The idea of the cult film is a tantalising one, not least to historians and critics of cinema and popular media, because it offers the sense that not all viewing practices and habits of reception are normative. The problem, though, is that it remains difficult to define what makes a cult film: is it the particular formal [End Page 311] qualities that inhere in a given film or body of films; certain marketing strategies employed by the film industry to publicise and exhibit films in such a way as to garner new audiences; or is it the intent of audience members to embrace a film that otherwise might go unnoticed within the domain of 'mainstream' spectatorship (whatever that might be)?
Over a decade ago, these problems received critical and scholarly attention in the rich and provocative work of writers such as Henry Jenkins, J. P. Telotte and Timothy Corrigan, but this attention seems more recently to have waned, perhaps an indication of how viewing habits have changed in the historical moment of home theatre and DVD release. The things that made cult films possible – the emergence of the dissent cultures of the 1960s and 1970s, the dissemination of new film canons in universities and repertory cinemas and the centrality of cinema as a lingua franca within post-World War II education – now seem a part of the historical past. When it becomes possible, as it now does, to circulate the motion picture through the technologies of the DVD, DVR and Netflix, the social activity of watching film in the cinema seems quaint, as does the practice of dressing up for the midnight screening of a film such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman UK/US 1975) as so many have done since the 1970s, myself included.
Jeffrey Weinstock's monograph on The Rocky Horror Picture Show appears in the welcome series, Cultographies, which seeks to re-animate the questions of cult cinema in a way that is perhaps inadvertently poignant, if only because cult film now appears to be a historical category, firmly in the past. Be that as it may, Weinstock's book illuminates the ways in which The Rocky Horror Picture Show came to play its central role in the popular imagination as the most easily recognised 'cult film'.
One of the most important features of Weinstock's historical research is his account of the film's release distribution and exhibition, and the details are worth dwelling upon: after successful runs of the stage production, The Rocky Horror Show, in London and Los Angeles, the film version was released soon after a disastrous New York production of the play was shut down. The film initially appeared in a handful of US theatres to weak box-office sales and, as an inventive manoeuvre that sought to reinvent the film as an 'underground movie', it opened nationally in the US as a 'midnight' movie (with, by the way, an astonishingly small publicity budget). The film never had a large distribution – Weinstock tells us that by 1978 it was only playing in fifty theatres on Friday and Saturday nights at midnight – but it had found a niche within the cultural economy of cinema that was consistent and based upon a devoted audience who made the film financially viable through their reliable and repeated viewings. [End Page 312] The fact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released as a midnight movie – a milieu that had emerged in New York in the 1960s as part of a new economy of non-Hollywood product, such as the films of Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas – tells us that it was not simply a corporate product that cult viewers discovered and made their own, but rather was an aberrant (read: failed) product that savvy marketers placed in front of audiences who were more likely to embrace its extremes of style and topic.
The discovery that The Rocky Horror Picture Show was distributed in this way is of great significance, since it corrupts one of the most cherished ideas for the film's...