Cult Films: A History of the Obsessive Film Genre


Rocky Horror Picture ShowGuest bloggers Angie and Chantale write:

Cult films. Sounds kinda scary doesn’t it? If you’re not a movie-buff you might be thinking a cult film is a recruiting video to entice you to join The Alliance of the Stars of Neptune, or some such thing. This isn’t the case.

A cult film is a film that has a small but obsessive following (trust us… we at Cinema Obsessed have a lot of experience obsessing over movies). A film like this usually doesn’t have mainstream success. Actually most are total box office flops upon their release, but the film eventually gains success through rentals and DVD sales. Our bank accounts have suffered greatly due to our ‘habit’.

The term ‘cult’ refers to the obsessive nature of the fans of these types of movies. For example, if you were to attend a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, you would be surprised by the amount of rituals that accompany the viewing of the film (hence the term cult). Fans sing, chant, re-enact the film, and even throw props at the screen. Fans can also purchase The Rocky Horror Bible, old and new testament… just kidding. No really, short of making human sacrifices, these people go craaazy.

Every slight nuance of a cult film is analyzed and treasured by its fans. Most filmmakers will say that they never intended their film to be a cult-classic, but it has become a badge of honour, a surprising treat, when the movie reaches this status. Why? Because it usually means the filmmaker’s work will live on in pop culture much longer than the current blockbuster showing at the cinema.

Nobody ever intends to make a cult film. It just turns out that way. The audience reaction is often very different from what was intended by the filmmakers, but it is usually embraced as being better than the original concept.

Cult classics usually have a few things in common. Firstly, they often deal with non-mainstream topics. For example, Harold and Maude (1971) is about a 19-year-old boy and his unlikely romance with an 80-year-old woman. Not your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy… not by a long shot.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) saw the likes of Swayze, Snipes and Leguizamo in scarves and stilletos. What on earth were they thinking? They all had success in their careers at the time, yet they all took a risk by busting out with busts. A box office bomb… you betcha, a devoted cult following, yup.

Here’s another gem: Showgirls (1995). Well 1995 was a good year for cult classics, n’est-ce pas? Who would have thought that Jesse Spano would live on as Vegas showgirl? Oh what a terrible movie this was. So terrible in fact that fans today are still buying special editions complete with shot glasses and nipple tassels.

Cult films also tend to stray from the norms of Hollywood filmmaking, including non-linear storylines and characters talking to the camera. They have a ‘je ne sais quoi’ about them…a certain darkness, a bizarreness that draws people in and hooks them. A lot of cult classics are referred to as being so bad, they’re good. And we like us some bad movies. Logan’s Run (1976) gave us a taste of what computers will sound like in the future. Bling bloop blap ching ching zeeboop!

Another common theme amongst this type of movie is the element of spoofing (i.e. horror, sci-fi, romance). Although not usually blatantly obvious, the subtle social commentary is usually present. Mainstream audiences won’t see it; the cult fans are the ones who find it. Watch Tommy (1975)… you’ll get it.

You also know you’re dealing with a cult film if you see it playing in a theatre, and it’s not a new release. Regular showings of cult movies are very common, usually once or twice a year, sometimes as regularly as every weekend as The Rocky Horror Picture Show has done in some areas.

Many cult favorites are independent films, or had ridiculously small budgets, and were theatrical flops. Over time these films will make amazing profits, considering how little was put into them. Predicting a cult classic is a difficult task, as sometimes only time can tell which films will live on and develop the right following.

BarbarellaWe at enjoy making such predictions, even though our accuracy will only be proven years and years down the road. For example, The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) was widely regarded as the worst movie of Eddie Murphy’s career, and was slammed by movie critics the world over. Our theory, since we loved it, is that movie-goers weren’t looking at the movie in the right light, so to speak. They didn’t quite get it, and our prediction is that slowly but surely… people will. It has all the right elements to break into the cult category – it’s cheesey, it’s futuristic, and well… it’s pretty bad. It’s perfect!

Some notable examples of cult classics are Barbarella (1968), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Logan’s Run (1976), The Evil Dead (1981), Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), and The Big Lebowski (1998). The list could go on and on, but what’s interesting is how both old and newer movies can achieve cult status.

The cult film phenomenon has made the careers of otherwise unknown filmmakers, and has been the crowning glory of their portfolios. I suppose there would be enormous pride in knowing that, 30 years later, fans were still quoting your film, seeing it in theatres, and the DVD was on its second edition release.

Many cult films are hard to find on DVD, and a true fan must go searching for these titles, making special orders online through eBay, or our friends at Movies Unlimited.

It takes a true lover of movies to understand and appreciate a cult film. This is why the general public usually disregards it – but the small and devoted following that ‘gets it’ is what puts the film into the cult category.

Even if you’re not a movie-buff-extraordinaire, we guarantee there is a movie you love – a movie you’ve re-watched – a movie that has a special place in your heart – which, unbeknownst to you, identifies as a cult-classic. Whether you knew it or not, you aren’t the only person who has treasured the movie.

A cult classic can also be a totally individual experience. Most of us movie-buffs have clung to a certain obscure movie, memorized every line, related it to our own lives, and upgraded the film to every format possible – VHS to Laserdisc to DVD. It is a prized piece of our movie collections and you gasp when people tell you they‘ve never seen it or tell us how badly it sucked. This is like a dagger through the heart of a cult-film fan. But deep down we all know… “They just don’t get it.”

So next time you see a dump bin of DVDs, don’t pass it up. Take the time, rifle through the titles. You never know when you’ll find a cult film stuck in between the cheapies. You might just encounter a real gem that could become your new favie, and transform you into a cult film fanatic. Welcome to the Cinema Obsessed family.

Angie and Chantale are creators and writers of, a haven for movie buffs everywhere!