What makes a cult movie?

MY RECENT virginal experience with audience participation at The Rocky Horror Picture Show prompted some research into what makes a cult movie. And what other films generate audience interaction such as dressing up in character, call backs to the screen, and singing or dancing along.

Look up Wikipedia for a list of cult movies and you get an A-Z list of more than 600. The fact that it contains movies like Citizen Kane, Clockwork Orange, Mad Max, Wizard of Oz, Sound of Music, Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Pulp Fiction suggests some confusion between classic and cult.

Other titles are reminiscent of the B-grade movies that used to make up the double feature screenings that Pre-Boomers like me used to see at the local cinema when we were teenagers. Science fiction horrors like 20 Million Miles to Earth, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, or Plan 9 from Outer Space. Films that are so bad that they become lovable and memorable.

And what about the soft porn genre of Deep Throat, 9Weeks, Barbarella, Emmanuelle, and Last Tango in Paris? Are these cult films or simply classics? I can tell you they were certainly memorable.

One of the most influential reviewers of cult films is Danny Peary whose three books on the subject define the genre. Peary notes that films become cult movies only when they are “cherished, protected and most of all, enthusiastically championed” by moviegoers long after their initial release. His 1981 book, Cult Movies, lists 100 films and the follow-up books each add another 50. Such films, he says, are “born in controversy, in arguments over quality, theme, talent and other matters”.

Musicals feature strongly and here we get closer to what I was looking for: films which encourage shadow casts where audience members dress up in character, sing along and dance in the aisles. At the top of this list is Sound of Music where the fans not only engage in costume contests (nun or Nazi?) but also boo the baroness and bark at Rolfe, the telegram delivery boy.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is another musical which encourages audience singalong and dress-up, as does Labyrinth, Shock Treatment (a pretty poor RHPS sequel), Little Shop of Horrors, and Repo! The Genetic Opera.

Another accepted cult film is Polyester, where audiences are given scratch and sniff cards and then smell along with the film whenever prompted to do so on screen. The Room involves audiences throwing spoons, groaning loudly during the sex scenes, and generally wondering out loud why they are attending such a bad film.

What is generally agreed by all the researchers and critics is that The Rocky Horror Picture Show tops the lot.

Len Horne

One thought on “What makes a cult movie?

  1. Polyester with the transvestite Divine was brilliant. I saw it with the sniff cards. More recently Zoolander has achieved cult status.


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