What is a Cult Film, Anyway?

When I started this blog last year, I knew I wanted it to cover the endless facets of the horror genre. When considering all of the different films I love watching and discussing, however, I knew I had to stretch my focus a little further to make this endeavor exactly what I wanted it to be.

With that in mind, I added cult films to my focus. I have written a couple posts about specific cult films, and I think most film lovers are familiar with the concept. However, to start off By Night’s first Cult Films Month, I wanted to explore the question that I have pondered many times:

What is a cult film, anyway?

As demonstrated by the films featured below, cult films span genres and time. Something that all cult films share is a dedicated following or significant influence in popular culture. If a cult film has been around for several years, passed down from one generation of devoted fans to another, it becomes a cult classic. Cult films tend to not be financially or critically successful (although some of them have been, like Fight Club by David Fincher). Instead, cult films become cult classics because of their unique personalities, memorable lines, and character that appeals to audiences on a personal level. Cult films are often unusual, offbeat, or stylized in some way that distinguish them from more mainstream-supported films.

Cult films have been popping up for decades. From movie theaters to television stations, people saw the value in “B-movies,” “midnight movies,” and other off-the-wall productions that drew dedicated crowds and social buzz. Many cult films, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), are still enjoyed today by audiences in interactive movie showings, local theater group performances, and even stage productions. One of my favorite pop culture figures, Elvira, famously hosted shows where she would share and joke about low-budget horror and science fiction movies. In the early 1980s, she created and starred in her own movie that embodies those tropes. Not surprisingly, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988) became a cult classic itself and launched even more opportunities for the horror entertainment star. Another characteristic I have picked up from watching cult films is their ability to transcend their own audiences. Even if you have not seen particular cult classics, chances are you recognize characters or quotes from them.

Cult films are traditionally rooted in horror or science fiction foundations. However, in more recent decades, the genres have become more flexible. One of the most influential cult films of my lifetime is Fight Club (1999). Based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk (Invisible Monsters, Choke, Haunted), this satiric drama shook the world and even inspired real-life fight clubs to emerge (but more on that later). In the early 2000s, we saw an emergence of teen comedies quickly becoming cult classics. Let’s say, just for fun, you have never seen Mean Girls (2004)…chances are, you know a few lines or images from it anyway. This movie exposed the dark side of teen friendships with humor and wit, and its influence is still seen in popular culture today. The definition of a cult film can be pretty elastic, but one thing remains consistent: cult films stand the test of time and charm audiences generations after their original release, so much so that they remain known and continue to impact culture and inspire other creative work.

What I love about cult films is their uniqueness and their lasting impact over time. We all have memories involving a cult film. Due to their longevity and attractiveness to film lovers, cult films are often shared and experienced with others. I have bonded with many other film lovers through cult films over the years. When selecting the examples for this post, I remembered the first time I watched each of them and how I felt while watching them. As someone who has always been fascinated by movies and the stories surrounding them, I have always experienced cult films as rites of passage. When I watch a cult classic for the first time, I feel like I am entering a conversation that will only grow more over time. I am excited to focus on cult films for the next few posts and learn more about this fun and subversive film category. As always, feel free to share some of your favorite films related to this post in the comments!

Until next time,

Jordan

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