In the vast world of cinema, there are many places for movies to reside within the public’s consciousness. Hollywood blockbusters reside luxuriously atop the hill for all to see. Indie films stand quaintly and comely for the artists and dreamers to find a home at. B-movies exist to be gawked at and made a spectacle. But in a little niche, within every genre is a sub-category; an umbrella under which many films from all types lie under. These films are Cult Classics.
The term, “Cult Classic” or “Cult Film” was first coined in the 1970s when describing fans of the underground and midnight movie scene. These movies were labeled cult classics because of the small gathering of people who would come to watch a movie that generally unaccepted by the entertainment industry as a whole. Most of the time these movies were reclaimed or rediscovered and kept alive by their cult following. Yet, defining a cult classic is a pretty difficult thing to do. Generally speaking, a Cult Classic is a movie that has garnered a highly dedicated fanbase, despite being unpopular elsewhere. Beyond that though, it’s hard to classify what is and isn’t a cult film because it’s mainly subjective and based on the viewer; it’s similar to asking the question “what is art?” What truly makes them endearing is that despite being hard to classify, they feel special because they exist as an outlier in the film industry, and contain just the right amount of quirkiness and oddity that make them feel fresh and unique (and sometimes confusing).
Because of this, definitions of Cult Classic run the gambit from big budget movies that didn’t critically do well initially (Blade Runner or The Big Lebowski), to lower budget horror films (The Evil Dead or Repo Man), to movies that are seen as too weird or confusing to be in the mainstream, (The Room or Donnie Darko). A Cult Classic film is often highly quoted by it’s fanbase, watched with many repeat viewings and encourages audience participation in cinemas. Often times these movies break the cultural norms and taboos by include excessive and/or gratuitous combinations of violence, sexual content, and profanity. Other times these movies might just be critically panned by their viewers and classified as poor film-making.
It might seem like these Cult Classic movies are famous for seemingly no reason at all (unless you talk to an astute follower; in which you still might not understand their reasoning). For instance, the film Napoleon Dynamite is a very popular film in the western United States where I am from. A lot of people in the U.S. watched it, probably chuckled a little bit, maybe wore a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt, and left it in 2004. In the west though, EVERYONE loves this film. Many nearly have the entire screenplay memorized and watch it regularly. A lot of this is probably due to the writer/director Jared Hess being from Arizona, living in Idaho and going to school in Utah. But even still, it’s a film basically about nothing, takes place in a very small Idahoan town, and has a very small budget. There’s no reason this movie should have become as popular as it is. Yet, many people, including myself, love this movie (as well as Hess’s other low budget film Nacho Libre).
People often describe the style of cult classic movies as odd, weird, controversial or confusing. Movies like Office Space, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Big Trouble In Little China, and One Crazy Summer are all pretty different movies as far as subject matter goes; but it’s how the subject matter is presented that makes them a cult classic. The plot can be straightforward and even rational, but it’s the clever little spin that the filmmakers put on the movie that make them so popular among a smaller fan-base. If I describe a movie about a man whose entire world is rocked when his bicycle is stolen, I could be describing the historically lauded, neorealistic 1948 Italian film Ladri Di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), or I could be talking about Tim Burton’s atypically bizarre and seldomly touted cult film PeeWee’s Big Adventure. Both are about a man’s quest to regain his lost bike, but both are wildly different in terms of events, themes, style, and overall tone. A Cult Classic film is made in the unique sense style found in the movie, which appeals to a certain nook of people.
Many blog posts could be written about what specifically makes a cult film, and which films are the most quintessential when it comes to having a cult following. But perhaps what is most important is knowing what film you love that appeals to your own unique sense of taste. What film do you love? Mainstream or not, what is a movie that you seem to just get? Not because you can plead some sort of case as to why it’s good, but because you love it for a different reason than most. A personal favorite of my own is Fantastic Mr. Fox. The director himself (Wes Anderson), already has a cult following with most of his films, but Fantastic Mr. Fox in particular is a film that I love because of it’s quirkiness, it’s weird stop-motion style, it’s dry and witty humor, and it’s ensemble of quaint characters. However, the most important reason I love it and what makes it a cult film to me is the feeling I get when I watch it. A homey feeling, a warm and eccentric type of feeling I’ve felt during no other film. I know a fellow fan of the movie by how they describe their own love for it. And together we cultivate a following for a strange and slightly uncanny stop motion movie about a fox who takes care of his family by stealing squabs (whatever the cuss that is).
Another thing to note, regarding cult classics, is that it’s not reserved to movies. There are a handful of television shows that have also earned that title, including the western sci-fi Firefly, or the playful roasting of terrible movies in Mystery Science Theatre 3000, as well as others. The point is that Cult Classics aren’t defined by their synopsis or style, but by their reception from the audience.