While Dunaway garnered some critical acclaim for her astonishing physical metamorphosis and her portrayal of Crawford (finishing a narrow second in the voting for the New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Actress of the Year), she also received a Razzie Award for Worst Actress and caused considerable damage to her career. It did manage to develop a cult classic status, especially with gay audiences and became famous for Dunaway's emphasis on the line "No wire hangers, ever!", when urging her daughter not to use them in her closet.
While Rocky Horror soldiered on, by then a phenomenon unto itself, and new films like The Warriors (1979), The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), The Evil Dead (1981), Heavy Metal (1981), and Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)—all from mainstream distributors—were picked up by the midnight movie circuit, the core of exhibitors that energized the movement was disappearing. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) was financially unsuccessful upon its initial release. The film was, however, re-released in 1992 and achieved cult status. It has since become a leading example of the science fiction genre.
In 1984, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, starring Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai, whose latest experiment opens the door to the 8th dimension and unwittingly starts an interstellar battle for the world. Directed by W.D. Richter the film has since received cult status. Entertainment Weekly ranked Buckaroo Banzai as No.43 in their Top 50 Cult Movies.
Also in 1984, Dino De Laurentiis released Dune, based on Frank Herbert's best-selling sci-fi novel. Directed by David Lynch, the film was a big-budget flop, partially because the movie had already been edited from an intended three-to-four hours to 137 minutes, leaving the story incomprehensible. Knowing that a great deal of footage had been deleted, Universal Studios took it upon themselves to release a longer version for syndicated television and thereby, return some of the cohesiveness to the story. Thus, Dune became a cult classic, albeit too late, as David Lynch had removed his name from the credits of the television cut. Both major versions have been successful thanks to a recent DVD release.
1985 saw the making of two Arnon Milchan films that were, like Dune before it, substantially altered by Universal Studios in an attempt to find a mainstream audience. Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), a dystopian science fiction film about a man's relationship with the woman of his dreams became a huge failure (largely because of the difficulties involved in marketing the film), yet was critically acclaimed and subsequently revitalized by video releases. Then, by the time Legend, directed by Ridley Scott, opened in European theatres, it had already been edited by 20 minutes by Universal. Having failed at the U.K. box office, it was further edited by five minutes for U.S. release a year later and Jerry Goldsmith's original orchestral score replaced by a rock score by Tangerine Dream. Interest in the missing footage and score helped to build the film's cult status, which paid off when in 2002, DVD audiences finally saw Legend in a version closer to director Scott's intent.
A year later, David Lynch's highly influential neo-noir thriller Blue Velvet (1986), having initially failed at the box office (because of its limited release in theatres), was revitalized with video releases in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The film became hugely controversial and well-known because of its bizarre, often graphic depiction of small town America and male–female relationships featuring a psychotic Dennis Hopper and his drug-fueled sexual relationship with Dorothy Vallens, played by Isabella Rossellini. Lynch continued his career with various other cult films: Wild at Heart (1990), Lost Highway (1997) and the critically acclaimed Mulholland Dr. (2001) as well as his short lived cult phenomenon television series Twin Peaks (1990–91), and its subsequent movie adaptation: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Another cult item is the Jim Jarmusch film from 1989 Mystery Train, which includes Joe Strummer and Tom Waits.
Alan Parker's hybrid mystery/horror film, Angel Heart (1987), starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, fared poorly at the box office, only just breaking even. Despite this, the film became a hit once released on VHS, and has become a cult classic since, known for its spooky tone, Michael Seresin's cinematography, the sad and spooky score by Trevor Jones, and an unusual but effective blend of genres. Two of the movie's producers, Andrew G. Vajna and Mario Kassar, also produced the cult film Jacob's Ladder which had a similar narrative structure, as well as a 'twist' ending.
Michael Lehmann's satirical teenage comedy Heathers (1989), starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, was intended to take on the John Hughes teenage films (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles) and give them a much darker, realistic and comedic approach. However, the film was a failure at the box office (mainly because of its limited release). Despite this, it was hugely popular on VHS in the early 1990s and launched cutting-edge dialogue spoken by its characters ('What's your damage?', 'I love my dead, gay son!') into mainstream popular culture. In 1993, the comedy horror Army of Darkness, a sequel to the Evil Dead series, was released. The movie had a considerably higher budget than the prior two Evil Dead films. The budget was estimated to be around $11 million; while Evil Dead II had a budget of $3.5 million and The Evil Dead a budget of $350,000. At the box office, Army of Darkness was not a big success as hoped, only grossing $11,501,093 domestically. After its video release, however, it obtained a cult following, along with the other two films in the trilogy. One of the most successful of the 1990s generation of cult films was the Australian drag queen road saga The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). One of the theaters to show it regularly at midnight was New York's Waverly (also now closed), where Rocky Horror had played for a house record ninety-five weeks. Writer/director Todd Solondz, a favorite cult director, had his first major success with the black comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), a brutally-honest look at the persecution of a young junior high student by her classmates. His next film was the challenging, controversial dark comedy of sex and perversion in American suburbia—titled Happiness (1998). The Big Lebowski (1998) was a flop on its initial release, yet became a cult classic and has been called "the first cult film of the Internet era." Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) had a disappointing box office performance but is considered to be a "cult favorite" because of its unique art and animation style inspired by comic book artist Mike Mignola.
Older films are also popular on the circuit, appreciated largely in an imposed camp fashion—a midnight movie tradition that goes back to the 1972 revival of the hectoring anti-drug movie Reefer Madness (1938). (Tod Browning's 1932 horror classic Freaks, the original midnight movie revival, is both too dark and too sociologically acute to readily consume as camp.) Where the irony with which Reefer Madness was adopted as a midnight favorite had its roots in a countercultural sensibility, in the latter's place there is now the paradoxical element of nostalgia: the leading revivals currently on the circuit ironically include clearly non-cult films like John Hughes oeuvre—The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), which were major studio productions and popular and financially successful during their original releases, and the teen adventure film The Goonies (1985).
Cult films within a particular culture
Occasionally, a film can become the object of a cult following within a particular region or culture if it has some unusual significance to that region or culture. An example is the cult status of British comedic actor Norman Wisdom's films in Albania. Wisdom's films, in which he usually played a family man worker who outsmarts his boss, were some of the few Western films considered acceptable by the country's communist rulers, thus Albanians grew familiar and attached to Wisdom. Curiously, he and his films are now acquiring nostalgic cult status in Britain. Another example is the place of The Wizard of Oz (1939) in American and British gay culture, although a widely viewed and historically important film in greater American culture. Gay men sometimes refer to themselves as "friends of Dorothy". Singin' in the Rain is another film adopted by American gay culture which used to regularly be shown during the 1980s and early 1990s for extended runs. Slaves of New York, Can't Stop the Music, and A Night in Heaven have also found a cult audience in the gay community.
In the world of anime, the MTV spoof series Ultracity 6060 created by Beavis and Butt-head animator Mike Judge has become a hard-to-acquire cult classic among American anime fans. Judge's gory send-up When Animated Animals Attack is also a cult hit among animation festival fans in North America, as are the works of Don Hertzfeldt (Billy's Balloon, Rejected, The Meaning of Life) and Robert Smigel.
The 1938 anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness has become a cult film within the stoner subculture due to its humorously sensationalized, outdated and inaccurate descriptions of the effects of marijuana. 20th Century Fox and Legend Films released a colorized version of the film on DVD on April 20, 2004, a reference to its ironic appeal (see 420 (cannabis culture)).[original research?] The World War II-era Department of Agriculture film Hemp for Victory, encouraging the growing of hemp for war uses, has achieved a similar cult status. Entry-level IT workers and white-collar American workers alike have given Mike Judge's 1999 comedy film Office Space a cult following because of its heroic portrayal of ordinary office employees who become fed up with their jobs, make a stand, and try to overthrow the very corporation for which they work. Belgian cult movie Man Bites Dog with Benoit Poelvoorde and the surrealist movie Camping Cosmos starring cult figures like Lolo Ferrari, Noël Godin and Arno Hintjens, are an element of the Belgian visual landscape with reminiscences to Belgian Surrealism.
International cult cinema
Asian cinema, particularly Hong Kong martial arts films, such as wuxia, and Japanese tokusatsu, primarily from the Daikaiju Eiga, and anime, also has a cult following in the Western hemisphere. The Kaiju genre of films, most famously the Godzilla films, while enjoying much mainstream popularity in Japan, has a large cult following in the U.S.. Battle Royale has gained cult status in Britain due to the resonance the film has with the disaffected youth of that country. The action film Red Heat (1988) has found a cult audience amongst fluent Russian speakers because of the movie's weak portrayal of the Russian language and stereotypes.
So-bad-they're-good cult films and camp classics
Many films enjoy cult status because they may be seen as ridiculously awful, for example Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958) or The Room (2003). The critic Michael Medved characterized examples of the "so bad it's good" class of low-budget cult film through books such as The Golden Turkey Awards. These films include such financially fruitless and critically scorned films, such as Showgirls, The Lonely Lady, Mommie Dearest, Cool as Ice, Boxing Helena, Manos: The Hands of Fate, North, The Wicker Man, Fatal Deviation, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, and Troll 2, which have become inadvertent comedies to film buffs. Movies have even achieved cult status by successfully imitating the awfulnesses of so-bad-it's-good movies (The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and Amazon Women on the Moon being just two examples).
In other cases, little-known or forgotten films from the past are revived as cult films, largely because they may be considered goofy and senseless by modern standards, with laughable special effects and corny plotlines. These include Super Mario Bros., Howard the Duck, Breakin', The Beastmaster, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, The Creeping Terror, Robot Monster, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Man Who Saves the World and the works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. The Beastmaster is an example of the strange vectors which can lead to cult filmdom, as its reputation stems as much from ubiquitous cable-TV overplay as anything in the film itself.
These films should not be confused with comedic cult movies like The Toxic Avenger, Bad Taste, Army of Darkness, Murder By Death, Spaceballs, and the films of John Waters, which purposely utilize elements from films "so bad they're good" for comedic effect. This may be seen as related to the artistic style known as "camp".
- ^ All Movie Guide glossary
- ^ Cult films at Film site; accessed October 5, 2007
- ^ Dissertations on His Dudeness by Dwight Garner, The New York Times, December 29, 2009
- ^ Wiser, Paige. "The beauty of 'Showgirls'", Chicago Sun-Times, July 27, 2004
- ^ Naomi Klein, No Logo, Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, p. 79.
- ^ Adam Rockoff, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978–1986 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002), p. 35, ISBN 0-7864-1227-5.
- ^ "Zombie Movies" in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ed. John Clute and John Grant (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 1048, ISBN 0-312-19869-8
- ^ Waters (2006).
- ^ Pink Flamingos Production Notes. Retrieved November 15, 2006.
- ^ Hoberman and Rosenbaum (1983), p. 13.
- ^ See History of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Rocky Horror Timeline. Retrieved November 14, 2006.
- ^ Henkin, Bill (1979). The Rocky Horror Picture Show Book. Dutton Adult. pp. 36. ISBN 978-0801564369.
- ^ Bijou Theatre; Elgin Theatre. Retrieved November 15, 2006.
- ^ "EW's Top Cult Movies". Entertainment Weekly. May 23, 2003. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,452193_7,00.html. Retrieved January 18, 2008.
- ^ Angel Heart (1987) – Box office / business
- ^ Russell, Will (August 15, 2007). "Hey Dude: The Lebowski Festival". The Independent (UK). http://arts.independent.co.uk/film/features/article2864617.ece. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
- ^ Harris, Scott (November 29, 2010). "Disney's 50 Finest: In Order of Awesome". MTV Networks. http://www.nextmovie.com/blog/disneys-best-movies-animated-features/. Retrieved August 30, 2011.
- ^ See Hoberman and Rosenbaum (1983), pp. 261–262. For their consideration of Freaks as part of the early midnight movie phenomenon, see pp. 3, 95, 99, 295–297.
- ^ Beale (2005)
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