The Cult Appeal of Cinema and The Rocky Horror Picture Show

It’s midnight on the 31st of October, Halloween night. The one night a year when, according to the voice of our generation Cady Heron, a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.


A lot of the audience appear to have taken this proclamation to heart, judging by the number of men with full faces of makeup (including false eyelashes) milling around the lobby wearing leotards that expose their muscular, unshaven legs. They are not, however, attending a drunken university party. Instead, this is a special screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film that is shown in theaters around the world at the stroke of midnight on Halloween every year. This forms part of a tradition in which “shadow casts” of actors silently mimic the on-screen action and dialogue. Rocky belongs to the “super-class” of cult cinema Like Rocky, Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a film that has been panned by critics for being excessively camp or ‘trashy’ in comparison with traditional cinema.

The only thing bigger than these winged goddesses hair is their voices. Image was taken at a live-action performance of Priscilla: Queen of The Desert by the author.

The problem is, no-one seems to be able to agree on what makes a so-called ‘cult’ film deserving of that label.

I spoke to Norita Mdege, a Ph.D. candidate at the University Of Cape Town’s Centre for Film and Media Studies about the nature of cult cinema and its influence on the film industry as a whole.

Adrian Martin in his article ‘What’s Cult Got To Do With it? defines cult cinema as films that are best described as “orphans”: discarded, forgotten, or never recognized by the film industry. Many filmmakers, most notably the French New Wave auteurs create films that are visibly influenced by the movies of cult cinema that were otherwise snubbed by the general public. The reason for this, according to Mdege, “is because the films provide something different and strange, and often appeal to people who, just like the films, may not wish to be defined as ‘mainstream.’” This marginality and content that “falls outside of general cultural norms of one of the  In addition, she muses, “sometimes being part of that ‘unique’ group can provide a person with some form of social capital within certain circles.” The audience becomes it’s own “self-identified” group, without film producers having to employ any marketing techniques, as shown in something like the 50 Shades of Grey franchise. The devoted, generally minority audience plays a vital role in a film attaining cult status. The audience of Rocky Horror is of course, far from minimal. It is the world’s  longest continuously showing movie and is now firmly entrenched in our pop-culture consciousness.

me rh
The fliers advertising the event boldly proclaims Sweet Transvestites of All Ages Welcome! a reference to one of the film’s most iconic musical numbers. First-time viewers of the show are referred to as ‘virgins’


One of the major appeals of cult cinema is that the film’s scripts often centers around a story that fulfills the audience’s desire to see conventional standards of morality trashed. The film’s protagonists are an annoyingly conservative couple, Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) who would not seem out of place on a 1950s television set. After running into some car trouble they seek shelter for the night in the gothic castle of the cross-dressing alien Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) from Transsexual, Transylvania. Spoiler alert: literally everybody ends up having sex with each other. It’s incredibly risque (for the 70s era in which it was filmed) themes of transvestism and homosexuality, caused it to flop upon its original release until a group of rowdy audience members became to religiously attend the twelve o clock screenings, their personal version of midnight mass.The queer community who felt alienated from society found refuge in the film’s outlandish and unabashedly sexual characters, whilst the film’s infinitely quotable dialogue (another requirement of cult cinema) and catchy tunes means that even your Trump-loving uncle might stifle his homophobia for the film’s one hour and forty-one minute running time.


“Cultural value  plays a significant role in a film’s long-term success because films form part of  a societies cultural production.”

-Norita Mdege

A film’s ‘cultural value’ is often the marker used to distinguish cult films from art-house movies. This plays a significant role in a film’s – particularly in those that form part of the cult genre- long term success. Mbete agrees that culture is “dynamic,” and that a society’s particular cultural values are subject to change, and observes that “A change in cultural values can lead to a reassessment of certain films and thus bringing them back into the public discussion, or push them into oblivion.”  The internet has played a large role in growing and uniting the community of cult-cinema aficionadi.  Thanks to this generation’s tendency towards nostalgia many memorable clips from weird or dated cult films have had a resurgence on social media platforms. some film scholars, like the aforementioned Martin, believe that Rocky should be stripped of its cult status due to its mass online following. It would be folly, however, to determine a film’s cult status without first contextualizing it. It ticks every box on the cult cinema checklist but in my opinion should be awarded the title of ‘Best Cult Film’ on the basis of Tim Curry’s makeup alone.

 the rocky horror picture show rocky horror picture show frankenfurter transylvania transvestite GIF

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s