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What Is a Cult Film?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A cult film refers to a movie that has a devoted following, perhaps undeserved by the movie’s quality, box office performance, or critical reviews. The cult film is often measured by its continued popularity in DVD sales or rentals, long after other popular films have lost their steam and are marked down for quick sale or remain collecting dust on the shelves of video stores. It’s not always possible to determine why a cult film becomes one, but there are a few factors which seem to influence a movie’s ability to become a cult classic.

One aspect that may give a film cult status is the lack of any redeeming quality. In some cases, a film is so unequivocally awful that it becomes absolutely hysterical, or loved for being bad. Some films actually aim at this status, like the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson film Zoolander. Zoolander has quickly attained this status because its premise is stupid, ridiculous and entirely unbelievable. In other words, it wins audiences by being so bad it is actually enjoyed.

Other “so bad they’re good" cult film examples include Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mommie Dearest and Showgirls. They are all considered cult classics simply because they’re terrible. It’s an odd phenomenon that is not easily explained. Perhaps a certain admiration exists for a film that is completely awful in every way. Such films are not merely duds, but fail with flair and style, the equivalent of Viking funerals where someone deceased goes down in a blaze of glory.

Other films earn their cult status by enjoying frequent airplay. For example, when premium television stations like HBO and Showtime got their start in the 1980s, some films were played far too often. One of these is the sword and sandals film Beastmaster. Dennis Miller is credited with saying HBO was an acronym for “Hey, Beastmaster’s on!” Because some films got so much airplay, they are attached to a certain amount of nostalgia and have achieved cult status. Frequent airplay of other films like Kevin Smith’s Dogma and Office Space are turning these films into cult film classics as well.

A film is more likely to attain cult status if it is from either the science fiction or horror genre. In particular, B movies of the 1950s and onward, especially those directed by people like Ed Wood, become favorites for their poor production value. These can also be called camp films. Horror films that perpetuate sequels also frequently become cult classics. Films like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and all of their sequels are generally poorly reviewed but have a cult following.

Sometimes a cult film appeals to a certain audience. For example, The Wizard of Oz is popular among the male homosexual community. A film like Newsies has become a cult classic largely because young fans enjoyed it so much. Other films like those featuring the Brat Pack (Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, and John Cryer) evoke nostalgia for those who grew up in the 1980s and are considered cult classics. These include Less Than Zero, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink. Some of these films were bonafide hits upon release and remain popular as “coming of age” movies among teens, and their parents.

It would be impossible to discuss the cult film without mentioning The Rocky Horror Picture Show, made in 1975. Some claim that it is the longest running movie because somewhere in America, on any given weekend, there are still midnight showings of this film. In common with many other cult classics, The Rocky Horror Picture Show blends horror and science fiction with campy sets and low budget flair. It is also a musical, which often appeals to the many fans who show up and sing along with the picture, often dressing the part of their favorite characters.

The film appeals to older teens and young adults with a dramatic flair. Many can recall going through a Rocky Horror phase, and the film continues to draw new audiences. It should be noted the film deserves its R rating and is best not viewed by younger audiences. In fact the genres from which cult movies usually derive make them mostly inappropriate for children and young teens.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon131177 — On Dec 01, 2010

Halloween got some pretty good reviews when it came out, I think. Otherwise, I like this. Love Dogma as well. But the writer can't mention every cult film ever made, so give em a break. Of course, not mentioning Rocky Horror would've made the whole article null. Kudos.

By anon81929 — On May 04, 2010

Have you people forgotten "Phantom of the Paradise?" Best movie ever!

By lokilove — On Jan 30, 2010

LOVED Dogma!

Why no mention of the ultimate campy horror movies-Evil Dead movies and Army of Darkness!?

For that matter anything with Bruce Campbell is an instant cult film!

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia...
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