Photo: The Big Lebowski | Gramercy Pictures
Aug 10, 2022
Getting a movie made from start to finish is hard. Really hard. It requires a lot of time, patience, and money. And yet, not every release is a hit at the box office or with critics. There have always been films that cultivated a fervent audience who paid no mind to mainstream appeal. The advent of the home video market in the late ‘70s pushed fandom even further and provided alternate ways of accessing and obsessing about movies that may have not been so popular to the masses. Likewise, the unorthodox success of some of these movies simultaneously helped engender the indie film movement, which gave even more power to the creators at the helm.
Whether they’re ahead of their time or forever underappreciated, cult movies possess a sort of enigma that strikes a chord with a select few who embrace this sense of indescribable magic. This feature will spotlight those left-of-center hits which had a more alternative appeal, touching upon the cult classic movies that are most notable, whether it be for the quality of the films themselves, the durability of their fanbases, or the infamous passion of their respective cults.
The Good, The Bad, And The Oddities
Not a declaration of artistic quality, “cult classics” can range from so-bad-it’s-good to a Top 10 film of all time. Because of the loose definition and the fact that the movies aren’t tied to a genre or filmmaking style itself, there are literally countless releases that could potentially fit the bill. After all, even the most obscure pictures have some sort of advocacy. Moreover, a cult hit has less to do with the passion of the fandom than it does with the size of the following. Unlike the likes of Star Wars or Back to the Future or Ghostbusters, which all have massively enthusiastic fanbases, the movies we’re talking about here, regardless of box office results, haven’t really achieved the same broad resonance. As such, there are essentially three reasons why a film can achieve cult status:
Late Discovery: This usually occurs if a movie does poorly at the box office and then finds success in another market, such as home video, TV, or streaming. Perhaps the marketing wasn’t great the first time around or the competition was challenging, but the film achieved wide or elongated notoriety once audiences finally discovered it. Take Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory for example, which barely made a penny in theaters and was later “discovered” on TV a decade later (it didn’t make our list due to its present-day ubiquity in pop culture).
So-Bad-It’s-Good: One of the more obvious, yet surprisingly less common, sources for niche fanbases are films that are laughably atrocious. Although there are plenty of duds to go around, it takes a special kind of disaster to garner the same kind of fan enthusiasm as quality cult hits like Scarface or The Evil Dead.
Niche Appeal: Whether or not a movie does well at the box office, its niche appeal will always show through in fan enthusiasm. Just because a lot of people see a film the first time around doesn’t mean they’re all part of the proverbial “cult.” Some cult classics have been viewed by millions and even made large profits upon their initial runs, yet only a select few individuals are enthusiastic about them. On the flip side, you have Star Wars or Harry Potter, with insanely dedicated fanbases, yet those fans are a dime a dozen. For instance, as popular as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Rocky Horror Picture Show are, the average person might only know two or three fanatics of those movies, if that.
While its popularity today has certainly given way to other so-bad-it’s-good movies, Ed Wood’s 1959 disasterpiece may be the quintessential example of both a cult classic and Z-movie. Suffering from a poor script, a micro-budget, and an overly-ambitious sci-fi premise, Plan 9 From Outer Space is…not good. The plot is hardly important, nor is it very coherent due to Wood’s slapdash directorial approach, but the rinky-dink production provided a charm that was not lost on later generations. It wasn’t until the ‘80s that fandom for the film took off, even inspiring the story for Tim Burton’s Oscar-winning biopic Ed Wood from 1994 and getting referenced in the likes of Seinfeld and X-Files (Mulder states that he’s seen the film 42 times himself). Plan 9 was also screen-legend Bela Lugosi’s final performance, so there’s that.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece is not an easy one to watch, which is why it’s surprising that it made $40 million in America alone. Despite its profit, there were few who truly understood, let alone appreciated, A Clockwork Orange, featuring a story about Malcolm McDowell’s Alex and his gang’s horrific crime spree throughout dystopian England. Based on the Anthony Burgess novel, the Best Picture nominee upended longstanding postulations about protagonists and antagonists and how they relate to one another, putting into question thought-provoking ideas about the importance of goodness, even if we’re being physically forced to do it against our will. Banned in some countries for decades, the film is often considered obtuse and was detested by many upon its initial run. However, those who love it, do so with fervor, even today.
Helping spearhead nerd culture prior to a Star Wars-riddled world, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was a phenomenon back in 1975. And for the past four-and-a-half decades, fans have been trying to explain to outsiders why this movie is, in fact, one of the greatest comedic masterpieces in history, with a story that spoofs King Arthur and his knights as they embark on a hijinks-filled search for the titular relic. Monty Python was already a popular comedy troupe on television for their silly and sardonic style, and their first non-sketch film followed suit, proving to be endlessly quotable, even today, despite earning a measly sum at the box office. This was also the debut of director Terry Gilliam (who co-directed with Terry Jones), who would go on to have perhaps the largest catalog of cult movies ever.
While not for everybody, The Rocky Horror Picture Show undoubtedly has the most notable fanbase in terms of longevity and fan dedication. A cult movie also in the literal sense, this musical centers on a young couple stumbling upon a strange castle therein residing a strange alien mad scientist transvestite (Tim Curry) who kidnaps them and brainwashes them into his wacky lifestyle. Its B-movie homage which devolves into proto-punk rock wackiness has given it the specific appeal, while that same eccentricity makes it memorable at the very least, even if its profitable box office receipts are more a result of the same enthusiastic patrons watching it over and over again. Today, it’s nearly synonymous with the midnight movie circuit.
What The Godfather did for the mafia, The Warriors did for street gangs. Inventing and popularizing a lot of the New York street gang tropes that pervaded the following two decades of film, Walter Hill’s 1979 classic was a cult favorite while it was still in theaters. Taking a page from groundbreaking ‘50s films like The Wild One and Blackboard Jungle, it spoke to the latchkey teens of working-class America, but in an authentic way that no other film had achieved before. Because of its mesmerizing visuals, poignant themes, and unique vantage point, The Warriors has amassed an insane following, with new fans popping up all the time. Some of the dialogue has even crossed over to mainstream vernacular.
What opened in just 15 theaters its initial weekend would go on to become one of the most iconic horror movies of all time because of a grassroots campaign. The influence of The Evil Dead can easily be spotted in modern cinema, both horror and otherwise, with its subversions of tones and the unique filmmaking identity of writer-director Sam Raimi. Bruce Campbell plays Ash, who accompanies his friends to a cabin in the woods only to find that the house has some secrets of its own. Raimi’s unforgiving debut still shocks audiences today as Ash eventually gets drenched in the blood of his cohorts, but back in 1981, this paragon of cult movies managed to help its genre evolve without necessarily reinventing the wheel.
From getting mixed reviews and mediocre returns to helping retool the sci-fi genre in a landscape where Star Wars was still the benchmark, Blade Runner was hard sci-fi to its core and appealed to an era of nerddom that sought something anti-Spielbergian. Neo-noir was big in the ‘80s thanks to New Wave Hollywood’s evolution of the old genre from the ‘30s and ‘40s, but this Ridley Scott adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel also helped draw up the blueprint for what would become cyberpunk. Because few people knew how to process it upon its debut, there are now seven different sanctioned versions of the movie floating around.
John Carpenter seems to be a master of unintentionally churning out cult cinema, and The Thing is easily his most egregious failure. Adapting John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There? while partially remaking 1951’s The Thing From Another World, the 1982 release about American researchers strategically combatting an alien parasite in Antarctica was written off immediately by almost everyone who mattered. However, its small but passionate fanbase saw the magic there and urged naysayers to reassess this classic, which is now considered to be among the greatest horror films of all time and one of the best ‘80s movies, period.
While barely breaking even at the box office, Scarface was hated by most audiences and critics upon initial release. No stranger to cult hits of his own with Blow Out and Phantom of the Paradise, Brian de Palma directed the Oliver Stone script about a fictional Cuban refugee, Tony Montana (Al Pacino), who comes to the U.S. and establishes a cocaine empire. It was the bloody, violent, f-word-ladened answer to The Godfather if there ever were one, which rubbed many the wrong way and proved to be ahead of its time. However, it struck a chord with hip-hop culture, which was on the rise around that same time, and was referenced in lyrics obsessively. It has since been reevaluated and is now considered one of the best films of its era.
There’s a famous joke in This Is Spinal Tap where guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) shows us his amplifier, whose nobs can go up to 11 instead of 10. The rendered arbitrariness of the added notch is lost on Tufnel, but this sums up the essence of the movie which follows the fictional titular rock band “behind the scenes” while satirizing the self-aggrandized behavior of both musicians and the documentaries that worship them. It wasn’t the first mockumentary, but This Is Spinal Tap is arguably the most influential, be it within the genre or on rock documentaries in general. Rob Reiner’s directorial debut made hardly any money at the box office, but critics loved it and word-of-mouth gave it plenty of success on the home video market, which reverberates today.
Blindsiding audiences back in 1985, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian classic was met with a troubled production, seemingly-inscrutable themes, and polarizing production design. However, Brazil appealed to hardcore cinephiles and went on to influence countless others, such as Tim Burton’s Batman and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Its non-partisan indictment of corruption still resonates, but its dedication to world-building is what sets it apart. Set in a world where everyone lives in modular apartments overrun by government-serviced gadgets, Brazil gives us our surrogate through Jonathan Pryce’s Sam, who slowly becomes disillusioned over the course of the movie. Not catching on with American audiences initially, the British production is now considered one of the best of its decade.
While technically making money during its initial run, the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was more of a result of “the enthusiasm of the few” rather than “fervor of the masses,” and never cracked the top 2 at the box office. Pee-wee’s enigma made his mainstream introduction the epitome of a guilty pleasure, while Tim Burton, in his directorial debut, began his own cult following from this one alone. Paul Reubens plays the titular man-child as he goes on a tour of the United States in search of his beloved lost bicycle. Pee-wee has always exuded left-of-center mores and his TV show, launching the following year, has also earned him an enthusiastic cult following all these years later.
When Katsuhiro Otomo got the offer to adapt his benchmark manga into a feature film, he made sure he kept creative control, and we’re glad he did. Hugely influential on animation in both native Japan as well as America, Akira is easily one of the most important Japanese films ever, just as its source material was to its own medium. For an entire generation, exposure to anime consisted of only Speed Racer, but Akira slowly but surely helped spread and popularize the genre, while having a huge effect on cyberpunk stylings, in a way that was massively cool, leveling up the scope of its world compared to that of previous animated films. While only a moderate hit in its home country, it didn’t gain momentum Stateside until years later in the VHS market.
Despite outgrossing its budget on opening weekend and becoming John Carpenter’s last successful release, They Live wasn’t beloved upon its debut. However, the film’s themes and aesthetic had an influence on street art (Shepard Fairey’s still-popular “obey” campaign from 1989 was directly inspired by the film), while its ideas about secret alien societies brainwashing the masses with subliminal messaging struck a chord with disillusioned young adults of the grunge-era ‘80s. Today, passion for They Live is still alive, with toys and shirts getting produced by big-name companies like Funko and NECA.
The teen movie genre was back in a big way in the 1980s, thanks, in part, to the invention of the sex comedy, a newfound generation gap, and the rise of the pop music-ladened soundtrack, which granted young moviegoers the ability to live in their favorite movies almost anywhere on cassette and CD. However, by 1989, the nail was almost in the coffin, giving way to the more cynical ‘90s. The nexus between the two is undoubtedly Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, a dark comedy about high schooler Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) and her love interest J.D. (Christian Slater), a new kid set on literally murdering a clique of popular girls. Aside from inspiring two bellwethers of their own eras — Clueless and Mean Girls — Heathers was a box office flop but found love on home video and was even turned into a popular musical Off-Broadway.
Leave it to “Weird Al” Yankovic to make one of the most bizarre yet amazingly polarizing films of the ‘80s. Much like the man behind the movie, UHF appealed to a small but enthusiastic group of people. Starring the greatest parody musician in history as the manager of a low-budget TV station, the movie nearly broke even at the box office but was discovered on TV and in the rental market. After the VHS went out of print in the ‘90s, copies sold for exorbitant amounts on auction sites until the film finally got a DVD release in 2002.
Despite now being a ubiquitous staple of cinema, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs barely made any money during its initial run. Gaining more mainstream recognition after the massive success of the filmmaker’s sophomore follow-up two years later (Pulp Fiction), the daring cult hit was still popular at the time amongst hardcore film heads and festival regulars. Those who did buy a ticket in theaters knew they’d never seen anything like it. It was violent, brash, and innovative — and still takes you aback today. Tarantino chose to show a failed heist during the before and after but cleverly omits the heist itself. A masterpiece of both form and content, the movie is now considered one of the best indie movies of all time.
The epitome of star-studded casts before they were famous, Dazed and Confused helped launch the careers of several household names, such as Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey, as well as director Richard Linklater, who built off the indie success from his previous film Slacker. Linklater proved to be a master in deceptively brilliant framing while telling his humble hang-out story about a freshman who has the night of his life crashing the end-of-the-year senior party during the spring of 1976. While building off the ethos from progenitors like American Graffiti and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the writer-director the gap in the process and has now inspired talks of it being among the greatest films ever, despite barely breaking even.
The Hocus Pocus cult may have been slow, but it’s been steady, with annual airings on TV garnering the film more and more fans with each passing year. Becoming, for many, the quintessential staple of the Halloween season, the movie follows a new kid in town as he accidentally resurrects three evil witches. Critics hated it and the Disney flick, while making some money, never cracked the top 3 at the box office — that is, until it was re-released in 2020 during the pandemic. However, it was, and still is, divisive among viewers, but wouldn’t be a cult classic if this weren’t the case. Plus, it does give us one of the best Halloween costume parties in cinema history.
Clerks helped spur the indie revolution throughout the ‘90s by giving a voice to the aimless and those who dared to tell their story, while also kickstarting the career of filmmaker Kevin Smith and his ViewAskewniverse, cinema’s cross-movie forerunner to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie, shot in black and white for budgetary reasons and featuring some admittedly choppy editing, spoke to the slacker and stoner subcultures of the era while providing pontifications about life from two twenty-somethings who live in constant ennui at their dead-end jobs. Clerks was a big festival hit and had some theatrical success, though it was able to lend credibility to its less-successful contemporaries who were trying to do the same thing.
It’s pretty easy to get indoctrinated into the cult of The Shawshank Redemption. This is a movie that lost money on its initial theatrical run, became one of the best-selling VHS releases a year later, and is now in the conversation for “Greatest Movie of All Time.” And that conversation may be correct. Losing out to more popular films at the time such as Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, the uplifting prison drama based on the Stephen King story was also going against a shifting Hollywood landscape. Shawshank was very much old-school cinema at a time when edgy, indie, and different were king. After word-of-mouth momentum and some help from the critics, the film got re-released and ended up tripling its budget overall and was nominated for seven Oscars.
Few ‘90s comedies hold up today like Friday, a deceptively deep buddy comedy under the guise of a stoner flick. Ice Cube co-wrote the script about two friends (played by him and Chris Tucker) who experience the goings-on of their neighborhood one Friday afternoon while dealing with a disgruntled drug dealer. While utilized frequently for internet memes today, the film transcended far beyond its now-ubiquitous quotes back in 1995 as it helped bring Black culture and its colloquialisms to many of our lives for the first time, and without needing to preach to its audience in the process.
By 1995, director Paul Verhoeven was having a bit of a moment. Following a hot streak that began with sci-fi classics RoboCop and Total Recall and ended with the 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct (his biggest hit of them all), the German filmmaker seemed to be the perfect man to helm a rise-and-fall story about an aspiring Las Vegas showgirl. Well, that wasn’t enough to get enough butts in the seats to see former Saved By the Bell sweetheart Elizabeth Berkley do stripteases while mispronouncing “Versace.” An NC-17 rating and a $40 million budget hurt Showgirls‘ chances of making any money despite coming out as the highest-grossing NC-17 release ever. Today, the modern-day exploitation picture is widely recognized as an undisputed cult classic and has become a mainstay in the midnight movie circuit, oozing with a unique quality that fluctuates between so-bad-it’s-good and aesthetically appealing,
By 1998, the Coen brothers had already immortalized themselves as indie legends. They followed up their Best Picture nominee Fargo with The Big Lebowski, a movie about bowling, friendship, and striking the balance between caring too much and not enough. This quasi-satire on war politics and assigned cultural importance was considered arcane by those flocking to theaters to see what all the fuss was about. However, The Big Lebowski is more proof of the power of lingering ideas, with themes and analysis that might just overshadow the moviegoing experience itself. Following Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) down a rabbit hole after his throw rug gets peed on by thugs attempting to collect a debt from a different Jeff Lebowski, this classic has come to embody countercultural ideals, spawning an annual film festival, a namesake religion, and the names for two species of spider.
Shall we talk about it? Based on modern consensus, you’d never guess that Fight Club was one of the most controversial films of its time. Taking its nameless protagonist (Edward Norton) down an odyssey as a soap salesman thanks to Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, the David Fincher classic was hated by its own studio and didn’t do well domestically, yet became beloved on the home video market, appealing to cinephiles everywhere who benefitted from being able to stop and rewind the footage in order to catch every filmmaking detail. Today, it’s become a paragon of cult cinema as well as a go-to example of masterful plot twists.
While having massive success with several of his hit TV shows, including Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill, Mike Judge’s movies never really resonated with mass audiences. Among the several cult films that he both wrote and directed, 1999’s Office Space takes the cake — er, the stapler. The endlessly quotable workplace satire may have been ahead of its time, predating the likes of The Office and his own show Silicon Valley, while taking some heavy influence from the comic strip Dilbert. However, Office Space amassed quite a following after its theatrical lifespan, making more money in DVD sales alone than it did at the box office. It’s now considered one of the loadstones of comedy in the ‘90s.
There are few movies more theorized about than Donnie Darko, an intentionally ambiguous picture that has amassed a very large following, even with new audiences, despite flopping at the box office. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular misanthrope, Richard Kelly’s auteuristic vision truly takes you on a journey. However, the film barely grossed $500,000 in its initial run, partially due to a stymied marketing campaign following the 9/11 attacks from the month before (the movie prominently features a plane crash). It made more money upon its 2004 rerelease, which is almost unheard of, and reportedly grossed upwards of $10 million in home video sales.
No “bad” movie has ever amassed the kind of following that The Room has amassed. Funded entirely by writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau, the 2003 atrocity is arguably the biggest cult film of all time, by the very essence of the term. The production looks shockingly awful when considering its $6 million budget, ladened with narrative inconsistencies and strange directorial and acting choices all around. Despite being promoted by a giant billboard in Hollywood for five years, The Room only made $1,900 during its initial two-week run, yet a word-of-mouth campaign has since given it the kind of ironic fandom that many failed studio tentpoles could only dream of, even spawning an Oscar-nominated adaptation of its production. Widely known now as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” Wiseau’s passion project-turned-ego stroker has a sort of natural enigma that famed B-movie studios could never conjure up on purpose.
While it seemed like you couldn’t go 10 minutes in 2004 without hearing a quote from Napoleon Dynamite, the cult of those who truly loved, let alone understood, the film was, and is, few and far between. It centers on the titular mouth-breather who maybe learns about love while helping a shy mustachioed student run for president. Much like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Jared Hess’ peculiar coming-of-age quirk-fest got its ticket sales from either fans on repeated viewings or first-timers trying to grasp what it was all about.
Few movies from the past two decades have built up a fervent fandom as quickly as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Losing money upon initial release, Edgar Wright’s follow-up to Hot Fuzz is packed with stylistic influences from both video games and graphic novels. Michael Cera stars as the titular awkward teen who has to battle — yes, battle — the seven ex-boyfriends of his current girlfriend. Based on a graphic novel itself, the mumblecore-adjacent romcom epic may not be the filmmaker’s most prolific, but it’s arguably his most beloved and groundbreaking, notable for its insanely inventive narrative techniques that have now become progenitors for countless others.
If you’ve explored most of these cult classics and aspire to get your adrenaline rushing a bit, head over to our guide to the best monster movies of all time.
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Photo: The Big Lebowski | Gramercy Pictures