Cinema and Media Studies Cult Cinema
Benjamin van Loon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0285


Though relatively young in the world of film studies, the research and analysis of cult cinema and cult film culture continues to grow as a robust, interdisciplinary field of scholarship that crosses critical theory, media studies, sociology, psychology and even theology. While some scholars see this scholarly versatility as an advantage for studying cult film, others suggest that it is symptomatic of cult cinema itself, which has no universal definition. Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, two of the leading scholars of cult film, suggest that these films are unified by their shared transgression of “common notions of good and bad taste.” Other scholars and historians, such as Umberto Eco, suggest that that for a film to earn cult status, it must merely have “some archetypal appeal.” For even others, such as Bruce Kawin, cult films are best understood as generic subcategories, subdivided into broad “programmatic” and “inadvertent” categories. Under this rubric, cult films on one end of the spectrum are deeply exploitative or blasphemous, while others are experimental, reverent, or just plan “bad”—or, colloquially, “so bad it’s good.” By fundamentally defying simple categorization or consensus, cult film studies are equally as diverse and often conflicted. Similar to how the appeal of cult cinema is the result of a sophisticated and well-read media diet, affective scholarship of the field must be similarly liberal, requiring a deep background ranging from classical film and media studies to philosophy and theology and, ultimately, industry and economics. This bibliography should serve as a broad entry point to the field, representing scholarship that either directly or tangentially complements an understanding of cult movements and countercultural media while remaining applicable to an even broader range of cultural research, criticism, and conversation.

General Overviews

Though there are only a handful of cult film readers and compendia, their expansiveness reflects the expansive nature of cult cinema and the amorphous boundaries of cult film scholarship. These overviews also provide the best theoretical and institutional introduction to both cult cinema and the various (and occasionally competing) definitions of the field. Mathijs and Mendik 2008 is the definitive resource on the subject, cataloging research spanning the past eight decades of cult film studies as they define the field—building on the earlier foundational scholarly work Mendik and Harper 2000. Hunter and Kaye 1997 explores the aesthetics of trash entertainment in pop culture. Harvis 2008 proceeds with a singular definition of cult film and analyzes its appearance over the past century. Jancovich, et al. 2003 is a collection of original research on the cultural and sociological politics of cult media, while Sconce 2007, written by a leading scholar in the field, complements their work by discussing the conflicted pleasures of sleaze. Holmlund and Wyatt 2004 takes a broader approach, looking at the full spectrum of mainstream and cult film to understand the genesis and symbiosis of cult appeal. Mendik and Harper 2000 and Weiner and Cline 2010 represent interdisciplinary analyses and criticism that both reinforces and deconstructs the boundaries of “cult,” building on the legacy of Telotte 1991, which remains valuable for historical interpretations of cult media. Special issues of Cineaste (Special Issue: Cult Cinema: A Critical Symposium) and New Review of Film and Television Studies (Special Issue: Cult Cinema and Technological Change) gather recent scholarship exploring the meaning of cult cinema in the 21st century.

  • Harvis, Allan. Cult Films: Taboo and Transgression. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008.

    Proceeding with the theory that cult films are an intentional art form, rather than one designated as such by its audiences, this survey looks at the past ninety years of cult films and analyzes three films per decade for history, content, and transgression in an attempt to reify this notion.

  • Hills, Matt, ed. Special Issue: Cult Cinema and Technological Change. New Review of Film and Television Studies 13.1 (January 2015).

    New essays exploring the identities and discourses of cult cinema as affected or determined by technological change. Cult cinema has always been contingent on its medium, leading to evolving definitions of the genre. Essays explore the survival and transmutation of cult media and fandom in its movement from analog to the digital age.

  • Holmlund, Chris, and Justin Wyatt, eds. Contemporary American Independent Film: From the Margins to the Mainstream. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2004.

    An anthology collection examining the independent film scene, writ large. It explores the strained relationship between independent films and major studios, including how the film industry itself informs the definition of independence—an essential ingredient for cult formation.

  • Hunter, I. Q., and Heidi Kaye, eds. Trash Aesthetics: Popular Culture and Its Audience. Chicago: Pluto, 1997.

    Through the lens of audiences and mass consumption, this collection is built on the concept or chimera of stratification separating “high” from “low” culture, and how cult entertainment emerges from this ambiguity. The essays explore the perverse appeal and cultural staying power of trash art, as preserved and mythologized by the fans themselves.

  • Jancovich, Mark, Antonio Lazaro Reboll, and Andy Willis, eds. Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2003.

    Through analyses of cult movies, this collection attempts to provide definitions of the “genre,” the sociological sources of those definitions, and the cultural politics affecting the transmission and reception of cult films. The essays also explore the necessary tension between academic film studies and cult movie fandom.

  • Mathijs, Ernest, and Xavier Mendik, eds. The Cult Film Reader. New York: Open University Press, 2008.

    The definitive cult film reader. This nearly six-hundred-page collection contains forty-three essential essays separated into four main sections, including concepts of cult, cult film case studies, national and international film cultism, and cult consumption. Includes an introduction by cult film auteur Roger Corman.

  • Mendik, Xavier, and Greme Harper, eds. Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and Its Critics. Guildford, UK: FAB, 2000.

    One of the foundational cult film volumes attempting definitions of cult film, the boundaries of the genre, representative film styles, and depictions of gender across the medium. Essays explore popular cult films, as well as niche areas of cult cinema, including 1970s softcore pornography and exploitation.

  • Sconce, Jeffrey, ed. Sleaze Artists: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

    Built around the foundational cult cinema notion of “paracinema,” championed by the volume’s editor, this collection examines cult film culture’s fetish for low, bad and sleazy faces of cinema. The essays explore the boundaries and aesthetics of sleaze, and the pleasures derived from bad taste.

  • Sconce, Jeffrey, ed. Special Issue: Cult Cinema: A Critical Symposium. Cineaste 34 (Winter 2008).

    Essays by leading scholars, including Jeffrey Sconce, J. Hoberman, and Peter Stanfield, articulate the “New Wave” of cult criticism, attempting to bring clarity to disparate definitions of cult film through three main critical focus areas, including cult fans, cult objects, and the relationship between cult film and the media marketplace.

  • Telotte, J. P., ed. The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

    One of the first edited collections on cult film, dividing cult film into two categories: older Hollywood movies with cult followings, and “midnight movies.” Explores the genesis of cult films, prior to a dominant cult film analytic.

  • Weiner, Robert G., and John Cline, eds. Cinema Inferno: Celluloid Explosions from the Cultural Margins. Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow, 2010.

    Recognizing that transgression is an essential ingredient of cult cinema, this collection attempts a definition of transgressive filmmaking through the genre’s history, reception, criticism, and politics. Also includes an exposition by both scholars and aficionados of the cultural margins in an attempt to locate the psycho-geography of cult film.

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