Cult movie is a very flexible, abstract concept which is applied to many types of cinematographic works but which can be easily manipulated for commercial purposes.
Looking at the ads for the new movies, it seems like all of them are cult movies. Triumphal writings appear on trailers: the one or that critic called it a masterpiece. That magazine said it’s a new cult movie.
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What does cult movie mean? A cult movie is a work that, regardless of its commercial and critical success at the time of its release, has resisted over time to become the cult object of a group of loyal fans, to the point of becoming the emblem of a subculture, of a fashion or a lifestyle.
It sometimes happens that a group of people completely identify with the content, images and stories of a cult film. He wears the clothes worn by the characters in the film, uses their objects, wants to live like them, sometimes bordering on fanaticism.
Mainstream cult movie
Can a mainstream film be a cult? In its more commercial sense of cult movie, Star Wars, for example, is definitely one of them. Generations of nerds, kids and adults who have always remained children have always collected and adored the gadgets of the film.
I don’t really agree on this: Star Wars is more of a trending film, a fashion created with great commercial resources, rather than a cult film. But it is easy to find, especially in American magazines, someone who says exactly the opposite.
Many film producers would dispute the claim that a cult film cannot be planned at the table. That otherwise the big studios would like every film they distribute to become a successful cult movie. I disagree because there is a difference between a cult movie and a movie that creates a fashion.
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The hit cult movies
Is an indie horror film like Paranormal Activity, made by a group of young, zero-budget filmmakers grossing $ 250 million, a cult phenomenon? From my point of view no. One of the main characteristics of a cult film must be to last over time, for a very long time, and to establish a special, very special and deep bond with the viewer.
The cult meaning is not to be confused with the unexpected success of an independent film of extraordinary viral or underground popularity. Is not just a horror that crowds of people lined up to see at midnight screenings. A cult film is a profound connection: it transforms its contents, which are icons of a certain historical period, of a movement, of a subculture, of a generational sentiment, into timeless contents.
There are hundreds of damn movies that are called cult only because their content is out of the ordinary, like some exceptionally violent horror films, but they don’t make a lasting and deep connection with their fans. Although they have provided exceptional entertainment, they do not reach their interior, and after a while they evaporate.
Cult movie: failures then rediscovered
Then there are cult films that have had a dramatic box office failure and have been rediscovered many years later. Or first or second works by directors unknown at that time who then became very famous. A cult film must necessarily be “cursed”. No.
They can definitely be called cult films because these directors are indeed cult objects for their fans, and their first films are even more so than subsequent films that have been successful. As if they were reserved for a small circle of enlightened people, true worshipers of the master.
For example, two masters like David Lynch and Brian De Palma made low-cost films that have become cult stars at the beginning of their careers: Eraserhead and the Phantom of the Paradise. These films represent something more than the following ones.
It’s like meeting great directors in their youth, a meeting between university students, having a simple and friendly relationship with them. Or in some cases it may mean knowing their dark side or the period of their creative career when they still had a raw and naive style. Less successful and less well-known films but that fans love to show that their adoration is higher than that of all the other fans of the master.
In short, we understand that in cult films there is an almost religious relationship between disciple and teacher. In these films the master-director transmits something unique to the disciple, the disciple treasures it. The maestro was able to crystallize his fan into his film, the group for which he feels a sense of belonging, perhaps an entire historical period.
Because he knows that something isn’t for everyone. It is something that not everyone can fully understand. Therefore, the meaning that I attribute to the definition of cult film cannot be applied to Star Wars or Indiana Jones.
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The meaning of cult is synonymous with a masterpiece of cinema?
While a cult movie is a general term that can refer to any type of film, even commercial, especially in the United States, cinephiles, and more generally Europeans, prefer the term cult film. A cult film for cinema lovers, cinephiles, aspiring filmmakers and professionals, however, can still be something different: perhaps it is simply a film that has remained in the history of cinema because it is a masterpiece.
Perhaps few had noticed it at the time of its release in cinemas. Perhaps its innovative language that made it a masterpiece made it mistake for a mediocre film. It is a recurring thing in the history of cinema. Audience and critics do not hesitate to crush different, innovative films that are not aligned with the dominant preferences.
We could therefore say that the great ambiguity in the interpretation of the term cult film is due to this: it is love and faith that create cult films. If a man loves to ride his Harley Davidson, his cult movie will be Easy Rider. For the neorealist cinema scholar, the cult film will be Rossellini’s Rome, open city. If you love the stories of artists manipulated by power then you will be Brian De Palma’s Phantom.
There is no objective definition of a cult film because everyone has their own cult film, which touches the innermost chords of their soul. If I were really forced to give a definitive meaning of cult film, I would say this: a cult film is a film that deeply touches the hearts of many people, and at the same time marks a historical moment and the history of cinema.
In this way, the circle of cult films is drastically reduced. A film can touch our soul. But how many at the same time have marked a historical moment, a movement, a generation, and the cinematographic masterpieces have also been recognized? Few. Very few.
Is Donnie Darko, for example, a cult movie? Yes, because in it, even if a precise reference is not made to a historical moment or to a subculture, a specific target of people is recognized: adolescents, and adults who have remained adolescents, who experience the same tormented, dark, inexplicable sensations, covered in the film. A cult film manages to create a mysterious emotional and spiritual bond with a certain target of people who watch it.
One of my favorite cult films is The Phantom of the Stage because to these qualities it adds that of representing a subculture. Which is not the paradox of the subculture going mainstream, like the Beat Generation. It is a small, restricted subculture, which only marked a short period, but which became timeless in that film.
Can we define the popular masterpieces of film history like cult film? Some do, some do not, because they lack this characteristic: to influence a limited group of people belonging to a subculture, a lifestyle, a fashion, an era. By ensuring that that style, that fashion, that culture is found to live forever in the film, without time.
But what is really a cult movie?
So what does cult mean? The characteristic of the cult movie is therefore to transcend time to become an icon of a certain phenomenon, for which a group of people feels a special bond, a real cult. That phenomenon and that link have infinite variables and this explains the ambiguity of the term cult movie.
20 cult films you absolutely must see
A selection of cult movies that have marked the history of cinema, or that for some reason represent works of worship. Works forgotten for years that were then rediscovered, box office failures then rediscovered and become phenomena of custom. First works and minor films by great directors who became cult movies after their authors became famous. Seminal and avant-garde films that have marked the history of cinema. This is not the usual ranking that mixes films, from blockbusters to arthouse films, which you find on generalist websites that deal with cinema. It is not the usual large basket from which to fish something at random, written just to fill a page. Many probably don’t know what exactly a cult movie is, but now you know. This is a list of true cult films that every true cinephile should know.
Cult Thriller Fritz Lang from 1945, shot in Hollywood. Lang takes up the themes and the protagonist of the film The Woman in the Portrait, the extraordinary actor Edward G. Robinson, to retell the story of a man who loses himself and falls into his inner hell due to the morbid bond with a woman who he manipulates and exploits him to get his money. A senior bank employee, Christopher Cross, has an insufferable wife and has secretly cultivated an artistic passion for painting in his life. He paints pictures that he does not show to anyone, for personal pleasure. One day he meets a charming woman, Kitty, who begins to manipulate him. Kitty discovers that the naive employee’s paintings have surprising value in the art market.
The Testament of Orpheus
Last film by the great poet Jean Cocteau shot in 1960, it is to be considered an absolute cult for lovers of surreal and poetic cinema, but also for anyone who is looking of a path of illumination. Cult film also because it is a testament film, the delivery to humanity of all Cocteau’s work. The protagonist is a poet played by Cocteau himself in search of spiritual enlightenment. In a metaphysical and mysterious place he meets lost souls who cause his death and resurrection. The meaning of life, of art, of Jean Cocteau’s entire existence emerges in this amazing work.
Cult movie because it is the first film by the great director Francis Ford Coppola. Even if it is not a perfect film, it contains the style of the Italian-American director that will be developed in his later masterpieces. Roger Corman was looking for a commercial film project inspired by the smash hit Psycho. He hires the very young Francis Ford Coppola to shoot this low-cost horror, forcing him to insert heinous crimes and a gothic atmosphere into the story. The Haloran family gathers at the family castle to commemorate the untimely death of little Kathleen, who died from drowning years earlier. Mysterious facts begin to happen. The ghost of the dead girl manifests itself, a killer armed with an ax roams the place and claims victims.
The Ten Commandments
Cult movie of cinema blockbuster at its beginnings is an impressive work of classic cinema silent. The Ten Commandments, directed and produced by Cecil B. De Mille, is a cult movie from the dawn of Hollywood cinema that every film enthusiast or scholar should see at least once in their lifetime. It is a colossal of enormous proportions. De Mille spent $ 1.4 million building an Egyptian town near Guadalupe, California. Colossal statues, pyramids, temples represented for the first time in the history of cinema a marvel to visit like modern theme parks. To prevent other directors from using the sets at the end of the production of the film, Cecil De Mille had most of the buildings destroyed. Some, however, survived and were found buried years later.
Night of the Living Dead
There is no need to explain why these are cult movies. Indie film made on a very low budget that has been a huge success at the box office around the world. It is one of the first Zombie Movies, certainly the film that launched the genre that would have had enormous popularity in the following decades until today. Ben and Barbara Huss are trapped in a house near a cemetery as the dead rise again. The living dead try to enter the house where they take refuge together with five other people. Upon its release, it grossed $ 18 million worldwide, making it a cult film.
Charlie Chaplin, the first independent director in film history to have a worldwide success. He writes, directs and produces solo plays the character of Charlot in countless films. One of the first and most famous is The Kid, a cult film for millions of people. The brat is one of those movies that you remember all your life. A poor woman abandons her young son in a car hoping that someone will find him who can support him and give him well-being. Instead, the tramp Charlot, poorer than her, finds him. But the man will not back down. A moving, melancholy story with a ferocious social criticism, typical of Chaplin. A masterpiece of the history of cinema to see and watch over and over again. The modernity of the language, compared to the clichés of many 2000s films, is disconcerting.
The Last Man on Earth
Released 4 years before George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, The Last Man on Earth was not a hit. Yet it was the director Ubaldo Ragona and his screenwriters who made the first zombie movie in history. Actually the zombies here are called vampires, but they are the same monsters that we will see in hundreds of subsequent films. Over time, it has become a cult movie, precisely because it was unnoticed at the time of its release in theaters and subsequently re-evaluated, it is an adaptation of the homonymous book by Richard Matheson. Humanity is dying out due to a virus that turns humans into zombies and resurrects the dead. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is a scientist, the sole survivor of the global pandemic. He also had to endure the deaths of his wife and daughter, who were also transformed into killer zombies hungry for human flesh. Film shot with commercial intentions that strangely turns into something else. Vincent Price protagonist of many horror films and b-movies, manages to give the best of himself in this tragic character. The simplicity of the language of a non-brilliant director makes this film more than just a horror.
Fear and Desire
It is a cult movie for being the first feature, denied for years, by the great genius of cinema Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick puts together a small budget between friends and family and makes a independent film of which he is also responsible for photography and editing, with a small cast of actors. It is the first draft of the war theme that will become one of the director’s obsessions and lead him to sign other masterpieces such as Full Metal Jacket. In an unidentified war, a metaphor for all wars, four soldiers fall in a plane and find themselves behind enemy lines. The only way to survive is to build a raft and go up the river. Kubrick, dissatisfied with his work, hid the copy of the film for years, helping to make it a hard-to-find cult film.
The blood of a poet
Opera before the filmography of the great poet and director Jean Cocteau. Filmography that will end with a film that the epilogue of the first, the testament of Orpheus. Absolute cult film, descending into the deep unconscious in the most authentic part of itself, between poetry, thought and vision. A delight for cinephiles who also love painting and poetry. A film born in the golden age of surrealist movement. Cocteau departs from surrealism to create his own personal style, not easily identifiable. We could define it, like almost all of Cocteau’s filmography, poetry that becomes cinema. Funded by the Viscount of Noailles, patron of the surrealists, who thought that Jean Cocteau was giving him a cartoon and who repudiated the film.
M, A City Searches for a Murderer
prophetic cult film, which tells with incredible intuition about Germany just before the arrival of Nazism. Directed by Fritz Lang in Germany, in 1931. The unhealthy atmosphere and the anger of the people seem an invisible substance that permeates the city of Dusseldorf everywhere. The film is inspired by the heinous crimes committed in Germany in the 1920s by Fritz Haarmann and Peter Kürten, but it tells more. It tells the soul of German society deeply corrupt and possessed by evil. The city is terrified of a child killer, and the police cannot find any trace. Criminal organizations take control of the situation, because the constant roundups of the police create problems for them. The final scene of the private trial by the criminal associations of the monster is one of the most beautiful in the history of cinema. A scene that through faces, expressions, dialogues and rhythm, becomes the very portrait of evil, of the dark side of the human being.
The exterminating angel
One of the most beautiful cult movies of the great surrealist director Luis Bunuel, shot in 1962. While the waiters and the servants terrified of something unknown run away, the rich Burghers invited to a dinner in the villa of Señor Edmundo Nóbile and his wife Lucia are inexplicably imprisoned inside the house. One of the highest reflections on the barriers and boundaries of the mind, on belonging to the conformism of a social class. The philosophical and religious social implications are manifold and the staging of the film is sublime. The hypocritical facade of the bourgeois, prisoners of their own ego, crumbles, revealing the wildest aspects and the instincts of oppression. Cult scenes such as the menacing hand that comes to life and is stabbed have been filmed in horror films such as the sequel to La casa di San Raimi. Unmissable cult masterpiece.
The Man with a Movie Camera
Anyone who loves cinema must see the cult film of Dziga Vertov The Man with the Camera, shot in 1929. A masterpiece inspired by the theories of reality cinema and Kinoglaz, it is a symphony of a city, an experiment with futurist roots. A cameraman wanders the city with the sole purpose of filming it. The film becomes both an objective documentary of what the cameraman films, and a false documentary about his filming activity. His frenetic work becomes an increasing flow of editing. The cameraman becomes a kind of crazy tightrope walker, a brave adventurer capable of placing the camera in the most unthinkable places. Pure visual rhythm, the film Man with the Camera is so inspired and modern that it is still an endless subject of discussion and new ideas today.
The Children of Hiroshima
A dramatic cult movie by Kaneto Shindō, released in Japan in 1952. Little known in the West, it took part in the Cannes Film Festival in 1953. Painful testimony of postwar and the aftermath of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, is a crude and realistic description of the situation of the place at that time. Takako Ishikawa is a teacher from Hiroshima and has not returned to her hometown hit by the atomic bomb for 4 years. His trip to Hiroshima becomes a journey into the disastrous aftermath of the war, in search of surviving old friends. The best film by Shindo, who died at 100 in 2012. A cult movie of the Japanese cinema.
Simon of the Desert
Medium-length film by Luis Bunuel, shot in Mexico in 1963. Essential cult movie on the theme of spirituality and materialism, the conflict that is the engine of human history. But it is also a very funny film, full of biting irony. Luis Bunuel shows us a holy man who lives the same experiences as Jesus, but who in the end is corrupted by modern life and Western fashions. Simon, is a long-bearded holy man who lives in deprivation, sleeps on a stone column in the middle of the desert, remains almost in total fasting. People worship him as a messiah. He performs miracles, he does not allow himself to be corrupted by the pleasures of the flesh. He resists the temptations of Satan who tempts him several times under the guise of a beautiful woman. Cult scene: the woman-Satan arrives inside a coffin sliding down a slope, the coffin opens and she exits. It is a grotesque, funny, sometimes hilarious film. In the original language, Simon’s soft r and strange way of speaking make him a funny and grotesque character, an element that has been lost in the dubbing in other languages.
Silent Night, Night of Blood
American independent film, horror precursor of the slasher genre, shot by Theodore Gershuny in 1972, unreleased in the rest of the world. He anticipates the film by several years John Carpenter’s Halloween, of the same genre. He also invented the shooting style before Halloween, the morbid subjective of the murderer. It is a small and little known pearl of the genus. A series of murders in a small New England town on Christmas Eve after a man inherits a family estate that was once a madhouse. If you love the slasher genre this is a cult movie that you may have missed.
The Last Laugh
Dramatic and moving film by FW Murnau, shot by the German director in 1924. And the story of Jannings, the doorman of the Atlantic hotel in Berlin, for whom his role and his uniform are everything. But his boss deems him too old to receive customers, replaces him with a younger doorman and sets him up to clean the bathrooms. Jannings, totally addicted to that job, sinks into despair and tries to hide his firing from family and friends. In the evening he gets drunk still fantasizing about being the doorman of the prestigious hotel and wearing his beloved uniform. The wife begins to become suspicious of his behavior. Absolute masterpiece of Murnau, in balance between expressionism and kammespiel. The camera flies, dances with the protagonist in this must-see cult film.
A key cult film in the history of cinema, Battleship Potemkin by Sergej Eisenstein, shot in Russia in 1925, is a war drama about the revolt of the citizens of Odessa against the Tsarist regime. The Tsar’s Police repress the revolt with violence. Cult scenes famous all over the world such as that of the desperate mother who tries to save the baby in the pram that falls from the staircase. The film was commissioned for propaganda purposes by the state cinema office in the Soviet Union. Eisenstein transforms it into an experimental and innovative film by applying his editing theory, which forever changed the development of cinematography around the world. An emblematic tale of the failure of all revolutions and regimes. With violence and conflict, humanity always returns to the starting point. The editing is overwhelming, the pace is dizzying, the mass scenes are paintings in motion. If you haven’t seen this cult film because you think it’s old college stuff (maybe thinking of Fantozzi) then you’re off the track: it’s a great show, a true work of art.
Love on the Run
One of the films of the saga Antoine Doinel, shot in France in 1978. Francois Truffaut, the director of love, tells the sentimental torments of Antoine and Christine, who decide to divorce due to inability to communicate. They try to remain good friends but Antoine begins a new relationship with another woman, a friend of Christine, making his ex-wife jealous. Cult film entered the imagination of sentimental comedies, with the melancholy and refined tone that belongs only to Francois Truffaut. If you love this director it is a film that you cannot miss. The style is fluid, dynamic, light, full of feelings and atmospheres. The characters are outlined with extraordinary humanity. The conflict between respect for the freedom of others and passions emerges. Love can also become drugs and addiction, as the director had said 12 years earlier with his other film, La sirène du Mississipi. On the other hand, love flees too is an autobiographical film, like almost all of Truffaut’s work.
Cult movie for the grandeur of the project and for being one of the first blockbusters that changed the history of cinema, a meeting of great entertainment and visual experiments. David Griffith, to prove that the accusations against him of racism due to his previous film Birth of a Nation were unfounded, makes a blockbuster about intolerance. Intolerance, a historical drama from 1916, tells four different stories over a span of 2,500 years. The war in ancient Babylon, betrayal and crucifixion in biblical history, intolerance in the French Renaissance, conflicts and crimes in the early 1900s on the American continent. Humanity seems destined and not to agree, to remain in perennial conflict. At least until a global inner change.
Carnival of soul
Carnival of soul, a forgotten and then rediscovered cult movie by Herk Harvey, shot in the United States in 1962. It is a hallucinated and ghostly journey of a woman, Mary, sole survivor of a car accident. At the beginning of the film, the car carrying Mary and four of her other friends crosses a bridge and ends up in the river. Only she comes out of the muddy waters, the others are all dead. From then on, Mary began her journey to Salt Lake City for a new job at a church, where she was hired as an organ player. But a creepy-looking shady figure begins to haunt her everywhere. Films of unreal and mysterious atmospheres, an author horror that is by no means just a genre film. It is also a complex discourse on invisible dimensions of existence and the afterlife. Cult movie that inspired the creativity of directors such as George Romero and David Lynch. The mysterious man, in fact, is very similar to the one who appears in Lost Roads.