There’s much disagreement over what exactly constitutes a cult film, but one thing that most people agree on is that the movie must at least have a devoted, passionate fan base. The best cult films span a variety of genres and all have unique origin stories. They include movies that were ahead of their time that didn’t resonate with mainstream audiences but found a dedicated niche or greatly influenced cinematic history despite modest ticket sales.
The rise of cult movies really began with home video, which allowed box office flops to find new audiences in people’s living rooms. Social media and online file-sharing have further increased movies’ ability to quickly find an audience beyond the multiplex. In fact, some of today’s most beloved cult classic movies actually started out as critical and commercial failures.
Updated on July 26, 2023, by Luc Haasbroek:
We all enjoy a good blockbuster, but sometimes you want something a little more off-the-beaten-path. Fortunately, there are plenty of cult classics to choose from. These films were dismissed on release but went on to develop loyal fan bases. Ranging from sci-fi horror to violent comedies, they are sure to scratch even the most niche itch.
15 ‘The Hunger’ (1983)
This erotic horror directed by Tony Scott centers on vampire Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and her companion John (David Bowie), both living among the mortal world. Miriam, who was once an Egyptian queen, grants her lovers the gift of immortality. However, when John begins to rapidly age and crumble, he seeks the help of Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a scientist specializing in aging.
The Hunger received mixed reviews on release, with Scott saying, “Hollywood just hated that movie. They called it, ‘Esoteric, artsy-fartsy’.” However, in the intervening decades, The Hunger has garnered a cult following, particularly within the goth subculture. Subsequent reviewers have also been more positive, with social critic Camilla Paglia dubbing The Hunger a near-masterpiece.
14 ‘Idiocracy’ (2006)
After a botched hibernation experiment, army librarian Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) wakes up 500 years in the future in a dystopian world ruled by corporations and where everyone is utterly moronic. The president (Terry Crews) is a former pro wrestler and the nation’s crops are being watered with an energy drink.
Idiocracy was a major box office flop, grossing just $495,000 against a budget of $2.4 million. Nevertheless, it had a second life on home video, earning $9 million in DVD rentals. It has since been praised for being prescient. For instance, some of its jokes about the dysfunctional political process now hit a little too close to home.
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13 ‘Josie and the Pussycats’ (2001)
Josie and the Pussycats is a musical comedy based on the popular Archie Comics series. It follows the rise of the rock band consisting of Josie McCoy (Rachael Leigh Cook), Valerie Brown (Rosario Dawson), and Melody Valentine (Tara Reid). The trio’s lives take an unexpected turn when they are manipulated by a sinister record executive, Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming), who uses subliminal messages in their music to control the minds of teenagers.
Josie and the Pussycats grossed $14 million against a budget of at least $22 million, and was savaged by most critics. It has been reappraised in recent years, however. Some critics have labeled the movie ahead of its time, with particular praise for its satire of product placement and the music industry.
12 ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ (1984)
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is a quirky sci-fi that combines action, comedy, and a touch of the absurd. Peter Weller stars as the titular Buckaroo, a brilliant neurosurgeon, particle physicist, and rock musician. He and his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, stumble upon a device that allows them to travel through solid matter. This leads them right into the middle of an interdimensional plot by the evil Red Lectroids from Planet 10.
A box office bomb that’s worth watching, it has since become a cult classic. It’s certainly an odd movie that won’t appeal to everyone, but a certain kind of sci-fi fan is sure to enjoy it.
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11 ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ (1965)
Director Russ Meyer was a master of exploitation cinema, and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! might be his most entertaining project. It revolves around three go-go dancers with a penchant for violence and fast cars. The trio, Varla (Tura Satana), Rosi (Haji), and Billie (Lori Williams), embark on a spree of kidnapping, murder, and mayhem.
The film is heavily stylized, like a live-action cartoon. On release, it was commercially unsuccessful and critically reviled, but Faster, Pussycat! has since been recognized as a landmark exploitation flick that influenced countless filmmakers.
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10 ‘Heathers’ (1989)
This black comedy revolves around a high school clique of four girls: three named Heather, and one named Veronica (Winona Ryder). The Heathers terrorize Veronica, and Veronica dreams of escaping their toxicity. She gets her chance after she meets a mysterious new kid J.D. (Christian Slater). They fall in love, and Veronica becomes entangled in J.D’s plot to murder the Heathers and stage their deaths as suicides.
Heathers was a box office flop, grossing a little over $1 million against its $3 million budget, but its popularity grew after it was released on VHS and LaserDisc. It’s since garnered a large cult following. Critics’ perception of Heathers has also improved substantially in the decades since its release. It has been praised for inverting teen movie tropes and delivering a withering satire of high school, which was a major departure from the teen movies that were popular in the 1980s.
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9 ‘Dazed and Confused’ (1993)
When it premiered, Dazed and Confused was a disappointment, grossing only $8 million on a budget of $6.9 million. Despite its modest opening, the movie has since become a cinematic touchstone and a must-see ’90s cult classic. It’s also remembered for its phenomenal yet ridiculous montages that truly captured the vibe and energy of that era.
Its ensemble cast includes many actors who would go on to become stars, like Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Renée Zellweger, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey. Of course, it introduced McConaughey’s catchphrase: “Alright, alright, alright.”
8 ‘Donnie Darko’ (2001)
A young Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this offbeat sc-fi about a troubled teenager who has visions of a rabbit bringing warnings about the future. Its initial release was a disaster, as the film raked in just over half a million dollars. A large part of this was due to the film’s lack of advertising. Its trailer included a plane crash, which the studio felt would not go down well with audiences in 2001, just six weeks after 9/11.
Donnie Darko would be released later, eventually earning significantly more than its debut. It has since been praised for its philosophical themes and for transcending genre limitations and is beloved by many cult film fans the world over.
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7 ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ (2001)
This warm-hearted comedy follows a group of mostly teenage counselors on the last day of camp. Wet Hot American Summer received mostly negative reviews on release and made a loss at the box office. Director David Wain called it a “financial disaster.”
However, with each passing year, it appears that Wet Hot American Summer gets more popular. Like Dazed and Confused, Wet Hot American Summer features an ensemble cast including many future A-listers, like Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and Bradley Cooper in his film debut. Its appeal shows no signs of abating. Netflix released a prequel series in 2015, followed by a sequel series in 2017.
6 ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975)
The initial reaction to The Rocky Horror Picture Show was negative, and most moviegoers ignored it. The film’s cult following only began after New York’s Waverly Theater began midnight screenings. Soon, fans started shouting the movie’s lines during screenings, which eventually evolved into full-blown audience participation. Rocky Horror fan clubs popped up around the world, and stage productions of the film proliferated.
Rocky Horror remains in limited releaseto this day, making it the longest-running theatrical release in movie history. Its soundtrack also continues to serve as an anthem for misfits everywhere. “Let’s do the Time Warp again!”
5 ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ (2010)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World made a loss at the box office, but it has since become one of Edgar Wright‘s best movies. Its popularity grew so much that large celebrations and a cast reunion were held to mark its 10-year anniversary. Directors Quentin Tarantino and Jason Reitman have expressed their love of the film. Even hip-hop stars like Lil Uzi Vert and Kid Cudi have released projects that overtly reference Scott Pilgrim.
Scott Pilgrim has also been the subject of a significant amount of scholarly analysis. Several academics have called it a “transmedia narrative,” meaning one which employs a variety of creative techniques. For example, it frequently makes use of sequences reminiscent of comic books and video games. These techniques have since been used by several films, but they were stylistically daring in 2010.
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4 ‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
Believe it or not, Ridley Scott‘s dystopian sci-fi wasn’t always so beloved. It actually underperformed in theaters and drew mostly negative reviews. This might be because the film serves up a much bleaker, harsher future than the sunnier sci-fis that were popular at the time, like Star Trek and Star Wars.
Over time Blade Runnerhas become one of the movies with cult followings. These days it is widely recognized as one of the finest achievements in sci-fi cinema. It was a landmark in the development of the cyberpunk genre and exerted considerable influence on later movies, video games, and anime. Blade Runner also prompted Hollywood to adapt several more novels by Philip K. Dick, including Total Recall,Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.
3 ‘Jennifer’s Body’ (2009)
Jennifer’s Body is a comedy-horror starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried and written by Diablo Cody, the screenwriter behind Juno and Young Adult. It performed poorly at the box office and critics had a lukewarm reaction. Cody argues that a large part of this was because 20th Century Fox marketed the film “all wrong”. Advertising promoted it as a run-of-the-mill horror, with a big focus on Megan Fox’s star power.
In recent years, Jennifer’s Body has been re-examined by critics. In particular, after the #MeToo movement, some critics have argued that Jennifer’s Body was ahead of its time as a feminist film and it is now often cited alongside the best cult classic movies.
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2 ‘The Thing’ (1982)
Kurt Russell stars in this iconic sci-fi horror movie from director John Carpenter about a team of Antarctic researchers who are attacked by a shape-shifting alien. It had a disappointing theatrical run and drew negative, even hostile, reviews. Some commentators have suggested that The Thing‘s bleak tone and dark story did not connect with 1982 audiences who were seeking out more escapist fare like E.T.
Nevertheless, The Thing had a second life on home video and TV. It has since come to be regarded as Carpenter’s masterpiece and one of the best horror movies ever made. Some leading directors of the next generation like J.J. Abrams, Guillermo Del Toro, and Edgar Wright have cited it as an influence. Not to mention, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is an overt homage to The Thing. The Hateful Eight shares much in common with Carpenter’s film, from the snowy setting and themes of mistrust to the same lead actor and an original score from Ennio Morricone, who also produced the music for The Thing.
1 ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)
It may come as a surprise since The Wizard of Oz is one of the most iconic movies of all time, but it was not a hit when it first came out. It failed to make a profit until it was re-released a decade later. In fact, the movie only really connected with audiences after CBS broadcasted it on TV in 1956.
Since then, The Wizard of Oz has, of course, become one of cinema’s most beloved classics. It has appeared on scores of critics’ lists of the best movies ever. Its music and imagery, from Dorothy’s (Judy Garland) ruby slippers to the witch’s feet jutting out from beneath Dorothy’s house, are seared into the public imagination. It’s sure to continue to delight audiences for decades to come.
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NEXT: The Top Classic Films (According to Rotten Tomatoes)