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Last Updated: Friday, 17 October, 2003, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
When a cult film's not a cult film

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill
Tarantino's film references cult films - but isn't one itself
Kill Bill Volume 1, which has just gone on release across the UK, has all the hallmarks of 1970s cult films. But is it a cult film itself? BBC News Online delves into the murky world of what makes films cult - or just plain commercial.

Quentin Tarantino arguably became the coolest director of the 1990s, responsible for the iconic failed-heist film Reservoir Dogs and its follow-up, the circuitous Pulp Fiction.

Both were steeped in references to an earlier, less sophisticated era of movie-making - funky, contemporary soundtracks, sudden outbreaks of violence, sharp, hip dialogue - that pointed to the days of 1970s B-movies.

Plus - they were both films that inspired critical adulation, but did not do so well at the box office - only becoming truly popular through video and DVD. It was the stuff cult movies are made of.

Cool and cult

Except - and welcome to the minefield that is delineating cult from just plain cool - they were not themselves cult films. And neither, by association, is Kill Bill.

Robot Monster (1953)
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Day of the Triffids (1962)
Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966)
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
Vanishing Point (1972)
Solaris (1972)
Videodrome (1982)
Meet the Feebles (1989)
Donnie Darko (2001)

Confused? Then welcome to the worryingly complex rules of what makes a film cult. Or not, as the case may be.

Colin Kennedy, editor of UK film magazine Empire, argues that if Kill Bill is considered cult "we've moved so far from my understanding of what a cult film to be".

He says: "Kill Bill is a tribute to cult films, and influenced by cult films. Quentin Tarantino references cult films more than any other acknowledged movie-maker working today."

Tarantino's film pays tribute to grindhouse films - the B-movies, Blaxploitation and Hong Kong martial arts films that used to play in scruffy cinemas in rundown areas.

But Mr Kennedy says: "Calling Kill Bill a cult film is like referring to a major band like Radiohead as an 'indie' band."

Indie is a tag which originally denoted a band was signed to an independent record label.

But because the film is produced by Miramax - a major studio - and stars well-known names such as Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu and Daryl Hannah, the film is too high profile for the 'cult' label, he argues.

The Italian Job
The original Italian Job - a cult in the US, but not in the UK
Michael Bonner, the film editor for music and film magazine Uncut, agrees.

"You can't count a film if it just happens to be a leftfield movie that has crossover appeal," he says.

"So you can't call Usual Suspects a cult film. That's film noir."

Word of mouth

Also, the two critics agree, a movie can be called be a cult depending on where you were.

"In the US, the original Italian Job was something that you had to seek out," Mr Kennedy says.

28 Days Later
28 Days Later: Cult, despite its enormous success
"Even in the UK at the start it was a sizeable hit but not huge. And then it became this huge Bank Holiday staple."

So still a cult, but not in the UK.

But it works the other way around as well.

"Blair Witch was a cult hit in the US because of the way it was built up over the internet, and it had no marketing budget, so it was really word of mouth," Mr Kennedy says.

"By the time it came to the UK, there was none of that, because it had made $100m and people were going to see it with a different expectation.

"And they were disappointed."

Successful cults

There are successful films that can still be viewed as cult classics, he says.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary
Cult of Gyllenhaal: Maggie in sex comedy Secretary
28 Days Later has become one of the biggest British films in the US, but could still be regarded as a cult film, thanks to its slender budget, its gloomy worldview and the fact that in the US it showed a different, bleaker ending after 29 days on release.

These are the things that can help a film go cult.

Mr Kennedy's vote for the latest cult film is Donnie Darko - a darkly inventive teen drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and released last year - or Secretary, starring another Gyllenhaal, Maggie.

Maybe the simple formula in years to come to decipher whether a film is cult or not is whether there's a Gyllenhaal in the credits.

What do you think? What makes a movie into a cult film? This debate is now closed. Please see below for a selection of your comments.

Two recent films that could be considered cult are Memento and Mulholland Drive. Both have great characters, a plot that can require multiple viewings, and a healthy discussion by fans on the internet. In the case of Mulholland Drive, an interesting story about how the film got made also adds to the cult factor.
Christopher Williams, Wales

Surely what makes a cult film is the following it generates from its fans. "Cult" status is not something which a film critic can just hand a film like an award. So isn't this article a little off the mark or what?
Damian, UK

I don't think "cult" status hangs upon low budget - it's more about a film surviving to be absolutely adored for a lifetime by dedicated fans. Films like Withnail & I, 2001 A Space Oddessy, Blade Runner, The Italian Job (V.O.), The Big Lebowski, Alien etc. These are films with varying budgets and plots, yet one thing in common - almost universally acclaimed quality and an extremely high "repeated viewability factor."
Pete Stevenson, Belgium

I think cult entertainment can be one of three things: 1) Something that is so detailed, well-imagined and in some way mysterious that it can be analysed endlessly e.g. Donnie Darko, X files, sci fi, Simpsons

2) Something that reflects an obscure or foreign culture (often from a particular point in time) e.g blaxploitation, kung fu, Japanese monster movies, the 70's in general...

3) And my personal favourite - something that is so bad it's just good viewing for every reason but the one the creator intended!
Jon, UK

If an item, is to be labled as a "cult", then it must have a following. If Tolkein could answer, then it would be a long and lasting chuckle. Just enjoy, and imagine.
Kevin Green, England

As is usual the "critics" are so far up their own... intellect that they have overcomplicated a simple idea. A cult film is one that is recognised by everyone as being something different and special and has its own followers and will stand the test of time.
Pete, UK

Surely the definition of a cult film is a film that has a cult-like following. People who quote lines and dress as the characters and attend as many speacial midnight screenings as possible. Films like Donnie Darko, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even The Excorsist. They are films that do not appeal to the mainstream of the movie going public, but have a more select viewer group.
Jay Cooper, UK

For cult, simply look in the film dictionary under 'low budget' and 'censored'. I can think of no better cult film than The Life of Brian - half a dozen actors playing all the lead roles and using an old motorcycle engine to create the sound effects.
Andy, Canada

I would suggest that time makes a film into a cult film. I would define it as a film that wasn't mainstream or generally popular when first released but the few fans who did enjoy it - loved it. Over time (years normally), the number of these fans increases through word of mouth etc. and the film begins to enjoy cult status. Remember, a film can be become a cult film just because it's so terrible thus proving there are many and varied reasons why fans love particular films.
Chris S, Warwick, UK

For me, cult is something that was released to face apathy, maybe hostility from the public on it's general release but gained a small, loyal core of enthusiasts. Blade Runner, Buckaroo Banzai and The Thing are good cult movies, only appreciated after years of late night TV and countless video releases. True cult movies take decades to mature.
Faisal Khan, United Kingdom

Who cares? If you want to watch the film, watch it. If you like the film, great. What is this need you people have to label and categorise everything - and then argue whether or not that label is correct?!
Owain Cleaver, UK

Surely what makes a cult film is if the film achieves a "Cult Following" or not. Nothing to do with a set of rules to follow.
Ed, UK

Must take issue with the article about Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs box office success. Pulp Fiction was a huge hit in the US and overseas grossing over $200 million worldwide. Not bad for a movie that cost about $8m. Dogs, while not a commercial hit in the US at cinemas was a money maker overseas - primarily here in the UK where it made over 5m alone. And that movie cost almost nothing so made a profit by just being released here. Films don't have to make hundreds of millions to be successful - depends on the budget etc.
Nick, UK

Pulp Fiction can't be called a cult film under those guidelines either. What with a total US gross of over $100 million (and worldwide of $212 million), seven academy award nominations and 1 win. It was also produced by Miramax, the same "major" studio as Kill Bill.
Rory O'Keeffe, Ireland

I would say a cult film is something that is ignored by the main stream and welcomed by a select few who really "get" the film. Films such as Clerks.
Geoff Gunson, England

Any film that has quirky elements running throughout that are picked up on by a devoted audience - diaologue, characters - even wacky title sequences help add to the cult value. I recently bought the a book A-Z of Cult Films and Filmmakers which really provides a great running commentary on the history of cult films - a fine reference point.
Paul Jones, UK

A film is cult when 1 out of 8 of your friends has seen it - no one else has heard of it - and they convince you that you have to watch it.

Then you do the same - introducing it to someone else. This happened with Shawshank Redemption.
Katie Crozier, UK

To me, a cult film is one which is usually low-budget, with actors who aren't as well known as in the mainstream, and which might not have been critical successes, were certainly a hit with a good part of the audience. It's rather worrying that over the last few years of post-modern, ironic TV and films, producers are trying to manufacture cult status. Just make the films or TV programmes, and let time and the audience decide whether it is 'cult'.
John, UK

A religious cult is heretical and breaks with established form and practice. A Cult movie is one that does this in celluloid and script. Cult films are usually B-movies that have an edge or a certain colour that is hard to define, an unselfconscious obscurity that touches the soul.
John Mainwaring, Cymru

Isn't cult just another way of saying that a film wasn't all that popular when it came out? The critics just decide it's cult years later to make themselves sound cool.
Grant Smith, Scotland

The Ratcatcher - Glasgow, summer, 1973. Dustmen are striking; bags of garbage add to the blight of council flats and a fetid canal. Cult indeed!
Greg Evigan, UK

I don't believe you can define a cult film by it's content. Instead look to it's following. A cult typically is a minority group who are passionate about something. If a film is supported by a minority group, whether because 80% of those who watch it hate it, or because 80% have never heard of it, the 20% who love it bring it cult status. So, Kill Bill could potentially become a cult. If almost everyone ends up hating it, but if, say 10 years from now, there is still a small group who love it then I'd suggest it would be a cult film despite it being mainstream/big budget/etc.
Calum Davidson, Scotland

I cannot believe you have missed out Withnail and I. The most cult film known to film. Shame on you! If you havn't seen it I have one suggestion. DO!
Jo Fox, England

Surely a cult film is one that doesn't know its a cult film. Once it includes an element of "nudge nudge aren't I being cool and cult" then the 'cult-ness' is lost. It's also a film that inspires devotion by the few and a blank response by the many.
C Falconer, UK

I don't believe a film's origins or premises define its cult status. For example, Fight Club was released by a major film company on a big budget with big stars and flopped at the box office, however it is a film that has spawned hundreds of websites from hardcore fans who were moved by it.

Big budget yes, but a film with an uncommon viewpoint that the majority of the public could not stomach. A true modern classic that I personally find inspiration from.
Ben Storan, Ireland

A film becomes a "Cult" film when it has an extremely dedicated following. So, despite its huge success, Lord of The Rings could be a "Cult" trilogy, because it has dedicated fans who love the films. Some would be inspired to buy outlandish merchandise, such as swords, models and busts of the characters.

Donnie Darko is also Cult, because there are people who love it and talk about it in (quite considerable) depth. The new Italian Job is unlikely to be a Cult film, because it does not inspire the same kind of devotion in its fans; people tend to watch it, enjoy it and forget about it.
Steven Alexander, UK

I would say that a cult film is one that whilst not blessed with great box office success has an enduring idiosyncratic appeal to be discussed and dissected by film fans for years after the initial release. Films like The Whicker Man, Peeping Tom and Evil Dead surely fall into this category.
Mark Pearce, UK

What is not cult is a big budget blockbuster. Low budget, quirky films like Dark Star are cult movies as was Solaris. 2001 almost became cult, but was far too popular and too well received by the critics. The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa achieved cult status while The Magnificent Seven never will.

It is almost the case that if you have to ask if a film has cult status then it almost certainly hasn't.
Iain, UK

What makes a cult film. Usually 3/4 of the population not getting the point. It also usually helps if there's something that is mildly off-putting so being in black & white, being silent or in a foreign language helps. In fact anything that requires effort on the part of the audience tends to end up a cult.

Probably in a cult of one, I recommend the obscure "Roadkill" aka "Roadkill: Move or Die" (Bruce Macdonald 1989). Low budget, black & white, Canadian and quirky. What more could you want for a cult film.
James, Scotland

Definition of a cult film: A film watched by 100 people 10,000 times.
Christian Weber, UK

A cult film is one you have seen yourself, but none of your friends have( or are likely to).
David Mosley, England

A cult film is one which the masses don't see (at first), but it builds its reputation by word of mouth, until more and more people see it. Donnie Darko is a prime example.

A film like Pulp Fiction is not cult, as it played to massive audiences and was marketed accordingly.
David McGilvray, UK

I think it's easy to confuse a cult film with a classic film. I associate cult films with a low budget, a cast you've never heard of, and an original and entertaining story. Like 'The 5000 fingers of Dr. T', which is a pretty lame film, but anytime it turns up on TV, it's a must see.
Jon, UK

This article is just a load of opinion provoking twaddle. Of course Reservoir Dogs was a cult film and arguably Pulp Fiction. Kill Bill since it is barely released and has not had sufficient time to prove itself. A film has to earn its cult status through its following.
Rob Watson, UK

For me, there can be no better "cult" film than Plan 9 from Outer Space. Cinematic quality today is nothing like this movie. Unfortunately it starred Bella Lugosi, so it wouldn't be considered a "cult" movie. Fantastic movie, though.
John Airey, UK

Surely a 'cult' film is one which inspires more than one generation, whether it be scary such as Psycho or fun such as The Rocky Horror show.
Mellanie, UK

It's not a pompous reviewer that decides what's cult and what isn't. It is the public who continue to support the film that decide. Just because my dad watched and enjoyed Pulp Fiction (but does not rate it as a 'cult film), does not reduce the impact the film had on myself. I watched the film and revelled in it's glory, I understood the film and what Tarantino was trying to achieve, I applaud him for what he created, and how he created it. To me the film IS worthy of 'cult' status, because I STILL rate it as a classic. I still appreciate watching it, even after so many years. I am part of the 'cult following' of Pulp Fiction appreciators.

Media reviewers, and art critics need to get off their soap boxes - they are not to dictate what 'is' or 'is not', what 'does' or does not' - they are simply on this planet to offer their points of view.
Ashley Tarver, England

I see it as a non-blockbuster that gathers a following over time. Has anyone considered the excellent 'Blues Brothers'?
Jess, UK

A cult film is one that is not good enough to attract a large audience.
Frank, UK

Donnie Darko a cult film? I think that it is an insult to the definition 'cult film' and any films that appear in the list. Shallow, incohesive and overrated maybe.
Lawrence Spence, England

So somebody is not part of the Pulp Fiction 'cult following'? Fine, I respect their choice. However I am.I am also part of the Italian Job 'cult following'. It's not hard to become a member of a 'cult following' - you just need to love the film more than the braindead tat we get offered on a daily basis.
Bob Flemming, England

When I think of cult films, I think of the characters that play in them. Most Saturday night popcorn munchers would balk at films like "Two-Lane Blacktop", or even a slightly more mainstream "Ghost World", because I don't think the majority of people relate to such characters, or the lives they live.
Stuart Johnson, UK

Donnie Darko and Secretary were both cool films. Just one thing.... Maggie Gyllenhaal was in both those films!!!
Alex Bone, UK

What makes a cult film? Hard to say. A film that has that those small differences and gripping atmosphere that the director gives it. Example, Pulp Fiction. The order in which it runs. The cast and the dialog. Example, Bullet. Nothing like Pulp Fiction but again, the atmosphere of the film, and the car chase. Not to mention Steve McQueen. How does one make a cult film??? Good question.
Nolan Holt, England

I defy anyone to defend the supposition that Day of the Triffids is a cult film. Unless "cult" has changed its meaning to "dire travesty" while I wasn't looking. I have yet to meet anyone who didn't hate it - the BBC's version, however...
Arfie Mansfield, Cambridge, UK

Based on the opinions posted so far, a cult film is fairly strictly a guy thing: something produced and watched by men.
Anna, Finland

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) was one the greatest. Purely due to the fact that upon it's initial release it didn't gross much money and critics slated it. But when it was released on video it went down a storm and horror movie fans embraced it and it developed a huge cult following. And deservedly so. It's a classic horror movie.
Harvey, England

Hmmm... so what about Eraserhead? Is that cult or has it gone a step further - too cult even for cult status? No one understood it, not even David Lynch.
Pete, USA

Limited viewing, low-budget, dedicated following, all those apply to any movie made in the Dutch film industry, yet none of them are cult films. Yet two that are considered to be just that, were major sellers around the globe: De Lift (horror about elevator) and Antonia (won an Oscar) I think 'cult' is as difficult to define as 'literature'...
Willem, Netherlands

Surely a cult film is one that has a cult following?
Richard, UK

The Fearless Vampire Killers, Or Dance of the Vampires as it was called in the UK. Great film, low budget, great characterisation, wonderfully directed and staring Roman Polanski; a Cult and a Classic movie , that I would recommend to anyone.
James C, UK

If any of you wanna see a "cult" film you have to watch "City of God". I bought it the other day on a recommendation from a friend and it shot straight into my top 3 films ever. It's got subtitles and is based in the City of God in Rio Brazil. Watch it or you'll miss out!!
Simon, England

I'm sure if ever there was a film that justified a 'cult' label it's 'Kill Bill'. It has a restricted rating, lots of inter-film references, typically simple plot and outlandish characters. Just because those characters are played by famous actors does not mean the film cannot be classed as 'cult' - take for example Fight Club, which is most definitely a cult movie and stars Brad Pitt. However the real secret weapon is the Tarantino angle, the guy is a living cult movie icon - both in terms of performances and directing. Either way Kill Bill is a great movie.
Will Bakali, UK

For me, a cult movie is one that is hated by the critics, seen by a reletivly small audience at first, loved by that audience and slowly grows to larger awareness and acclaim. Take the the recent "Cult" Sci-Fi actioner "Equilibrium" starring Christien Bale. It was hated by the critics, has a HUGE internet following of fans who adored it, and is slowing making it's way up the DVD charts as we speak.
Coolhand, UK

A cult movie becomes a cult movie. you cannot write and direct a movie with it becoming 'cult' in mind. Kevin Smith made a career out of making movies he intended to be cult, but never made the grade. The greatest cult movie of the 90s?? without doubt, the Big Lebowski
colin parker, UK

Being a cult film has nothing to do with budget, director, style or content - in fact, in today's world where the internet brings the opinions of the few to the masses the idea of a cult film is almost inaplicable - a cult film has a cult following. Using logic and statistics, if you have heard of a film, then it cannot possibly be cult.
Dan, England

The whole point about cult films is they can't be defined or put into a pigeonhole. A cult film can be everything that has been mentioned in this discussion or something completely different. You can't say "Low budget" equals cult because it simply isn't true, neither can you say major releases aren't cult because some quite plainly are. Cult just is; it happens and it means something different to everyone. Will Kill Bill become a cult? To some it will, to others it won't. I for one ill not go and see this film, nor will I buy the DVD, due to the fact they have cut the film in two to squeeze more money from the movie going public. I think with the release of Lord of the Rings we have proven we are happy to sit through three hour films why should this be any different?
Barry, UK

Ok, ok you want a cult classic? Howz about Better Off Dead, with good old Johnny Cusack!!!! This movie is the cult classic movie of the 80's!!! Remember the newspaper delievery boy? Two dollars!!!!
Fernando Martinez, USA

How can any list of so-called "greatest" cult films lack Enter the Dragon? Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly and John Saxon. Kung fu and blaxpoitation in one heady package.
Damian Leach, UK

Bladerunner is a good example. A terrific flop in the box office which enjoyed a slow and gradual rise to cult status. Bladerunner's mistake was to be too ahead of it's time, and contained a level of detail and meaning - lost on most at the time - which people began to herald as the years went by. This was born out in Ridley Scott's difficult project to release his own cut some years later.
Tim, UK

Surely a cult film is simply a film with two aspects: 1) fans who are absolutely obsessed with it; if you like it, you really like it - there's no halfway house, no mild entertainment; and 2) the film can't appeal to the mainstream. So, Star Wars, despite obsessive fans, isn't a cult film. Budgets, actors, locations etc. are irrelevant. Just those two simple qualities. Nothing more.
Ed, UK

The upcoming 'Grand Theft Parsons' will be a cult film. A fantastic plot, wonderful characters and great dialogue, all tied up in a distintly leftfield package. Although lets face it, how could a movie about someone stealing a rock star's body to burn it in the desert ever be described as mainstream?
Billy Purdue, UK

And no-one mentioned Spinal Tap. Low budget, cult following, great script, unknown actors and Rob Reiner's first as a director. And extremely "rewatchable". Superb.
Simon Gibbons, Luxembourg

Cult films.. hmm.. How about Monty Python's Holy Grail? Groundhog Day? Princess Bride?
Debbie, UK via US

A cult film as the word 'Cult' suggest is a film that builds up following. The people that would attach onto a film to give it cult status are usually the obsessive compulsive types that have few social skills and I would avoid at a party. Bearing this in mind I really think that 'cult' status is of little or no importance.
Alex Macklen, UK

A good example of a cult film would have to be 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'. Having bombed at the box office upon release, it eventually found it's audience years later through small midnight screenings. Actually, it's probably more accurate to say that the audience found the film rather than the other way round. It's also true to say that a cult film is generally anything that endures over time, is considered arch in some way and is widely heard of but seldom seen.
Steve Blackwell, UK

Which is the greatest cult film?
Les Diaboliques
Faster Pussycat
Fearless Vampire Killers
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

The verdict on Kill Bill
03 Oct 03  |  Entertainment
Censors pass Nicholson drug film
08 Jun 03  |  Entertainment
Cult aspirations for Donnie Darko
25 Oct 02  |  Entertainment


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