To start with the simplest definition: a cult film is a film with a devoted following or subcultural community of admirers.
It is usually (but certainly not always) a film without broad audience appeal, such as a rediscovered classic; a ‘midnight movie’ shown at ungodly hours in rep theatres (Night of the Living Dead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show); or a marginal, trashy, or bad film.
Typically a cult film is ‘transgressive’ in matters of representation, taste, or technical competence. Cult films are frequently associated with genres such as crime, science fiction, anime and horror that are acquired tastes and seem in some way oppositional.
There are also numerous art movies (Persona), documentaries (Grey Gardens), underground films (Chelsea Girls), musicals (The Wizard of Oz), and Westerns (Johnny Guitar, The Searchers, Heaven’s Gate) that make the final cut.
Such films are generally either mainstream ones revived years later by dedicated fans in a spirit of nostalgia or revisionism, or commercially unsuccessful films appropriated soon after release by an enthusiastic and usually subcultural audiences: countercultural (El Topo), gay, punk (The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, pagan (The Wicker Man), Mod (Quadrophenia).
Having discovered that the films speak to them, cultists celebrate either privately through repeated viewings or socially by, for example, dressing up at screenings. Cult films, which may have crashed at the box office, typically find an audience by word of mouth or on video and DVD or online.
Harold and Maude, Blade Runner and Streets of Fire, for instance, were commercial and critical failures on first release and only later became ‘cult classics’, eventually repackaged as such on video and DVD or re-released to cinemas on the basis of their acquired cult reputation.
Cultists have traditionally been written up as a harder core contingent than mere fans-travellers rather than tourists- whose arcane interests differ from fans’ typical investment in the popular, accessible and mainstream. This distinction is increasingly hard to make. Cult movies undoubtedly still exist, from Hollywood misfires like The Big Lebowski and Fight Club to incompetent mind-warping oddities like The Room.
But cult is now also about Gen X nostalgia for mainstream films seen on video in childhood, such as The Goonies, Labyrinth, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Indeed, it is just as much about the passionate devotion to superhero movies as it is about rummaging through the dustbins of cinema and searching for intense transformative experiences shared with only a select few devotees.
To some extent, cult is an historical category, with a Golden Age in the 1970s and a long withdrawing reorientation towards new practices of fandom and new definitions of cult films. Blogs, tweets, Instagram and chatrooms are the new rep theatres. Cult is no longer the province of countercultural Baby Boomers doing ‘The Time Warp’ and Reagan-era videohounds but of wider ‘communities’, much more female and otherwise culturally diverse.
What remains true, however, is that films become rather than are born cult. As John Waters once said, nobody wants to direct a cult film because that invariably means birthing a failure. Cult films are adopted orphans, and what still defines them is the intensity of their fandom ‘beyond all reason’.
Ian Hunter is a Professor in Film Studies at De Montfort University. He has published a number of books including British Trash Cinema and Cult Film as a Guide to Life: Fandom, Adaptation, and Identity.