They’re outrageous and inspire obsessional devotion. But what makes The Rocky Horror Picture Show – and others like it – truly cult films? Tom Brook takes a look.

The night of Thursday 14 August 1975 was a stormy one in London, with dreadful thunderstorms and record rainfall. But amid the wet weather a pop culture phenomenon was born: The Rocky Horror Picture Show had its world premiere that evening.

This cult film, which charted the wild antics of a mad libertine transvestite scientist, has achieved the remarkable feat of becoming the longest running film in continuous release in history. In other words, there’s never been a moment when The Rocky Horror Show hasn’t been playing in a cinema somewhere in the world in the last 40 years.

It was a box-office flop, but eventually it collected enough fans who embraced it so feverishly that it’s now accorded major cult status. “I think [it’s] probably the most iconic cult movie of all time,” says Professor Xavier Mendik, who is the Director of Cine-Excess, an international festival on global cult film traditions.

Audience participation

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is at the very forefront of a growing stable of cult films, which include such well-known titles as director Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, David Lynch’s 1977 debut feature Eraserhead, the harrowing 1974 horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the heavily derided 2003 romantic drama The Room, to mention just a few.

Hundreds of movies may get labelled cult films, but experts say for true cult status certain key factors have to be present.

“There’s often a level of excess within the cult movie, around content, around style, around good taste that marks them out,” says Professor Mendik.

This would certainly put the films of John Waters, most notably Pink Flamingos, in the cult category, because in this cherished offering a drag queen appears to eat fresh dog waste.

For a true cult film, the audience plays a pivotal role

But outlandishness isn’t enough. Many films can be shocking or excessive but for a true cult film, the audience plays a pivotal role.

“The ritual of watching it is just as important as the content of the film itself,” says Village Voice film critic Simon Abrams. He sees cult films as “movies where… the [experience] of watching the film is really a social phenomenon as much as it is [about] the movies themselves.”

A Sound of Music Sing-a-Long might fall into this category but Abrams suggests the audience in true cult films has an almost obsessive quality.

As Michael Palin, one of the stars of the film Monty Python and The Holy Grail has noted, fans of cult films make a huge investment. He found that Holy Grail fans were totally familiar with all the lines and different gags. “It’s amazing, people know the script better than we do!” he says.

“You can’t have a cult film without a hardcore audience” says Abrams. “You can’t have a cult film without people who will [in] sleet or snow come to a screening, regardless of change of venue, regardless of whatever.”

Dressed to excess

Such traits can be found among followers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where fans ritually dress up, sing and act out scenes, and shout out during screenings. In fact audience participation is credited as a major factor in keeping Rocky Horror alive at midnight screenings.

Tom Amici, who’s been a Rocky Horror performer for 15 years, says: “With the audience participation aspect there’s ways to do it differently, sometimes people will do the Rocky Horror characters dressed in Star Wars outfits, or they’re from the musical Rent, so there’s a new way to spin it every week, and the lines change every week.”

Cult films appeal to audiences who see themselves as outsiders in the real world

The audience for cult movies is hungry for the community such films can offer. New Yorker Michael Terry, a fan of Rocky Horror, says: “I think deep down inside there is a sense of uniqueness, a sense of you wanting to belong to a large group.”

Another defining feature of cult films is that they’re often transgressive. They appeal to audiences who see themselves as outsiders in the real world – they identify as part of a counter-culture and want their appetites satiated by specific cult films.

Reefer madness

Lee Peterson, the manager at the art house Cinema Village in New York, recalls that many of the moviegoers, who flocked to see cult films like Eraserhead, came with drug-addled minds.

“Eraserhead isn’t about drugs per se but certainly it appeals to those who alter their minds prior to watching the film,” he says.

One cult film appealing strongly to recreational drug users is Reefer Madness from the 1930s, which was an educational film targeting parents with alarming commentary on the dangers of marijuana. It gained popularity in the 1970s by those who found humour in its over-the-top melodrama.

For purists, cult films by definition have to emerge from a spontaneous embrace by the audience which can’t be simply manufactured – however hard a film may be peddled.

Lloyd Kaufman, who as co-founder of Troma Entertainment has created such memorable cult movies as Toxic Avenger and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, believes cult films are defined by their lack of commercial marketing. “The most successful Troma movie has been The Toxic Avenger because it has no advertising and because it’s become famous through only word of mouth,” says Kaufman.

There are plenty of film aficionados who go along with Kaufman’s definition.

“I think the Sharknado movies are considered cult films, which is completely backwards because these are movies that are heavily promoted. I think the definition of a cult film is something that sort of builds over time and builds an audience and becomes something,” says Lee Peterson.

Peterson sees The Room as a prime example of an “organic” cult film. Released 12 years ago, it is a romantic drama which has been called the 'Citizen Kane of bad movies'. It developed a following because fans found humour in what they saw as its appalling storytelling. It’s grown to global cult status complete with fan rituals which involve throwing spoons while the film plays.

That kind of cult film is endorsed by Peterson. “That could not happen if it was forced, it had to happen organically” he explains.

‘Ahead of its time’

Some cult films fade away while others seem to maintain their foothold and loom even larger in the culture. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with its varying displays of sexuality and its central character a self-declared “sweet transvestite, from transsexual Transylvania” is, in these times of Caitlyn Jenner, a very current cultural phenomenon.

New Yorker Michael Terry, who’s seen the film several times, confirms: “Now the big topic is being transsexual. Being bisexual or being gay is boring, being transsexual is the new topic of the day, and that ties in right on time with Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

And veteran Rocky Horror performer Tom Amici – who knows the film inside out – agrees. “It’s ahead of its time especially in terms of gender fluidity and things like that,” he declares.

So on its 40th birthday The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a lot to celebrate. It’s seen as the ultimate cult film, and one that’s more of the moment now than on that rain sodden day 40 years ago when it was launched. Its impassioned fans, as you might expect, aren’t surprised. They think its appeal will last forever.

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