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So Just What Exactly Is a Cult Movie Anyway?

The term “cult movie” has probably never been as widely used as it is now, yet doing something as simple as googling the term “cult movies” will yield such an enormous range of results that there’s a fairly easy argument to be made that the term is actually overused to the point of losing or at least obscuring its meaning. Depending on whom you ask, “cult movie” can even be used interchangeably with “independent movie” these days, as it seems as though anything that isn’t a mega-budget blockbuster and has a loyal following gets called a cult movie. Or hell, even a lot of mega-budget studio movies are liable to be labeled cult movies simply by virtue of not being record-breaking box office hits or having somewhat more divisive audience reactions.

But since there is obviously a lot of interest in the phenomenon of so-called cult cinema, I think the best approach when defining what exactly this ubiquitous yet strangely ambiguous term is to look at the origins of the culture surrounding it. Because yes, a “cult” movie does indeed imply, by definition, a culture. But of course, if the only criterion for qualifying as a cult movie is having an impassioned fan base that exists as its own sort of subculture, then you’d have to say that Star Wars, Marvel movies, and the like are cult movies, and I believe that’s why it’s necessary to clarify that the culture that makes a cult movie must not be just a culture or even a subculture, but specifically and exclusively a counterculture. The term “cult cinema” should not be applied so broadly as to include every film with non-mainstream appeal, but more selectively to films with explicitly anti-mainstream appeal.

A cult movie, I believe, should be identified by what it is, not by what it isn’t. In other words, for the term to having any meaning, it cannot just be a category open to any and all movies that merely aren’t hugely successful blockbusters that everyone and their grandma has seen. Rather, there must be some actual qualifications for achieving the status of a cult film. Because a cult movie isn’t just a movie whose following exists just outside of the mainstream canon of pop culture, but — through at least one of several ways — exists in opposition to it.

Defining what constitutes a counterculture nowadays might be an even more difficult endeavor, so I’m not going to dive into those sociological, political, and other issues that are frankly way outside my area of expertise. However, as it pertains to the subject of cult cinema, I believe I can offer a breakdown that will at least help clarify somewhat what exactly makes any given movie a cult movie. So while the term has evolved into its current ubiquity and, arguably, oversaturation in the name of branding (cult movies do indeed have a certain “cool” factor to them, which explains why so many have attempted to co-opt the term as a marketing strategy), what were the original cult movies before the term was so widely used (and later misused)? What made them cult movies? I think the answer to that will illuminate the actual meaning of the term before it was blurred.

The history of cult cinema comes in waves that can be divided into six basic categories that I’m sure will also be familiar terms to most people: B-movies, grindhouse movies, exploitation movies, underground movies, experimental movies, and midnight movies. Some of these terms have been used interchangeably along with the larger umbrella term “cult movies” that we’re trying to clear up, but really they each refer to different things, and laying out those distinctions is how we’re going to arrive at a less confused definition of cult cinema.

So let’s start with B-movies. I’ve heard a lot of people use the term in a way that suggests it’s inherently a judgment of the movie’s quality or production values, as in it’s not good enough to be considered an “A-list” movie, therefore it’s a B-movie. The later term “Z-movie” plays off that notion, but in actuality, the term “B-movie” is closer to “B-side,” which I realize I might also have to define here. So when record companies would send out singles to radio stations, the song they were positioning as the hit was the A-side. The B-side, which was literally just the other side of the record, was typically an extra song thrown in there as a sort of bonus that DJs could also play on air if they wanted to, but the idea was that the hit single was on the A-side. And of course there have been some legendary B-sides over the years, so it’s not a quality judgment to refer to a song as a B-side. Many B-sides were outtakes that missed the cut of the album or alternate takes of album tracks or singles (many of which have become collector’s items because of their rarity), but a lot of them became hits or at least beloved songs in their own right. So a B-side wasn’t necessarily considered inferior to its corresponding A-side; it was just that the A-side was what the record company was focused on promoting.

Proof that sometimes the B-side is better: Booker T. & the M.G.s’ “Green Onions” was originally sold as the B-side to “Behave Yourself.”

Similarly, a B-movie was a film that was shown as the second feature in a double bill back in the early days of movie theaters. Up through the 1950s, it was common for an evening at the movies to include a newsreel and a short cartoon followed by the feature presentation, then trailers (which got that name because they used to trail the movie rather than precede it), and finally the second feature, or B-movie. It was assumed that a lot of the audience wouldn’t even stay for the second movie, as the first one was the major film that the studio was promoting, whereas the B-movie was essentially a bonus movie that you could choose to watch if you weren’t averse to sitting in a theater for hours on end. These would typically be low-budget genre pictures, sometimes but not always independently made, but it’s important to note that that unless you’re the one attaching the tone of dismissal to the term, “B-movie” was not a term of judgment. It literally just referred to the fact that the movie was the second film in a double feature. The reason they tended to be lower budget and mostly genre fare was because a lot of the more casual members of the audience would simply leave after the first film, and I suppose it didn’t take long for theaters and studios to realize that the type of people who would stay for an entire second movie had, shall we say, less discriminating tastes. They were the people who would watch movies for hours regardless of their production value or star power, so rather than put up the money to program double features consisting of two major, big-budget studio productions, it was determined that it would make more sense to give the audience one of those as a main course and then a smaller, cheaper movie as a sort of optional dessert afterwards.

A typical double bill marquee circa the 1940s.

Now, B-movies and grindhouse movies have an awful lot of overlap between them and can indeed be difficult to distinguish, but it’s at least worth going over the difference in what the terms refer to. During the same era, most major movie houses were owned by the studios for the specific intent of showcasing their own films. That came to an end in 1948 thanks to a Supreme Court decision ruling it unconstitutional to control both the production and exhibition of motion pictures (which has recently been reversed, incidentally, but that’s a story for another time), but up until then, most American audiences saw a movie at a theater that was owned by whichever studio produced that particular film (or at least the A-movie).

However, there were also what were called grindhouse theaters. These were independently owned theaters that typically screened movies all day and well into the night (as opposed to the studio-owned theaters that had specific showtimes to make the movies feel like more of a special exhibition), often for a single admission fee so that you could theoretically pay for a ticket in the morning and just park in the theater all day for an epic marathon of movies. Since the studios owned exclusive rights to first-run movies in their own theaters, the movies shown at grindhouse theaters were either major studio films that were already a few years old or, of course, B-movies that they could acquire cheaply.

It seems like a lot of people assume the term “grindhouse” refers to some sort of lurid subject matter, but really, a grindhouse theater was just called that because they would grind out screenings all day every day rather than exhibit films as part of an organized night out as was customary at the time. Grindhouses stuck around through what was arguably their heyday from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, but contrary to popular belief, they were indeed around for decades prior to that as well. Also important to note is that drive-in theaters, which became popular especially in the ’50s and early ’60s, were functionally grindhouse theaters for the most part, at least in terms of the types of films they would show. So in case you’re wondering why I’m not devoting a section of this discussion to drive-in movies, that’s why: drive-in movies are essentially grindhouse movies screened outdoors.

So what’s a grindhouse movie then? Well, that’s what makes this particular subset of cult cinema perhaps the hardest to pin down, because in reality, grindhouse theaters showed pretty much whatever movies they could afford prints of. But the key takeaway here is that because that ended up being mainly movies that would in the studio-owned theaters be relegated to the B-feature, their success is a testament to the fact that there were audiences who not only wanted to see just those movies without all the pomp and circumstance of how Hollywood packaged them, but perhaps more importantly, they wanted to watch a lot of those movies. These were not theaters that were occupied by family outings or couples on dates. In fact, most grindhouse theaters had a reputation for being somewhat seedy and dirty, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to buy a ticket just to sleep in the theater or use it as a dark, secluded place to fool around with someone. But there were definitely people who were there to actually watch the movies too, and it was apparent that these were not what you’d call the normal, casual, mainstream moviegoing public. Removing B-movies from the A-movie package and giving them their very own home was the first major step towards building the audience that would come to be known as the cult movie crowd, and it’s crucial to note that it wasn’t just a matter of which movies were being shown at grindhouse theaters, but the types of audiences that were going to them.

A row of consecutive grindhouse theaters during the ’70s heyday of 42nd Street.

Once the old studio system was disbanded and the entire movie theater business changed, the term “B-movie” started to become outdated, as double features were now far less common outside of grindhouses and drive-ins, but of course those theaters didn’t distinguish between A-movies and B-movies anyway. Again, by definition, they were grinding out movies all day long; there was no single featured presentation. So what would once have been known as B-movies started taking the new shape of exploitation movies. This is another term that’s widely known but not very widely understood. The word “exploitation” of course has negative connotations in most contexts, but contrary to how a lot of people use the term, an exploitation movie is not necessarily one that is exploitative or lurid in any way. Much like the terms “B-movie” and “grindhouse,” the actual meaning is a lot simpler and less judgmental. An exploitation movie is one that is made specifically to exploit a certain element that the producers have determined is virtually guaranteed to bring in a certain audience. Hence why there are so many different subgenres of exploitation cinema. For instance, sexploitation is not necessarily a movie that contains exploitative sexual content, but rather simply a movie that is exploiting for the purposes of marketing that there is sexual content in it. The exploitation element is less about the movie itself and more about the marketing. When a distributor or producer is advertising a movie based on the fact that there’s sex or nudity in it, they are exploiting that element, hence it’s an exploitation movie.

But even that definition can be frustratingly broad, since I mean, couldn’t you easily make the argument that all recent superhero movies are exploitation movies based on the fact that the studios are selling them specifically on the popularity of superheroes? So again, we have to acknowledge that exploitation cinema is more strictly exploiting not just any element, but an element that has some degree of countercultural appeal. It’s not just that it’s being marketed in such a way to promise something specific to a built-in audience, because let’s face it, virtually every movie ever made does that; it’s being marketed in such a way to promise something you won’t see in most mainstream movies. Whether that’s sex, gore, or sex and gore involving nuns (yes, nunsploitation is a thing), the idea is to promote the movie — not unlike how an old-timey carnival barker would advertise a sideshow — as containing things you won’t see in a “normal” movie. And that doesn’t always mean something sexual or violent in nature. One of the most popular subgenres of exploitation cinema is blaxploitation, which was a movement that occurred primarily from the early to mid ’70s that offered audiences the then-rare opportunity to see a film with a mostly Black cast. The idea that this could be considered “exploitation” might rub some people the wrong way these days, but the fact is that these movies were being made at a time when it was extremely rare to see a major Hollywood film that even had a Black protagonist, let alone a predominantly Black cast. So blaxploitation happened because there was an audience that wanted to see those movies even if Hollywood wasn’t giving it to them. Again, the hallmark of exploitation cinema is the allure of seeing something you wouldn’t or couldn’t see in a mainstream Hollywood film. They are inherently countercultural in that respect.

The poster for Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1963), one of the prototypical exploitation films of the splatter variety.

That brings us to underground cinema, yet another term that is often misused as being interchangeable with independent cinema. An underground movie is not just one that is made outside of the studio system, but in most cases, it’s also exhibited in unconventional venues, i.e. not in movie theaters. Being “underground” should be viewed as an all-encompassing virtue: not just a movie that’s made unconventionally but still shown in a traditional setting, but one that eschews even the standard exhibition format of cinema. Of course, these days that’s a value that doesn’t hold much water, and that’s not just because of streaming, but going back even earlier, the concept of a movie being truly underground probably disappeared with the rise of home video, and I’ll return to that in a bit. But let’s focus on the ’60s for now just to demonstrate what an underground movie is in theory.

The ’60s was arguably the golden age of underground cinema, with filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and John Waters defining the movement at the time. Exploitation movies may have been relegated to grindhouses and drive-ins, but underground movies rarely even got that level of distribution, at least not at the time. Famously, Warhol’s films were shown at his Factory or at various other clubs in New York City, and that was standard for underground films in general. They’d be shown at clubs, bars, coffeehouses, art galleries…pretty much anywhere with the capability to screen a movie that wasn’t an actual movie theater. They were underground not just in production but in distribution, and that’s an essential point to be made. This concept would evolve into things like tape trading decades later, but at the time, underground movies were seen almost exclusively by people who actively sought them out. You kind of had to be in the know to have even heard of them, let alone seen them. As much as exclusivity is considered an inherently negative quality by a lot of people now, the fact is that it was and to some extent still remains a key ingredient in what makes a cult movie. And to be clear, it’s not exclusivity in the sense that they’re deliberately leaving certain groups out; these films were exclusive in that even knowing about them revealed either the sort of crowd you hung out with or the sort of magazines and literature you read, and when it came to actually seeing them, you had to really want it. Or at the very least, you had to be lucky enough to live in a city that had an underground film scene and be an active enough member of said scene that you’d know when and where to go.

While most remembered for his paintings and general celebrity, Andy Warhol was a prolific maker of underground films.

So they weren’t necessarily exclusive by design, but they were most definitely exclusive in practice. Again, this isn’t a snobby or elitist thing, it’s simply a truth that I’ve been circling for a while now: cult movies — and underground movies in particular — are not intended for casual movie audiences. They’re for the obsessives out there who will actively seek things out even if they’re not easy to find. That’s part of why most modern cult movie enthusiasts still cling to physical media despite the “normal” movie watching public having long since declared it obsolete. These are not audiences who are content to choose from a selection that any given theater, video store, or now streaming service has curated for the public. There are specific films they want to see, and they will figure out how to watch no matter how much digging that may entail. They are — and again, I want to stress that I’m not saying this to imply any sort of superiority or anything — people who don’t just decide they want to watch a movie and then log on to Netflix to see what they have; they have specific movies in mind, and they won’t stop until they find those movies. As the name implies, “underground” films were movies that required some sort of digging in order to even hear about, let alone see. That’s another hallmark of cult cinema as a phenomenon: it doesn’t so much try to find its audience as it relies on its audience to find it.

Not all, but many underground films could also be categorized as experimental films, which is the next category I want to touch upon. This one’s probably the easiest of the six categories to explain, but just to be clear, an experimental film is not just one that has some unusual shots in it, but one that uses almost exclusively unconventional technique, structure, form, and approach. This is primarily as aesthetic label, although there are many experimental films that aren’t particular adventurous from an aesthetic perspective but still qualify as experimental based on their approach to narrative or editing. A good deal of experimental cinema is non-narrative, meaning it’s trying to convey ideas, feelings, and moods purely through image and/or sound rather than through storytelling. The vast majority of people who watch movies, it seems, think of cinema as merely a storytelling medium. And that’s fine, since storytelling is a much more universally accessible form of art than the more abstract type represented by experimental film. But yet again, the idea is not to be widely accessible, but to appeal to a very specific, relatively small audience that is looking for something that can’t be found in more accessible, mainstream forms of cinema (or art in general).

A still from Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1964), one of the most influential experimental films of all time.

I think a lot of people assume that the only people who are interested in watching experimental films are filmmakers themselves, and while I don’t think that’s entirely true, I want to say that even if it were true, that’s still an audience worth reaching. There should be movies that are made specifically for people who are interested in the art of making movies. I mean, a casual music listener is very unlikely to be interested in a free jazz composition with a bunch of solos that go on forever, but people who are keenly interested in music might very well find a lot that resonates with or inspires them. The same principle applies here. Experimental cinema might have the most narrow, exclusive appeal of any type of cinema, but that doesn’t discredit the appeal that it does have to that admittedly small audience. A film’s inability to connect with most audiences doesn’t take away from its ability to connect with some audiences. And that might be THE driving force behind any cult movie: the idea that an audience is embracing something that doesn’t appeal to most people is, for better or worse, what a cult following is. Cult movies can’t exist without accepting that there is a degree of exclusivity involved. Now of course, that doesn’t mean go be a gatekeeper about it and say “you can’t like this movie,” but it does mean taking pride in liking a movie even if you’re the only one you know who does.

But of course, no movie is ever going to be liked by just one person (which is the perfect reason for making whatever movie you’re passionate about, by the way: if you believe in it and you love it, there will be others out there who also believe in it and love it; no one’s taste is completely unique in that way), and so cult cinema is, despite its reliance on appealing to outsiders with fiercely individualistic tastes, still ultimately a social phenomenon. And that’s where midnight movies come into play. Now, these weren’t some entirely new type of movie that hadn’t existed before. They were, you could say, B-movies, grindhouse movies, exploitation movies, experimental movies, or movies that fit into more than one of those categories. Some might even qualify as underground movies since even though they were shown in theaters, this was just about the least conventional approach you could take to screening a movie while still keeping it within the walls of a regular movie theater. As the name suggests, they were screened at midnight — not exclusively per se, but that’s when the vast majority of their audience went to go see them. And I know that nowadays pretty much every movie has a midnight screening, and it’s become very common for people to go to the opening midnight showing for big franchise movies. But midnight movies, when they came to prominence in the 1970s, were very much a countercultural experience rather than the cultural one that they are today. Because they weren’t movies that were expected to be big box office hits; they were movies that were shown at midnight in small independent theaters precisely because the types of people who would go see those movies in those theaters at that time of night were extremely particular types of people.

Not completely unlike the sort of person who would sit all day in a dingy grindhouse theater to watch exploitation flicks while others nod off and most likely engage in some illicit activity around them, the midnight movie phenomenon was largely based on its setting, and more importantly, the sort of person who would even want to be in that setting. It was yet another way of setting this type of movie and this type of audience apart from the normal, casual, mainstream movie and the normal, casual, mainstream audience. Midnight movies banked on a select few being disillusioned and bored by the state of mainstream cinema and offered them a clear, comprehensive alternative; not just an alternative to the content of the movies they were watching, but to how the movies were made, how they were advertised, and how they were shown. Basically, anything Hollywood did, they did the opposite. Which is why I said earlier that in order for a film to qualify as a cult movie, it can’t just be non-mainstream; it must be actively anti-mainstream.

The midnight movie craze of the ’70s may have been the last true wave of cult cinema as a countercultural phenomenon, because the proliferation of home video in the ’80s broke everything wide open. Which is not to say that there haven’t been any cult movies produced since, because obviously that is very far from the case, but home video and more recently streaming have made it much harder to determine what a cult movie is. Prior to home video, it seemed fairly clear: a cult movie was one that you had to see in a setting other than a regular movie theater, whether it was a grindhouse, a drive-in, an art gallery, or just an independent theater at midnight. But with home video, suddenly you were able to watch any movie in the comfort of your own home. And yes, we could get into how video stores affected the concept of cult cinema — namely, it became widely agreed upon among cult movie fans by the mid ’90s that you weren’t going to find many cult films at Blockbuster Video and thus had to look elsewhere — but that’s still basically making the same point as before. Cult films are the “look elsewhere” films. They are films defined not so much by their style or content, which of course can vary drastically, but by their otherness. They are the alternative to mainstream movies, and they’re meant to be discovered by rather than sold to an audience. That is the one thing that has remained constant throughout the evolution of cult cinema. And because what’s mainstream is constantly changing, so too is what’s cult. In fact, plenty of things that were once associated with cult cinema have found their way into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean cult cinema has become mainstream; it just means that cult cinema is something different now, because it was never about a specific style or subject matter, it was about being an alternative. Being countercultural. Cult cinema can’t become mainstream, because being “cult” isn’t a style or an aesthetic; it’s an ideology. It’s a philosophy.

So have we come any closer to arriving at a solid definition of cult cinema? As with anything else, it’s supposed to evolve over time, so of course there will never be a be-all-end-all definition of cult cinema that encompasses everything — and hell, even if there were, then by default it would become the very type of easily definable, readily accessible label that it’s supposed to be railing against. So for cult cinema to even try to settle on a singular definition would be ideologically self-defeating. But surely we can at least narrow down the definition based on exploring these six subcategories of cult cinema that I’ve just touched upon. It may be difficult in the age of streaming to determine just what constitutes a cult movie, but I think it would be fair to suggest that a cult movie is one that exhibits at least two of the three following traits:

  1. Like a B-movie, a grindhouse movie, an underground movie, or a midnight movie, it’s not a major studio production designed to be shown in a conventional movie setting for casual audiences. Instead, it appeals to a niche audience that is willing to venture outside of their comfort zone — both literally and figuratively — to experience it.
  2. Like an experimental film, it takes a stylistic, aesthetic, or structural approach that is defiantly at odds with the standards of a contemporary mainstream Hollywood movie.
  3. Like an exploitation film, it offers the promise of showing you something you normally wouldn’t get to see in a contemporary mainstream Hollywood movie.

I think those traits are, more than anything else, the key factors in deciding what makes a cult movie. It can’t just be decided based on having a rabid following, however big or small, because that’s something that will fluctuate over time. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example, has arguably become too popular and visible within the mainstream for it to qualify as a cult movie any longer, but I think it should always be considered a cult movie based on the fact that it did have all three of the aforementioned traits when it was initially released. Mainstream culture can and does adopt (and often co-opt) pieces of counterculture over time, but that shouldn’t negate the original countercultural aspects of them. It’s just that the trends of mainstream pop culture have changed, which necessitates that what is countercultural has changed as well. Going to a showing of Rocky Horror is not the countercultural statement that it was in the ’70s, but there are new movies being made in that spirit and with that philosophy that I guarantee are not on the radar of most of the people at a modern-day Rocky Horror showing. And those are the new cult movies. Because being a cult movie fan isn’t so much about watching any particular films you were told you should see; it’s about the thrill of digging around and discovering alternatives to the movies you were told you should see.

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