In some respects the term "cult movie" is easy to define. Quite simply a cult movie is any motion picture (a movie) with a small, obsessive following (a cult). There are many today who believe that cult movies are a relatively modern phenomenon, beginning at the earliest in the Fifties. That having been said, cult movies have probably been around almost as long as there have been feature films. Some even go so far as to claim that the term "cult movie" itself only goes back to the Seventies, popularised by author Danny Peary in articles and in his book Cult Movies (published in 1981). In truth, the term goes back a bit farther than that. The term appears in a review ("Rebel with a Sense of Humor") of the book The Strawberry Statement in Time, May 9, 1969, in which it is stated that the book "...could easily become a cult movie." The term "cult film" is almost as old. It appeared in the article "Pop Records: Moguls, Money & Monsters" in Time, Feb. 12, 1973, where Midnight Cowboy is referred to as a "cult film."
While the term "cult movie" would appear to be easy to definite, it is sometimes difficult to determine what is and is not a cult movie. It does seem that for any film to be considered a cult film by anyone, it would have to have a somewhat substantial (but not necessarily large) following. The 1999 version of Beowulf featuring Christopher Lambert in the title role may well have its fans (how I don't know...), but I doubt there are enough of them to constitute a substantial following or "cult." For a film to be a cult movie, it must not only have a following, but a somewhat substantial one. This can be demonstrated by looking at such archetypal cult films as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Evil Dead 2, and Donnie Darko, all of whic have pretty substantial followings.
At the same time, however, it seems to me that there must also be that for a motion picture to be considered a cult movie, it must not be part of the mainstream. I have seen Casablanca described as a cult movie, but I don't believe it for a moment. It is true Casablanca has a substantial (in fact, a very large) following. It is true that many are obsessively devoted to the film. At the same time, however, it must be pointed out that Casablanca is very much a part of the cinematic mainstream. Indeed, it is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. By their very nature, it would seem that cult movies are films which have in some way been rejected by the motion picture establishment,the general public, or both.
This is not to say that all cult movies must have done poorly on their first release. A Clockwork Orange made a very respectable gross of $26,589,355 in the United States when it was released in 1972. What makes it a cult movie is that it has maintained a cult following over the years and, despite its success, it pretty much lies outside the mainstream of movies. Of course, many cult films, perhaps most cult films, did fail at the box office upon first release. Harold and Maude bombed when it was first released in 1971, but developed a loyal following over the years. Eraserhead never even received a wide release, but became a cult movie after several years. It seems tome that it is ultimately not important whether a cult movie was a hit upon its first release or a box office bomb, but that it maintains a loyal following over the years and lies outside the cinematic mainstream.
Here it must be noted that the overall quality of a film appears to be insignificant as to whether it develops a cult or not. Many cult films are justifiably considered classics, among them A Clockwork Orange, Night of the Living Dead, Freaks, and Harold and Maude. Other cult films justifiably count as being among the worst films of all time, among them the anti-marijuana propaganda film Reefer Madness (originally released in 1936 as Tell Your Children), Robot Monster, and the entire oeuvre of Ed Wood. These films are so poorly made that they are laughable and hence, in some strange way, entertaining.
As stated earlier, it seems likely that cult movies have existed nearly as long as there have been feature films. In fact, Danny Peary, the author of Cult Movies, believes that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (released in 1920) may well be the first cult movie. There would also be several other films which would develop cults surrounding them before the Fifties, among them Pandora's Box (1929), White Zombie (1932), Freaks (1932), and To Be or Not To Be (1942). There is no reason to believe that cult movies are a relatively recent phenomenon.
That having been said, it was arguably with the Fifties that cult movies would arrive as a widespread phenomenon. This was most likely due to a number of factors. Chief among these was the advent of regularly scheduled, broadcast network television in the United States in the late Forties. Television gave many older films a new lease on life, bringing them to a new generation of audiences. Movies such as The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Sons of the Desert (1933) developed cult following after repeat showings on local television stations.
Another factor was the growth of independent film following World War II. A major blow was delivered to the Hollywood studios who had controlled the film industry, from the production to the exhibition of movies, in the form of the 1949 Supreme Court decision in the case of the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. Among other things, the decision put an end to the practice of block booking, in which theatre owner would have to buy an entire package of a set of films from a studio. Block booking made it very difficult for smaller, independent studios to compete with the major Hollywood studios. It also put an end to the studios owning their own theatres, where they would naturally be inclined to show their own films. Among the consequences of this Supreme Court decision was that independent film was finally able to proliferate after years of the industry being dominated by the major Hollywood studios. In the Fifties many independent producers released sci-fi and horror movies which would eventually become cult films. Many developed cults because they were actually very well done, such as The Blob and Roger Corman's classic Little Shop of Horrors. Others developed cults because they were so horribly bad that they could be enjoyed as comedies, such as Robot Monster and all of Ed Wood's films. Of course, as the Fifties became the Sixties, independent film matured. Bad sci-fi movies gave way to somewhat better, more intellectual motion pictures, such as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, many of which also became cult films.
While cult movies began to proliferate in the Fifties and Sixties, it would arguably be the Seventies that would bring the phenomenon to the fore. It was the Seventies that saw the rise of midnight movies. For those of you who are too young to remember, there was a time when many theatres showed movies at midnight on Friday and Saturday (some even did it every night of the week). For the most part the most successful midnight movies seem to have been those which were well off the beaten track--in other words, they were perfect fodder to become cult movies. It was as a midnight movie that The Rocky Horror Picture Show developed its following. It was also as a midnight movie that Erasehead became a cult film. The list of movies which had bombed in their first release, but saw success as midnight movies and hence became cult films is a rather long one. Sadly, midnight movies declined in the Eighties, largely because of the advent of the VCR.
Of course, home video itself would be responsible for turning box office bombs into cult movies. The VCR and later the DVD player could redeem a movie that had failed at the box office, provided its VHS or DVD sales were good enough. And in some cases home video was responsible for turning movie into cult films. Examples of such films which received new life as cult movies on home video are Brazil, Angel Heart, Heathers, and Donnie Darko.
The phenomenon of cult films have existed at least since 1920 when The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari first hit movie screens. I rather suspect that it will exist as long as there are feature films. It is perhaps natural for like minded individuals to flock to the same film again and again. And it is perhaps even more natural if that film is somewhat left of centre. Given this, it can be expected that cult films are pretty much here to stay.