The problem with this question is that there is no appointed board of decision makers patiently awaiting the release of the next cult film contender to vote on the matter. The cult film status is largely up for audience debate. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cult classic as ‘Something, typically a film or book, which is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.’ Other descriptions of a cult film include: a film that doesn’t receive major popularity upon its initial release but gains a loyal following years later, a film that is so detailed and well-imagined it sparks endless discussion and debate and in turn facilitates re-watch ability, a film where the subject matter reflects an obscure and/or foreign culture, or a film that is so bad that it is good for every other reason than that the director intended. Or is it a mix of all of these things that makes a film a cult film?
One thing that we can be sure of is that cult status cannot be handed to a film like an award; it is left solely to audiences and fan base to decide upon the fate of a particular film. Films such as Harold & Maude, Pink Flamingos, Blade Runner, Ginger Snaps, Donnie Darko, The Blues Brothers, This is Spinal Tap, Withnail & I and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas all fall into one or more of the categories above and therefore are widely accepted as cult films. But it’s the films that are up for debate that are the interesting ones!
Kill Bill Vol 1 has been referred to as a cult film more than once, sparking major online debate as to whether Quentin Tarantino’s film deserves cult status. Tarantino became one of the coolest and highly regarded directors of the 1990s with films such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, both of which were not particularly popular upon initial release. However they are packed full of 1970s film references, detailed and well-imagined cinematography and dialogue, making these films the ultimate definition of what makes a cult movie in most people’s eyes. Kill Bill Vol 1 however, is a totally different story. Although it contained the same 1970s movie references along with stylish and well-thought out dialogue and cinematography, it was extremely popular upon first release with a box office profit of $22million and an all-star cast produced by Miramax. Many have said this is too high profile to be a cult film, and argue that Kill Bill Vol 1 is a homage to cult film rather than a cult film in its own right.
Other popular cult film debates include the one surrounding The Usual Suspects, a film that had audiences confusing its quirky dialogue, original concept and mind-blowing twist with cult. Arguably The Usual Suspects is film noir rather than a cult film. 28 Days Later fits many of the widely accepted categories that define a cult film, its dystopian outlook, its little-to-no budget and the fact that there isn’t a Hollywood movie star to be seen. However, it was hugely popular upon first release. So does 28 Days Later make the cut?
Geography also has its part to play in the cult movement. If you were in the US when the original Italian Job was released then it was a cult film, if you were in the UK however, it wasn’t. If you were in the US when the Blair Witch Project came out then it was a cult film, by the time it hit the UK however it was hugely popular and a big blockbuster hit. In the US, The Blair Witch Project had no marketing budget and became popular solely through word of mouth and online debate.
All this considered… does it really matter? Are we all not wasting time, energy and breath arguing the cultural ‘label’ something should or shouldn’t be given? After all a cult film is the only time that gross profit, widely accepted ideals and a bid to appeal the masses becomes unimportant. It is instead replaced by the freedom to explore more controversial matters through dark and disturbing narrative, script and mise-en-scene rather than a spectacularly large budget. But even more than this, cult films empower the audiences, as WE are the ones who decide for once, not an appointed board of decision makers, but US, the consumers. We are all essentially what makes a cult film, and without us the cult genre wouldn’t exist! By arguing and telling others what can and can’t be given cult status we are going against everything that makes the cult films that we love special, the audience.
In an age of people pursuing creativity and opinions through ironic means we are in danger of falling into a bottomless pit of pretentiousness that allows people to say ‘If you don’t like it then you just don’t get it!’ as a means to look down upon others. Well I say no more! If you think something is a cult film, then who gives a damn, it can be a cult film.
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