Defining Cult Classics


By Samantha Spoto

Photo courtesy of Sebastian Dooris.

You may have found yourself in the oh-so-familiar position before–browsing Netflix’s many genres and wondering what to watch. If so, you may have also scoured through the category “Cult Movies,” a section littered with films from directors like the Coen brothers, Stanley Kubrick, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino. But have you ever stopped to consider what exactly justifies a film as being branded a “cult classic“?

The main distinction of a cult film is that its popularity derives from a niche audience rather than mainstream culture. Often times, independent filmmakers direct cult films because their reasons and techniques for creating stray from the commercially-popular path. While some classic cult films display signs of advanced cinematography for their time, what generally sets these movies apart from the rest is that they feature obscure plots that deviate from traditional storytelling. This ultimately contributes to audience aversion at the box office. However, their appeal to a limited and fairly specific, impassioned group of fans is what helps to define these movies as cult-like.

Intimate groups of devoted cultists become wholly invested in these films, and their investment extends long after a movie’s original theater run. Enthusiasts often form fan clubs and attend periodic screenings. Cult classics garner large followings on college campuses and at “midnight movie” crowds, which is exactly how many fiery fans of the Rocky Horror Picture Show first became followers of the film.

Jim Sharman’s British-American musical Rocky Horror Picture Show hit theaters in 1975. However, for nearly the last four decades, it has screened at midnight every Friday and Saturday at Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas. If you purchase a ticket for one of these midnight showings, you can expect more than 100 minutes of cinematography. Additionally, as the original film version plays on a large screen at the front of the theatre, a live, two-way performance between cast and audience members transpires.

Photo courtesy of Jack.

The film tells the story of sweethearts Brad and Janet, who happen upon the mansion of a self-titled transvestite scientist. Through song and dance, the audience is taken on an interactive journey as the couple meet a house full of unique characters, including a Frankenstein’s monster-esque creation named Rocky.

Eric Garment, a cast member of the New York City Rocky Horror Picture Show, tells BTR that cult films prove alluring for many due to their open engagement and level of unpredictability. Although the cast repeatedly performs two shows each week, the experience itself is not repetitive. Garment explains that no two shows are ever the same, as the audience constantly changes. Although the seats of the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinema fill with regular participants, newcomers (or virgins as they are referred to by the Rocky Horror Picture Show cast) appear in the crowd each week.

Aside from the interactivity that films like the Rocky Horror Picture Show allows, cult classics bring together an audience of people who have found much more than entertainment in them. Tom Amici, the director and emcee of the New York City Rocky Horror Picture Show tells BTR that cult films tend to find a niche audience, and when they do, those people feel as though the movie is specific to them.

BTR also spoke with Josh Koopersmith, a long time fan of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and other cult films, who mimics Amici’s sentiments. Koopersmith has attended hundreds of live performances of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and has seen other classics, like The Room and Stranger than Paradise, nearly as many times. He tells BTR exactly what brings him back to these movies each time.

“The films mean more than just entertainment. It’s a voice, a personality, and a way of life that you don’t experience in mainstream culture,” Koopersmith says. “For me in particular, it’s a place where I fit in and I don’t feel as alienated as I do in most other places in my life.”

Whether you’re jiving along to the “Time Warp” at a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or you’re throwing spoons at the big screen during The Room for the first time, you will be surrounded by dedicated fans of these cult films who show up week after week. There’s a fairly good chance that you won’t be able to resist coming back alongside them.