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A couple of recent uses of this word to describe movies rankled.  Now I know the meanings of words, especially in English, can migrate, even flip-flop.  And I'm not conservative, let alone reactionary, about language.  But there are some usages I have a set way of thinking about, and when I hear it employed differently, it jars (don't get me started about 'moot').  And 'cult' is one of them.  A cult movie, as I have always understood it, was a movie out of the mainstream, that was energetically admired by a limited circle of enthusiasts.  It was a self-aware admiration, and the cognoscenti derived an extra amount of satisfaction from the knowledge they belonged to a restricted brotherhood--siblinghood, a select group that existed on a higher plane of consciousness affording them the ability to appreciate the worthiness of things which the common herd were blind to.  A secret society almost, with codes and cues, and obscure references, that, when recognized, formed an instant familial bond between two individuals.  Most people would point to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1972), or Eraserhead (1977) as examples.  And, yeah, I guess I could go along with them, in the days of midnight shows at art theaters.  But I'm thinking more in the line of Freaks (1932), or the early rediscovery of the other silent film comedians, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.  

Today, when someone talks of a cult movie, or a movie that has 'achieved cult status,'  they mean something entirely the opposite.  They mean a movie adored not out of the mainstream, underground, but to the contrary, one that has become so popular it has gained a position in the mainstream cannon of movies.  I guess the example most people would automatically think of is Blade Runner (1982).  What I am saying in essence, is that enthusiasm has been confused with popularity.  In these days when everything is mainstream, and there is no more underground, no more R. Crumb, no more rebellion in rock-and-roll (for how can you rebel when you are the establishment?), there can also be no more cult movies.  And 'cult', orphaned of its meaning, has to go looking for a new one, or perish from the face of this Earth.

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I actually took a class called cult movies (oh, I loved college!), and we watched movies one night a week. I'm trying to remember what we saw. Some of the ones you mentioned. The Rocky Horror Picture ShowEraserheadThe Texas Chainsaw MassacrePlan 9 from Outer Space, Scorpio Rising. Hmm. The memory fades. This was the beginning of the '90s. I think we saw about 12 or 13 movies total, but those are the only ones I can remember right now. We also read about movies we didn't see, stuff from Jodorowsky and others.

I find your thoughts on how the definition of the word has possibly changed, though I'm not entirely certain I agree with you. I would argue that to embrace rock these days actually gives you something of a cult status, because rock has been obliterated from the mainstream by hip-hop, girl-power pop and bro-country to the point of being virtually irrelevant to anyone under 40. I would say your definition of what's happened to rock applies more aptly to hip-hop, which was certainly once cult music but now is utterly mainstream.  

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I agree with sewhite on that one. I have asked professional film critics about "cult" films and their definitions maybe 15 years ago and even then it was a matter of perspective-more difficult to define now.

A "cult" film is first & foremost an overlooked and/or rejected by the mainstream population. You might even call it a "bomb". A few people here & there see it and exclaim, "Hey I actually LIKE this movie" (note: they do not say, hey this is a GOOD movie, just they LIKE it)
More & more people LIKE the movie which creates a "following". These followers unite; sometimes on the internet, sometimes by buying a DVD, sometimes even in a theater/TV and the film is reborn and gains a new popular status. The fans of the movie bring it from obscurity into general popularity. Once the movie becomes popular in the mainstream, is is no longer a "cult" film, but a popular one.

An illustration of this is ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. I saw this in the theater in '77 and ours was the only group there who liked it, while many others left the theater halfway through. We loved the homage to old Hollywood musicals, the monster movie references, cutting edge sexual references & punk style. (punk was on the verge in '77) The movie was a bomb and disappeared.
A few years later, it resurfaced in an independent neighborhood theater as a "midnight movie" along with Three Stooges shorts- a stoner double bill which was popular in those days. This repeated all over the country in pockets, and more & more people started seeing this based on the "underground" hype. Once RHPS started showing at multiplexes with huge fanfare, it could be called a "popular" movie and it absolutely lost it's "cult" status.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE fits the scenario too. It was originally somewhat of a "bomb" when first released. It gained "cult" status from bring shown on TV decades later. Enough people watched it and said, "hey I LIKE this movie" and now it's not only popular, it's a classic!

Cult movies can't be made, like BIRDEMIC '10 or SHARKNADO '13 (which are just bad movies), they have to grow on their own merits. One of my favorite "bomb" movies is DEATH TO SMOOCHY '02. My bf worked for FBC and had to promote Smoochy which he called "the worst movie ever made", an embarrassment to Canada's film board. I watched his tape of it & LOVED it! To me it was a black comedy with sweet undertones and I'm finding others who feel that way too. Until "popular" or actually "mainstream", it remains a cult movie.
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Roger Corman, who was responsible for cult classics like "A Bucket Of Blood" and "Little Shop Of Horrors", once said that the filmmakers do not make cult films, the audience does. I agree with that, if someone consciously tries to create a cult film, it fails. A recent example would be "Snakes On A Plane", it was released with great fanfare, but the only thing people recall about it is the title.

One thing I believe a really great cult film needs is a low budget, no big stars (though former big stars are OK), supernatural or lurid subject matter and a little bit of humor, intentional or not. 

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"Cult" is all of the things that have been listed.

There are bad movies that flopped but developed cult followings in the years since, such as Plan 9 from Outer SpaceManos, the Hands of Fate, or more recently, Troll 2 and The Room.

Then there are movies that flopped that have since gathered a devoted fanbase and even renewed critical assessments. These would include The Rocky Horror Picture ShowBlade RunnerThe Thing (1982), and The Big Lebowski.

And then there are movies that were successful, even hugely so, that have continued to have a fanatical fanbase. These would include the Star Wars movies, or Titanic. Yes, a lot of people saw the movie when it was new, but a select few have made these movies into a lifestyle. These films (and TV shows like Star Trek) have conventions, people who make costumes to dress as characters, and study every tiny bit of minutia about the properties. Since the internet has allowed smaller fan groups to communicate more easily and to organize events, this type of cult status has become more prominent.

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The simple answer is:

cult

kəlt/
noun
 
  1. a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
    "the cult of St. Olaf"
    • a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
      "a network of Satan-worshiping cults"
      synonyms: sect, denomination, group, movement, church, persuasion, body, faction
      "a religious cult"
    • a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.
      "a cult of personality surrounding the leaders"
      synonyms: obsession with, fixation on, mania for, passion for, idolization of, devotion to, worship of, veneration of
      "the cult of eternal youth in Hollywood"
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Enjoyed reading all the sage comments!

Slayton, I have only one thing to add concerning the word "cult". I remember way back watching the media blitz about the mass suicides of the group, Heaven's Gate. All the commentators were talking about their belief system, of shedding their mortal coils and going on to their heavenly rewards as being quite "nutty", and that they were a "cult". Finally as an authority on "cults" especially religious ones, one network brought on a noted professor of comparitive religions, I believe and immediately asked her to comment on Heaven's Gate's cult status, with "cult" being a pejorative term. She started off by saying something like, well, actually how is their idea of the wonderful idea of shedding a mortal coil, being anything different than most Christian religions, and meeting their maker as a good thing. Then she invoked her belief, that all religions are basically "cults" to begin with, and only are described as more acceptable as they acquire mass status with more and more converts.

Not only was the interviewer aghast, this lady was cut off almost immediately never to be seen again probably on network tv! I found it very amusing. And it might portend that something can start off as a "cult" but then with acceptance not be a "cult". I would think in the pejorative state though the stigma would always be there, though some would count non-acceptance by the masses as a sign of quality. As H. L. Mencken once said "One can never underestimate the taste of the American public" didn't he, or something like that? Great topic by the way, Slayton and I probably am most attuned to your theory of cult status implied a small group of enthusiasts in general!

Addendum and correction:

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. H. L. Mencken
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/h_l_mencken_137243

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Some aspects that help to define "cult".

A cult movie is almost never a big-budget mainstream movie starring a-list actors. But, sometimes it can be, if the movie was mostly derided by critics upon its release and had a run far shorter than its producers had been expecting - but it must also be one that is mostly forgotten, is rarely mentioned by most people, and rarely shown, while being prized by a relatively small group of appreciators who consider it to be an extremely compelling movie.

One such movie is playing soon on TCM - it's 'The Night of the Generals' (1967). This film was savaged by critics in its day. For its tv appearances in the few years following its box office failure - it was listed in tv guides with a grade of just one star.

And yet, it was, for some of us, maybe Peter O'Toole's most fascinating performance of his career. 

More often, cult movies are low-budget films that came and went without runs in "the good theaters", weren't reviewed by many critics in their time, and weren't remembered by many people for a long time.

But - things have changed since the internet came. All these hidden gems have been given a new kind of fame because cult enthusiasts have been discussing them online so much these past 20 years. What was once extremely rare and almost unknown outside of small circles has gained much greater awareness now. In some ways, the whole pool of cult films has been shrinking because of this.

Two examples of low-budget cult films that have become more well known because of internet discussion boards (and TCM) are 'Murder By Contract' (1958) - which was brought back into pop awareness when Tarantino mentioned his love of it in an interview - and 'The Sadist' (1963), which was remembered after cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond went on to win an Oscar years later. This was his early work, and it's a true high point of the film, which was considered to be a cheap nasty in its day.

There are hundreds of cult movies that have escaped from the small circles of their special fans these past years.

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Apart from the title, I wasn't even sure from the post what question I was supposed to chime in and answer--

All I can say is, I remember when Blade Runner (1982), Clue (1985) and Xanadu (1980) all flopped in theatrical release.  (Not as badly as The Goonies (1985) did, though...Lord, did we all hate that one.)

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Det Jim said: One thing I believe a really great cult film needs is a low budget, no big stars (though former big stars are OK), supernatural or lurid subject matter and a little bit of humor, intentional or not.

I agree with your entire post (the audience makes a film "cult") up until the above statement.

The very next post, Lawrence mentions cult film THE BIG LEBOWSKI and I previously mentioned DEATH TO SMOOCHY which are both big budget films with stars. These movies have "cult" status, although I think LEBOWSKI is now somewhat in the popular, ubiquitous range.

Sorry to be nit picky, but further on in Lawrence's post he describes "cults", not cult films. Star Wars, Star Trek, Comic Books all have conventions attended by their "followers", a cult. Oops, I just re-read the thread title, 'what is a cult?' not 'what is a cult film'. My mistake.

This board has piqued my interest in seeing XANADU, a film I avoided like the plague as a hardcore punk. Now that my anger has calmed, I'm super curious to see what the glitter of disco was all about. I love that films are like mini time capsules that way. It's the only way we can convince our kids that anyone actually wore spandex pants.
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I have all three of Danny Peary's books on the subject published between 1981-1988, the golden age of VHS when you no longer had to pay a fortune to watch a certain title you were curious about by way of a 16mm catalogue or wait for some inner city "art house" theater to revive it. Obviously he did not invent the word, but he was the one who made it popular. All three books are excellent reads for any movie fan because he digs pretty DEEP into a lot of titles from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Wizard Of Oz and even the pornographic Beyond The Green Door. There is no cookie cutter definition for what a cult movie must be except that as many... or more... people enjoy it today than at the time of its release. Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory is a perfect example since only certain critics were discussing it back in 1971 (and not too favorably) but most of the family audiences it was intended for did not warm to it until after enough showings on TV built up a fan base. Both Citizen Kane and Casablanca made the cut for this same reason, but Gone With The Wind did not because it was always a mammoth part of the cultural landscape since Day #1. Likewise Disney's Fantasia made the cut but not Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs or Bambi, although the latter could potentially be a cult film since it merely broke even initially at the box-office in 1942. Yet because Bambi is so much a part of the Disney story book franchise, it can't be a cult. A cult generally is something that needs rediscovery after being ignored for a couple years. Many would debate if John Ford's The Searchers should have been included since it was a profitable film even in 1956, just not one discussed much by Ford fans until the 1970s. Intriguingly Annie Hall also is included in one of the later books even though one would argue it is the least "cult"-like of all of Woody Allen's films, being a Best Picture winner (like Casablanca).

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I think the word "cult" was adopted because it sounds "cooler" than just saying a movie appeals to a "niche" market.  ;)  Gives an otherwise dull or pointless flick a kind of "off-beat" vibe. :wacko:

Sepiatone

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3 hours ago, TikiSoo said:

Sorry to be nit picky, but further on in Lawrence's post he describes "cults", not cult films. Star Wars, Star Trek, Comic Books all have conventions attended by their "followers", a cult. Oops, I just re-read the thread title, 'what is a cult?' not 'what is a cult film'. My mistake.

Well, I did mean cult movies.  So no bad to you.

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4 hours ago, TikiSoo said:

Oops, I just re-read the thread title, 'what is a cult?' not 'what is a cult film'. My mistake.

Actually, no.

The thread title is not "what is a cult?' It's "what is cult?"

It should be clear to anyone that in a movie discussion forum, 'what is cult' refers to movies.

If you made a mistake, it was in re-thinking it (and adding an article where there was no article).

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20 hours ago, TikiSoo said:

This board has piqued my interest in seeing XANADU, a film I avoided like the plague as a hardcore punk. Now that my anger has calmed, I'm super curious to see what the glitter of disco was all about. I love that films are like mini time capsules that way. It's the only way we can convince our kids that anyone actually wore spandex pants.

First common misconception to remember, Xanadu is not a "disco musical":  There's a disco in the climax (a roller disco, no less), but the music is divided between the mellow mainstream-pop songs John Farrar wrote for Olivia Newton-John, and Jeff Lynne's funky 50's-infused Electric Light Orchestra hits, at the group's heyday.  The "disco musical" you're PROBABLY thinking of was the Village People's Can't Stop the Music, which opened in theaters a month later, also had a plot about Steve Guttenberg opening a disco, and seemed to have hound-dogged this movie everywhere it went, from theatrical re-releases to the Razzie Awards.  Oh, and also contrary to popular belief, Xanadu didn't win Worst Picture that year--Check what did, and you'll see what I mean.

Most of the camp and critical dogpiling on both movies together--mostly from the gay-niche gag-dogpiling Razzie fans--was over the general Disco is Dead frustration of 1980, and the desire to hammer on any pop-soundtrack musical with big nailed bats.  However, there is a distinct musical difference between "YMCA" and 70's ELO.  

Second, it is a musical time capsule--So is "42nd St.", "Yankee Doodle Dandy", "Footloose" and "Fame".  Every musical has the tastes of its decade, since its first job is to deliver current songs and variety entertainment to the paying audience of its time.  You wouldn't fault a 40's musical for being "too 40's", so why would you think an 80's musical is "too 80's", unless you were bringing your own subjective demons to it already?...Which isn't exactly the movie's fault, now, is it?

Like most early studio-concocted musicals, Xanadu went through a half-dozen different storylines before patching itself together, and when they finally got Gene Kelly to play the Token Old Classic Star in the movie, the film believed it was now a 70's "tribute" to what it thought old MGM musicals looked like, whether it had ever seen one or not.  When Gene Kelly directs a tap number in one scene, and gamely struts it up in the kids' goofy 80's new-wave-fashion number in another, it brings up the question, what IS the difference between a 50's musical and an 80's one, apart from the clothes, hair and songs?  The movie even rams that question down your throat in a funny number where dueling dreams of 40's swing zoot-suiters and 80's new-wave bands meet each other head on.

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And the reason I'm listing all this out is, to answer the question:  When you have a small niche of audiences that go against the mass zeitgeist or critical conventional-wisdom of when it was released, and can scene-specifically discuss the movie's good points or director's intent from having watched it, acceptable or not...that's Cult.  (Especially when there was a LOT of zeitgeist and critical-wisdom against it at the time.)  Any questions?  :)

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I'd like to thank everybody for their comments.  It's been great to read all your thoughts.  And I have to say I agree with most every thing said, wide ranging as it is.  It leads me to think the idea of cult movies is amorphous to a certain extent.  Taking a cue from Jlewis, I looked over in Wikiland for Danny Peary's works, and found a better description of the phenomenon than I wrote.  I apologize for the extended quote, but I believe it's worthwhile.  Here it is:

In [Cult Movies] foreword, Peary notes that out of the thousands of movies that have been made, “only an extremely small number have elicited a fiery passion in moviegoers that exists long after their initial releases.” Cult movies are defined by Peary as “special films which for one reason or another have been taken to heart by segments of the movie audience, cherished, protected, and most of all, enthusiastically championed.” He explains that “the typical Hollywood product” never attains cult status since all viewers perceive these average films in more or less the same way, with no real disagreement as to the film’s quality. But cult films “are born in controversy, in arguments over quality, theme, talent and other matters. Cultists believe they are among the blessed few who have discovered something in particular that the average moviegoer and critic have missed – the something that makes the pictures extraordinary.”  (link:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_Movies_(book) )

Later on in the article is the list of the movies he saw as examples, 100 of the best, of cult movies.  While there are many that seemed natural to me, like Freaks (1932), El Topo (1971), and Night of the Living Dead (1968), there are many I was surprised to find there, considering them your run-of-the-mill, mainstream flick.  Movies like All About Eve (1950), King Kong (1933), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and--!--Singin' in the Rain (1952).  Now remember, cultists feel they see something in a movie others have missed.  Maybe I'm mistaken, but I don't think any of those movies have ever been under-appreciated, or misunderstood as to their qualities, either by the public, or critics.

And while it might have been possible at one time to have ascribed culty aspects to the appreciation of movies like 2001 (1968), and Vertigo (1958), they certainly have moved well within the confines of movie orthodoxy today, even being dubbed 'best movie ever made,' (regardless of that title's value).

So what am I saying?  Maybe I don't know.  But I think Mr. Peary identifying cult movies' existence signaled the beginning of their decline.  No longer could devoted advocacy for a movie be un-selfconscious.  Cultists have had their limelight.  Everyone knows Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956) is the worst movie ever made--even if they've never seen it (though Glen or Glenda?, 1953 may still have possibilities).  Mainstream successes, or franchises that inspire avid, even fanatical followings, whose members attend conventions in costume I can't see as evidence of cult status.  They represent the extreme expression of the movie's general popularity.  There is no more counter-culture anymore, no more underground.  It all got sucked into the Great Big Beast, once the Beast saw money could be made from it.

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There is no more counter-culture anymore, no more underground. It all got sucked into the Great Big Beast, once the Beast saw money could be made from it.

Un5F2vt.gif

Exactly- the underground is mainstream, there is no such thing as unique. Every mall has a geek toy store selling collectible dolls/mugs/t-shirts.

While I can applaud children liking what their parents have exposed them to, I also very much worry the next few generations don't feel the same need to break away with their OWN voice. There is something natural about the rebelliousness of teens listening to their own music or wearing clothing their parents think is awful.

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2 hours ago, TikiSoo said:

Exactly- the underground is mainstream, there is no such thing as unique. Every mall has a geek toy store selling collectible dolls/mugs/t-shirts.

While I can applaud children liking what their parents have exposed them to, I also very much worry the next few generations don't feel the same need to break away with their OWN voice. There is something natural about the rebelliousness of teens listening to their own music or wearing clothing their parents think is awful.

The one thing about your statement that gets ME is that most generations NEVER really had "their own voice".  But essentially, were and still thought of in terms of their more commercially successful or notortious newsworthy aspects.  For example----

Not EVERY person to "come of age" in the '60's was a "hippie" or war protester, nor was anyone whose "time" was the '70's necessarily into DISCO.  Just like the '80's generation weren't all "punks" with multi-colored Mohawks and safety pin "piercings".  Actually, it's THOSE aspects in each generation( the "squeaky wheel", I'd say) that were the "cults" and NOT truly the "NORMS" of those generations.

Sepiatone

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Sepiatone said: Actually, it's THOSE aspects in each generation( the "squeaky wheel", I'd say) that were the "cults" and NOT truly the "NORMS" of those generations.

Yes Sepiatone, it's the counter culture kids-those who veer from accepted norms, that bring about change to the society & culture.

It's normal for parents to be bewildered by what "KIDS" (say it like Paul Lynde) find acceptable. It's also normal for the outgoing generation to say, "Ugh if THAT'S ok for them, what would be next? Public nudity?" It's been the lament of adults throughout history.

The jitterbug must have been the most shocking, vulgar thing for parents to see their teens doing-the splits, the flying skirts exposing underpants, etc. Generations later, we think it's harmless fun. The hippies' long hair, recreational drug use & sexual freedom were appalling to the jitterbug generation and today we don't even see an issue.
As an old granola hippie, I'm appalled by boys with their pants around their ankles, the rejection of maternity clothing, the lousy tuneless music & anti social behaviour. But that will soon become the "norm" as my generation dies out. I already see people over 50 with random tattoos, eyes glued to their cel phone.

I agree the idea of "cult" movies & followings are most likely dead, because in this information age, no "niche" (or as many say "nitch") interest can escape those who want to capitalize on it, causing it to become mainstream. Just look at ComiCon.
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I'm assuming TIKI, that when you used the words,  "accepted norms", you may have been referring to those "norms" found acceptable by the previous generation.  Those behaviors I mentioned (for example) that SOME young people engaged in during the '60's weren't really accepted by most of their PEERS back then. As I remember( at least, 'round MY "neckka") we "granola" hippie( heh...love that  ;) ) "counterculture" types were frowned on by all the "clique" types( "greasers", "frats" etc.) .

And I can't say I'm "appalled" by guys wearing their pants at "half-crack", just think it's dumb.  AND a bit "passe" since I do recall in the early '70's a lot of guys would forego using belts and let their jeans hang a bit past the waistbands of their "tighty-whitey's".  :D   I saw a LOT of that sort of thing at an outdoor  GRAND FUNK concert in LANSING, MI in '70.  It all had something to do with guys emulating the look of guys in JAIL, who have to surrender their belts upon being booked and processed.  :rolleyes:

Sepiatone

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