Cult Classics Part 1: The History of Cult Classics


Photographer: May M. S.

Cult Classic Icons sitting in a movie theatre

May M. S., Reporter

What classifies a film as a Cult Classic? What traditions can you expect at a Cult Screening? What were the most impactful Cult Classics of the last four decades (70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s) and do they accurately portray the decade they came out in?

 A Cult Classic is a film that when released had a very negative or impartial response from audiences and critics alike. The term Cult Classic comes from the “Cult-like” audiences that would become infatuated with these films (usually at Midnight Showings). The films don’t make much money (returns) at the Box Office but later find a small, peculiar audience.

Some of the first Cult Classics include the works of Ed Wood, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space, and other Sci-Fi B-Movies from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. 

However, not all movies are Cult Classics. Movies such as Pulp Fiction which made large returns and great reviews from both audiences are not Cult Classics. The reason these films are often confused with Cult Classics due to their quotability (an important aspect of the Cult Classic Lexicon) and their frequent midnight showings. Sleeper-Hits are also often confused with Cult Classics. A Sleeper-Hit, including films such as Saw, are films which were not promoted by the studio that made them, yet were still able to make huge returns. Under-Appreciated Classics are films that were unable to make a splash in the box office, yet were appreciated by the Critics. An example of this is my personal favorite film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Cult Classics are well known for their audience participation and traditions such as Props, Callbacks, Costumes, Shadowcasting, and Film Based Rituals (FBR’s).

A Prop, in terms of a Cult Classic, is an item (usually cheap) that you bring to the film in question to throw or use after a line/scene/moment in the film. For example, in The Room, during the end of the 2nd Act, the characters Johnny, Denny, and Mark are throwing around an American football. When this moment happens, the audience is also supposed to throw footballs at the screen.

A Callback is anything that an audience member/members of the audience shout at the screen to interact with the film. The first-ever callback comes from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Brad and Janet have just gotten out of their car to look for a phone, and Janet places a newspaper on top of her head. The audience is supposed to shout “Get an umbrella you cheap b*$@h!” The Ultimate goal of a Callback is to be creative, vulgar, and most importantly to make the audience laugh.

Another long-time tradition of Cult Classics is coming dressed as your favorite characters. The Big Lebowski is known for this tradition, as the costumes are so easy to replicate. For example, Boxers, a stained T-Shirt, a Robe and Sunglasses are all you need to look like The Dude.

And lastly, Shadowcasting. When you Shadowcast a film you perform the film (like a stage show) while the film plays in the background. For example, when people go to The Evil Dead Trilogy Marathon, a group of actors will be assigned a character and they will perform the film, shot for shot.

These traditions are very mainstream and are usually the ground standard for every Cult Classic. But with that being said, Individual Cult Films will often have a tradition or two which are only found in the one film. Rocky Horror has to Time Warp when the song starts playing, and in The Big Lebowski, everyone is drinking White Russians.

These movies are weird, and so are their fans (including myself) which is why we love them. In the next four articles, I will be looking at four of the most influential and well-known cult classics from the last four decades. For the 1970’s I will be looking at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For the 1980’s I will be looking at The Evil Dead Trilogy. For the 1990’s I will be looking at The Big Lebowski. And for the 2000’s I will be looking at The Room. In these articles I will discuss the film itself, it’s nature of being a Cult Classic, my opinion, other’s opinions, and the impact it has had on the decade.

But before I do I would like to give some honorable mentions, to some of my other favorite Cult Classics: A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), This is Spinal Tap (1984), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Donnie Darko (2001), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), and many others, most of which are listed in an article on the Rolling Stones.

Last, I would like to say that these movies are Rated R, and although I am not a fan of how the MPAA decides these ratings, I would still advise anyone under the age of 16 to get their parent’s permission before watching these films.