Cult movies are a tough thing to define. Like an adult film, you just know one when you see it. Still, it’s tough to really explain what makes a movie a truly good cult movie.
Is it weirdoes flocking to a midnight showing dressed in drag, flinging food at the screen? Is it conventioneers stalking their favorite actors? Or is it simply delighting in the offbeat, reveling in a sort of shared secret enjoyment that the ordinary masses can’t quite understand?
To be honest, it’s all of these things and many more unexplainable little tics and nuances that make these movies so beloved, and especially the following, which are the 50 best cult classic movies of all time.
50 through 41
50. ‘They Live’
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper fights aliens disguised as human beings. What more do you need? Oh, and he can only identify them using a special pair of sunglasses, because… who cares? Just read all that again.
Here is how Barbarella’s story begins, via imdb.com: “After an in-flight anti-gravity striptease (masked by the film’s opening titles), Barbarella, a 41st century astronaut, lands on the planet Lythion and sets out to find the evil Durand Durand in the city of Sogo, where a new sin is invented every hour.” Now that’s some Grade A quality sleaze right there. But the best part is it isn’t just some low budget schlock fest. Well, it is, but somehow, the movie stars Jane Fonda, a legit movie star who lends a strange sort of credibility to the movie. Oh, and hey, boobs.
48. ‘Flash Gordon’
A football player travels to the planet Mongo where he fights the space emperor known as Ming the Merciless. Look, if you’re gonna go the ridiculous route, just go balls out, okay? Perhaps the craziest part of the movie – I almost called it a “film”, but come on – is that Max Von Sydow, aka one of the greatest actors ever, plays Ming. This is just pure, stupid fun.
47. ‘The Toxic Avenger’
The studio that made this movie, Troma, pretty much exists solely to make campy, low-budget cult favorites, and their big, shining star is The Toxic Avenger. It’s exactly the kind of movie that everyone laughs at but can’t stop watching. It’s stupid and awful, and glorious and awesome at the same time. It transcends critical acclaim or even simple words like “good” and “bad”, which is pretty much the cult movie ethos in a nutshell.
46. ‘Heavy Metal’
It’s a cartoon with a sleazy classic rock soundtrack that looks like it was taken straight from the sketches of a Dungeons and Dragons geek from 1980 who’s also addicted to drawing boobs on everything. Basically, Heavy Metal is one of the sleaziest, most gloriously depraved things ever created, which basically makes it the Bible of nerdy Gen X dudes.
45. ‘Office Space’
Mike Judge, aka the dude behind Beavis and Butthead, goes all in on the world of corporate inanity, and it is incredible. The plot itself is almost secondary to the tone, which just viciously mocks the stereotypical empty-headed office blandness and introduces us to the catharsis of beating the shit out of a copying machine with a baseball bat.
Kevin Smith is still living off this movie twenty years after its release. It’s the ultimate indy success story, and has spawned a legion of followers and copycats. It introduced Jay and Silent Bob, Dante and Randall, and cemented foul-mouthed slackerism as perhaps the defining trait of the Gen X suburbanite.
This movie is like a car wreck. You know it’s awful and you should look away, but you just can’t. It’s ridiculously lurid, and on some level it makes you feel like you’re supporting an utter degenerate, but its nihilism speaks to a dark part of people that makes most uncomfortable – which is exactly what makes it so attractive to alternative types.
42. ‘Up in Smoke’
This is Cheech and Chong at the height of their powers, which means that, yeah, people absolutely love this movie. It is the ultimate stoner flick, and unlike Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, or any of the dynamic duos that followed, Cheech and Chong actually have the balls to leave behind the implied stonerism and just get baked.
It’s David Bowie as a goblin king terrorizing a teenage Jennifer Connelly, along with an assortment of magical and fantastic creatures. If I have to sell you on this, you need to re-examine some things.
40 through 31
It’s a black and white film about a Hassidic Jew who unlocks the power of a mathematical formula and finds himself dragged down the sort of nightmarish wormhole that can exist only inside the mind of an obsessive compulsive genius. In other words, it’s weird as hell, but it’s that good kind of weird, and it’s the movie that put Darren Aronofsky on the map as a filmmaker.
39. ‘Grey Gardens’
I’m talking about the 1975 documentary, not the fictionalized HBO version starring Drew Barrymore. The original is bizarrely engrossing, speaking to the spinster cat lady in all of us, as it follows a reclusive and eccentric mother and daughter who just so happen to be the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. It’s a train wreck, and it’s absolutely adored by every twenty-something Lena Dunham type out there.
38. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’
It’s perhaps the most controversial movie ever made – it was rumored that the movie, about a group of travelers who have the misfortune of tangling with a cannibalistic Amazonian tribe, was actually real found footage of cannibalism, which… no, but still, that’s how real it seemed – and that will always make a movie interesting to people in a cultish way. Of course, it helps that it is genuinely disturbing. This was torture porn before that was even a thing.
37. ‘The Crow’
The cult sprung up around this movie the moment Brandon Lee ate a bullet and died on set. But that cult only grew once it became clear that this movie was pretty much a ‘90s goth fantasy come to life. It’s basically 1994: The Movie.
36. ‘Big Trouble in Little China’
The John Carpenter/Kurt Russell tag team is going to show up more than once on this list, but Big Trouble in Little China is maybe the most fun out of all those movies. It’s actually pretty racist, with Russell battling every kind of old Chinese stereotype you can imagine, but when it’s this much fun, nobody cares.
35. ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’
It’s actually a pretty startlingly faithful telling of Hunter S. Thompson’s great gonzo novel, which is a really, really tough trick to pull off given that the whole thing is essentially one big acid trip from start to finish. But Terry Gilliam’s weird sensibilities combines with Johnny Depp’s picture perfect impersonation of Thompson to create a movie that would have otherwise never even made out of development. This is the only time Hollywood ever “got” Hunter S. Thompson.
Eraserhead fans swear by this movie. Its haters think it’s the worst piece of shit ever made. What makes it the perfect cult movie is that they feel this way for exactly the same reasons. That’s because this is David Lynch at his weird best, a surrealistic nightmare that dares you to make sense of it and then laughs at you for even trying.
33. ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’
This is the late ‘60s/early ‘70s Hollywood trash movie. It is Russ Meyer’s masterpiece, a sleazy ode to decadence and ladies with huge boobs, and… what more do I need to tell you? Oh, it was also written by Roger Ebert, which is one of the weirdest – and funniest – movie anecdotes ever.
32. ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’
It’s a movie about a transsexual punk rocker who tours the U.S. and chases the ex who stole her songs. In other words, if there was ever a movie made to be a cult favorite, it’s this one. It was never, ever going to find wide audience reception, especially to Ma and Pa Kansas, but that just makes its beauty all the more valuable to its devoted fans.
This is the ultimate black comedy, made all the more delicious because it’s disguised as a ‘80s teen comedy starring Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. Slater does his best Jack Nicholson impersonation, people get murdered and a dad mourns his “dead, gay son.” And with that, a cult favorite is born.
30 through 21
30. ‘True Romance’
No, Quentin Tarantino didn’t direct it – he just wrote it – but come on, this is a total Tarantino movie. And while it might not have the cultural cachet of many of his other movies, it’s got everything else, from Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper mixing it up to Brad Pitt stoned out of his mind. It’s almost impossible for a Tarantino movie to be a cult favorite anymore because they’re almost too popular, but True Romance still lives in that culty sweet spot.
29. ‘Blue Velvet’
Speaking of Dennis Hopper, this is him at his gloriously weirdest. Yes, his gas-huffing sadist creep-show, Frank Booth, is one of the most iconic cult characters ever. Add in David Lynch directing him and you have the recipe for something that is equal parts insane and awesome. Okay, maybe just a little bit more insane.
28. ‘American Psycho’
Bret Easton Ellis’ book is both so controversial and so psychologically complex that it’s kind of a miracle that this movie even got made, and an even bigger miracle that it’s actually pretty damn good. Of course, it helps when you have Christian Bale completely willing to commit to the role of the phenomenally fucked up Patrick Bateman, and anytime you have a scene with a blood covered Bale running naked through the halls of an apartment building, brandishing a chainsaw, the cult crowd is, uh, is going to have some interest.
This is basically a more messed up version of Frankenstein, so you can see why it would be popular with cult audiences. It’s got a good mix of humor and gore – always crucial to this sort of endeavor – and it’s based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, which means it’s as about as cult as cult can get.
26. ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’
This is the Frankenstein movie, but it’s also so campy that it crosses the line from classic horror movie to cult favorite. This is, after all, the one with the lady with the blown out hair being tenderly macked on by the good monster himself. It’s almost like a hipster stumbled upon a time machine to the 1930s.
25. ‘Little Shop of Horrors’
You could make an obvious case for both versions of this movie, and to be honest, I found it too hard to decide so I’m going to cheat and include them both here. The original is B-movie perfection about a plant that eats people, with Jack Nicholson hamming it up as a masochistic dental patient because, hey, why not? On the other hand, the remake, from 1986, is a musical version featuring a singing plant and Steve Martin as a sadist dentist. You can’t make me choose.
24. ‘The Last House on the Left’
A group of teenage girls gets kidnapped by psychopaths and things take a turn for the fucked up. This is Wes Craven’s debut, and good god, what a creepy, almost perverse, debut. The Last House on the Left probably stands with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the mother and the father of the horror genre as we know it today, and it’s about as cult as it gets.
23. ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’
Speaking of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was dubbed by one critic as an “exercise in the pornography of terror,” which might sound kind of silly and overblown today, but you have to understand, back in the day, these types of movies were considered genuinely dangerous and evil, and the only way to really watch them was to embrace the ethos of the cult movie. They shocked America – and delighted underground cult audiences.
22. ‘Army of Darkness’
The Evil Dead series completely goes off the rails here – and it’s kind of amazing that’s even possible given how ridiculous the other movies already are – as Ash gets sent through time where he fights skeletons and all manner of evil shit. It’s just loads of fun and reminds everyone who watches it why Bruce Campbell is the cult king.
This documentary on the life of infamous underground comic artist Robert Crumb is as funny, weird and, yes, as fucked up as the dude’s work. Crumb himself is probably the ideal subject of a cult documentary given that he’s about as cult a figure in pop-culture as it gets.
20 through 11
20. ‘Blade Runner’
Hey, look, Harrison Ford! But be warned, this isn’t Star Wars. Instead, it’s a deeply moody, atmospheric movie that almost haunts you. It’s slow, and dreamy, and dark and weird, and it will leave you in a daze. This is not an action movie, and it’s not a popcorn crowd pleaser, it’s sci-fi cult at its immersive best.
Terry Gilliam is one of the weirdest, cultiest filmmakers out there – what else do you expect from the dude who did the animation sequences for Monty Python’s Flying Circus – and Brazil is perhaps his masterpiece, a futuristic sci-fi movie that doubles as old-fashioned film noir. That’s a really weird combination, but it’s also really, really cool. Naturally, it bombed in the U.S. because it didn’t have rapping robots, but that just means that it quickly became a cult favorite.
18. ‘The Thing’
John Carpenter and Kurt Russell team up to do sci-fi horror and, naturally, it kicks all kinds of ass. A shape shifting alien runs wild on scientists in Antarctica, which gives the whole thing sort of a dangerous, almost claustrophobic air, as there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. This is one of the biggest reasons why John Carpenter could walk into any underground theater in the country and get a standing ovation.
17. ‘Death Race 2000’
It’s a movie about a cross country road race featuring mayhem, grizzly murder and a main character named Frankenstein played by David Carradine. What’s not to love? Perhaps no movie in history revels more in pure sleaze than Death Race 2000, and if we’ve learned one thing here it’s that sleaze = cult classic.
16. ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’
This is one of those movies that everyone knew would be a cult favorite as soon as it was released. After all, it’s about two drag queens and a transsexual riding across the desert, performing cabaret. Oh, and it stars Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp, aka three of the coolest actors alive. I mean… come on.
15. ‘Black Dynamite’
If you’re gonna do Blaxploitation, especially a good thirty years after it became, uh, socially unacceptable, you’ve gotta go balls out with it and make it as insane and as fun as possible. Thankfully, Black Dynamite does that and it’s absolutely amazing. You’ll spend all day giving your idiot friends nicknames from the movie after you watch it.
14. ‘Escape From New York’
It’s John Carpenter and Kurt Russell at their very best, which means that it’s also one of the best cult movies of all time. The only problem with writing this is it makes me sad that they don’t make movies together anymore.
13. ‘Easy Rider’
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper go full hippie on a road trip in search of America and find what everyone who goes searching for that elusive dream finds: that it can easily turn into a nightmare. Also, Jack Nicholson swings by to be awesome as hell, because, hey, why not? It’s a perfect picture of America just after the counter-culture wave broke back on itself and the broken heart that was the ‘70s dawned.
12. ‘Donnie Darko’
It’s weird – always a key ingredient for any self-respecting cult favorite – but it’s also cool as hell, with an awesome ‘80s soundtrack, a mind-bending story, a giant bunny and Patrick Swayze. It’s one of those movies that people watch over and over and over again just so that they can make complete sense of it, only you never quite can – you might think you do, but you don’t know you do – and that’s the beauty of it.
11. ‘This is Spinal Tap’
This mockumentary is so perfect that people actually treat Spinal Tap like a real band. Seriously, they’ll show up to play somewhere and people freak out. Of course, it’s also very, very funny, and one of the most quotable movies of all time.
10 through 1
10. ‘Pink Flamingos’
This might be the trashiest movie ever made, which might sound like an insult, but director John Waters would probably think it was one of the biggest compliments he could ever get. This will always be his crowning achievement, a celebration of kitsch and of being an outsider that is as wildly entertaining as it is provocative. Squares and the easily offended can just keep on walking.
Freaks in an American classic, a movie so weird and so disturbing – for 1932 anyway – that it caused mass hysteria in theaters and effectively ruined director Tod Browning’s career. Of course it’s awesome. It’s short and it’s not as shiny and smooth as more recent movies, but that’s all part of the fun of it. It just makes the whole thing feel even more messed up than it already is.
8. ‘Reefer Madness’
This early anti-drug propaganda film is one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s such an insane and ridiculous depiction of the “dangers” of smoking weed that you’ll want to watch it again and again – preferably while high off your ass.
7. ‘Night of the Living Dead’
This is Ground Zero for the zombie pop-culture invasion so of course it’s going to get a high place on this list. It’s low-budget and it’s scary as hell, a master example of how to build tension and scare the shit out of people without needing a lot of flashy extras. Not only is it one of the best cult films ever made, it’s one of the best horror movies ever.
6. ‘The Warriors’
Immediately upon seeing the title there, every single one of you had the “Warriors, come out to plaaaaay,” scene flash through your head. Don’t bother trying to deny it. That alone earns this movie a place of honor on this list. But more than that, the movie is just so weird, and just so entertaining, that it was like it was created in some cult movie lab somewhere.
5. ‘Point Break’
There are some who will argue that this is too high on this list, or that it’s not a “true” cult movie, whatever that means, but I don’t care. It’s my favorite movie ever, and so long as they don’t rename the Oscars the “Bodhis” it will be underrated and thus, worthy of the cult designation. I could write 10,000 words on this alone, but instead I’ll just say that Patrick Swayze in this movie almost made me start my own cult in honor of his magnificence. Now that’s a cult movie.
4. ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’
When people find out you’re a Holy Grail fan, you immediately find yourself with a new best friend. That’s because the movie is so awesome, and so quirky, that anyone who loves it like you do must be pretty damn cool. Also, pretty damn nerdy, but let’s not split hairs here. This is the Python’s most enduring work, and it’s fitting that perhaps the best cult comedy troupe of all time should also have one of the best cult movies of all time.
3. ‘The Big Lebowski’
It can probably be argued that The Big Lebowski is too genuinely popular to be a true cult movie, but here’s the thing: people hold Lebowski conventions all across the country, gathering in bowling alleys dressed like the Dude, or Walter, or even Donnie, shouting lines from the movie and sipping White Russians while they roll. Uh, that’s a cult movie, dudes, like a for real cult. Of course, that’s all because the movie is awesome as all hell, with a central philosophy that is legitimately interesting and attractive – again, just like an actual cult.
2. ‘Evil Dead II’
It’s probably the most entertaining horror movie ever made, focusing on over the top black humor and campy goodness while still managing to be disturbing and scary. It’s half sequel/half remake of the original, and nobody’s really been able to top it since. This is everything you want in a cult favorite.
1. ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’
This has to be number one, if for no other reason than it is the first movie people tend to picture whenever you talk about cult favorites. People don’t just watch this movie with a few friends. No, they get dressed up in drag and show up to a theater with a few hundred friends and act batshit crazy for a couple of hours. Look, anytime a movie can make a grown dude throw on a pair of garters and a push-up bra, you have to give it its due, and so here we are.
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