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Cult films

Parent categories: cult - film

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, "the cult film par excellence," which ran continuously at the same Paris movie house from 1920 through 1927. --Midnight Movies (1983). page 23.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - Robert Wiene [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Related: camp - cult film stars - cult directors - midnight movies - minority - nostalgia

The cult film has most often been defined in two ways: as any picture that is seen repeatedly by a devoted audience, and as a deviant or radically different picture, embraced by a deviant audience. [Kawin, 1991: 18]

By genre: bad films - B-movies - erotic films - exploitation films - horror films - science-fiction films

Titles of films considered cult in the USA and the UK: Freaks (1932) - Casablanca (1942) - Glen or Glenda? (1953) - Night of the Living Dead (1968) - El Topo (1970) - Pink Flamingos (1972) - Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) - Eraserhead (1977)

Theatres: Brattle - Elgin - Cinémathèque

Beverly Garland in It Conquered the World (1956) - Roger Corman

Connoisseurs and bibliography: Umberto Eco (his work on Casablanca) - Cole Gagne - Midnight Movies (1983) - Mark Jancovich - Xavier Mendik - Danny Peary


A cult film is a film that attracts a small but devoted group of obsessive fans or one that has remained popular over successive years amongst a small group of followers. Often the film failed to achieve mainstream success on its original release, but this is not always the case. Sometimes the audience response to a cult film is somewhat different to what was intended by the film-makers, although usually a film that becomes "cult" started-out with unusual elements or subject matter.

A film reaches cult status due to an audience's relationship to the film. This makes the designation of cult status to a film difficult, however continued success amongst a subset of moviegoers many years after the film's original release is a key defining factor.

Many cult films are from such genres as horror, science fiction and world cinema. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which combines the elements of science fiction, horror—not to mention transvestitism, incest and homosexuality—and, amazingly, is a musical, is considered by many the first true and seminal cult film.

The construction of meaning within the cult film text, and the nature and epistemology of cult film (and also its audiences), however, are now studied academically. --http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_film [2004]

Some film cult followings can be traced to their origins, such as the early 1970s "midnight movie" trend in the USA (in theatres such as the Elgin, the Charles and the Waverly. The Casablanca cult can be traced to the Brattle Theatre The advent of late night television and cable television also played a major role. [Nov 2005]

Cult films at Amazon.com
Although it is often said that cult films do not constitute a genre on their own, many a website is dedicated to the cult film phenomenon and "cult films" are a browsable entry at Amazon.com. This entry has the following subgenres:

General - Action & Adventure - Animated - Blaxploitation - Blue Underground - Camp - Comedy - Cult Directors - Drama - Exploitation - Full Moon Video - Horror - International - Landmark Cult Classics - Monster Movies - Music & Musicals - Prison - Psychedelic - Sci-Fi & Fantasy - Westerns
--See cult films at Amazon.com

Cult films have limited but special appeal. Cult films are usually strange, quirky, offbeat, eccentric, oddball, or surreal, with outrageous and cartoony characters or plots, garish sets and they are often considered controversial. They step outside standard narrative and technical conventions. They elicit a fiery passion in devoted fans, and may cause cultists to enthusiastically champion these films, leading to audience participation and repetitive viewings and showings. Cult movie worshippers persuasively argue with all about the merits of their choices, without regard for standard newspaper or movie reviews. - Tim Dirks http://www.filmsite.org/cultfilms.html [Sept 2004]

As Mark Jancovich has pointed out, about the politics of cult fan formations in general:

cult movie audiences are less an internally coherent “taste culture” than a series of frequently opposed and contradictory reading strategies that are defined through a sense of their difference to an equally incoherently imagined “normality”, a loose conglomeration of corporate power, lower middle class conformity and prudishness, academic elitism and political conspiracy (Jancovich, 2002: 315).

Cult movies
by Mikita Brottman
The phrase “cult movie” is now used so often and so broadly that the concept it refers to has become rather difficult to delimit, especially given the sheer diversity of films that have been brought together under the term. Cult movies are often referred to as though they were a very specific and particular genre, but this is not the case, since such films fall into an enormous variety of different formal and stylistic categories. Indeed, many cult movies are categorized as such precisely because of their cross- or multi-genre narratives, or other offbeat qualities that take them outside the realm of genre completely.

Films can develop cult followings in various ways -- on the basis of their modes of production or exhibition, their internal textual features, or through acts of appropriation by specific audiences. The usual definition of the cult movie generally relies on a sense of its distinction from mainstream cinema. This, of course, raises issues about the role of the cult movie as an oppositional form, and its strained relationship with processes of institutionalization and classification. Fans of cult movies often describe them as quite distinct from the commercial film industries and the mainstream media, but many such films are actually far more dependent on these forms than their fans are often willing to admit.

Most cult movies are low-budget productions, and most are undeniably flawed in some way, even if this means just poor quality acting or cheap special effects. Many deal with subject matter that is repulsive or distasteful, but most of the movies which have garnered cult followings have done so not because they are necessarily shocking or taboo, but rather because they are made from highly individual viewpoints, and involve strange narratives, eccentric characters, garish sets or other quirky elements, which can be as apparently insignificant as a single unique image or cameo appearance by a particular bit-part actor or actress. Many cult movies lack mass appeal, and many would have disappeared from film history completely were it not for their devoted fans, whose following often takes the form of a fiery passion. --http://www.mikitabrottman.com/CultMovies.html [Nov 2005]

By Jack Stevenson:
In essence, cult film is the history of the damned, the forgotten, the obscure and the misunderstood. Its a story of miracles unwittingly conjured up by acts of fortuitous timing, startling coincidences, bolts of shit luck hurled from outta the blue and simple bookkeeping mistakes... a string of wrong turns that suddenly lead in the right direction, or at least lead into the sunlight... or a least for a few seconds. Its the story of movies that refuse the stay buried. Dumped into early graves, they emerge again to haunt the living. Some are way ahead of their time, some are way behind.

If in some cases it all seems like divine fate, in other cases - as we have seen - it owes all to acts of individual persistance, obsession and almost inhuman self-belief that calls to mind the stuff of the early Christian martyrs and saints.

Equating cult film with religion is an all too obvious and overused analogy, but on the other hand, "Its A Wonderful Life" probably got more people to believe in angels than Christinity ever did. Ed Wood's transformation in 1953 from Glenn to Glenda, surrounded by dutiful extras spinning pirouettes like idiot schoolchildren, was an intensely religious transformation, a transcendent moment. And while no director as yet turned stones into loaves of bread, John Waters turned dogshit into gold - and a career. --Jack Stevenson via http://hjem.get2net.dk/jack_stevenson/cult.htm [Nov 2005]

The influence of television

The influence of 1950s and 1960s late-night television

See entry on TV-horror hosts.

The influence of cable television

In the 1980s, with the advent of cable television, B-movies were used as a source for a type of late night television programming in some major cities where they are shown back-to-back until the early hours of the morning. The 1990s television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 used B-movies in its episodes, where they were shown in total (although often edited for time) while being subjected to sarcastic commentary by the program's stars. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B-movie [Nov 2005]

Cult movies checklist

Sleeper hit

A sleeper hit or sleeper film (often simply called a "sleeper") refers to an underestimated film that gains unexpected success or recognition. This generally refers to box office success, such as that achieved by the low budget The Blair Witch Project. A film might also gain sleeper status through critical or industry recognition, as was the case with Babe, an unassuming children's movie that surprisingly garnered seven Academy Award nominations. A sleeper film can also be one that is not initially successful, but over time surprises people by becoming so. For example, There's Something About Mary had a predictable release, but gained notoriety through word of mouth, and grew to top the weekend box office on its 8th week of release.

Unexpectedly successful video games, books, or albums can also be described as sleeper hits.

Since they aren't expected to do tremendously well, sleeper films often lack the sort of pre-release advertising given to the big budget films that are expected to become blockbusters. So the sleeper hit instead relies on positive word of mouth and publicity generated by awards, such as the Academy Awards or Golden Globes. As a sleeper film generates positive reviews it will often receive a boost from news media publicity. It might also receive publicity through controversy, such as Fahrenheit 9/11. Many popular cult films have become sleepers due to their base of loyal yet underestimated fans, such as the cult classic Highlander.

Studios will catch on quickly to a sleeper's potential, and belatedly increase its advertising budget accordingly. Usually a movie's status as a sleeper hit is well known by the time it reaches home video, so its home video sales are expected to be high. Sometimes, however, a movie doesn't reach sleeper status until it reaches home video, such as Austin Powers.

A sleeper hit does not necessarily have to make a lot of revenue, it just needs to achieve a high degree of success relative to expectations. However, the term is generally not used to refer to large budget movies, even those that defy their expectations, such as 1997's Titanic. The term is fairly subjective, so many movies are informally referred to as sleepers. Ironically, sometimes an unreleased movie is advertised as a sleeper. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleeper_hit [Apr 2005]

Repetition and difference

The cult film has most often been defined in two ways: as any picture that is seen repeatedly by a devoted audience, and as a deviant or radically different picture, embraced by a deviant audience. A film like Casablanca fits the first definition just fine, although a film as different as High Sierra would fit it just as well, while the Rocky Horror Picture Show clearly fits the second. Either way, the cult film can be defined primarily in terms of its acceptance; it is a movie with a following. [Kawin, 1991: 18]

Kawin, Bruce (1991) 'After Midnight' in J P Telotte (Ed) The Cult Film Experience, Austin: Texas University Press

Also by Kawin:

Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film. Cornell Univ. Press, 1972. Rpt. Univ. Press of Colorado, 1989

http://www.colorado.edu/English/facpages/kawin.html [Feb 2006]

See also: cult - cult movies - audience - deviant - difference - Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) - Casablanca (1942)

Midnight Movies (1983) - Jeffrey Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum

One of the overall best exposés on the film experience and the nature of cult films. [Feb 2006]

Midnight Movies (1983) - Jeffrey Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Written by Jeffrey Hoberman (who writes for the Village Voice) and Jonathan Rosenbaum (who writes for the Chicago Reader)

Documents the midnight movie phenomenon (films unfit for mainstream consumption so they are shown at midnight). Also documents the earliest cases of film cults in Paris and the United States. Highly recommended.

Chapters on the early careers of Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, John Waters and George Romero.

References to Emile Durkheim and Parker Tyler in the second chapter Cults, Fetishes and Freaks: Sex and Salvation at the Movies.

Cole Gagne article

One way or another, a cult film transgresses against the model of the conventional Hollywood movie. Excepting the horror films made by Universal, most of them are not the products of major studios; the more a film transgresses, the further it marginalizes itself, not just from Hollywood's aesthetic but also from its avenues of promotion and distribution -- and thus from its market, which is why few people get rich making cult films. (Then again, most of these films are low-budget affairs which don't need to make a lot of money in order to be profitable.) Nevertheless, the foundation for cult films is the devoted audience for American horror movies, especially those made from the 1920s through the '60s. Critics mostly derided or ignored these films, leaving their devotees free to share information and nourish their enthusiasms among themselves. By the '90s, these generations of fans have bestowed iconic status upon the genre's greatest stars: Lon Chaney Sr., Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney Jr., and Vincent Price. --Cole Gagne via http://www.e-filmmusic.de/cult_films_film_music/cult_films_film_music1.html [Nov 2005]

Moviedrome [...]

Moviedrome is (or "was") a BBC2 series where a cult movie (but what is cult?) was introduced before it was shown. Moviedrome first showed up in 1988 when cult director Alex Cox hosted the introductions (he didn't choose the movies though). Cox hosted Moviedrome (shown every summer) till 1994. In 1997 the show returned from the dead with movies chosen and introduced by Mark Cousins (known for his work at the Edinburgh Film Festival). --kurtodrome

Defining Cult Movies : The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Tastes

Defining Cult Movies : The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Tastes (2003) - Various [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

About the Author: Mark Jancovich is Reader and Director of the Institute of Film Studies, Antonio Lazaro Reboll is Lector in Hispanic Studies, and Julian Stringer is Lecturer in Film Studies, all at the University of Nottingham. Andrew Willis is Senior Lecturer in Media and Performance at the University of Salford.

This collection concentrates on the analysis of cult movies, how they are defined, who defines them and the cultural politics of these definitions. The definition of the cult movie relies on a sense of its distinction from the "mainstream" or "ordinary." This also raises issues about the perception of it as an oppositional form of cinema, and of its strained relationships to processes of institutionalization and classification. In other words, cult movie fandom has often presented itself as being in opposition to the academy, commercial film industries and the media more generally, but has been far more dependent on these forms than it has usually been willing to admit. The international roster of essayists range over the full and entertaining gamut of cult films from Dario Argento, Spanish horror and Peter Jackson's New Zealand gorefests to sexploitation, kung fu and sci-fi flicks.


  1. Introduction: Mark Jancovich, Antonio Lázaro, Julian Stringer and Andy Willis
  2. Esper, The Renunciator: Teaching "Bad" Movies to Good Students--Jeffrey Sconce
  3. The Masculinity of Cult--Joanne Hollows
  4. The Cult of Masculinity: From Fan-Boys to Academic Bad-Boys--Jacinda Read
  5. Spanish Horror and the Flight from "Art" Cinema 1967-1973--Andrew Willis
  6. Trading in Horror, Cult and Matricide: Peter Jackson's Phenomenal Bad Taste and New Zealand Fantasies of Inter/National Cinematic Success--Harmony H. Wu
  7. The Making of a Cult Reputation: Topicality and Controversy in the Critical Reception of "Shivers"--Ernest Mathijs
  8. The Argento Effect--Peter Hutchings
  9. Sexploitation as Feminine Territory: The Films of Doris Wishman--Moya Luckett
  10. Kung Fu Cult Masters: Stardom, Performance and "Authenticity" in Hong Kong Martial Arts Films--Leon Hunt
  11. "Sharon Stone, Screen Diva": Stardom, Femininity and Cult Fandom--Rebecca Feasey
  12. The Importance of Trivia: Ownership, Exclusion and Authority in Science Fiction Fandom--Nathan Hunt
  13. Art, Exploitation, Underground--Mark Betz
  14. Midnight Sex--Horror Movies and the Downtown Avant-Garde--Joan Hawkins

Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969 (1970) - Andrew Sarris

Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955-1969 (1970) - Andrew Sarris [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Further reading

Brottman, Mikita, Hollywood Hex. London: Creation Books, 1999.
Everman, Welch, Cult Horror Films. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993.
Hoberman, J. and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.
Jancovich, Mark, Antonio Lázarro Rebolli and Andy Willis, eds., Defining Cult Movies:
    The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste, Manchester and New York: Manchester
    University Press, 2003.
Mendik, Xavier, and Graeme Harper, eds., Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and its Critics.
    Surrey, U.K.: Fab Press, 2000.
Morton, Jim, Incredibly Strange Films. San Francisco: RE Search Books, 1986.
Peary, Danny, Cult Movies: the Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird and the Wonderful. New York:
     Grammercy Books, 1998.
Stevenson, Jack, Land of a Thousand Balconies. Manchester: Critical Vision, 2003.
Telotte, J.P., ed., The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason. Austin: University of Texas     Press, 1991.

Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and Its Critics (2000) - Xavier Mendik (Editor), Graham Harper (Editor)

Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and Its Critics (2000) - Xavier Mendik (Editor), Graham Harper (Editor) [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

This shady tome's said "pleasures" will only be so for the most select audience. But it's both fun and informative, exposing many a cult chimera... --Empire, August 2000

Whether defined through genres such as horror, science fiction, pornography or camp musical, the cult film has come to attain an important place in cinema culture. Unruly Pleasures is the first British volume dedicated to the critical consideration of cult movie making from the margins to the mainstream. In a series of innovative articles by leading film critics and theorists the book deals with aspects of the medium including the cult film's definitions, genres, film styles and gender depictions. --Book Description, amazon.co.uk

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