Cult movie

cult film is a generally original film that has acquired a highly dedicated group of fans. The term does not refer to a genre in its true sense, nor to an aesthetic quality, but qualifies a film according to the particular way in which it is received by the public or a part of the public. A cult film has a group of admirers, and it’s usually a movie that “either we like or hate”, but these properties are not enough to define it completely.

The expression means that the film is worshiped, not that it is a cult itself. It can not be granted in the plural: we write cult movies 1 .


The term “cult movie” first appeared in Danny Peary’s book , Cult Movies , and has continued to be used until today, often with distorted meanings. original. A cult film is a film that has finally gathered around him an audience most often reduced admirers, faithful and usually fanatic. It is a film that can be a source of fascination, obsession, and a secondary culture can be built around it (hence the analogy with “cult”).

Films considered as objects of worship usually have a small but very particular interest. They often have the reputation of being eccentric works, which do not obey the rules of the traditional cinema, resorting for example to narrative techniques and realization out of the usual “canons” of the cinema 2 , and / or which explore themes considered marginal. Some cult movies are condemned to a confined success, including some nanars whose circle of admirers will always be reduced. Some, however, are able to earn from their theatrical release popular recognition and sometimes even critical. Others have progressively passed their “cult” status, eventually being recognized as full-fledged classics, for example It’s near you with Benoît Poelvoorde (1992).

In many cases, cult movies were initially chess on their theatrical release. Even though they have not been featured for a long time, some films have been able to gain popularity over time thanks to their broadcast on other channels – television or internet – or supports – video cassettes, laserdiscs, DVDs, etc. They can then find a success they did not know when they were released, which could lead to the extension of their video exploitation and the increase in the number of copies put into circulation. For example, a film considered “mediocre” as Hurricane comes from Navarone (1978) by Guy Hamilton(public failure and critical to its release) enjoys, after a multitude of broadcasts on the cable and on the hertzian chains, a real popularity among the amateurs of war movie . The film exists today on DVD (offering the restored version of 128 minutes) and has just been offered, at a time when many classics are missing, a Bluray release . Harold and Maude ( Harold and Maude ) of Hal Ashby , although he made little money at the time of his release in 1971, became a success and a cult phenomenon, after his broadcasts televised and its video release. More recently, examples ofThe Big Lebowski (1998) by Joel and Ethan Coen and 35 hours is already too much ( Office Space , 1999) of Mike Judge , failure at its release, but that word of mouth has turned into a hit of the video rental .

Many cult films are originally independent productions whose creators do not generally expect to be popular with the general public. Carnival of Souls ( Carnival of Souls , 1962) of Herk Harvey , The Night of the Living Dead ( Night of the Living Dead , 1968) by George A. Romero , El Topo (1970) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky , Pink Flamingos (1972) of John Waters , Blood Brother ( Basket Case , 1982) by Frank Henenlotter , Evil Dead (The Evil Dead , 1981) and his two sequels, directed by Sam Raimi , or David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) are all independent films commonly known as cult films.

A film produced by a big studio can also become a cult film, especially if, despite its commercial nature, its success both in theaters and in the video market has been weak, but has been put to the test. by a small number of devoted fans in search of cinematographic pearls. This is the case, for example, to make you see Freddy! Freddy Got Fingered , 2001) by Tom Green. Also, the content of some films – obscure, strange, transgressive, or other controversial topics – can be decisive in the fact that a film will become cult, whether it is independent production or a large studio. Sometimes the public reception of a cult film differs somewhat from what its producers expected. For example, Paul Verhoeven’s big-budget movie Showgirls (1995), a film where sex is omnipresent and was originally conceived as a drama tracing the career of a stripper in Las Vegas, was a complete flop at the time of its release, both criticized by the critics and shunned by the public. The film is now a favorite of the homosexual public and generally seen as a comedy, as a result of its success in its frequent airs on television in midnight . According to the writer and activist Naomi Klein , the enjoyable second-degree aspect of the film appeared during its video exploitation, and before the MGM salespeople thought to exploit this idea. MGM noticed that the title had some success in video, since “people between twenty and thirty years had launched partiesShowgirls , ironic, during which they amused themselves by making fun of the lean and improbable scenario and by shouting horror at the scenes of “aerobatic” sex. » 3

Some films, although they have garnered massively positive reviews and box office successes, are nevertheless considered objects of worship. One example in the future vision loss, disturbing and ultraviolent offered by Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange ( A Clockwork Orange , 1971), a film crowned with several major awards and nominated for four Oscars , including best film. Other examples: Easy Rider (1969) by Dennis Hopper , 2001, Space Odyssey ( 2001: A Space Odyssey , 1968), Stanley Kubrick also, Taxi Driver(1976) Martin Scorsese , the saga Star Wars of George Lucas , Apocalypse Now (1979) by Francis Ford Coppola , Blade Runner (1982) Ridley Scott , Scarface (1983) Brian De Palma , Blue Velvet (1986) David Lynch trilogy Back to the future (1985 – 1989 – 1990) by Robert Zemeckis , Pulp Fiction (1994) Quentin Tarantino 4 or Fight Club (1999) David Fincher .

Sometimes, movies become objects of worship because they are ahead of their time; they are an audience of admirers belatedly once their originality is recognized; this is particularly the case of the Fantasia (1940) Walt DisneyStudios 5 .


First period: from 1959 to 1970

The term itself was in use in the late 1970s and popularized in a series of three books by Danny Peary , beginning in 1981 by Cult Movies . Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and other films by Ed Wood Jr. are some of the oldest films considered “cult”, attracting enthusiasts who admire the incompetence of the filmmaker. Other science fiction films and horror Z series 1950 (eg Robot Monster ), and exploitation films of the 1930s have reappeared on the video market of the 1980s (such as Reefer Madness (1936)), have also received this status.

The low-budget horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968), directed by George A. Romero , received a mixed reception at the box office but caught the attention of critics over time. American culture during the Vietnam War made a huge impact on the film, and the film gained cult status after being frequently broadcast in midnight movies . The film is indeed a fierce charge against the American society of the sixties and one historian described the film as “subversive at many levels 6  ” . Although not the first zombie movie , Night of the Living Deadhad so much influence on his successors that can be considered as the major influence of modern culture, zombie- 7 . This is the first installment of Romero’s saga of zombies . Satirical comedy about the cold war, Dr. Strangelove or how I learned not to care and love the bomb (1964) Stanley Kubrick was acclaimed by critics while maintaining its cult status. Likewise, the black comedy Harold and Maude (1971) became Hollywood’s first big-budget film capable of maintaining a consistent circle of followers during reruns, though apparently it did not.8 . The musical Mel Stuart Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ( Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory , 1971) is one of the most famous children’s films, yet it has developed a circle of adult enthusiasts for its design. Mechanical Orange , by Stanley Kubrick (1971), a film about violence in the near future, had a major commercial success and was nominated for the Best Film Oscar  ; however, the themes explored and their representation have made this film one of the most controversial in the history of cinema, thus conferring on it the status of cult film.

Pink Flamingos (1972), by John Waters , an extravagantly controversial film (it was an exercise of “dubious taste”) of scenes of incest and coprophagia , became the best known of a group of films spent in Midnight movies and focusing on sexual perversions and fetishism 9 . Filmed during weekends in Baltimore , the hometown of Waters, with a cable of a mile as a conductor of energy, this film also showed significant by inspiring the growth of independent films 10. In 1973, New York’s Elgin Theater launched Midnight movies grouped with Pink Flamingos and a Jamaican drama featuring a remarkable soundtrack. In the traditional view, The Harder They Come (1972) was a dismal failure, panned by critics after its distributor in the United States , New World Communications of Roger Corman , the came out on its own market as a product of the blaxploitation . Revised in Midnight movies for six years, he contributed to the popularity of reggae in the United States. While the potential of some movies as Midnight movieswere identified only some time after their release, many of them were distributed as such as soon as they came out in theaters to take advantage of the market – for example, in 1973, Broken Goddess , Dragula , The White Whore and the Bit Player and Elevator Girls in Bondage (as well as Pink Flamingos ) made their debut as Midnight movies 11 . In 1974, the first Midnight movie Flesh Gordon shows clearly how the phenomenon sometimes bifurcated towards pornography .

The trans-genre The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is probably the best-known cult movie still in activity. The film is a satire of the sci-fi and horror film conventions of its time and includes elements of disguise , incest and homosexuality – all in the context of a musical film. The film received little attention from critics when it was released in 1975 but gradually formed a group of fanatical admirers who appeared at Midnight movies in neighborhood cinemas, dressed in costumes and “participating” in the film. imitating scenes such as throwing rice during the wedding scene 12. The film intentionally ridicules his own themes, thus entering into the spirit of sarcastic amusement often surrounding cult movies. He earned a new life on VHS. The Rocky Horror Picture Show can be seen as a standard and help determine if a movie is indeed cult because it is probably the cult movie par excellence. Much of his fame is less due to the film itself at the exhibition that have made his fans 13 . If a film is more widely known than The Rocky Horror Picture Show , it is unlikely to be considered a cult film. Television networks, cable TV and pay-per-viewhave also changed the nature of cult movies. David Lynch’s experimental and surrealist Eraserhead (1977) was a commercial and critical failure, but came out of the darkness when he appeared in Home Video in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Other cult films of this period are those of director and actor Tom Laughlin, including his series Billy Jack .

Two kinds of cult film

If the notion of cult film is popular today, especially among moviegoers , its origin is uncertain. The birth of the cult film phenomenon can be traced back to midnight movies, which began circa 1970 in cinemas in New York , Boston or Los Angeles . The directors of these theaters, wanting to make accessible little known and offbeat movies, had only this slot available, the day and the evening being occupied by Hollywood productions. A public of connoisseurs or curious, at the time when the VHS tape did not exist yet, was constituted around films likeThe Rocky Horror Picture Show , Night of the Living Dead , Eraserhead or El Topo . These films thus began a career of cult movies .

Thus, it was strange, bizarre, eccentric and even surreal films that made up the first cult films. Often controversial since leaving formal and narrative conventions of the time, these films were also difficult to see that genuinely original 4 .

A cult film circulates without having benefited from a heavy release or commercial edition: either by a single copy which becomes itself cult, or by the VHS copy of the VHS copy. What is cult is rare , and what is rare also becomes a sign of cultural rallying of a community, before being integrated or not later in the mass culture . For some moviegoers, a cult film ceases to be cult from the moment it is readily available since, originally, “cult” is (or was) synonymous with “rare”. For a purist, a sticker “cult movie” on a DVD sold in a supermarket is an aberration.

A cult film is in the margin (it is not a will of the director, but the film is censored, not or little distributed, considered too mediocre, experimental or shocking) and a limited number of unconditional people provide repeated efforts around this work (travels, writings, projections, meetings, etc.).

The insider film

For purists, a cult film is first and foremost a film that has kept a certain confidentiality, at least in its infancy, and which has achieved esteem success with an audience that remains faithful and attached to it.

This category includes films by independent filmmakers, films that have not had the expected success at their release (average success or commercial failure), either because they were not well distributed or because they did not match. not the criteria of the general public. These may be films with a particular format, an innovative production, films that were shocking in their day or seemed out of step with marketing standards. These films, although often having strong imagery, are not a source of merchandising or generalized derivatives. For example :

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show  : the very example of the cult movie with its circle of loyal fans (they meet regularly for shows-shows where the scenes of the film are at the same time taken by actors 14 ).
  • Braindead  : a top of the gore crazy movie.
  • Yes, but …  : acclaimed in psychotherapy, coaching and personal development circles. His DVD is an uninterrupted sales success, more than ten years after the release of the film in cinemas.

Generational success

Drawing more on the etymological sense of the term than on the film-goers’ approach, some films are considered cult for having been, in spite of all expectations, the rallying sign of a whole generation sharing cult replicas and collecting objects. referring to it with the same passion. The first trilogy of the saga of science fiction Star Wars marked all the 1980s and remains by its magnitude a phenomenon unique in the history of cinema .

Confusion with the masterpiece

Main article: Masterpiece .

The confusion between “cult film” and ”  masterpiece  ” is common, even among moviegoers, and can not find a solution because these two qualitative notions remain deeply subjective. The masterpiece is however more used to designate a “classic” of the cinema, a work accomplished in its field, its kind , while the cult movie has a certain originality sometimes not very compatible with the cinematographic conventions. On the other hand, the masterpiece is considered as such because of its qualities (real or supposed), while the cult film can be considered as such not only because of its qualities, but also because of its defects. like Plan 9 from Outer Space by Ed Wood, which is being worshiped as “the worst movie of all time”. We call them nanars .

A commercial label

Main article: Merchandising .

The rise of the consumer society and the generalization of merchandising have had repercussions on the term “cult film”, by diverting it from its original meaning and using it as a commercial argument on posters, commercials, DVD covers and other products derived from a film. For moviegoers, this use of the term is quite ironic given the generally confidential and low profile of cult movies.


In June 2016, the first international cult film festival will be held in Trouville in 2017. Launched by Karl Zéro and taking place at the Trouville Casino, this atypical festival is a “Merry Bazaar” 15 , whose goals are to propose a competition composed of unreleased films with “high cult potential”, atypical, ambitious or offbeat films that challenge the critics and the public. The Golden Gull , grand prize of the festival, will crown Willy in 2016 and in 2017 Jeannette, the childhood of Joan of Arc .

Notes and references

  1. ↑ “Questions of language”  [ archive ] , site of the French Academy
  2. ↑ Cult films on Film site  [ archive ]  ; accessed on October 5 , 2007
  3. ↑ Naomi Klein , No Logo , Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, p. 79.
  4. ↑ a and b ‘ Cult films on Film Site  [ archive ] en )
  5. ↑ Cult films on the site [1]  [ archive ]  ; accessed October 5 , 2007 .
  6. ↑ Rockoff Adam, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Movie Slasher, 1978-1986 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002), p. 35, (ISBN  0-7864-1227-5 ) .
  7. ↑ ”  Zombie Movies  ” in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy , ed. John Clute and John Grant (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), p. 1048, ( ISBN  0-312-19869-8 )
  8. ↑ Cf. Hoberman and Rosenbaum (1983), p. 298.
  9. ↑ Waters (2006).
  10. ↑ Pink Flamingos Production Notes  [ archive ] . Retrieved 11/15/06.
  11. ↑ Hoberman and Rosenbaum (1983), p. 13.
  12. ↑ See History of the Rocky Horror Picture Show  [ archive ] and Rocky Horror Timeline  [ archive ] . Retrieved 11/14/06.
  13. ↑ ( in ) Henkin, Bill, The Rocky Horror Picture Show Book , New York, Dutton Adult, ( ISBN  978-0-8015-6436-9 , LCCN 79063619 ) , p.  36
  14. ↑ see studiogalande  [ archive ] , Studio Galande website in Paris
  15. ↑ The complete mess of the international festival of the cult film Trouville  [ archive ] article on the site , published June 26, 2017.

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