The Top Ten Elements of a “Cult” Film
The Term “Cult,” as applied to movies, is much harder to define than another classic film term, “Noir”.
There is little agreement on what makes a cult film. Unlike noir, cult is not a genre, rather a term that applies to a film’s perception by the movie going public.
The one universal definition seems to be that the film has a devoted (sometimes small) fan base that watches the film often, or even obsessively.
Another popular definition is that the film becomes more popular after it has left theaters.
It’s this view that seems to lend to the often incorrect idea that a cult film has to be a box office flop, and by extension has to be panned by traditional critics, or just plain bad.
This site sees a little, but not absolute, truth in both these definitions.
A quick examination of the 1977 classic Star Wars can illustrate this point.
Star Wars definitely has a devoted, even obsessive, fan base. At the same time, it was a massive box office and cultural success. It’s this success that makes us cringe when we see it refereed to as a cult film.
Over the years many debates have raged about the quality of this film, often focusing on the acting. Most of the criticisms come from “film auteur” elitists, or people who just don’t like science fiction, but a film can still be good despite flaws or not appealing to every critic with a two cent opinion.
It is these misplaced criticisms that makes us agree with the idea of Star Wars as a cult film.
While Star Wars is definitely a classic, it is not necessarily a “Cult Classic”
Consider that the Cohen Brothers masterwork The Big Lebowski was recently voted the number one cult film of all time.
So let’s consider what things are common to the content of cult films in general.
Because the term cult can be applied to a film of any genre and there are no clear predictors for cult status, we will try not consider factors of human perception that contribute to a film’s status as a cult
The following list of items are common to many cult films. A cult film can have several, or none, of the following elements, but probably not all of them.
This is one of the most common elements of a cult and also most misunderstood. Keep in mind for the purposes of this list we are referring to poor quality, or the opposite of good, not the kind of badness you find in Black Dynamite.
Some people just don’t get the concept of “so bad its good”. Most bad films are just bad films, thrown on the celluloid scrap heap of history, but some become cults. It’s important that a film is not purposefully bad. Films can be purposefully offbeat, counter cultural, uncomfortable, or controversial, (See John Waters) but it must be made with a sincere heart. There are too many film school wannabe directors out there who set out to make a bad cult film. It just doesn’t work that way.
2. Unintentional Humor.
This is closely related to badness. Unintentional humor can come from bad drama, or over the top horror. It is not to be confused with comic relief, which is used to break tension, usually in good drama.
Actors trying to keep straight faces while spouting off schmaltzy dialogue, or obviously fake severed rubber heads spraying poorly dyed corn syrup sometimes tickle the funny bone when the director never intended to do so.
Some of the best unintentional humor comes from muscle bound action heroes trying desperately to win an Oscar.
Note: By definition, a comedy cannot have unintentional humor. Bad comedies are rarely worth watching.
3. Offbeat / Strangeness.
Offbeat films can wander into that ambiguous realm of purposefully overt art, versus just trying too hard. A director can try to make a film that’s deliberately on the fringe in an effort to make a statement or appeal to a certain segment of the population. At the same time the director must be careful not to make a deliberately cultish film, or risk coming off as phony.
David Lynch and John Waters are the masters of walking this line.
4. Camp / Kitsch.
Camp and its close cousin Kitsch are hard to articulate, but can be thought of as the celebration of the delightfully absurd. They are often found at the confluence of Offbeat, Badness, and sometimes results in unintentional humor.
Camp / Kitsch is often misunderstood by the average movie goer, while usually purposeful, those who don’t get camp seem to think it’s a mistake, and the result of poor movie making. Camp can happen by accident, but it is something that is usually striven for and done purposefully. It is often aware of itself and thrives in independent and low budget films.
The works of Tim Burton and John Waters are known for their campiness.
Not to be confused with camp, a sense of irony goes a long way to the culture of the cult. Keep in mind we don’t mean the classic dictionary definition; “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal expected result.”
We are talking about the looser, less correct, interpretation of the term; which causes a group of gamers to get together and play Pong, even though they have Halo right there.
This one applies mostly to the horror genre. It can result in the previously mentioned unintentional humor. While most cult horror films have large amounts of over the top gore, it is not necessary for a horror film.
Slasher flicks going back to the 70′s have relied on this as a cheap kind of gross out porn. Faces of Death being one of the worst offenders. Other movies have successfully used it without being gratuitous. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a fine example of the artful use of gore.
.The Blair Witch Project, and Rec are good examples of films that play on inner fear as opposed to in your face grossness.
This one is in the same vein as gore and sometimes goes hand in hand with it, particularly with films from the 70’s and 80’s or some offbeat foreign directors.
Nudity like gore can be artful, distasteful, overdone, or just plain fun. It’s often a requirement of the classic sexploitation films of the past. The advent of easy access, free internet porn, and the MPAA have pretty much killed this genre. Gratuitousness, while often expected, isn’t necessary to a cult film.
If you really need a definition of nudity, click this link.
.8. Independent / Low Budget.
Definitely not a requirement to make a cult, freedom from the studio system certainly goes a long way to creating a cult film. Studios want sure things, predictable and easy to understand scripts, and a formula to appease the mass market. If a director wants to make a film in the studio system he / she will have to play by their rules. This means things like intentional camp, and offbeat themes, that appeal to cult aficionados, are out the window.
Going independent naturally leads to a smaller budget. Right now your saying, “Wait a minute, a low budget is not a movie element,” but a low budget does affect the look and feel of a film through cheap sets, poor special effects and the harder to define “low production value.”
In addition, the studio system doesn’t want to get involved with dark themes. A bleak depressing film can turn off the mainstream audience and lead to box office failure. Film makers who are dedicated to their dark visions often have to go it alone.
Bleakness is independent of the film quality, a depressing film can be good, bad or just plain average. A well made dark film can be very entertaining. It is from the marriage of darkness and quality that a cult is often born.
Jim Jarmusch films are often very bleak.
10. Its fun to watch.
“Fun” maybe a concept as hard to define as the term cult itself. The classic, “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it,” is probably the best way. In order for a film to be considered a cult it has to have a devoted fan base. That means you want to watch it over and over again.
If a film is tedious and hard to watch (ideas which are admittedly subject to interpretation), it will not develop the required fan base. There are many great, wonderful, Oscar worthy films that you only want to watch once, and there are others you may not want to watch at all. These films will not be cult classics, not to you anyway.