7 Tell-Tale Signs of a Cult Classic Film

By on April 16, 2013

Quick, what’s your favorite film? No, not that one. The one you secretly love. We all have one, buried deeply in our cinema-watching history. You never get tired of watching it and know all the lines by heart. It’s the one we play back to back; the one which causes us to sneer at anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.

These are the cult classics whole generations adore — even if the storyline is just so-so, the filming haphazard, or the acting over-the-top. But what makes a film a cult classic? Consider the following tell-tale signs.

Does It Have a Fan Club?

What do “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Serenity,” and “Shaun of the Dead” have in common? One is a gothic musical, another a space-western based on a short-lived American TV show, and the last a British zombie spoof. But all of them have fans — die-hard fans.

“RHPS” lovers dress up in costume and bring props to attend midnight showings. “Serenity” (and its precursor “Firefly”) fans mob conventions. “Shaun of the Dead” reached such popularity that it was proposed for an official Lego project (with nearly 10,000 votes). Cult classic films need a “cult,” that is, a strongly committed fan base.

Was It Atypical When It Premiered?

Check new Blu Ray releases and see which film is not like the others in the batch. Odds are higher that this one, above the others, could be elevated to “cult classic” status in the next 15 to 20 years. Cult classic films generally buck the trend of what’s being shown. Consider 2004, the year “Napoleon Dynamite” was released. Other offerings that year included “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Notebook,” “Mean Girls,” “Troy,” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” “Napoleon” won cult status by standing out from the crowd. Like “Mean Girls” it’s about high school and bullying, but it’s a much different tale. Where “Mean Girls” was sweetly victorious, “Napoleon” was bizarre. Where Lindsey Lohan grins her way into the popular crowd, Jon Heder obsesses about ligers.

Did It Appeal to a Broad Audience at First?

Most cult classics don’t enjoy wide viewership in their first year of release. “Napoleon Dynamite” was quickly recognized, but critics panned “Repo! The Genetic Opera” when it came out in 2008. “Repo!” only opened in a handful of cities in the U.S. and Canada, and then moved on to the Czech Republic and Spain at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. Most of the film’s viewership has been post-release, with fans pushing for it to be shown at smaller cinemas, occasionally with “shadow casts” acting along with the film. But by 2010, word had spread so broadly about the film that it was re-released at the San Diego Comic-Con International, a convention which had about 130,000 attendees that year.

Is It Absurd?

Many (but by no means all) cult classic films contain a hint of absurdity in their plotlines or filming. Director Kevin Smith’s films, almost all of which have gained cult classic status, thrive on the absurdity of plot elements and character choices. His “Clerks” (1994) is a budget existentialist comedy set in a New Jersey convenience store. Characters ponder life by looking at each egg in the box, overanalyzing Star Wars, and gossiping about acquaintances. Later Smith movies feature chimpanzees, references to characters within the same universe but from other films, and an assault on the Easter Bunny.

Is It Irreverent?

Irreverence is a sure sign of a potential cult classic. “The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” most anything by Monty Python, “Office Space,” and “The Princess Bride” all shake a fist (or a bare bum) at propriety, standard filmmaking techniques and storylines. They invite the viewers to look at things from an outside angle and through upside-down logic.

Did It Get Bad Reviews?

Many cult classics garner poor reviews when they first come out. To use “Repo!”  as an example again, review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that only 32 percent of critics liked the film, but a surprising 72 percent of viewers enjoyed it. Likewise, “Krull” (1983) came out to mostly negative reviews but still maintains a cult following. This disconnect between professional critics and viewers is where many cult classic films earn their status.

Is It More Popular Now Than When It Came Out?

True cult classics only grow their fan base. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” has millions of fans worldwide and many more “virgins” come to love it each year. “Labyrinth” (1986), starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly and directed by Jim Henson, was a box office disappointment. Almost 20 years later, fans are still purchasing copies of the four-volume “Labyrinth” manga series released between 2006 and 2010, and waiting to buy the upcoming graphic novel prequel to the film.

Image from Flickr’s Creative Commons by davidmesaaz

About the Author: Stephanie Ramsey teaches drama and stagecraft in the Sydney area. Long a supporter of indie films, Ramsey collects DVDs of cult classics through sites like DVD Land.

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