what makes a film a “cult” movie?

Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension

A discussion on Kansas City public radio about cult movies prompts this week’s Question. From KCUR.org 89.3FM:

In his 1981 book, fittingly titled, Cult Movies, film critic Danny Peary defined cult films as “special films which for one reason or another have been taken to heart by segments of the movie audience, cherished, protected, and most of all, enthusiastically championed.”

Our own film professor, Thom Poe, divides up cult films into different areas. Some cult films fall into the “so bad they’re good” category. This would include anything made by Ed Wood or more recently, anything made by The Asylum.

Another category would be considered “quality” cult films. These are films that didn’t get any notice when they were first released, but over the years, have developed very loyal followings. Films like Shock Corridor, Freaks, Donnie Darko, and The Big Lebowski keep audiences returning to theaters year after year.

Lastly, Poe mentions the cult of “camp,” where the fun of watching the movie is being part of a community like with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Room, Glen or Glenda?, and Mommie Dearest.

We also got a third opinion from Ryan Davis of the Alamo Drafthouse who believes that the experience of finding a film is how cult films originally came to exist. Movies that existed and persisted based solely on word-of-mouth or home video rentals. A film like Boondock Saints continues to be screened and enjoyed only because people regularly talk about it, and pass on praise of the film. Davis says, “People discover hidden gems of cinema, and they become a meaningful part of their life.”

Click over to KCUR.org 89.3FM for a list of movies its experts consider “cult,” and to listen to the full show.

What makes a film a “cult” movie? Is there a single definition, or is it more a case of “you know it when you see it”? Are the readily available discussion about film and easier access to the movies themselves — thanks to home video and now streaming — granting more films cult status than in the past, or has there been a demystification of film in recent decades? And what’s your own personal “cult” film? (Mine? The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension, of course.)

Have fun…

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

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Mon, Feb 03, 2014 5:52pm

that’s so funny you mention Buckaroo Bonzai, which was on one of the Encore channels yesterday and which i hadn’t seen in many years. woman, that is one wild movie. i don’t think it’s as easy (if that is the right word) for a movie to become a “cult” favorite now. the availability of so many media options means a movie finds its audience pretty quickly, is not scarce or hard to find, and doesn’t require as much active “campaigning” amongst one’s friends or colleagues, or relatives, to champion a movie into cult status. i think the heyday of “cult” movie, uh, cults… was in the 1960s to early 1990s, when home media — 8mm films, videos, dvds — as a technology were hitting their stride and could be passed around from friend to friend, or shown at home with a “knowing” crowd. i know i saw many a movie that became a favorite just from watching it over and over again on video. scarcity is also a quality that makes a cult favorite — just take Doctor Who as a for instance. when i got hooked in the late 80s, you had to search the television stations and their schedules for some PBS station, which might or might not come in clearly, broadcasting DW. now, DW is mainstream.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Mon, Feb 03, 2014 6:41pm

Another possible indicator: it helps if a movie’s actual-quality-to-fan-admiration level is particularly low. My favorite cult movie is Highlander , which, when you get down to brass tacks, is a terrible movie. (What do you mean, Highlander 2? there was no Highlander 2.)

On the other hand, two of my other favs are Heathers, which is pretty good, and Field of Dreams, which is excellent.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Mon, Feb 03, 2014 6:46pm

I note that Scott Pilgrim is on that list. Serenity could have been there, too, representing “abject commercial failures kept alive by the fans of previous incarnations”.

Mon, Feb 03, 2014 7:07pm

To me a cult film must have been rejected by the mainstream audience, and then picked up a following later for whatever reason; I think that’s what the article calls “quality cult” plus “camp”. I don’t think that Asylum productions are cult films, because (a) they were never intended to find a mainstream audience, and (b) I don’t know anyone who really enthuses about them – sure, they’re enjoyable cheese, but nobody’s writing books about what underappreciated classics they are.

Dr R, I’d agree with you on Serenity, though I suspect it’s become a part of the overall Firefly phenomenon.

But I’m surprised by Scott Pilgrim Are there still, now, people raving about how great it was?

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
reply to  RogerBW
Tue, Feb 04, 2014 12:42am

Yes, god have mercy on their souls.

Mon, Feb 03, 2014 7:46pm

I’m not sure we need a definition other than “a film that a cult has grown around.” But if I wanted to come up with an impractical, extremely unreliable definition, I’d use three criteria:

(1.) The film appeals to a niche audience more than it appeals to the mainstream.

(2.) The film creates a loose sort of community of people who love it.

(3.) The film’s fans love it because it represents their values or their identity. For example, a lot of Rocky Horror fans think of themselves as nonconformists who are in touch with their wild side. Fans of The Room tend to have an oddball, snarky sense of humor.

(3b.) Often, the people in the audience think of themselves as social misfits. They may be proud of this.

There are probably a few cult films that don’t follow these rules. But by breaking the rules, they just prove that they’re cult films. Or not.

Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
Mon, Feb 03, 2014 9:59pm

Not sure I have a good definition. Anything that inspires devotion and appreciation despite commercial failure is my understanding.

“The Wizard of Speed and Time”, “Tron” and “Clue”are the ones on my shelf which people recognize as cult films. “Willow” may count too; I can’t remember if it was popular originally.

There are a couple movies I love which might be too obscure to even count as cult film. The old 80’s cartoon “Animalympics” which was originally a tv special, and has a lot of surprising names in the credits. I think it’s following is a little too small to be considered a cult.

The other odd case would be “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind”. I saw this on a premium cable channel as “Warriors of the Wind”. Pre-internet, I didn’t realize that the movie was a terrible adaptation of a watershed Japanese film, which makes the original too famous to be a cult film, and that version too hated to have anything resembling a fan following. =/

Tue, Feb 04, 2014 1:37am

I just saw Buckaroo banzai for the first time a month or so ago. That’s a bizarre as hell movie. Fun, absolutely, but bizarre.
Sometimes it feels like movies are made strictly to try and become a cult classic. Like they desperately want to be hip. That is the very antithesis of what cult movies are all about. It has to happen naturally. Organically. And like bronxbee said, I don’t think it’s really all that possible anymore.

Tue, Feb 04, 2014 7:14pm

The Princess Bride started out as a cult film because no one saw it in its initial release. When I saw it on its preview night, the Thursday before it officially was released, my dorm roommates and I were the only ones in the theatre, which we had to take the bus halfway across Milwaukee to get to. Even after it took off on video, I still think it remains a bit of a cult film because you really do have to “get it” to enjoy the film. To my everlasting sorrow, not a single member of my family really finds the movie anything but okay, and they like most of the other stuff I like!

jimmie t. murakami
jimmie t. murakami
Fri, Feb 07, 2014 7:53pm

Nostalgia for the past is being extinguished by technology (thankfully), thats why ‘cult movies’ are nowhere near as popular as they used to be. Also, another one of the main reasons why certain films acheived cult status was their lack of availability, now literally everything is available at the touch of a button so the mystique just isn`t there any more.