A cult film, also commonly referred to as a cult classic, is a film that has acquired a cult following. Cult films are known for their dedicated fanbase, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation. Inclusive definitions allow for major Hollywood productions, especially box office bombs, while exclusive definitions focus more on obscure, transgressive films, shunned by the mainstream. The difficulty in defining the term and subjectivity of what qualifies as a cult film mirror classificatory disputes about art. Overbroad usage has resulted in controversy, as purists state it has become a meaningless term.
Cult films trace their origin back to controversial and suppressed films kept alive by dedicated fans. In some cases, reclaimed or rediscovered films have acquired cult followings decades after their original release, sometimes for their camp value. Some cult films have since become well-respected or reassessed as classics; there is debate as to whether these popular and accepted films are still cult films. After failing in the cinema, some cult films have become regular fixtures on cable television or big sellers on home video. Others have inspired their own film festivals.
Since the late 1970s, cult films have become increasingly more popular and mainstream, which has drawn accusations that Hollywood studios have begun trying to artificially create cult films. Films are frequently stated to be an "instant cult classic" now, sometimes before they are released. Fickle fans on the Internet have latched on to unreleased films only to abandon them later on release. At the same time, other films have acquired massive, quick cult followings, thanks to spreading virally through social media. Easy access to cult films, via video on demand and peer-to-peer file sharing have led some critics to pronounce the death of cult films.
A cult film is any film that has a cult following, although the term is not easily defined, and can be applied to a wide variety of films. The definition is occasionally expanded to exclude films that have been released by major studios or have big budgets, try specifically to become cult films, or become accepted by mainstream audiences and critics. Cult films are defined by audience reaction as much as they are content. This may take the form of elaborate and ritualized audience participation, film festivals, or cosplay. Increasing use of the term by mainstream publications has resulted in controversy, as cinephiles argue that the term has become meaningless or "elastic, a catchall for anything slightly maverick or strange". The term itself has been criticized as being a weak concept, reliant on subjectivity. However, this subjectivity allows different groups to interpret films in their own terms. This subjectivity has also been criticized by feminist Joanne Hollows, who states that films with strong female cult followings are perceived as too mainstream and not transgressive enough to qualify as a cult film.:38
In 2008, Cineaste asked a range of academics for their definition of a cult film. Several people defined cult films primarily in terms of their opposition to mainstream films and conformism, explicitly requiring a transgressive element, though others disputed the transgressive potential, given the demographic appeal to white males and mainstreaming of cult films. Most definitions also required a strong community aspect. Mikel J. Koven took a self-described hard-line stance, citing misuse of the term, which rejected definitions that use any other criteria. Matt Hills instead stressed the need for an open-ended definition, rooted in structuration. Ernest Mathijs focused on the accidental nature of cult followings, arguing that cult film fans consider themselves too savvy to be marketed to, while Jonathan Rosenbaum rejected the continued existence of cult films and called the term a marketing buzzword.
Quoting Jeffrey Sconce, Jancovich et al. define cult films in terms of paracinema, marginal films that exist outside critical and cultural acceptance: everything from exploitation to beach party musicals to softcore pornography. However, they reject cult films as having a single unifying feature, instead stating that cult films are united in their "subcultural ideology" and opposition to mainstream tastes, itself a vague and undefinable term. Cult followings themselves can range from adoration to contempt, with little in common except for their celebration of nonconformity – even the bad films ridiculed by fans are artistically nonconformist, albeit unintentionally. At the same time, they point out that bourgeois, masculine tastes are frequently reinforced, which makes cult films more of an internal conflict within the bourgeoisie, rather than than a rebellion against it. This results in an anti-academic bias despite the use of formal methodologies, such as defamiliarization. This contradiction exists in many subcultures, especially those dependent on defining themselves in terms of opposition to the mainstream. This nonconformity is eventually co-opted by the dominant forces, such as Hollywood, and marketed to the mainstream.
Cult films have existed since the early days of cinema. Nosferatu (1922), for example, was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Stoker's widow sued the production company, which drove it to bankruptcy and caused all known copies of the film to be destroyed. Nosferatu become an early cult film, kept alive by a cult following that circulated illegal bootlegs. On their original release, some highly-regarded classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood were panned by critics and audiences, relegated to being cult films. The Night of the Hunter (1955) was a cult film for years, quoted often and championed by fans, before it was reassessed as an important and influential classic. During this time, many American exploitation films and imported European art films were marketed similarly, with calls from American critics, such as Pauline Kael and Arthur Knight, to avoid arbitrary divisions into high and low culture. Although American films settled into rather rigid genres, European art films continued to push the boundaries of simple definitions. These exploitative art films and artistic exploitation films would go on to influence many American cult films, which would adopt similar aesthetics. Much like later cult films, these early exploitation films encouraged audience participation, influenced by live theater and vaudeville.
Modern cult films grew from 1960s counterculture and underground films, popular among those who rejected mainstream Hollywood films. These underground film festivals led to the creation of midnight movies, which attracted cult followings. These films were more concerned with cultural significance, rather than the social justice sought by the earlier avant-garde films. Midnight movies became more popular and mainstream, peaking with the release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which finally found its audience several years after its release. Eventually, the rise of home video would marginalize midnight movies once again after which many directors joined the burgeoning independent film scene or went back underground. Home video would give a second life to many films that had failed in their original theatrical run, as positive word-of-mouth or excessive replay on cable television led these films to develop an appreciative audience, as well as obsessive replay and study. For example, The Beastmaster (1982), a box office bomb, became one of the most played movies on American cable television and develop into a cult film. Home video and television broadcasts of cult films were initially greeted with hostility. Joanne Hollows states that they were seen as turning cult films mainstream – in effect, feminizing them by opening them to distracted, passive audiences.:42–43
Releases from major studios – such as The Big Lebowski (1998), which was distributed by Universal Studios – can become cult films when they fail at the box office and develop a cult following through reissues, such as midnight movies, festivals, and home video. Hollywood films, due to their nature, are more likely to attract this kind of attention, which leads to a mainstreaming effect of cult culture. With major studios behind them, even financially unsuccessful films can be re-released multiple times, which plays into a trend to capture audiences through repetitious reissues. The constant use of profanity and drugs in otherwise mainstream, Hollywood films, such as The Big Lebowski, can alienate critics and audiences yet lead to a large cult following among somewhat more open-minded demographics not often associated with cult films, such as Wall Street bankers and professional soldiers. Thus, even comparatively mainstream films can satisfy the traditional demands of a cult film, perceived by fans as transgressive, niche, and uncommercial.
In a global context, popularity can vary widely by territory especially with regard to limited releases. Mad Max (1979) was an international hit – except in America where it became an obscure cult favorite, ignored by critics and available for years only in a dubbed version though it earned over $100M internationally. Foreign cinema can put a different spin on popular genres. For example, Japanese horror was initially a cult favorite in America though it broke through to the mainstream with many popular remakes. Foreign influence can affect fan response especially on genres tied to a national identity. When they become more global in scope, questions of authenticity may arise.:157–160 Filmmakers and films ignored in their own country can become the objects of cult adoration in another, which produces perplexed reactions from their native country. Cult films can also establish an early viability for more mainstream films, both for filmmakers and national cinema. The early cult horror films of Peter Jackson were so strongly associated with his homeland that they affected the international reputation of New Zealand and its cinema. As more artistic films emerged, perception began shifting toward seeing New Zealand as a legitimate competitor to Hollywood, mirroring Jackson's career trajectory. Heavenly Creatures (1994) acquired its own cult following and became a part of New Zealand's national identity, which paved the way for big-budget, Hollywood-style epics such as Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Ernest Mathijs states that cult films and fandom frequently involve nontraditional elements of time and time management. Fans will often watch films obsessively, an activity that is viewed by the mainstream as wasting time yet can be seen as resisting the commodification of leisure time. They may also watch films idiosyncratically: sped up, slowed down, frequently paused, or at odd hours. Cult films themselves subvert traditional views of time – time travel, non-linear narratives, and ambiguous establishments of time are all popular. Mathijs also identifies specific cult film viewing habits, such as viewing horror films on Halloween, sentimental melodrama on Christmas, and romantic films on Valentine's Day. These films are often viewed as marathons where fans can gorge themselves on their favorites. Mathijs states that cult films broadcast on Christmas have a nostalgic factor. These films, ritually watched every season, give a sense of community and shared nostalgia to viewers. New films often have trouble making inroads against the institutions of It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). These films provide mild criticism of consumerism while encouraging family values. Halloween, on the other hand, allows flaunting society's taboos and testing one's fears. Horror films have appropriated the holiday, and many horror films debut on Halloween. Mathijs criticizes the commercialized nature of Halloween and horror films, stating that they feed into each other so much that Halloween itself has turned into an image or product, over-cultified and suffering from overkill, with no real community. Mathijs states that horror conventions that take place on Halloween can provide the missing community aspect.
Actors can become typecast as they become strongly associated with such iconic roles. Tim Curry, despite his acknowledged range as an actor, found casting difficult after he achieved fame in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even when discussing unrelated projects, interviewers frequently bring up the role, which causes him to tire of discussing it. Mary Woronov, known for her transgressive roles in cult films, eventually transitioned to mainstream films. She was expected to recreate the transgressive elements of her cult films, divorced from context, within the confines of mainstream cinema. She became typecast as a lesbian or domineering, scary woman, rather than the gender deconstructions of her Andy Warhol films. Sylvia Kristel, after starring in Emmanuelle (1974), found herself highly associated with the film and the sexual liberation of the 1970s. Caught between the transgressive elements of her cult film and the mainstream appeal of soft-core pornography, she was unable to work in anything but exploitation films and Emmanuelle sequels. Despite her immense popularity and cult following, she would rate only a footnote in most histories of European cinema, if she was even mentioned. Todd Duffey, who has not broken into the mainstream, states that he receives free alcohol, though he still suffers from typecasting. Cult films can also trap directors. Leonard Kastle, who directed The Honeymoon Killers (1969), never directed another film again. Despite his cult following, which included François Truffaut, he was unable to find financing for any of his other screenplays. Qualities that bring cult films to prominence – such as an uncompromising, unorthodox vision – caused Alejandro Jodorowski to languish in obscurity for years.
Transgression and censorship
Transgressive films as a distinct artistic movement began in the 1970s. Unconcerned with genre distinctions, they drew inspiration equally from the nonconformity of European art cinema and experimental film, the gritty subject matter of Italian neorealism, and the shocking images of 1960s exploitation. Some also used hardcore pornography and horror, occasionally at the same time. In the 1980s, Nick Zedd identified this movement as the Cinema of Transgression and later wrote a manifesto. Popular in midnight showings, they were mainly limited to large urban areas, which led Joan Hawkins to label them as "downtown culture". These films acquired a legendary reputation, as they were discussed and debated in alternative weeklies, such as The Village Voice. Home video would finally allow general audiences to see them, which gave many people their first taste of underground film.
Ernest Mathijs states that critical reception is an important element to a film's perception as cult, through topicality and controversy. Topicality, which can be regional (such as objection to government funding of the film) or critical (such as philosophical objections to the themes), enables attention and a contextual response. Cultural topics make the film relevant and can lead to controversy, such as a moral panic, which provides opposition. Cultural values transgressed in the film, such as sexual promiscuity, can be attacked by proxy, through attacks on the film. These concerns can vary from culture to culture, and they need not be at all similar. However, Mathijs says the film must invoke metacommentary for it to be more than simply culturally important. While referencing previous arguments, critics may attack its choice of genre or its very right to exist. Taking stances on these varied issues, critics assure their own relevance while helping to elevate the film to cult status.
Peter Hutchings, noting the many definitions of a cult film that require transgressive elements, states that cult films are known in part for their excesses. Both subject matter and its depiction are portrayed in extreme ways which break taboos of good taste and aesthetic norms. Violence, gore, sexual perversity, and even the music can be pushed to stylistic excess far beyond that allowed by mainstream cinema. Film censorship can make these films obscure and difficult to find, common criteria used to define cult films. Despite this, these films remain well-known and prized among collectors. Fans will sometimes express frustration with dismissive critics and conventional analysis, which they believe marginalizes and misinterprets paracinema.:131–134 Audiences can also ironically latch on to offensive themes, such as misogyny, using these films such as catharsis for the things that they hate most in life. Exploitative, transgressive elements can be pushed to excessive extremes, both for humor and satire. Frank Henenlotter faced censorship and ridicule for his films, but they found acceptance among audiences receptive to themes that Hollywood was reluctant to touch, such as violence, drug addiction, and misogyny. Lloyd Kaufman sees his films' political statements as more populist and authentic than the hypocrisy of mainstream films and celebrities. Despite being drenched in fake blood, vomit, and diarrhea, Kaufman's films have attracted positive attention from some critics and academics.
Films that are influenced by unpopular styles or genres can become cult films. For example, Jean Rollin worked within cinema fantastique, a very unpopular genre in France in the 1960s. Influenced by American films and early French fantasists, he drifted between art, exploitation, and pornography. His films were reviled by critics, but he retained a cult following drawn by the nudity and eroticism. Although scandalous in France, his films are obscure in the USA, championed by genre magazines such as Video Watchdog and audiences looking for something different than Hollywood films. Similarly, Jess Franco chafed under fascist censorship in Spain but became influential in Spain's horror boom of the 1960s. Popular among fans of European horror for their subversiveness and obscurity, these later Spanish films allowed political dissidents to criticize the fascist regime within the cloak of exploitation and horror. These directors were not trying to establish a reputation; they were already established in the art-house world and intentionally chose to work within paracinema. This was a reaction against the New Spanish Cinema, an artistic revival supported by the fascists. Although frequently overlooked by academics as mere exploitation, later Spanish-language horror films would bring more critical attention. As late as the 1980s, Pedro Almodóvar's anti-macho iconoclasm was seen by critics to still be rebelling against fascist mores, growing from countercultural rebel to mainstream respectability.
The transgressive nature of cult films can lead to their censorship. During the 1970s and early 1980s, a wave of explicit, graphic exploitation films caused controversy, with calls for censorship inside the UK. The British Board of Film Classification would go on to ban many popular cult films due to issues of sex, violence, and even fears that people might use shuriken, as seen in Enter the Dragon (1973), in crimes. Released during the cannibal boom, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was banned in dozens of countries and caused the director to be briefly jailed over fears that it was a real snuff film. Although opposed to censorship, director Ruggero Deodato would later agree with cuts made by the BBFC which removed unsimulated animal killings, which limited the film's distribution. Cult films have been falsely claimed to have been banned to increase their transgressive reputation and explain their lack of mainstream penetration. Marketing campaigns have also used such claims to raise interest among curious audiences. Home video has allowed cult film fans to import rare or banned films, finally giving them a chance to complete their collection using imports and bootlegs. Cult films previously banned are sometimes released with much fanfare and the fans assumed to be already familiar with the controversy. Personal responsibility is often highlighted, with a strong anti-censorship message.:130–132
Academics David Church and Chuck Kleinhans describe an uncritical celebration of transgressive themes in cult films, including misogyny and racism. Joanne Hollows further identifies a gendered component to the celebration of transgressive themes in cult films, where male terms are used to describe films outside the mainstream while female terms are used to describe mainstream, conformist cinema.:35–40 Jacinda Read's expansion states that cult films, despite their potential for empowerment of the marginalized, are more often used by politically incorrect males. Knowledgeable about feminism and multiculturalism, they seek a refuge from the academic acceptance of these progressive ideals. Their playful and ironic acceptance of regressive lad culture invites, and even dares, condemnation from academics and the uncool. Thus, cult films become a tool to reinforce mainstream values through transgressive content. However, the sexploitation films of Doris Wishman took a feminist approach which avoids and subverts the male gaze and traditional goal-oriented methods. Wishman's subject matter, though exploitative and transgressive, was always framed in terms of female empowerment and the feminine spectator. Her use of common cult film motifs – female nudity and ambiguous gender – were repurposed to comment on feminist topics.
The University of Nottingham's Scope explained the rising popularity of cult films as an attempt by cinephiles and scholars to escape the oppressive conformity and mainstream appeal of even independent film, as well as a lack of condescension in both critics and the films. Academic I. Q. Hunter commented that "it's much easier to be a cultist now, but it is also rather more inconsequential." Cult films have influenced such diverse industries as cosmetics, music videos, and fashion. In Poughkeepsie, New York, the birthplace of Ed Wood, a bronze statue of the director has been proposed. L'Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Holy See, has courted controversy for its endorsement of cult films and pop culture. Fans have called attempts to demolish iconic settings from cult films "cultural vandalism". Cult films can also drive tourism, even when it's not wanted.
As far back as the 1970s, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) was designed specifically be a cult film, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show was produced by 20th Century Fox, a major Hollywood studio. Over its decades-long release, Rocky Horror became the seventh highest grossing R-rated film when adjusted for inflation; Matt Singer has questioned whether Rocky Horror's popularity invalidates its cult status. Founded in 1974, Troma Entertainment, an independent studio, would become known for both its cult following and cult films. In the 1980s, Danny Peary's Cult Movies (1981) would influence director Edgar Wright and film critic Scott Tobias, of The A.V. Club. The rise of home video would have a mainstreaming effect on cult films and cultish behavior, with some collectors unlikely to self-identify as cult film fans. Film critic Joe Bob Briggs began reviewing drive-in theater and cult films, though he faced much criticism as an early advocate of exploitation and cult films. Briggs highlighted the mainstreaming of cult films by pointing out the respectful obituaries that cult directors have received from formerly hostile publications and acceptance of politically incorrect films at mainstream film festivals. However, Quentin Tarantino would have the greatest success in turning cult films mainstream. Tarantino later used his fame to champion obscure cult films that had influenced him and set up the short-lived Rolling Thunder Pictures, which distributed several of his favorite cult films. Tarantino's clout led Phil Hoad, of The Guardian, to call Tarantino the world's most influential director.
As major Hollywood studios and audiences both become savvy to cult films, productions once limited to cult appeal have instead become popular hits, and cult directors have become hot properties known for more mainstream and accessible films. Remarking on the popular trend of remaking cult films, Claude Brodesser-Akner, of New York magazine, states that Hollywood studios have been superstitiously hoping to recreate past successes rather than trading on nostalgia. Their popularity would bring some critics to proclaim the death of cult films now that they have finally become successful and mainstream, too slick to attract a proper cult following, or too easily found online. In response, David Church says that cult film fans have retreated to more obscure and difficult to find films, often using illegal distribution methods, which preserves the outlaw status of cult films. Virtual spaces, such as online forums and fan sites, replace the traditional fanzines and newsletters. Cult film fans consider themselves collectors, rather than consumers, as they associate consumers with mainstream, Hollywood audiences.:46 Addressing concerns that DVDs have revoked the cult status of films like Rocky Horror, Mikel J. Koven states that small scale screenings with friends and family can replace midnight showings. Koven also identifies television shows, such as Twin Peaks, as retaining more traditional cult activities inside popular culture. Despite this, the Alamo Drafthouse has capitalized on cult films and the surrounding culture, with inspiration drawn from Rocky Horror and retro promotional gimmickry. They sell out their shows regularly and have acquired a cult following of their own.
Although known for their big-budget blockbusters, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have criticized the current Hollywood system of gambling everything on the opening weekend of these productions. Geoffrey Macnab, of The Independent, instead suggests that Hollywood look to capitalize on cult films, which have exploded in popularity on the Internet. The rise of social media has been a boon to cult films. After a clip from one of his films went viral, director/producer Roger Corman made a distribution deal with YouTube. Films such as Birdemic (2008) and The Room (2003) gained quick, massive popularity, as prominent members of social networking sites discussed them. Their rise as "instant cult classics" bypasses the years of obscurity that most cult films labor under. In response, critics have described the use of viral marketing as astroturfing and an attempt to manufacture cult films. Although Snakes on a Plane (2006) was proclaimed a cult film and major game-changer before it was released, it failed to win either mainstream audiences or maintain its cult following. In retrospect, critic Spencer Kornhaber would call it a serendipitous novelty and a footnote to a "more naive era of the Internet". However, it became influential in both marketing and titling. This trend of "instant cult classics" which are hailed yet fail to attain a lasting following was described by Matt Singer, who stated that the phrase is an oxymoron.
Subcultures and subcultural appeal
Cult films can be used to help define or create groups as a form of subcultural capital; knowledge of cult films proves that one is "authentic" or "non-mainstream". They can be used to provoke an outraged response from the mainstream, which further defines the subculture, as only members could possibly tolerate such deviant entertainment. The more accessible a film is, the less subcultural capital it has. By referencing cult films, media can identify desired demographics, strengthen bonds with specific subcultures, and stand out among those who understand the intertextuality. Popular films from previous eras may be reclaimed by genre fans long after they have been forgotten by the original audiences. This can be done for authenticity, such as horror fans who seek out now-obscure titles from the 1950s, as opposed to the modern, well-known remakes. Authenticity in performance:157–168 and expertise:196 can drive fan acclaim. Especially when promoted by enthusiastic and knowledgeable programmers, choice of venue can be an important part of expressing individuality. Besides creating new communities, cult films can link formerly disparate groups, such as fans and critics.:127 As these groups intermix, they can influence each other, though this may be resisted by older fans, unfamiliar with these new references.:164 In extreme cases, cult films can lead to the creation of religions, like Dudeism. For their avoidance of mainstream culture and audiences, enjoyment of irony, and celebration of obscure subcultures, cult film fans have been compared to hipsters.
A film can become the object of a cult following within a particular region or culture if it has unusual significance. For example, Norman Wisdom's films, in which he usually played a family man and worker who outsmarts his boss, amassed a cult following in Albania, as they were among the few Western films allowed by the country's Communist rulers. Wisdom's physical humor, rooted in music halls, transcended cultural boundaries, which made it easily accessible and open to Marxist interpretation. Similarly, the concept of the "cult blockbuster" involves cult followings inside larger, mainstream films. The Wizard of Oz (1939) holds special significance to American and British gay culture, although it is a widely viewed and historically important film in greater American culture. Some gay men refer to themselves as "friends of Dorothy". Star Wars, with its large cult following in geek subculture, has been cited as both a cult blockbuster or a cult film. Although a mainstream epic, Star Wars has provided its fans with a spirituality and culture outside of the mainstream. Fans, in response to the popularity of these blockbusters, will claim elements for themselves while rejecting others. Jar Jar Binks, for example, is rejected not because of racial stereotyping but because he represents mainstream appeal and marketing.:190-193
Cult films can have such niche appeal that they are only popular within certain subcultures. When films target subcultures like this, they may seem unintelligible without the proper cultural capital. Films which appeal to teenagers may offer subcultural identities that are easily recognized, as well as differentiating different subcultural groups. The sensationalist, anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness (1936) and the World War II-era Department of Agriculture film Hemp for Victory (1942) have become cult films within stoner subculture. Office Space (1999) amassed a cult following among entry-level IT workers and white-collar American workers because of its heroic portrayal of ordinary office employees, fed up with their jobs. Sparkle (1976), popular in black America, was eclipsed by its soundtrack, which starred Aretha Franklin. Cult films have been repurposed for justice, such as the biopic Good Vibrations (2013), which has been used to call for further investigations into the arson against the title store, popular in punk subculture. Occasionally, cult films will transcend their subcultural appeal. Twin Town (1997), described by director Kevin Allen as having "uniquely Welsh" humor, surprised Allen with its popularity across cultures and nationalities.
Cult films can create their own subculture. The Rocky Horror Picture Show's cult following has established its own customs and norms of behavior, which are often at direct odds with mainstream society. These less restrictive norms encourage individuality and experimentation, a theme seen in the film. Although fans received mainstream disapproval for their activities, they stuck together and formed long-lasting bonds. Eventually, peer pressure would drive many fans to engage in standardized audience participation rituals. Fans may also set up communities that exist to support fans suffering from similar illnesses as their idols. Fans of cult films, as in media fandom, are frequently producers instead of mere consumers. Unconcerned with traditional views on intellectual property, these fan works are often unsanctioned, transformative, and ignore fictional canon. Like cult films themselves, magazines and websites dedicated to cult films revel in their self-conscious offensiveness. They maintain a sense of exclusivity by offending mainstream audiences with misogyny, gore, and racism. Obsessive trivia can also be used to bore mainstream audiences while building up subcultural capital. Specialist stores on the fringes of society (or websites which prominently partner with hardcore pornographic sites) can be used to reinforce the outsider nature of cult film fandom, especially when they use erotic or gory imagery.:45–47 By assuming a preexisting knowledge of trivia, non-fans can be excluded. When fans like a cult film for the wrong reasons, such as casting or characters aimed at mainstream appeal, they may be ridiculed. Thus, fandom can keep the mainstream at bay while defining themselves in terms terms of the "the Other".:192–197 A film series can also be self-reflexive and full of in-jokes that only longtime fans can understand.
"So bad they're good" and camp classics
Ernest Mathijs suggests that cult films help to understand ambiguity and incompleteness in life given the difficulty in even defining the term. That cult films can have opposing qualities – such as good and bad, failure and success, innovative and retro – helps to illustrate that art is subjective and never self-evident. This ambiguity leads critics of postmodernism to accuse cult films of being beyond criticism as the emphasis is now on personal interpretation rather than critical analysis or metanarratives. However, these inherent dichotomies can lead critics to pronounce beloved cult films to be "so bad it's good" or for audiences to be split between ironic and earnest fans. Jeffrey Sconce draws strong parallels between cult film fans and film scholars, both of whom obsessively study films. Sconce states that campy cult films can be used to teach formalist film theory as students can watch these films without expectations or cultural baggage. The rise of the Internet and on-demand films has lead critics to question whether "so bad it's good" films have a future now that people have such diverse options in both availability and catalog, though fans eager to experience the worst films ever made can lead to lucrative showings for local theaters and merchandisers.
The critic Michael Medved characterized examples of the "so bad it's good" class of low-budget cult film through books such as The Golden Turkey Awards. These films include financially fruitless and critically scorned films that have become inadvertent comedies to film buffs, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958) and The Room (2003). Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) bombed in theaters but developed a cult following on video. Catching on, MGM capitalized on the film's ironic appeal and marketed it as a cult film. Charles Taylor, of Slate, responded to the critical scorn surrounding Showgirls by criticizing what he saw as an elitist hatred of camp and melodrama while missing out on the film's satire. He also cited the film's roots in exploitation as deflating hopes for an artistic revival of transgressive films, such as Midnight Cowboy (1969). Scott Tobias echoed this sentiment, though less enthusiastically, and stated that he respected Showgirls on a certain level, though its camp "opens it up to merciless ridicule."
The difference between a "guilty pleasure" and a cult film can be as simple as the number of fans. As these films become more popular, they can bring varied responses from fans that depend on different interpretations, such as camp, irony, genuine affection, or combinations thereof. Earnest fans, who recognize and accept the film's faults, can make minor celebrities of the film's cast, though the benefits are not always clear. Commenting on the growing popularity of bad films, Bilge Ebiri compares the directors of these films to reality television stars, delusional and gifted at self-promotion, which Ebiri finds distasteful given the money they are making. Mark Chalon Smith, of the Los Angeles Times, says technical faults may be forgiven if a film makes up for them in other areas, such as camp or transgressive content. Smith states that the early films of John Waters are amateurish and less influential than claimed, but Waters' outrageous vision cements his place in cult cinema.
Although there's no way to tell which films will catch the attention of cult film fans, high aspirations and perplexing themes help. Inattentive directors have even misspelled their film's title. These inept mishaps lead bad films to have a goofy charm, states Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Sometimes, directors do not have enough time or money to fix production errors – or they simply lose interest. Steve Rose, of The Guardian, identified a need for "vision, drive, luck and obsessive vanity." Fans can use paracinema like this to rebel against and subvert the dominance of academics and cinephiles. In particular, the market for older exploitation films has been taken over by cult film fans. According to Matt Hills, cult films are an opportunity for fans to reclaim kitsch through paracinema. Camp, kitsch, and frivolity are often mixed up with each other, and cult films originally dismissed as vacuous are often reassessed as campy. The existence of camp inside paracinema frequently fuels further dismissal by critics; this results in even greater acceptance among cult film fans, though they may reject being labeled as such. Working inside paracinema, Russ Meyer's films skirted the line of camp, kitsch, and sexploitation. Meyer attracted a diverse cult following that included feminists and gays.
Some elements of cult culture have drawn controversy from academics and critics. Rebecca Feasy states that cultural hierarchies can be reaffirmed by attacking camp or melodrama, which are perceived as not being masculine enough. In other cases, films may be ridiculed for being insecure in their masculinity and overcompensating. This privileged reading allows the viewer to express contemptuous superiority over the mainstream, who passively and uncritically consume Hollywood entertainment. Feasy states that women are welcomed to participate in cult fandom, but they may need to distance themselves from their femininity and become "one of the boys". David Church states that camp, a common element of cult films in gay culture, has lost its subversive element now that straight audiences have embraced it. Films from the past that have been revived by cult audiences may draw criticism by opponents of postmodernism and neoliberalism. This process of recontextualization has been criticized as cultural commodification Without context, these films are viewed as dated and amusing rather than understanding their greater significance. Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has further argued that any film which succeeds in entertaining an audience is good, regardless of irony.
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