What Was The First Cult Film?
Cult films are films that have transcended simple box office popularity and become films with a dedicated and engaged fanbase that engages in an elaborate sub-culture surrounding the film, repeatedly views the film, and works passages from the film into their daily vocabulary and perception of the world around them. Italian philosopher and critic Umberto Eco eloquently and effectively described the cult fans in his 1984 essay, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage”:
What are the requirements for transforming a book or movie into a cult object? The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise.
By both the measure we initially outlined and Eco’s, the 1922 German expressionist horror film, Nosferatu, soundly qualifies as the first cult film. It was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that quickly found itself in court; Stoker’s estate sued and German courts ordered all copies destroyed. By some means a single print of the film survived and bootleg copies of it began circulating Europe. It was here that the film gained cult status: fans of the movie would go in search of copies, they would watch it frequently, and they worked references to the style of the film and acting into their daily lives.
Photo by F. W. Murnau.