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Page last updated at 12:54 GMT, Monday, 3 May 2010 13:54 UK

What makes a cult film?

Empty Cinema Seats
Lack of mainstream appreciation might help

By Ian Haigh
BBC News Magazine

Cult film is being celebrated by thousands of fans in London in a festival of strange outfits and aficionado enthusiasm. But what makes a film become cult?

A fully-grown man - lawyer by day - constructs a fully-functional Predator costume for a themed party.

At another party a different fully-grown man arrives with rouged lips, stockings and suspenders in homage to Dr Frank N Furter.

Promo poster for Plan 9 From Outer Space
Worst film ever, cult classic or both?

This kind of behaviour usually signals when a movie has achieved cult status.

Cult film is a tricky term.

The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that cult films should have "enduring appeal to a relatively small audience", and be "non-mainstream". But search the internet, and you see the cult badge has been applied to a plethora of disparate films.

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is a cult classic. The director's withdrawal of the film in the UK soon after its release denied it a place in the mainstream.

But it lived on in the form of battered VHS tapes passed reverentially between teenagers, becoming a small screen rite of passage in the near three decades until it was finally rereleased.

Other films bestowed with cult status have had mainstream releases and proved unpopular. But they can be born again in the form of a steadily burgeoning and fanatical following.

Two-Lane Blacktop might not be the most famous road movie. But it's the archetypal cult film. Hardcore fans forced its release on video in the 1990s, goading a studio that had let it spend years in obscurity.

Reefer Madness Promo Picture
Originally intended as anti-marijuana propaganda, now a stoner favourite

Cult fans revel in such obscurity. Reefer Madness was originally released by a church group in 1936 to highlight the dangers of marijuana. The film is now a classic amongst the stoner community, where fans guffaw at the sensationalised propaganda.

Another category of cult film is the "so-bad-it's-good".

Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space is a perennial candidate for the title of worst film ever made.

But fans marvel at the continuity errors and scenes where actors visibly read from scripts. That Bela Lugosi - who died during filming - was replaced by a much taller man, is the cherry on the cake.

Showgirls is in the same category. This tale of strippers and the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas was greeted by critical derision and empty cinemas when it was first released.

But it has lived on as a cult film, selling $100m of DVDs and videos as hip audiences wept with laughter at parties celebrating its awkward eroticism.

Appeal to a specific community
Encourages dressing up
Intelligent B-movie referencing
Long-running midnight screenings
Exceptionally poor quality

So how does a cult film come to be? Subverting a Showgirls or a Reefer Madness is an established route.

Films become "cult for an entirely different reason than originally intended", says Xavier Mendik, director of the cult film archive at Brunel University. Mendik is also the man behind Cine-Excess IV: the Fourth International Conference on Global Cult Film, in London.

"A group will pick up on incredibly diverse parts of a movie so that it meets their needs."

It's not that the cults are based around some hidden brilliance.

Jesus Quintana
The Big Lebowski's Jesus Quintana provides perfect fancy-dress material

"Fans [often] view the films that they celebrate either with a patronising affection or even downright contempt," argues Professor Mark Jancovich, head of film and television studies at the University of East Anglia.

Cult fans are "active", as opposed to "passive mainstream cinema viewers", says Mr Mendik. This can manifest itself in many ways, but perhaps the most noticeable is dressing up and role-playing.

Take a film like The Big Lebowski. Its cultishness is demonstrated at conventions, peopled by purple jumpsuit-wearing fans spouting catchphrases.

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Withnail and I: Resting actors have bad Cumbria holiday
Beyond The Valley of the Dolls: Unhinged, high-camp romp

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a pioneer. Having failed to attract mass audiences on first release in 1975, within a year the film's fan base was growing. Audiences warmed to the film, and delighted in wearing fishnet stockings and leather at midnight screenings. The trend has lasted 35 years.

And cultishness is in the eye of the beholder.

If the qualification is "active" fans or dressing up, then what about Star Wars, with its conventions and Chewbacca-costumed cinemagoers, or The Lord of the Rings, with screenings teeming with orcs and elves?

Or The Wizard of Oz, where a substrata of gay fans - "friends of Dorothy" - provide a cult audience within an already vast fan base.

But does the enormous pre-cult commercial success of these "mainstream" films disbar them from true cult status? The cult film jury is out on this one.

Three boys wearing sleeveless vests a la Bruce Willis in Die Hard
Fans even claim Die Hard as a cult film and dress accordingly

It's clear that the big studios are aware of the power of cult to swell their wallets.

The institution of "midnight movies" in the US provides a breeding ground for cult classics.

Donnie Darko grossed just $514,545 in five months of US theatre screenings. But a re-release in 2002 saw Richard Kelly's surreal film of sinister teen-angst given 28 consecutive months of midnight screenings at one New York theatre. The film now has a cult following, and the backers have made some money.

But trying to consciously gain a cult following is a process full of pitfalls.

"Snakes on a Plane tries too hard to be cult, and fails to attract a cult audience," says Leon Hunt, film and television lecturer at Brunel University.

Chewbacca with Union Jack umbrella
Impractical outfit? Check. Braving adverse weather? Check

One possible avenue to cultishness is to be self-referential. Mr Mendik sees some directors as "double-coding their work and loading a film with B-movie ephemera".

"Whilst anything can be a cult movie, you cannot guarantee the manufacture of one," he says.

To create a cult is not easy, but to have an army of publicists who will queue at midnight in the rain to see your film for the 18th time is a tantalising goal.

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