Cult Films

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Cult Films


The phrase "cult movie" is now used so often and so broadly that the concept to which it refers has become rather difficult to delimit, especially given the sheer diversity of films that have been brought together under the term. Though cult movies are often referred to as if they were a very specific and particular genre, this is not the case; 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 crossor multigenre 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 definition, 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 may be willing to admit.

Most cult movies are low-budget productions, and most are undeniably flawed in some way, even if this means just poor acting or cheap special effects. Though many deal with subject matter that is generally considered repulsive or distasteful, most of the movies that 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 dedication often takes the form of a fiery passion.

Cult movies cross all boundaries of taste, form, style, and genre. There are cult Westerns, like Johnny Guitar (1954); cult musicals, like The Sound of Music (1965); cult romances, like Gone with the Wind (1939); cult documentaries, like Gates of Heaven (1978); cult drug movies, like Easy Rider (1969); and cult teen movies, like American Graffiti (1973), Animal House (1978), and Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993). There are cult exploitation films, like Reefer Madness (1936); cult blaxploitation films, like Shaft (1971); and cult porn movies, like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door (both 1972). Many cult films are music-based and have developed a lasting following on the basis of their soundtrack alone. These include Tommy (1975), Rock and Roll High School (1979), The Blues Brothers (1980), and Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982).

There are other movies that have developed cult reputations simply because they convey a certain mood, evoke a certain atmosphere or time period, or are irrefutably strange. Examples include films as diverse as Harold and Maude (1971), D.O.A. (1980), Diva (1981), Blade Runner (1982), Scarface (1983), Repo Man (1984), Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), The Toxic Avenger (1985), Hard Boiled (1992), and The Big Lebowski (1998). And while most of these movies seem to attract predominantly male cults, female followings have grown up around fashion-conscious "chick flicks" like Valley of the Dolls (1967), the teen movie Clueless (1995), and the "anti-teen" movie Heathers (1989).


Perhaps the first movies to develop cult followings were B movies—those quickly made, cheaply produced films that had their heyday in Hollywood's "Golden Age." B movies began to proliferate in the mid-1930s, when distributors felt that "double features" might stand a chance of luring increasingly frugal Depression audiences back to the theaters. Their strategy worked—audiences of devoted moviegoers thrilled to cheap B movie fare like The Mummy's Hand (1940), The Face Behind the Mask (1941), Cobra Woman (1944), and White Savage (1943). Often (but not always) horror or science-fiction films, these movies were inexpensively produced and usually unheralded—except by their fans, who often found more to enjoy in these bottom-rung "guilty pleasures" than in the high-profile epics their profits supported.

B movies were cheaply made, but were not necessarily poor in quality. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, however, a number of rather inept films were made that have subsequently developed substantial cult followings. The "trash" movie aesthetic was founded on an appreciation for these low-budget movies. Struggling with severe budgetary limitations, directors were regularly forced to come up with makeshift costuming and set design solutions that produced truly strange and sometimes unintentionally comic results. The trash aesthetic was later borrowed by underground filmmakers like Andy Warhol (1928–1987), Jack Smith (1932–1989), and the Kuchar Brothers (George [b. 1942] and Mike [b. 1942]), who also made their films in the cheapest possible way.

Most of the original trash cinema failed miserably at the box office, and has developed a cult reputation only in retrospect, after being reappropriated by a later audience with an eye for nostalgic irony. For the most part, the films were not products of the big Hollywood studios; most of them were made independently, often targeted at the drive-in theater market, and some were made outside the United States. Such films include the Japanese monster epic Godzilla (1954) and its low-budget Danish imitation Reptilicus (1962), as well as shabby Boris Karloff vehicles like Die Monster Die (1965), and bizarre sexploitation films like The Wild Women of Wongo (1958). Today, many movie buffs are drawn to the camp, kitschy qualities of these movies—their minimal budgets, low production values, and appalling acting. Many such films were made by Roger Corman (b. 1926), who originally specialized in quickie productions with low-budget resources and little commercial marketing, including Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). Corman's place in cult film history is also assured by his unrivaled eye for talent; among the many notables who were employed by him at a very early stage in their careers are Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, and Peter Bogdanovich.

The unrivaled king of trash cinema was undoubtedly Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1924–1978), whose output—films like Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)—are considered the nadir of naive charm. These movies have been much celebrated in retrospect because of their unique and endearing ineptitude and for the implausibility of their premises. Like most other "bad" cult movies, Wood's films lack finesse and wit, but are loved by their fans for precisely this reason. Significantly, cults have also recently grown up around more contemporary "bad" movies. For example, almost immediately after the theatrical release of Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995), which recouped only half its $40 million cost, the film opened in Los Angeles and then in New York as a midnight cult movie. This phenomenon suggests that the cult movie aesthetic is not necessarily antithetical to the big-budget, mass-market mode of production nourished by the major Hollywood studios.

This crossover also raises the question of the distinction between "cult" and "camp." Generally speaking, camp began in the New York underground theater and film communities, and is a quality of the way movies are received, rather than a deliberate quality of the films themselves. Indeed, camp, according to critic Susan Sontag, is always the product of pure passion—on however grand or pathetic a scale—somehow gone strangely awry. To be considered camp, it is not enough for a film to fail, or to seem dated, extreme, or freakish; there must be a genuine passion and sincerity about its creation. Camp is based on a faith and emotion in the film that is shared by director and audience, often across the passage of time, contradicting the popular assumption that camp is concerned only with surfaces and the superficial.

The two concepts—camp and cult—clearly overlap in a number of ways, and many films develop cult followings because of their camp qualities. For example, many studio films have attracted a retrospective devotion through a process of reappropriation on the part of gay audiences. This is especially true of films that feature gay icons, like Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, or Barbra Streisand, in particularly melodramatic or pathetic roles. Such films include Mildred Pierce (1945), The Best ofEverything (1959), AStarisBorn (both the 1954 and 1976 versions), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and similar pictures that are considered by their fans to be especially mawkish, sentimental, overly serious, or too straight-faced. For example, the 1981 Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest was almost immediately proclaimed a camp masterpiece by Crawford's gay followers and hit the midnight circuit immediately after its first run.

b. Poughskeepie, New York, 10 October 1924,
d. Hollywood, California, 10 December 1978

Often described as the "worst director in history," Wood's following has exploded since his death. For years, a small group of Ed Wood cultists treasured the two films that were commercially available—Glen or Glenda? (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)—without knowing much about the man himself. This all changed with the publication in 1992 of Rudolph Grey's reverent biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. and the release of Tim Burton's runaway success Ed Wood (1994), a dark comedy based on the life, times, and movies of the infamous director.

Wood's cult status is due in part to his endearingly unorthodox personality and unusual openness about his sexual fetishes. A twice-married transvestite, Wood fought in World War II and claimed to have been wearing a bra and panties under his uniform during a military landing. His ventures into Hollywood moviemaking were ill-fated until, in 1953, he landed the chance to direct a film based on the Christine Jorgensen sex-change story. The result, Glen or Glenda?, gave a fascinating insight into Wood's own obsessive personality, and shed light on his fascination with women's clothing (an almost unthinkable subject for an early 1950s feature) by including the director's own plea for tolerance toward cross-dressers like himself. This surreal, cheap (though well over budget), and virtually incomprehensible film is notable for Bela Lugosi's role as a scientist delivering cryptic messages about gender directly to the audience. Neither Glen or Glenda? nor any of Wood's subsequent movies were commercially successful, but he continued to make films until failing health and financial need sent him into a physical and emotional decline. Grey's biography presents Wood in his later years as a moody alcoholic; sadly, the last period of his career, before his premature death at age 54, was spent directing undistinguished soft, and later hardcore, pornography.

Wood's films have been canonized by cultists as high camp, and continue to be adored for their charming ineptitude, startling continuity gaps, bad acting, and irrelevant stock footage. His best-known film is the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space, which features aliens arriving on earth and attempting to conquer the planet by raising the dead. The film is notorious for its pathetic, illogical script, cardboard masonry, ridiculous "special effects," and the use of kitchen utensils as space helmets. It stars the heavily accented Swedish wrestler Tor Jonson and a drug-addled, terminally ill Bela Lugosi, who died during production and is sporadically replaced by a stand-in who, even with his cape drawn over his face, looks nothing at all like the decrepit Lugosi. The film also features the glamorous Finnish actress Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, generally believed to be the first late-night television horror hostess (and followed by many imitators, including the more successful Elvira, Mistress of the Dark). Plan 9 from Outer Space contains the only surviving footage of Vampira, although she has no dialogue in the film.


Glen or Glenda? (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), Night of the Ghouls (1959), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), Ed Wood (1994), Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora (1994)


Grey, Rudolph. Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Los Angeles: Feral House, 1992.

Mikita Brottman

Other films have developed cult followings because of their unique presentation of new gimmicks or special effects. For example, Herschell Gordon Lewis's drive-in blockbuster Blood Feast (1963) has attained cult status partly because it was the first film to feature human entrails and dismembered bodies "in blood color." The films of William Castle (1914–1977) have attracted a cult following mainly because of their pioneering use of

low-budget publicity schemes and special effects, including "Percepto" (specially wired-up seats) for The Tingler (1959); "Emergo" (a cardboard skeleton on a wire hanging over the audience) for The House on Haunted Hill (1958); and "Illusion-O" (a 3–D viewer) for 13 Ghosts (1960)—although there are those who claim that Castle's most successful gimmick was his use of the hammy, smooth-voiced actor Vincent Price (1911–1993). In a similar way, John Waters's Polyester (1981) is a cult film partly because of its use of "Odorama" (audience scratch-and-sniff cards), and Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968) has achieved cult status mainly due to the extravagance of its costumes and sets, including Jane Fonda's thigh-high boots and fur-lined spaceship.

There are also a number of iconic directors whose every movie has attained cult status, mainly because their films tend to replicate the same individual fascinations or pathologies. A good example is Russ Meyer (1922–2004), whose films are especially popular among those fans, both male and female, who share his obsession with buxom actresses engaged in theatrical violence. Most typical of the Meyer oeuvre is perhaps Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966), which features three leather-clad, voluptuous, thrill-seeking women in go-go boots.

A different kind of cult movie is the film that has attracted curiosity because of the particular circumstances surrounding its release. Such films may have been banned in certain states, for example; they may have had controversial lawsuits brought against them, or they may have been associated with particularly violent crimes, like A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Taxi Driver (1976). Or they may be notoriously difficult to find, like Todd Haynes's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), a study in celebrity and anorexia in the guise of a biopic performed by Barbie dolls. The movie was quickly taken off the market for copyright reasons, but has still managed to attract a substantial cult following.

In other cases, films attain retrospective cult status because of the circumstances surrounding their production. For example, The Terror (1963) is a cult film partly because of Jack Nicholson's early appearance in a starring role, and Donovan's Brain (1953) gains cult status because of the presence of the actress Nancy Davis, later to become better known as First Lady Nancy Reagan. Moreover, scandalous public disclosures that accumulate around actors or actresses inevitably give their films a certain amount of morbid cult interest. For example, in his Hollywood Babylon books (1975 and 1984), underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger (b. 1927) keeps a toll of films involving one or more celebrities who eventually took their own lives, all of which have since come to attain an odd kind of cult status of their own. Anger also discusses "cursed" films that feature stars who died soon after production was completed—films like Rebel without a Cause (1955), starring James Dean, and The Misfits (1961), starring Marilyn Monroe. In cases like these, fans often enjoy subjecting the film to microscopic scrutiny in a search for telltale betrayals of bad health, signals of some emotional meltdown, portents of future tragedy, or innocently spoken words of irony, regardless of what else might be happening on screen. For example, parallels are often drawn between the death of James Dean in an automobile accident and the "chicken run" scene in Rebel without a Cause, in which Jim Stark (Dean) and his friend are driving two stolen cars toward the edge of a cliff; the first one to jump out is a "chicken." Jim rolls out at the last second, but his friend's coat sleeve is caught in the door handle, and he hurtles over the cliff to his death. In the aftermath, we hear Dean's anguished cry: "A boy was killed!"


Many films now considered "cult movies" came to achieve this status through repeat screenings at independent repertory cinemas, usually very late at night. Such films were cheaper for theaters to hire than current releases, often since their ownership had fallen into public domain. It became traditional, during the 1950s and 60s, to begin showing these films at midnight, when audience attendance was lower, and sensibilities often less discriminating. However, the first movie to be "officially" shown at a midnight screening was odd drama El Topo (The Mole, Alexandro Jodorosky, 1970), which was discovered by Ben Barenholtz, booker for the Elgin theater in New York, at a Museum of Modern Art screening. Barenholtz allegedly persuaded the film's distributor to allow him to play it at midnight at the Elgin, because—as the poster announced—the film was "too heavy to be shown any other way." The disturbing film was a runaway success, and midnight premieres of offbeat movies eventually became (with varying degrees of success) a regular aspect of distribution, initially in New York and later elsewhere. The aim of the concept was to provide a forum for unusual, eccentric, or otherwise bizarre movies. The audience for these films generally tended to be those who were not averse to going out to see a film in the middle of the night—usually a younger group of urban movie fans not easily put off by unconventional themes or scenes of drug use, nudity, or violence. Indeed, many of the midnight movies that attained cult success did so because they transgressed various social taboos. For example, when its run had come to an end, El Topo was followed at the Elgin by Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972), which had late-night audiences lined up around the block. In fact, all of the films of John Waters eventually became staples of the midnight movie circuit, especially Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988), with their grotesque vignettes held together by the loosest of narratives and a bizarre cast of garish grandmothers and oddballs, generally led by the overweight transvestite Divine.

One of the most significant midnight movies was Eraserhead (1977), the nightmarish first film made by cult director David Lynch (b. 1946), which contained a series of disturbing images in a postapocalyptic setting. Lynch went on to make other movies that soon developed cult followings, including Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990), both filled with dark, odd, ambiguous characters. Other important movies that gradually developed cult followings after years on the midnight circuit include Freaks (1932), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Evil Dead (1981), and Re-Animator (1985).

Essentially, the real key to the success of a midnight movie was the film's relationship with its audience and the slavish devotion of its fans. Perhaps the most successful midnight movie of all time was Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a low-budget film adaptation of Richard O'Brien's glam stage hit about two square lovebirds who enter the realm of an outrageous Gothic transsexual. A failure when it was first released, midnight screenings at the Waverly Theater in New York City quickly established Rocky Horror as an aberrant smash, starting a trend in audiences for interactive entertainment. As the film garnered a significant cult following over the late 1970s and early 1980s, audiences began to arrive at the theater dressed in costume, carrying various props to wave and throw in the aisles as they yelled responses to characters' lines and joined in singing and dancing to the musical numbers onscreen.

VCR and DVD viewing, network and cable television, and pay-per-view stations have significantly changed the nature of cult film viewing. Many movies that failed to find an audience upon original theatrical release now often gain cult followings through video rentals and sales. Today, word-of-mouth popularity can lead a formerly obscure film to gain a whole new audience on its video release, allowing it to earn considerably more in DVD sales than it did at the theater.


A film need not be offbeat, obscure, or low-budget to attain a cult following. On the contrary, a number of critically acclaimed movies have attained cult status precisely because their high quality and skillful performances, as well as their emotional power, have given them enduring appeal. These kinds of films are often described as "cult classics" because, while attracting a fiercely devoted band of followers, they are films that most mainstream audiences and critics have also praised and admired. Unlike ordinary cult movies, cult classics are often products of the big Hollywood studios, and most of them are made in the United States. Moreover, unlike many cult movies, cult classics are not weird, offbeat, or strange, but are often sentimental and heartwarming. They include such films as It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and The Wizard of Oz (1939). One of the most deeply loved of such films is Casablanca (1942), whose cult—or so legend has it—began in the early 1950s, when the Brattle Theater, adjoining Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, held a regular "Bogart week," purportedly because the theater's student clientele so closely identified with Bogart's sense of style. The series was shown around final exam time, to bring the students some needed late-night relief from the stress of their studies, and it culminated with a screening of Casablanca.

SEE ALSO B Movies;Camp;Fans and Fandom


Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1975.

——. Hollywood Babylon II. New York: Dutton, 1984.

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 OppositionalTaste. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Mendik, Xavier, and Graeme Harper, eds. Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and Its Critics. Surrey, UK: Fab Press, 2000.

Peary, Danny. Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful. New York: Gramercy Books, 1998.

Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp." In Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 275–292. New York: Delta, 1966.

Stevenson, Jack. Land of a Thousand Balconies. Manchester, UK: Critical Vision, 2003.

Telotte, J. P., ed. The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Vale, V., and Andrea Juno, eds. Incredibly Strange Films. San Francisco: RE/Search Books, 1986.

Mikita Brottman