Film series: Cult Classics

scene from the film THE BIG LEBOWSKI
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998, dir. Joel Coen)
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975, dir. Jim Sharman)

This fall, Cornell Cinema is pleased to launch “Cult Classics”, a year-long exploration of cult film practices curated in collaboration with Cornell Cinema’s Student Advisory Board.

With selections ranging from Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and The Big Lebowski (1998) to the kung-fu action film Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Melvin van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), the series not only creates an opportunity to convene—and even expand—cult film communities, but also attempts to identify the multiple ways films achieve cult status, how these conditions may change over time, and how they may be shaped by various aesthetic and sociopolitical factors.

What are cult classics? Academics argue over its definition; but usually acknowledge that the film has acquired a dedicated audience. A fan base.

While our hope is to offer fun (and often nostalgic) experiences, the idea of cult cinema has gained a lot of (some might say feverish) attention in academic circles of late. Check out for instance The Routledge Companion to Cult Cinema (2019); Cult Cinema: An Introduction (2011); or Midnight Movies (1983).

Midnight Movies

Several NYC movie houses began midnight film screenings in the 1970s, mostly second runs of films that had flopped in initial release. Prominent films that took off included El Topo (1970, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky), Night of the Living Dead (1968, dir. George Romero), Pink Flamingos (1972, dir. John Waters), Eraserhead (1977, dir. David Lynch), and The Harder They Come (1972, dir. Perry Henzell). 

Cornell Cinema will feature the ultimate midnight movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, dir. Jim Sharman), which became a cult favorite when the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village started running it in on April 2, 1976. Audience participation and the floor show quickly coalesced, and soon 20th Century Fox had 200 prints in circulation.

Rocky Horror began life as a live theater musical, which is also true of another film we feature, John Mitchell Cameron’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001). Both films center on transsexuality, rock n’ roll (esp. glam and punk), and an outsider mythology.

Exploitation Films

Cheap production and sensationalistic material (drugs, sex, urban violence, etc.) marked exploitation films, some of which later moved into cult status, such as 1936’s Reefer Madness

Black filmmakers seized on this type of film in the 70s, which gave their Black antiheros agency, often in vigilante scenarios, while also featuring urban soul and funk soundtracks.

We feature one of the pioneers of the genre, Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). Hippies, pimps, prostitutes, bikers, corrupt cops and more feature in Peeble’s gloriously hyperactive melodrama, all to the musical beats of Earth, Wind and Fire.

Quentin Tarantino has employed the tropes and techniques of Blaxploitation and exploitation films in most of his work, including his second feature, the highly successful Pulp Fiction (1994), which even copped the Palme D’Or at Cannes. It provided John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson with career renaissances as well.

Horror Films

With its excess of violence, and gore, and its more visceral relation to its audience, horror films often rank high in cult film lists.

The Wicker Man (1973, dir. Robin Hardy) began as a collaboration from horror legend Christopher Lee and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Frenzy, Death on the Nile). Lee wanted a horror film that was the opposite of the gory, over-the-top Hammer films he was famous for. So was born a contemporary film immersed in Celtic mythology. Long mangled in distributor cuts, it was restored for its 50th anniversary and has had a huge impact on later films, such as Midsummer (2019, dir. Ari Aster).

For Halloween we offer up two films:

The classic Evil Dead II (1987) by a pre-Marvel Sam Raimi, which mixes over-the-top gore and body horror with a good dose of humor. Lead Bruce Campbell himself became a cult star.

Jennifer’s Body (2009, dir. Karyn Kusama) initially flopped, yet within a decade it was being hailed as a cult queer feminist horror comedy classic. In this revenge fantasy (written by Juno scribe Cody Diablo) the girl is the stalker. 


So bad it’s good? Films that unintentionally fail, not only are the production details terrible, but they just don’t seem to add up. Ed Wood’s films are often cited.

In this category we offer Tommy Wiseau’s ‘romantic drama,’ The Room (2003). Like Wood, whose films inspired Tim Burton’s bio-homage Ed Wood (1994), Wiseau has also inspired a film about his film, James Franco’s The Disaster Artist (2017).


The Big Lebowski 
(dir. Joel Coen, 1998)
Saturday, August 25, 2023, 7:30pm
Friday, September 1, 2023, 9:15pm

Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song
(dir. Melvin Van Peebles, 1971)
Friday, September 15, 2023, 7pm
Friday, September 22, 2023, 9pm

Hedwig and the Angry Inch    
(dir. John Mitchell Cameron, 2001) 
Thursday, September 28, 2023, 9pm
Friday, September 29, 2023, 7pm

The Wicker Man 
(dir. Robin Hardy, 1973)
Friday, October 6, 2023 at 9pm
Friday, October 13, 2023 at 9pm

Evil Dead II
(dir. Sam Raimi, 1987)
Tuesday, October 31, 2023, 7pm

Jennifer's Body
(dir. Karyn Kusama, 2009)
Tuesday, October 31, 2023, 9pm

The Rocky Horror Picture Show    
(dir. Jim Sharman, 1975)
Saturday, November 4, 2023, 10pm    
Friday, November 10, 2023, 10pm    

The Room
(dir. Tommy Wiseau, 2003)
Thursday, November 9, 10pm
Thursday, November 30, 10pm

Pulp Fiction    
(dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Friday, November 3, 8pm
Thursday, November 16, 7pm

Related films

Scene from the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch


Scene from the film Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show


Scene from the film The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski


Scene from the film Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song


Scene from the film Jennifer’s Body

Jennifer's Body


Scene from the film Evil Dead II

Evil Dead II


scene from the film The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man


A woman in a white shirt and a man in a black suit dance the twist at the center of a night club/restaurant dance floor.

Pulp Fiction


A young boy rests his head tenderly on the shoulder of a man with long dark hair who embraces him in return.

The Room