Cult Films

The phrase "cult movie" is now used so often and so broadly that the concept to which it refers has become rather difficult to delimit, especially given the sheer diversity of films that have been brought together under the term. Though cult movies are often referred to as if they were a very specific and particular genre, this is not the case; such films fall into an enormous variety of different formal and stylistic categories. Indeed, many cult movies are categorized as such precisely because of their crossor multigenre narratives, or other offbeat qualities that take them outside the realm of genre completely.

Films can develop cult followings in various ways: on the basis of their modes of production or exhibition, their internal textual features, or through acts of appropriation by specific audiences. The usual definition of the cult movie generally relies on a sense of its distinction from mainstream cinema. This definition, of course, raises issues about the role of the cult movie as an oppositional form, and its strained relationship with processes of institutionalization and classification. Fans of cult movies often describe them as quite distinct from the commercial film industries and the mainstream media, but many such films are actually far more dependent on these forms than their fans may be willing to admit.

Most cult movies are low-budget productions, and most are undeniably flawed in some way, even if this means just poor acting or cheap special effects. Though many deal with subject matter that is generally considered repulsive or distasteful, most of the movies that have garnered cult followings have done so not because they are necessarily shocking or taboo, but rather because they are made from highly individual viewpoints and involve strange narratives, eccentric characters, garish sets, or other quirky elements, which can be as apparently insignificant as a single unique image or cameo appearance by a particular bit-part actor or actress. Many cult movies lack mass appeal, and many would have disappeared from film history completely were it not for their devoted fans, whose dedication often takes the form of a fiery passion.

Cult movies cross all boundaries of taste, form, style, and genre. There are cult Westerns, like Johnny Guitar (1954); cult musicals, like The Sound of Music (1965); cult romances, like Gone with the Wind (1939); cult documentaries, like Gates of Heaven (1978); cult drug movies, like Easy Rider (1969); and cult teen movies, like American Graffiti (1973), Animal House (1978), and Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993). There are cult exploitation films, like Reefer Madness (1936); cult blaxploitation films, like Shaft (1971); and cult porn movies, like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door (both 1972). Many cult films are music-based and have developed a lasting following on the basis of their soundtrack alone. These include Tommy (1975), Rock and Roll High School (1979), The Blues Brothers (1980), and Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982).

There are other movies that have developed cult reputations simply because they convey a certain mood, evoke a certain atmosphere or time period, or are irrefutably strange. Examples include films as diverse as Harold and Maude (1971), D.O.A. (1980), Diva (1981), Blade Runner (1982), Scarface (1983), Repo Man (1984), Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), The Toxic Avenger (1985), Hard Boiled (1992), and The Big Lebowski (1998). And while most of these movies seem to attract predominantly male cults, female followings have grown up around fashion-conscious "chick flicks" like Valley of the Dolls (1967), the teen movie Clueless (1995), and the "anti-teen" movie Heathers (1989).

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