Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Talking about the so-called "cult movies" is usually a somewhat complicated topic since not many people know how to define what a cult film is. Some people mistakenly use the term to refer to a 'B Movie' (low-budget commercial films); however, that definition is limited.
A cult film is that film that generates worship, which becomes appreciated by an undetermined number of people. We all have a favourite movie that we have seen a hundred times and, inevitably, we will see a hundred more; that is WORSHIP.
The following seven reasons may help to explain why obscure or unpopular film with mainstream audiences often become revolutionary or ironically enjoyed;
1. It is little known
A film can count on the support of a recognised production company which is in charge of promoting it to attract an audience. Still, sometimes even that does not make a film successful. Most people can think of at least three movies they know - or have heard of - but haven't seen or are interested in viewing. When a film does not have the promotion it deserves and goes unnoticed by the public. Those who discover it and enjoy it create the cult status by merely recommending it to friends or family who have not yet seen it.
Warriors, Come out to play
Examples: The Warriors (1979) was a film accused of overly violent and anti-social themes, so much so Paramount stopped its release and removed it from several theatres. Several decades later, and mainly thanks to the success of the Rockstar video game developed in 2005 that was based on the film, it was rediscovered by a whole new generation. I remember seeing it for the first time at boarding school in the early '80s. I remember the mantra, "Warriors, Come out to play" echoing in the halls for weeks after watching it.
2. It is a low budget
Movie buffs often talk about the film budget and production values. When a film is made with little money it can be appreciated at the visual level even though the actors may be inexperienced or not be actors at all. All that matters little if the film is entertaining and is based on an original and fresh idea.
In cases like this, many viewers will support the film for the simple fact of perceiving the commitment to the film craft that can be seen on the screen. Others however will see it as a sign of rebellion against the Hollywood mega-production, detecting a higher intrinsic value in an inexpensive movie with unknown actors.
Example: The Evil Dead (1981), a supernatural horror film with a heavy load of gratuitous violence, sex and dark humour, which caused it to be censored in several countries in Europe, where it could only be seen clandestinely. Shot on an extremely low budget by Sam Raimi, it follows a group of friends at a secluded cabin who find the Sumerian Book of the Dead that unknowingly conjures up a bunch of nasty demons. Its sequel, Evil Dead II (1987) is a reinterpretation of the script with a bigger budget. While not for the squeamish the violence is not the sole reason for the film's existence: the film begins with the unsettling soundtrack and camera effects and these creative techniques are utilised throughout the film.
3. It is little appreciated by critics
Occasionally, critics seek to single out a movie as "the worst of the year"; This can be applied to practically any kind of production, be it high or low budget when their respective scripts or stories were considered failures.
But there are also cases of films that were simply overlooked in deference to another movie that came out at the same time. This happens a lot with large productions that are overshadowed by another success but later end up being recognized by the public after being viewed privately or by a television broadcast.
Example: The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is today a cult classic and considered by many moviegoers and historians one of the best movies in history. However, the critics left it aside the year of its premiere to praise the equally successful Forrest Gump (1994), which swept the Oscars. The reasons at the time were due to the seemingly tired subject matter, lack of blockbuster stars (for the era) and weird title, never caught much of the trade wind at the box office.
I have to remind myself that some birds are not meant to be caged. Morgan Freeman (Shawshank Redemption)
4. It is a revelation
A film can become cult when it is considered "ahead of its time", which can be understood with many experimental films that use technology to create scenes never seen before or by introducing revolutionary narrative techniques. In most cases, it's when you have something unusual - whether it's the plot or visual construction - that it's considered a revelation.
These kinds of films are the ones that are unsuccessful during their release since many viewers are not yet prepared for the idea that they put forward in their scripts. Paradoxically, these ideas become successful when used in later films.
Example: Dark City (1998) is a science fiction thriller where an entire city is part of a vast experiment carried out by an extraterrestrial species that night after night alters the memories and reality of its inhabitants with the power of their minds. A premise that was similar to that of The Matrix (1999). Dark City is an example of fascinating visionary filmmaking. With its amber tinged palette and its distinctively dystopian view of life at the time of its release, it was one of the most unique looking films seen for ages.
5. It is "rare."
Now reaching the end of the list, being "rare" is one of the main causes of a film becoming a cult classic when its plot, its aesthetics or one of its components gives it the character of an otherworldliness. The motifs vary according to the genre, context and background of the work. This can range from fresh and original stories with the most elaborate philosophical, critical or parodic meanings. It becomes a simple act of rebellion watching a film with a group of friends, for the sole purpose and pleasure of being shocked.
Example: Naked Lunch (1991), an adaptation of a novel of the same name by William S. Burroughs, which was considered "impossible to film" is composed of small fragmentary, kaleidoscopic scenes; and there is no traditional storyline. Also directed by David Cronenberg, a director for whom extreme films are not something new.
6. It is controversial
These are the films that make the viewer rethink what they should and should not see on the screen. They are movies that outrage, shock and disgust. Still, at the same time, many admire the director for daring to break societal taboos.
These films become objects of worship until "what" makes them controversial (whether a story, content, message or aesthetics) becomes something for which viewers are already prepared. What could be compared to horror movies of the 50s and current ones? The public of that time could never assimilate the type of material that is currently handled.
Example: Pink Flamingos (1972), considered one of the most controversial underground movies in history, including scenes where different perverse acts of sexual and scatological acts were performed. Its protagonist, Divine, was an obese transformational actor who performed grotesque acts as a sign of rebellion against society.
7. It is VERY bad
The main reason that a movie can become a cult classic is that everything in it simply does not work. In essence, its premise is ridiculous, its performances are lousy, its effects (if any) are laughable and the simple fact of watching it can be offensive to good taste.
Why does such a movie become cult? A definitive answer is difficult, it depends on the individual viewer. It may be the case that there are people who like films because they are so bad; an ingredient of what one classifies as a "cult classic." It is not a logical question but an emotional one.
Example: The Room (2009), a number of critics have suggested the film is one of the worst ever made. The Room became a cult film due to its bizarre and unconventional storytelling. This film is so bad that "The Disaster Artist" a film about the film received a standing ovation at its initial screening. James Franco plays the enigmatic filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, while Dave Franco plays the young actor Greg Sestero, whose tragicomic memoir is the basis for the film.
What is your favourite cult movie?