Cult Film: A Critical Symposium
Most of us know at least someone who can’t get through a day without quoting from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Casablanca, Dracula, or some other compulsively worshipped movie. Other people tire of hearing them intone, “Eeelectricity!” or “Round up the usual suspects,” or “I never drink… wine,” but they perseverate and we screen them out. At what point, however, does this kind of behavior cease to seem quaintly quasipathological and begin to call to us as a significant spectacle? Is it a matter of the ferocity of their ardor? Or their numbers? Would 1,000 people attending a Star Trek convention wearing Mr. Spock ears in San Diego make us sit up and take more notice than if two showed up at a Starbucks in Paramus speaking Vulcan? We finally decided that the only way to seriously examine these and other pressing questions was to publish a special section on Cult Film.
What initially drew our attention was that not only did cult film turn up in our conversations with great frequency, it also arrived in numerous guises. Cult as shock and schlock; cult as nostalgia; cult as marginality; cult as intensity and passion; cult as marketing hype; cult as fad and fashion; cult as subversion; cult as historical era marker. Too many things to too many people, cult film seemed to us to be stretching so thinly before our eyes as to potentially lose its meaning in a dizzying vortex. It seemed an untenable situation ripe for critical investigation.
Cult film has actually been a subject of intermittent, serious study for almost thirty years, and the object of “gee-whiz,” hyperemotional expostulations for longer than that. But Cineaste is also aware that the past ten years has seen a surge of scrutiny of the cult film phenomenon by well-informed scholars, journalists, and critics armed with something more than the pleasure, curiosity, and wonder of the initial wave of critics. This “New Wave” of cult criticism, so to speak, carries with it the intention of winnowing the wheat of rigorous understanding from the chaff of spurious and digressive chatter.
We approached a number of leading scholars, journalists, and critics—authors of classics in the field, editors of journals devoted to cult film, and new scholars of the subject—and invited them to contribute to our Critical Symposium. In the following pages, and continuing on our web site, we offer a wide range of critical interpretations and strategies—emanating from the United States, England, and Australia—that we believe will contribute to a new clarity about cult film, but leave abundant breathing room for the stimulating clash of differing considered opinions.
Our contributors differ in emphasis, which has created a trio of interrogational repertoires. Their three major focus points can be itemized as: the cult fan; the cult object; and the relationship between the cult film and the marketplace. Viewing the phenomenon of cult film through the lens of the fan elicits questions about what distinguishes cult interest from the more general category of cinephilia; differences between the opportunities for cult fans now and cult fans back in the day of pre-home- viewing technologies; and the motives and cultural roles of the cult fan.
Viewing the cult film in terms of its definition as an object, our contributors have confronted questions about cult esthetics: whether they are distinctly different from the esthetics of mainstream film; the independence of cult creators; whether there is a distinctive cult esthetic; whether the cult film (or only some cult films) is marked by a defamiliarized attitude toward the body, gender, society, the family, and human identity.
Finally, where our contributors set their sights on the commodification of cult film, they ran up against the overwhelming question of whether cult film is possible any longer, given a marketplace that omnivorously coopts whatever it catches in the cross hairs of its profit motive in order to produce a standardized product. Under this heading, we find consideration of whether and how there can still be the kind of search for the unknown, obscure object of filmgoing desire that marked the cult adventure in the long- ago days of the midnight movie, screened in the kind of independently owned movie theatre that barely exists today.
We posed the following questions to our respondents, both for the print and online editions, suggesting that they could choose either to answer the individual questions, or to use them as departure points for their own essay.—The Editors
- What is your definition of cult film?
- What is the social function of cult film?
- In his landmark book Cult Movies (1981), Danny Peary asserted that cult films are always marked by excess and controversy far beyond that usually permitted by Hollywood. He also noted the way they stimulate fan devotion of an extreme nature: characteristically an unlimited appetite for screenings of a favorite, and a determination to track it to wherever it is shown. How has the contrast between mainstream and cult film changed since the publication of Peary’s book?
- What do you find the most exciting and/or valuable esthetic features of cult films?
- How has the change in venues where cult films are shown, from public theatres to individually owned electronic devices altered the production and experience of cult?
A cult film has a select but eccentrically devoted audience who engage in repeated screenings, celebratory rituals, and/or ironic reading strategies (e.g., camp, excess, “paracinema”). Cult films are often strange, offbeat, or supposedly “transgressive” in content, in addition to sometimes being (intentionally or not) aberrant or challenging in form. In short, cult films are primarily perceived as “different” from “mainstream” films, and this sense of difference often reflects a resistance to mass-market consumerism, highfalutin artistic elitism, and political correctness. In looking at a given film, its receptional and textual attributes should both be taken into account, especially to question whether a film’s transgression of esthetic or social norms on a textual level is actually reinforced by its cult reception (and vice versa). As Chuck Kleinhans and Jacinda Read have argued, it is hazardous to celebrate, as some cultists do, the nebulous idea of “transgression” by ignoring or ironically rejecting other forms of political consciousness; for example, postclassical exploitation films like Cannibal Holocaust and Bloodsucking Freaks may violate the strictures of “good taste,” but do so through graphic portrayals of racism, misogyny, ableism, etc. Nevertheless, taking many different forms and functions, the myriad excesses of cult films (and their viewers) are what make them such a fascinating phenomenon.
In their capacity to foster a sense of community among viewers with nonnormative tastes, cult films are a cinematic outland frequently policed through subcultural negotiation, whether by cultists whose affiliations span many varieties of cult films or those engaged in a microculture surrounding a particular film. In addition to rewarding more “authentic” fans with greater subcultural status—especially those sandwiched uncomfortably between high and low socioeconomic strata—the bleeding over of cultish activity (e.g., quoting dialog, circulating trivia) from the viewing situation into everyday living can pleasurably color the cultist’s life as an esthetic experience. The twinges of anticipation in rewatching a movie that one has virtually memorized line-for-line; the base thrill of viewing bizarre or disreputable imagery; the pleasure of noticing tiny details that more casual viewers may not discern—these are all cultish delights that reveal the difficulty in separating the cult text from its reputation as less accessible to mainstream viewers. However, even if the cult ethos is resistant to both high and mass culture, Mark Jancovich has noted that (predominately middle-class) cultists often draw upon high cultural competences, such as ironic distance and knowledge of film form, to justify a class bias against supposedly lumpen “mainstream” audiences. While this sort of reverse elitism is certainly a pitfall for some cultists, the most valuable feature of cult films remains their ability to routinely blur the boundaries between art and trash, revealing the very constructedness of esthetic distinctions. Celebrating cult films can be a way of talking back to power by appropriating the tools of cultural refinement for one’s own purposes (provided one doesn’t inadvertently replicate dominant cultural biases in doing so).
Despite cultists’ perception that their object choices are less accessible to mass-market audiences, the term “cult” seems to have become more culturally diffuse over the past two decades, earning not only a place as a popular marketing term, but also blurring with “mainstream” entertainment (as with Hollywood’s “cult blockbusters,” such as the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars series). As Barbara Klinger has observed, the gradual transition from public, social rituals at repertory theatre screenings to private, individualistic collectorship in the home viewing environment has popularized cultish activity (e.g., repeated screenings, recited dialog, and other viewing rituals) beyond marginal subcultures, allowing it to become connected to countless types of films. (Without the tangibility of public interaction, just how many strange devotees of a given film constitute a new cult audience, anyway?) Consequently, some viewers may be less likely to self-identify as cultists, while others may react by embracing cultism with increased fervor; the latter impulse may be in turn feeding back into the production process, as with the recent spate of films marketed to capitalize on “grindhouse chic,” turning—whether ironically or self-seriously—toward the laddish appeal of 1970s exploitation cinema. Meanwhile, camp’s subversive edge has been blunted by its proliferation in straight culture, sadly dissipating some of the queer charge that was once common in cult film viewing.
In the age of viral videos, “cult” seems to be everywhere, spurring self-identified cultists into renewed subcultural jousting for authenticity. Many films that were once available only through mail-order catalogs, fan conventions, and bootleg VHS trading are now readily available on DVD, leading cultists to seek out even more obscure rarities. In the past several years, online torrent sites have become some cultists’ preferred source for acquiring such rarities, continuing the circulation of cult objects while preserving the “outlaw” status that Joanne Hollows has cited as a considerable appeal of cult film collecting. As technologies have evolved and cult viewing has moved behind closed doors, fans have reconnected with each other in the quasipublic, virtual spaces created by web sites, blogs, and discussion fora—which arguably allow for more dialogic, communal interaction than the cult film fanzines and newsletters they have partially replaced. While cultish activity on the Internet has not necessarily been a reliable predictor of box-office success (see Grindhouse) or long-term cult investments (see the short-lived Snakes on a Plane fad), it has increasingly caught the attention of film industries eager to maximize profits by reappropriating fan tastes. Following Henry Jenkins, this development might suggest that the struggle is intensifying between media producers and the fans who actively rework material from those media to fit their own desires. It will be fascinating to see how cultists’ resistance to the mainstreaming of cult will continue to take new forms in the future, but in any case, the changing shape of cult cinema shows few signs of slowing.
David Church is a Ph.D. student in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. He is currently editing Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, forthcoming in 2009).
- I think the important thing is not to restrict definitions to an either/or of“textual attributes” or “audience discourses.” I'd argue for a structuration theory of cult, as the recursive outcome of textual incitements of fan interpretation, fan activities, and producer cooptions, with “authentic” cult status not being limited to any one singular stage in the “to and fro of cultification.” Texts can be designed as cult, and targeted at a cult audience, given that the term now has a cultural history of its own, but movies, whether blockbusters or sleepers, can also still be articulated with discourses of cult by niche audiences. Also, I think it’s important to theorize “cult” as multiple: some films can achieve cult status because they are read as part of an auteur’s symbolic project; because they can be read as marker points along the road of film history; because they can be read as using genre in a specific way; because they use SFX to create narrative worlds or moments of awe in a particular manner. So the same film can be a “cult” to different fan communities for different reasons. Cult isn’t a singular thing or a singular filmic “event” today—if it ever was.
- There are as many social functions as there are discourses of cult. For some, it can be a badge of distinction as a marker of difference or transgression. For others, it might be a badge of distinction linked to bids for the philosophical and artistic value of “genre” film; or for others again, the reclaiming of kitsch and trash film via paracinema. I suppose what these things share is the sense of cult film as a type of “othering”: filmic and audience identities being constructed against cultural norms or normativity; against the devaluation of “genre” cinema; against the manners of “appropriate” and “tutored” cinematic taste. Cult is about being “for” and “against.” As such, it can build and reinforce interpretive and affective communities, but it can also be a classification felt as having very intense, personalized value. So cult movies, I think, can have a rather paradoxical social function—simultaneously individuating and community-building.
- “Cult” versus “mainstream” is just one version of cult now, not the only one. I’m not at all convinced that it makes sense to argue that Star Wars isn’t a cult film, as Cult Movies does. If anything, I'd see the “cult = minority” discourse as a residual meaning of the term now. Cult has been mainstreamed through cycles of producer cooption, and through the rise of auteurism and DVD extras. Cult responses can inhabit the “mainstream” (as do Star Wars fans), treating blockbusters differently, and living with them over time rather than merely occupying an evanescent moment of multiplex omnipresence. Fan devotion and “excess and controversy” need not be articulated, they can be two distinct lines of cultification. Cult is “in” the mainstream now; within its terms of reference even if the two labels haven’t fully collapsed together. Supposedly “mainstream” films can become cultified by the “unfolding consumption” of online fans who anticipate a release, follow production rumors and news, attend screenings, download material, and then debate meanings, await DVD versions, and so on. As such, some genre titles can be extensively preread and postread, with the actual moment of fan-text encounter almost seeming to disappear like a kind of fetishized vanishing point insistently longed for, and looked back over.
- For me personally, the most exciting esthetic features of cult are enigmatic signifiers: puzzles which resist interpretation, but which provoke and sustain thought. And moments of“ontological shock” where narrative worlds and/or characters are twisted into something other and something unexpected. Are these sorts of textual tricks and complexities inherently “valuable”? Perhaps not. But they allow films to live on in cultifying afterlives of fan debate and discussion.
- These possibilities can coexist, of course; cult fans may watch in both ways. Given the paradoxical social functions of cult—congegrating and individuating—personal consumer technology plays into one side of the values of cultdom, intensifying a sense of personal taste, identity and even textual “ownership.” But the “public” arena of cult is unlikely to be wholly displaced. Cult communities will still seek to gather together, at festivals or Comic-Con screenings, at previews or opening nights. Though personal consumer tech might resonate with certain meanings and functions of cult, it potentially reduces this to individualized rather than co-present, communal consumption. It’s only half the story, if you like; a damaged dialectic of cult.
Matt Hills is a Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. He is the author of Fan Cultures (2002) and The Pleasures of Horror (2005) and has written widely on cult media, most recently for the Sage Handbook of Film Studies (2008).
- Cult films have a pretty standard definition—they’re movies that are often transgressive, marginal, disasters on first release, or drawn from genres such as horror, science fiction, and exploitation, and which have attracted an exceptionally devoted and vociferous fan base. They flourished as a late-night movie phenomenon from about 1971 to the late 1980s. That definition obscures, however, many of the most problematic questions about cult film, e.g., what is the difference between a cultist and a fan; how many people make up a cult (I’m very keen on the remake of Stepford Wives—am I completely mad and alone?); and why are cult films usually associated with male tastes (Withnail and I and Fight Club are cult movies, so why not Titanic or Dirty Dancing)?
- I’m not sure cult films have a social function. They may have done so in the early 1970s when screenings showcased the preferences of the counterculture and the sexual underground, but nowadays cult tastes are too private, random and politically unpredictable for cults to have much impact. It’s much easier to be a cultist now, but it is also rather more inconsequential.
- Cult films are now a kind of brand, or pseudogenre, more or less identifiable with independent films directed at young, middle-class white audiences. In fact, for a long time there has been a prefabricated cult style, whether represented by Troma and Asylum (deliberately, insultingly bad films), what Jeff Sconce called “smart movies” (slick exercises in dysfunction and alienation, from Happiness to Little Miss Sunshine), or simply mainstream movies (and TV—hardcore cult territory nowadays) that sell themselves as worth obsessing over (Cloverfield). Cult is a label actively sought rather than accidentally won. Perhaps that’s unfair, but it is certainly true that “cult film” has become a marketing label for optimized quirkiness or, in the case of reissued films on DVD, any kind of obscure trash with no other hope of attracting an audience.
- In the 1970s, cult’s Golden Age, films such as Harold and Maude, Zabriskie Point, The Wicker Man, and The Man Who Fell to Earth seemed to encapsulate a new sensibility, merging the counterculture with mainstream Hollywood and making an esthetic out of badness, failure, excess, and pretentiousness. But that might simply imply that cult movies were the New Hollywood in extremis and that our love of cult films nowadays is inextricable from nostalgia for that great period in film.
- Cult films are still shown in public venues—the sing-along screenings of Mamma Mia! are cult events in that sense, since they encourage not only repeat viewings but pleasure in the film experience “beyond all reason” (as J.P. Telotte called it). And of course Rocky Horror still does the rounds. But the experience of cult seems, paradoxically, to have become at once more privatized, more global, and more disembodied. One is now certain via the Internet that whatever film one adores, whether it is The Big Lebowski, Black Snake Moan, or Scatwork Orange, that someone somewhere shares one’s peculiar taste—but I’m not sure it matters anymore.
I.Q. Hunter is Principal Lecturer and Subject Leader in Film Studies at De Montfort University, Leicester. He edited British Science Fiction Cinema (Routledge, 1999) and co-edited Pulping Fictions (1996), Trash Esthetics (1997), Sisterhoods (1998), Alien Identities (1999), Classics (2000), Retrovisions (2001) and Brit-Invaders! (2005). He has published widely on exploitation, horror and cult films and is currently writing a British Film Guide to A Clockwork Orange and Cult Film as a Guide to Life, a collection of articles on cult film, and coediting The Wild Eye: Experimental Film Studies.
Cult status is tied to the social situation of film reception, and this implies fans. For example, fifty years ago, Marx brothers films could be considered cult films since screenings brought out dedicated enthusiasts who often knew many of the lines, their favorite scenes and gags, etc. In the 1960s the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, MA., ran a Humphrey Bogart film festival during the exam period every semester at Harvard. Freshmen were initiated into the ritual viewing, and, by the time they were juniors, could call out their favorite lines, anticipate every plot point, etc.
Peary’s book Cult Movies arrived in 1981 at the cusp of the change from theatrical to home (VCR) viewing. The films he identified as “cult” were all ones that had to be viewed in the social situation of theatrical film, including repertory houses, midnight screenings, and campus film clubs. One exception: broadcast TV contributed to cult fandom with late-night-hosted horror films with hosts like Elvira, or by showing sure-fire hits during ratings week such as Casablanca—widely known as an audience grabber every time. In prevideotape days the group experience was essential to the cult experience. The supreme example was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which became a weekly repeat experience for a young audience that came in costume, sang the songs, and acted out in the theater. Today, different and multiple distribution streams allow for many more films to exist, and private and small group viewing allows for a different sense of “cult” status.
There are still festivals and special occasions for theatrical cult such as theme and event weekends, but the vast expansion of opportunities to view—and importantly review—films on tape and DVD have changed the game. Cult films are films that are loved, adored, valued by a self-selecting group of cinephiles. If only one person appreciates a film, we have idiosyncratic fetishism, perhaps rising at most to the level of a “guilty pleasure.” True cult status has to have a group, however small, which validates a work as art, or expression, or statement. Of course some films collect dedicated subculture viewers such as the gay male fandom for Judy Garland films. And some films expand into multiple forms including (profitable) serialization, spinoffs, costumes, and conventions: Star Wars is the supreme example.
For the individual viewer, the cult film provides the singular pleasure of adoration. Thus one common definition of cult films addresses this affection, but the social dimension of cult experience also provides an “insider” status. In general, cult films stand outside the canon of widely accepted works. But, they can become canonical over time. Thus at one time Hitchcock was generally thought of as a talented technician, but no artist, but auteur critics elevated him to canonical status. The French adored Jerry Lewis, who became a French cult figure.
Some cultists want everyone to share their enthusiasm. But some other cultists, particularly of “low” films, revel in their outsider taste and position. They want to validate their cult works, but they also want to keep those films from gaining a wider audience that would dilute their taste culture. Thus, the social function of cult films is to allow what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “distinction”—esthetic discrimination that serves to validate the person making the valuation. Everyone uses esthetic discrimination. Depending on where one is socially, in terms of both class and education, you can validate high-culture art-house films (say the cult of Haneke) or low-culture trash-culture films (say the fans of Troma), and you accumulate some “cultural capital” for your reward.
There’s genuine intellectual work in becoming knowledgeable about some small, specialized area, and thus cult fans also share characteristics of collectors of all kinds such as a ritualized devotion to something the general culture passes over. The fan publications and web sites, and the dedicated retailers and small, hip video/DVD stores are necessary parts of the social mix today. It’s also key to know that the existence of cults functions to promote connoisseurship. Just as wine lovers spend an inordinate energy on discriminating among wines (and find it fun and gratifying to do so), film cultists can endlessly discuss their beloved objects, be they Italian Giallo horror, beach party movies, Satantango, grindhouse films, early Jackie Chan, J-Horror, etc.
Of course the cultists take great pleasure in their virtually unique taste, but delight in finding a cadre of others, and truly triumph when they can parade that special status among those who are unwashed and unlearned, but eager to be initiated (the Harvard freshmen). Finding others who share your insider love of The Big Lebowski, say, makes you feel good to share your specialized knowledge with others who understand you, whose existence complements your taste, and are not bored with or tired of your passion. This is even more so when cult knowledge can be used to appall uptight elitists (which works especially well in university humanities departments, which are filled with anal-retentive esthetic and/or political conservatives). All of this is present in the Film Quarterly symposium back in 2003 validating Showgirls.
Recent cult film culture shows a marked tendency to validate the outsider status of the works as somehow transgressive or subversive of oppressive norms, the dominant ideology, or the existing power structure. This claim is often made but seldom examined in depth. And since much (though not all) cult film fandom falls into the demographics of white-boy culture, feminists have been justifiably skeptical of its gender politics. An interesting mark of critical change and development in this area is Stephane Dunn’s recent book, Baad Bitches” & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films. She works through the racial and gender politics of Blaxploitation-era cult films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Coffy, and Foxy Brown. Dunn develops a sophisticated analysis that could serve as a model for many other cult films.
Chuck Kleinhans coedits JUMP CUT: A Review Of Contemporary Media (www.ejumpcut.org) and teaches in the Radio/TV/Film department at Northwestern University. His current research covers Asian Extreme cinema and women warrior films.
MIKEL J. KOVEN
- When it comes to defining cult films, I take a particularly hard line on my definition, as many definitions tend to use the word “cult” wrong. There are a number of better terms available to film scholars to describe what one means when one incorrectly uses cult; Sconce’s “paracinematic” for example; or Schaffer’s definitions of “exploitation” film; Joan Hawkins' recognition of exploitation film as art-film; and recently, in their introduction to their Cult Film Reader, Mathijs and Mendik’s definition is pretty much open to include any film one chooses to call cult. You can call a dog “a cat,” but no self-serving epistemology makes it so. “Grindhouse” movies, B-movies, genre pictures, “midnight movies”, even “psychotronic cinema” are often better terms than the overused “cult."
To be a cult film, the film must have a particular kind of audience who display a particular kind of behavior; behavior which is often ritualistic. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the archetypal example of a film which, regardless of any esthetic or formal filmic features it may display, developed (and developed slowly over time) a dedicated audience following, who would go to tremendous lengths to attend a screening of their worshipped film. Whole series of rituals and cultural behaviors developed around that film which were passed on amongst its more dedicated followers; a culture of worship, if you will, which was passed on informally and through a variety of vernacular conduits, completely outside of a dominant or “official” culture. In many respects, cult film are those films which develop alternative (if not directly oppositional) experiences of the group context in which the film is screened. You cannot have a cult film on your own.
Two personal anecdotes will, I hope, illustrate this. When I was in high school, our local repertory cinema would screen Casablanca at least once a month. For each of those screenings, my friends and I would don fedoras and trenchcoats, and sit in the back of the cinema smoking cigarettes. With all due respect to Umberto Eco’s recognition of Casablanca’s cult status, it was the experience we had of sitting at the Fox Cinema in Toronto, at the back, dressed a certain way, engaging in certain activities that defines the film as cult. Every screening of the film at the Fox, we would do this. For any other Bogart or classic Hollywood film like Casablanca, some of us would try this, but on those occasions, neither the group members nor the ritualistic behaviors, were exactly the same as for our Casablanca experiences.
The second anecdote is slightly more complex: Martin Scorsese’s After Hours came out around the same time as my Casablanca experiences, and our group of friends went to see it, not as a special cultish event, but just to see a new movie. Due to the particular circumstances of one of the fellows in this group, After Hours spoke to us in a highly personal and profound way; much like one hears of others’ first seeing Easy Rider or Pulp Fiction. For the next year or so, while we as a group still hung around together, like Casablanca, we would seek out any screening of After Hours all over town. Our behaviors were not as “special” as when went to see Casablanca, but our personal connection to the Scorsese film was perhaps more profound. In both of those anecdotes, while the group itself eventually went our separate ways, and I’ve frequently watched Casablanca on my own, or screened it for students (sans fedora and overcoat), After Hours, regardless of the context of the screening, takes me back to the mid-1980s and that group of friends.
So here then is my definition of a cult film: it is a film which draws to it a group of dedicated followers who behave in extraordinary ways beyond the norm of regular film going, whether dressing up or consciously seeking out screenings, but often only lasts for a measurable period of time (some Rocky Horror fans are the exception which proves the rule). While Mathijs and Mendik are partially right in recognizing that any film could be considered cult (under the right circumstances), what makes a film cult are those circumstances themselves, and not anything to do with the films’ esthetic or formalistic features.
- The social function of the cult film is difficult to define succinctly. What may be true for some cult audiences may not be true for others, and any kind of speculation would be superficial. So while there may be a film which brings a group together—for example, those people who love The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Mamma Mia!—may not have the same reasons for loving the film as other fans, or the same level of engagement to it. Sociological (or worse, psycho-sociological) speculation cannot grasp the actual and lived reasons for such cultish devotion. Neither can lazy audience research methodologies like questionnaires or focus groups. The only way to properly understand the social function of the cult film is by proper participant-observation ethnography, and even that needs to recognize the temporal and special limitations of any conclusions.
- While Peary’s assertion may have been true in the early 1980s, Hollywood has quickly coopted the cult film, and marketed it back on itself, thereby destroying the specific film’s own cultishness. To own a copy of a particular cult film, on video or DVD, makes fans collectors, but simple ownership of the text breaks down the social significance of groupness that predicates, if not defines, a film’s cult status.
- I would disagree that cult film share any particular esthetic features. As I noted above, what some scholars call cult are erroneously so labeled.
- I partially answered this question already. What has really changed with cult audiences is more the move from public to private spaces of cultish worship, than those factors of personal ownership. The ease at which one can obtain a copy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and with such ownership has the potential to watch it anytime with anyone present, removes the film’s cult status. That being said, DVD does not the death of cult film make; one can still organize Casablanca parties, or Sing-a-Long Sound of Music gettogethers with friends, but whether or not those actually happen and how involved they are (vis-à-vis dressing up and rituals adhered to) is another question. Lost in this entire move toward increased private screenings are the factors of public cultural display. Dressing up in the privacy of your own home, even among friends, or throwing rice at your TV screen, has less inherent alterity than if performed publicly. Ironically, where popular culture has still retained some semblance of potential cultishness is with certain television shows: possibly beginning with the “coffee-and-pie” parties for Twin Peaks, I have personally been involved in weekly gettogethers for the broadcast of the latest episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, and even The Simpsons.
Finally, while cult film audiences around certain film texts seems to be on the decrease, perhaps due to increased accessibility of affordable DVDs, cult events for specific fans groups, although more generally generic, might be on the increase—from science-fiction conventions to horror-film festivals. Which is why, when it comes to discussing cult films, we need to be more specific with what we are discussing, ensuring that “cult” is really the right word. We need to move beyond the superficial questions like “What is a cult film?” and “Is this a cult film?” to questions like “For whom is this a cult film?,” “How are the cultish behaviors publicly expressed?” and “Why this, now, and for these people?”
Mikel J. Koven is Senior Lecturer and Course Leader in Film Studies at the University of Worcester. He is the author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film (2006) and Film, Folklore and Urban Legends (2008).
- A film is not born a cult film. It becomes one by accident, through a public reception that is celebrated in a sectarian way—this is after all why we use the term “cult.” In most cases such a celebration develops gradually after a film’s release, after the initial, “normal” trajectory has met with hostile or unfavorable reactions, and has changed into a remarkable social phenomenon of rabid devotion or subversive, subcultural alignment. The nature of the reception is very active in its display of appreciation, communal in sharing the appreciation with likeminded viewers, rebellious in its position towards mainstream culture (especially in favoring ethically ambiguous or even offensive sensibilities), committed in its endurance (often including rituals of repetition and loyalty), and eclectic in its embrace of what is worthy of cultist celebration. Cultists are much like devoted fans or cinephiles, but they declare themselves savvier than the former (especially in their ironic and self-reflexive attitudes) and less snotty than the latter (with less of a subjection to “the next new cool thing”). This makes cultists, and hence cult receptions, difficult to affect through market strategies. In general, films cannot be designed for cultists the same way they can be tailored to fans or cinephiles. Inevitably, however, some films have acquired such a forceful reputation that a model canon has emerged. The core of that canon is mostly made up of American films such as Freaks, Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Sound of Music, Night of the Living Dead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead, This Is Spinal Tap, and Donnie Darko, with an assortment of British, Latin American, Asian and Euro cults such as Witchfinder General, El Topo, Enter the Dragon, Akira, Deep Red, Emmanuelle, and Daughters of Darkness thrown in for good measure. Often cult cinema is considered equal to the shared features of this canon.
- The most important social function of cult cinema is that it creates an understanding for ambiguity, multitudes, and incompleteness. Most discussions assume that a film (or any other similar part of culture) can be singularly defined—bad or good, beautiful or ugly, an innovation or a retreat. Cultist receptions highlight the inconsistencies, breaks, and lapses in that belief. They demonstrate that films can be both, and more, and none of the above. Failures can be successes, bad can be good (or so bad it’s good), and innovations can be very retro. Cult cinema exemplifies the extent to which art, popular culture, and entertainment are always in flux, never self-evident or final. Cult films lack a “final moment,” a point when their public presence sediments into a situation of equilibrium and their meanings consolidate into one fixed “truth.” The phenomenon of cult cinema can be a helpful tool in coming to terms with the diversities and multidimensional aspects of contemporary life, and the challenges that the construction of the history of culture poses.
- Excess and controversy are among the most visible examples of cult reception because they attract scorn from the moral majority. A cultist defends the object of her or his worship in public, against all odds. That alignment can be extreme when compared to whatever passes for “normal” audience behavior (though that “norm” is perhaps the wishful desire of an industry that wants to see audiences disciplined into politely applauding paying customers whose main feedback is “carry on”). But it can also be remarkably sedate, mundane, or detached. Watching a film knowing it will be banal, uninteresting, boring, repetitive, or void of attraction is as cultist a mode of viewing as the loud parties of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sitting through Andy Warhol’s Empire, consistently falling asleep during marathons of Heimat, wallowing in the emotional downer that is Boxing Day via the sentimentality of Meet Me in St. Louis, using consecutive screenings of the tranquil Stranger Than Paradise as a cure for hangovers, or watching 2001: A Space Odyssey under the influence of mind-enhancing substances are quasimystical, transcendental, and transgressive experiences that obliterate the dreary diligence of everyday life. In this search for weirdness lies the cultist fascination with repeat viewings, variations of length (including different cuts), and foreign-language cinema (especially in nonsubtitled form).
- The esthetics of cult cinema are constructed phenomenologically; any esthetic features have to be perceived via actual audience receptions and recognized before they can count. That said, cult cinema is characterized by strange topics and allegorical themes that rub against cultural sensitivities and resist dominant politics. Cult films transgress conventions of taste, genre, and coherent storytelling. They often use intertextual references to draw attention to their artificiality, they exhibit a peculiar taste for explicit gore, and they leave loose ends (as if the endings of films do not matter). If I have to single out one esthetic feature, I would highlight how cult cinema amplifies the impression that “every film, no matter how tawdry, ruptures the flow of ordinary ‘profane’ time to offer a whiff of immortality” (Midnight Movies, Hoberman and Rosenbaum, 1983: 16). If cult cinema is characterized by unhinged narratives and excessive styles, and by celebratory viewing practices that involve breaking out of the constraints of everyday life and its relentless adherence to second-by-second progress, then challenging the steady passage of time, blowing continuity to smithereens, preferring vignettes of actions that are only connected by the flimsiest of conventions, must be a key trope. Through blasts of genius or incompetence, cult films present tropes such as time travel and nostalgia as a form of resistance against exhausted impositions of progress. It is a well-known anarchist claim that time is invented by capitalism, in order to allow its compartmentalization into “working hours,” “shifts,” or “deadlines”—culminating in “just in time” or “around the clock” economies. Contesting this ideology is possible by cherishing time past (hence rejecting the idea that things get better), or alternative, parallel times (hence refusing to believe steady progress is the only path). Cult films (and cult celebrations) challenge the continuity of time and space, and the associated idea of progress, in the same way they contest other conventions. It is indeed part of that same provocation.
Legendary cult films such as It’s a Wonderful Life, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (“do the time warp again”), and Donnie Darko (“killing time”) have used departures from a continuous progression of time as ways to provide audiences with alternative motives for characters and plot developments, enabling a gaze into the hypothetical past, present, and future (and the same holds true for cult television series: Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Star Trek, The X-Files, and Lost all toy with the logical progression of time, and this constitutes a significant part of their appeal). These films have become cults because audiences have attached great significance to exactly those moments where the films step outside the bounds of normality and become hyperbolically “unreal” (too implausible, too incoherent). Cult cinema, and its “after hours” and “midnight” celebrations, continue to challenge proper time management, asking audiences instead to physically experience film as a somnambulistic or insomniac danger to society—as a means to defy the dreary normality of everyday life, and mainstream entertainment.
- Screenings on college campuses or at midnight in urban repertory theaters are now only one part of cult consumption. Home screenings, internet viewings, and the sharing of materials through a variety of electronic formats have become widespread. But, as someone who grew up appreciating the remote control as an instrument to enhance cultist appreciation (rewinding and replaying Scanners’ exploding head in slow motion perhaps too often), I believe the key characteristics of the cult experience have not changed, even if the technological means through which films are accessed are different. It is still active, communal, rebellious, committed, and eclectic. Those from the old school of the underground, the midnight movies and the drive-ins, for whom the odors of moldy theater furniture and the distant sounds of inner-city traffic conjure up memories, are joined by VCR veterans who came to regard the “static snow” of illegally copied tapes as a proud emblem (and a decidedly esthetic feature!). They are in turn joined by a generation that negotiates the size and shape of the screen as commensurate with the speed of access—all a matter of the kind of distance one wishes to cross. Cult cinema is still anti-Establishment, off-Hollywood, and independent even if those terms are struggled over. Film cultism now also has a history that crosses generations. That allows us to make an abstraction of conditions that were once thought to be fundamental, and treat them as contingencies.
Ernest Mathijs is coeditor of The Cult Film Reader, and of the book series Cultographies. He runs the Centre for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia.
- A film that attracts the special interest of a particular group.
- To bring particular groups closer together around a common interest.
- I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that theatrical cult films and their audienceswere made possible by independently owned theaters that showed certain films during their off-hours., e.g., in the morning or at midnight, and could afford to do so by booking films “flat,” i.e. without a percentage of their receipts owed to the distributor. During Ronald Reagan’s first term as President, the antitrust laws which enabled the spread of independent theaters stopped being enforced, thus making independent cinemas mainly a thing of the past, and new theatrical cult films a virtual impossibility. But given the power of advertising and its capacity to sell things that no longer exist to both the public at large and academia, “cult” continues to be a potent buzzword in the marketplace, even if I consider it to be misnomer—in the same way that “sneak previews” no longer qualify as such. Today, films being “sneaked” are announced in advance and therefore, properly speaking, not sneaked.
- The breaking of various social and esthetic taboos.
- Advertising claims apart, cult films no longer exist. New terms are needed for new methods of production, consumption, and distribution, not old ones.
Alternately, if old terms continue to be used, but with new meanings, it becomes the responsibility of those who continue to use the term to explain what the new meanings are.
- Definitions of cult film are difficult because it is a multivalent concept and its semantic connotations undergo fluctuation within different contexts. Rather than offering a definition of cult film (a task that would require more space), I will instead list two particular elements that I believe to be of paramount importance in considering what a cult film is. Firstly, cult films often have niche appeal and therefore tend to be positioned as films that are in some manner against or outside of the mainstream. So, for example, these films may be celebrated by particular “communities” who see themselves as opposed to what they perceive as “normality”: e.g., slackers, gays, hippies, goths, feminists, punks (it should be pointed out, though, than any individual can claim allegiance to multiple groups). Films, also, will tend to gain a following outside of mainstream channels: as sleepers (via good word of mouth after initial commercial disappointment); at repertory theaters (especially in late-night screenings); or through home exhibition after, once again, not performing particularly well on their initial release. (Mainstream “hits” can also become cult through gaining a second life through more cultish channels.)
Secondly, cult films tend to give rise to passionate attachments: these are not films that one sees and then forgets about. Rather, they are films with which people become particularly enamored and which stay with them. They are often films that people feel speak to them in a particular way and that can become important cultural objects within their lives. Passionate attachments can give rise to specific types of experiences that are related to cult films: reviewing, impersonation, midnight viewings, the seeking of information related to specific films, as well as participation in community activities (such as fan conventions, online discussions, participation in writing about such films, and even—on a smaller scale—watching a favored film at home with other close friends).
- I think that the main social function of cult film is to foster a sense of community in relation to individual identity. Cult films, because they are extremely important to people, relate to their own sense of self to some degree. At the same time, they are often connected to how individuals think of themselves in relation to other people, and this of course can lead to communities being formed, whether these are “imagined” communities, “fan” communities, or any other type of community. Cult films can help the alienated experience a sense of belonging.
- Since 1981 the discursive employment of “cult” has increased a great deal, and one of the consequences of this is that the mainstream film companies have become alerted to the economic value of this term. As such, companies can now release older films on new formats (often spruced up in special editions) and can market the film as a cult film, therefore targeting a niche, “cult” audience. Further, the proliferating “specialist” wings of mainstream companies can produce films that self-consciously incorporate cult references and which also attempt to be cult films themselves (Kill Bill being an obvious example). This, in relation to the increasing use of “cult film” within everyday cultural discourse, can further complicate the demarcations between the mainstream and cult, which were not exactly clear cut when Peary’s book was published.
- For me, the most exciting/valuable esthetic features which mark a number of cult films are: excess and marginality. Firstly, stylistic excess, or the depiction of excessive behaviors, can lead to a testing of boundaries both in terms of the formal language of cinema as well as the social function of cinema. Secondly, a number of cult films depict characters often overlooked within mainstream films, and in this regard serve a valuable representational role within film culture. Neither of these features is necessarily positive (stylistic excess can sometimes be esthetically displeasing; excessive content can often be cynical; films incorporating marginal characters will vary in quality), but I nevertheless value them in the abstract.
- I think that the production and experience of cult have certainly diversified: there now exist cheaper equipment so that more people can produce films and more channels through which people can see them. At the lower end of the production scale, these include extremely low-budget, “lo-fi” films. While the chances of such films garnering a particularly marked following is still not high, if they do develop a following they can genuinely be thought of as cult films as long as they did not receive any extensive commercial promotion. Larger-scale films can also take advantage of new technologies in ways that expand their storyworlds; the increasing proliferation of media devices (not just film-specific) allows filmmakers to utilize resources such as the Web and portable devices as not only new marketing platforms, but also to create newer, specific media-related content that can expand the fictional universe of the film. This was the case with the blockbuster The Matrix (a mainstream film which could also be thought of as cult in the way in which a subset of its admirers became avid fans who sought out details and further experiences related to the film), but it was also the case for the much lower-budgeted Blair Witch Project (which utilized the web to create new fictional layers related to the film).
DVDs and online film content also expand the opportunities for potential audiences to gain access to films which already have a cult reputation, as well as to discover and create new cult reputations. In the late 1970s/early 1980s, for example, it tended to be the case that cult reputations were forged within major metropolitan areas: it was in such areas that repertory theaters, for example, could be found. For those who did not have easy access to such areas the chances of finding films outside of the mainstream was difficult (apart from on television). Now, however, with plentiful information freely available on the Web, as well as the huge number of films released on DVD and available over the Internet, many more people can gain access to a range of different titles wherever they are geographically located. This may make it increasingly likely that cult reputations are forged outside of a theatrical release: seeking out “obscure gems” is now a pursuit in which many people can partake.
Jamie Sexton is Lecturer in Film Studies at Aberystwyth Universuty, UK. He is author of Alternative Film Culture in Inter-War Britain (Exeter University Press, 2008) and coauthor (with Ernest Mathijs) of the forthcoming Cult Cinema: An Introduction (Blackwell, 2009). He also coedits (also with Ernest Mathijs) the book series on cult films entitled Cultographies for Wallflower Press.
JEFFREY ANDREW WEINSTOCK
The cult film is a film that occupies an asymptotic relationship with mainstream film by virtue of identifiable textual divergences. Always in dialog with conventional mainstream cinema, the cult film, through unconventional textual elements including plot, dialog, cinematography, editing, and special effects, presents itself on the surface as mainstream’s foil. However, all pretense (and pretentiousness) aside, it is mainstream cinema with a twist (or several twists) rather than a wholly separate animal.
This is to suggest that, contra Bruce Kawin, it is not primarily the audience that defines a cult film. While obviously an audience is required for a film to become a cult film, I argue that there is something intrinsic to the “cinematic substrate” itself, some recognizably transgressive element of the film’s esthetics or thematics ranging from obvious bad taste to self-conscious artiness, that marks it as ripe for cultdom. This goes beyond Umberto Eco’s speculation that cult movies must display “organic imperfections,” because all movies display organic imperfections and may be “unhinged” (4)—and this is precisely what cult films make evident.
To adapt Timothy Corrigan’s language from A Cinema Without Walls, the cult film is not completely foreign but neither can it be easily domesticated. Or shifting J. P. Telotte’s language slightly, what cultists embrace is an uncomfortable difference that is transformed with some effort into a comfortable one. What defines the cult film therefore is the challenge it presents to spectators. By virtue of its unconventional textual elements, it forces viewers to reconcile their assumptions and expectations about film in general with the cult film’s obvious differences.
Those willing to perform this work reap the rewards of their efforts—the smugness of presumed elite or outsider status. The appreciative spectator of the art-house film has her intellectual credentials validated, the slasher film fan has his intestinal fortitude verified—and each can then look down his or her nose at the assumed banality of mainstream cinema and its vanilla patrons.
To the extent that the cult film makes a spectacle of itself through its self-conscious foregrounding of its differences from mainstream film, cult films are always metafilms, films that foreground the conventions of and expectations surrounding mainstream cinema. By virtue of “pushing the boundaries,” they highlight the existence of those boundaries that circumscribe conventional cinema.
This ideally is the primary social value of cult films. Poised on the edge of what should and should not be said and shown, they raise interesting and important questions about the naturalization of particular types of narratives and how narrative functions to naturalize particular ideological worldviews. The cult film ideally asks us to think about the types of stories we consume, why we enjoy them, and how we respond to those stories.
This self-reflexive interrogation of cinema provoked by cult films possesses revolutionary potential. In practice, however, what has increasingly occurred is the hegemonic incorporation of resistance by the major Hollywood studios. The asymptotic distance between mainstream and cult has been increasingly diminishing as mainstream studios seek to commodify and sell us our revolution by coopting unconventional esthetics and transgressive thematics. Thus, the innovative camcorder esthetic of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project has been appropriated by films such as Cloverfield (2008), Universal Studies distributed the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, gay cowboys became cause célèbres in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, MGM released the home-video version of the decidedly quirky and ready-made-for-cultdom film Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), etc. Simply put, in the attempt to control the cinematic marketplace and capitalize on the overdetermined desire of cinematic spectators for something different, Hollywood has gotten weirder—witness 2001’s Donnie Darko, distributed in home video by Fox, as a case in point. It is clearly no longer the case (if it ever was) that cult films simply “happen or become” rather than being made (Austin 44).
What has offset the hegemonic maneuvers of the major Hollywood studios are emerging technologies that facilitate the production, distribution, and promotion of small, offbeat, and strange films. With a camera, a computer, and a Web connection, anyone can make and upload a film of virtually any length to a personal Web site or a searchable public domain such as YouTube. And major video rental services like Netflix offer sophisticated online controls that recommend films to subscribers based on the subscriber’s rental pattern and “ratings” of previously rented films—which allows subscribers to “stumble” across films that they might otherwise have missed.
This shift from viewing in the theater to viewing at home, however, has significant ramifications for cult viewership. Here I am thinking not so much of the loss of the mythical shared communitas that allegedly comes into being among a community of admirers during the social experience of the public showing—which I think can to a certain extent be replaced by the online communitas of chat rooms and Facebook sites—as the surrendering of possibilities for alternative spectator practices. It’s hard to imagine, for example, the Rocky Horror cult developing the way it did—with its communal shout-outs and secondary audience script and dancing in the aisles—in the absence of communal showings at the Waverly Theater. While it is true that the material conditions of home viewership tend to counter the tendency toward absorption in cinematic narratives of all stripes (the phone rings, we pause the film to get up, someone else interrupts our viewing, we find ourselves getting sleepy and stop the film, etc.)—and, indeed, home consumption of the cult film or cult film-in-embryo may allow for the proliferation of interpretations in the absence of the disciplining presence of other cultists—what is diminished I think are possibilities for what I will call “engaged spectatorship,” a kind of creative and communal participation in the life-world of the film. It may be that this desire is increasingly being satisfied by communal online games such as World of Warcraft.
Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock is associate professor of American literature and culture at Central Michigan University. He has written or edited eight books including The Rocky Horror Picture Show for Wallflower Press, Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women for Fordham University Press, and Taking South Park Seriously for SUNY.
Austin, Bruce A. “Portrait of a Cult Film Audience: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Journal of Communications (Spring 1981): 43-54.
Corrigan, Timothy. A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991. 80-100.
Eco, Umberto. “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.” SubStance XIV.2 (1985): 3-12.
Kawin, Bruce. “After Midnight.” The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason. Ed. J. P. Telotte. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. 18-25.
Telotte, J. P. “Beyond All Reason: The Nature of the Cult.” The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason. Ed. J. P. Telotte. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. 5-17.