The term cult film is used to describe a film that has had little to no success commercially and critically upon its initial release but has later spawned a small, but devoted and usually obsessive fanbase, however there are various exceptions. This has led to a misconception in Cult classic films that the definition is a film that 'you either love or hate'. The term was first coined in the early 1980s in the book Cult Movies, by Danny Peary and is continued to be used to describe the films to this day. Usually, cult films have limited but very special, noted appeal. Cult films are often known to be eccentric, and do not follow traditional standards of mainstream cinema and usually explore topics not considered in any way mainstream—yet there are examples that are relatively normal. They are often considered controversial because they step outside standard narrative and technical conventions known.
A film can be both a major studio release and a cult film, particularly if despite its affiliation with a major studio, it failed to achieve broad success on either the theatrical or home video markets but was championed by a small number of dedicated film fanatics who seek out lesser-known offerings, which can also be said about Freddy Got Fingered. It is also true that the content of certain films (such as dark subjects, alienation, transgressive content, or other controversial subject matter) can also decide whether or not a film is a "cult film", regardless of the film's budget or studio affiliations. An example may be Paul Verhoeven's big budgeted, highly sexualized Showgirls (1995), initially intended to be a drama film about the rise of a Las Vegas stripper, that flopped both critically and commercially. Today, it is a favorite of homosexual audiences and audiences in general have considered it to be a comedy thanks to frequent midnight madness. According to activist writer Naomi Klein, ironic enjoyment of the film initially arose among those with the video before MGM, the films chief marketer, capitalized on the idea. MGM noticed the video was performing all right, since "trendy twenty-somethings were throwing Showgirls irony parties, laughing sardonically at the implausibly poor screenplay and shrieking with horror at the aerobic sexual encounters.
Some cult films garner overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and perform well at the box office, but nevertheless are still considered 'cult'. One example of this is Stanley Kubrick's vision of a grim and disturbing, ultra-violent future in A Clockwork Orange (1971), which won several major film awards and was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. Another example may be Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), which was popular on home video while being widely regarded as a flop upon its initial release. Sometimes cult films can be revolutionary for their era, thus becoming far more successful later on, namely Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940).
The low budget horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968) directed by George A. Romero earned moderate box office takings but was critically polarized at the time. However, the culture of Vietnam-era America had a tremendous impact on the film and the film was given a cult status after playing frequently at midnight movie circuits. It is so thoroughly laden with critiques of late-1960s American society that one historian described the film as "subversive on many levels." While not the first zombie film made, Night of the Living Dead influenced countless films and is perhaps the defining influence on the modern pop-culture zombie archetype. The film is the first of five Dead films (completed or pending) directed by Romero. Stanley Kubrick's war thriller Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) has been recognized outside of its cult fanbase, while still maintaining its status as a cult film. Around this time, the black comedy Harold and Maude (1971) became the first major Hollywood studio movie of the era to develop a substantial cult audience of repeat viewers; though apparently it was not picked up by much of the midnight movie circuit during the 1970s, it subsequently became a late show staple as the phenomenon turned more to camp revivals. Mel Stuart's musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) has widely been regarded as one of the most favored, well known children's films of all-time, with Gene Wilder as the eccentric head of the factory of sweet confections, yet has developed a cult fanbase among adults for its campy production design. Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), a film about violence in a Dystopian future world was a major commercial success, receiving an Academy Award for Best Picture nomination, yet the subject matter explored in the film is considered controversial and therefore had limited appeal to audiences thus giving it a cult classic status. John Waters' notorious Pink Flamingos (1972), was wildly controversial (being an exercise in "poor taste") featuring incest and coprophagia, became the best known of a group of campy midnight films focusing on sexual perversions and fetishism. Filmed on weekends in Waters's hometown of Baltimore, with a mile-long extension cord as a power conduit, it was also crucial in inspiring the growth of the independent film movement. In 1973, the Elgin Theater started midnight screenings of both Pink Flamingos and a crime drama from Jamaica with a remarkable soundtrack. In its mainstream release, The Harder They Come (1972) had been a flop, panned by critics after its U.S. distributor, Roger Corman's New World Pictures, marketed it as a blaxploitation picture. Re-released as a midnight film, it screened around the country for six years, helping spur the popularity of reggae in the United States. While the midnight-movie potential of certain films was recognized only some time after they opened, a number during this period were distributed to take advantage of the market from the beginning—in 1973, for instance, Broken Goddess, Dragula, The White Whore and the Bit Player, and Elevator Girls in Bondage (as well as Pink Flamingos) had their New York premieres at midnight screenings. In 1974, midnight opener Flesh Gordon evidenced how the phenomenon lent itself to flirtations with pornography.
The transgender spoof film The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is possibly the best-known and longest-running cult film in the U.S. The movie satirizes conventions of science fiction and horror films of its time, and includes elements of transvestism, incest and homosexuality — all within the context of a musical film. The film received little critical attention or mainstream cinema exhibition when first released in 1975, but built up a base of fans who repeatedly showed up at midnight screenings at inexpensive neighborhood cinemas, dressed in costume and "participating" in the film by doing such things as throwing rice during its wedding scene. In this case, the film intentionally ridiculed its own subject matter, thereby entering into the spirit of sarcastic fun often surrounding the attainment of cult status and gained a new life on VHS. The Rocky Horror Picture Show can be seen as a standard to help determine if a movie is indeed a cult film, as it is likely the most famous cult film. Much of the attention has steamed from the fanbase, rather than the film itself. If a movie is more widely known than The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it is not likely to be considered a cult film. Network television, cable television and pay-per-view stations have also changed the nature of cult films. David Lynch's experimental Eraserhead (1977), an example of shoe-string surrealism was a flop both critically and commercially, yet was saved from obscurity thanks to home video in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
While Rocky Horror soldiered on, by then a phenomenon unto itself, and new films like The Warriors (1979), The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), The Evil Dead (1981), Heavy Metal (1981), and Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)—all from mainstream distributors—were picked up by the midnight movie circuit, the core of exhibitors that energized the movement was disappearing. By the time the fabled Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shut its doors after a fire in 1986, the days of the theatrical midnight movie as a significant countercultural phenomenon were already past. Ridley Scott's influential science fiction film Blade Runner (1982) film set in an overpopulated neon-lit Los Angeles, 2019, and centred around a police-cop or 'blade runner', played by Harrison Ford, seeking four genetically made human beings, one of whom he falls in love with which forces him to question his own place as a human. The film was largely unpopular with both audiences and critics in 1982 but became popular with HBO and various VHS releases in the early 1990s and has since developed status as a cult classic.
In 1985, Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), an Orwellian inspired science fiction film about a man and his dreams of a better life and relationship with the woman of his dreams became a huge failure (largely because of the difficulties involved in marketing the film), yet was critically acclaimed and subsequently revitalized by video releases. A year later, David Lynch's landmark, highly influential neo-noir thriller Blue Velvet (1986) became a cult classic, having initially failed at the box office in 1986 (because of its limited release in theatres) but was revitalized with video releases in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The film became hugley controversial and well-known because of its bizarre, often graphic depiction of small town America and male-female relationships featuring a psychotic Dennis Hopper and his drug-fueled sexual relationship with Dorothy Vallens, played by Isabella Rossellini. Lynch continued his career with various other cult films: Wild at Heart (1990), Lost Highway (1997) and the critically acclaimed Mulholland Dr. (2001) as well as his short lived cult phenomenon television series Twin Peaks (90-91), and its subsequent movie adaptation: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Another cult item is the Jim Jarmusch film from 1989 Mystery Train, which includes Joe Strummer and Tom Waits.
Alan Parker's mystery horror hybrid movie, Angel Heart (1987), starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro, fared poorly at the box office, only just breaking even. Despite this, the film became a hit once released on VHS, and has become something of a cult classic ever since, known for its spooky tone, excellent cinematography (by Michael Seresin), a sad and spooky score (by Trevor Jones), and an unusual but effective blend of genres, all encompassing a highly atmospheric movie. Also notable, some of the producers of the movie, Andrew G. Vajna and Mario Kassar were also the producers of the movie Jacob's Ladder which had a very similar narrative structure to it, as well as a twist ending.
Michael Lehmann's satirical teenage comedy Heathers (1989), starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, was intended to take on the John Hughes teenage films (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles) and give them a much darker, realistic and comedic approach. However, the film was a failure at the box office (mainly because of its limited release). Despite this, it was hugely popular on VHS in the early 1990s and launched cutting-edge dialogue spoken by its characters ('What's your damage?', 'I love my dead, gay son!') into mainstream popular culture. In 1993, the comedy horror Army of Darkness, a sequel to the Evil Dead series, was released. The movie had a considerably higher budget than the prior two Evil Dead films. The budget was estimated to be around $11 million; while Evil Dead II had a budget of $3.5 million and The Evil Dead a budget of $350,000. At the box office, Army of Darkness was not a big success as hoped, only grossing $11,501,093 domestically. After its video release, however, it has obtained an ever-growing cult following, along with the other two films in the trilogy. One of the most successful of the 1990s generation of cult films was the Australian drag queen road saga The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). One of the theaters to show it regularly at midnight was New York's Waverly (also now closed), where Rocky Horror had played for a house record ninety-five weeks. A celebrated episode of television's The Drew Carey Show features a song-and-dance battle between Rocky Horror fans (led by Drew Carey) and Priscilla fans (led by Mimi Bobeck). Writer/director Todd Solondz, a favorite cult director, had his first major success with the black comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), a brutally-honest look at the persecution of a young junior high student by her classmates. His next film was the challenging, controversial dark comedy of sex and perversion in American suburbia—titled Happiness (1998). Paul Verhoven's big budget production of Showgirls (1995), given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA in the United States, was strongly criticised for its graphic sexuality. It managed to develop a cult status among audiences who embraced it as a comedic satire and became one of MGM's best-selling DVDs. Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), despite its huge commercial mainstream success, is often considered to be a cult title. The Big Lebowski (1998) was a flop on its initial release, yet became a cult classic and has been called "the first cult film of the Internet era."
Canadian actor and comedian Tom Green's 2001 film Freddy Got Fingered, was lambasted by many critics, and flopped at the box office. The film quickly gained a cult following amongst fans of the film's genre due to its gross-out humour. DVD rentals and sales managed to help the film become financially successful. The 2001 comic book adaptation Ghost World became popular on home video and quickly affirmed a cult status with audiences.
In the world of animation, the 2007 animated film Flatland has garnered modest cult status from critics and fans alike, being likened by film review magazines such as Film Threat to older animation cult films like Yellow Submarine and Fritz The Cat.
Since the turn of the millennium, the most notable success among newly minted cult and midnight movies has been Donnie Darko (2001). Also notable is the 2001 comedy Wet Hot American Summer, an absurdist parody of the pre-MTV summer camp genre. Notably, both "Darko" and "Wet Hot" take place in the 1980s. Older films are also popular on the circuit, appreciated largely in an imposed camp fashion—a midnight movie tradition that goes back to the 1972 revival of the hectoring anti-drug movie Reefer Madness (1938). (Tod Browning's 1932 horror classic Freaks, the original midnight movie revival, is both too dark and too sociologically acute to readily consume as camp.) Where the irony with which Reefer Madness was adopted as a midnight favorite had its roots in a countercultural sensibility, in the latter's place there is now the paradoxical element of nostalgia: the leading revivals on the circuit currently include the crème de la crème of the John Hughes oeuvre—The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)—and the preteen adventure film The Goonies (1985).
The 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness has become a cult film within the stoner subculture due to its humorously sensationalized, outdated and inaccurate descriptions of the effects of marijuana. 20th Century Fox and Legend Films released a colorized version of the film on DVD on April 20, 2004, an obvious reference to its ironic appeal (see 420 (cannabis culture)). The World War II-era Department of Agriculture film Hemp for Victory, encouraging the growing of hemp for war uses, has achieved a similar cult status. Lower IT workers and white-collar American workers alike have given Mike Judge's 1999 comedy film Office Space a cult following because of its heroic portrayal of ordinary office employees who become fed up with their jobs, make a stand, and try to overthrow the very corporation they work for. Belgian cult movie Man Bites Dog with Benoit Poelvoorde and the surrealist movie Camping Cosmos starring cult figures like Lolo Ferrari, Noël Godin and Arno Hintjens, are an element of the Belgian visual landscape with reminiscences to Belgian Surrealism. British comedies have enjoyed a cult status in America. These films include the Monty Python series, most notably Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
In other cases, little-known or forgotten films from the past are revived as cult films, largely because they are considered goofy and senseless by modern standards, with laughable special effects and corny plotlines. These include Breakin', The Beastmaster, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, The Creeping Terror, Robot Monster, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and the works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. See also: Mystery Science Theater 3000. The Beastmaster is an example of the strange vectors which can lead to cult filmdom, as its reputation stems as much from ubiquitous cable-TV overplay as anything in the film itself.
These films should not be confused with comedic cult movies like The Toxic Avenger, Bad Taste, Army of Darkness, and the films of John Waters, which purposely utilize elements from films "so bad they're good" for comedic effect. This can be seen as related to the artistic style known as "camp". The most recent film to gain widespread acclaim under this jurisdiction is Samuel L. Jackson's Snakes on a Plane (2006), because this movie has been cited as trying for "so-bad-it's-good" status.