What’s your favorite cult movie? Although the qualities that define a cult movie are somewhat amorphous, generally speaking, films that have inspired an unusually devoted group of fans are labeled as cult movies. And while some film critics have argued that the label should only be applied to lesser-known, underground films, nowadays, there are many mainstream big-budget films that are widely regarded as cult movies due to their lasting popularity with committed groups of fans.
Perhaps the only distinguishing trait everyone can agree upon is that cult movies have some type of unusual aspect that sets them apart from most other movies. In short, cult movies are weird.
With no widely agreed-upon definition and with legions of passionate fans ready to argue the merits of their particular favorites, any top 10 list of cult movies is pretty much guaranteed not to please everyone. Nevertheless, we have decided to wade into this ongoing debate with our own list of the top 10 cult movies that every serious cinephile should see. Films are listed in the order of their release dates.
1. El Topo (1970)
Alejandro Jodorowsky wrote, directed, and starred in this surreal film that might be best described as a mystical western. In the film, a skilled sharpshooter dressed in black travels on horseback with his young son, who he is training to become a gunfighter like himself. However, after killing a sadistic leader known as “the Colonel,” the gunfighter abandons his son with a group of monks and leaves with a mysterious woman. After that, the story becomes increasingly stranger as the man in black encounters four gun masters, a group of deformed underground dwellers, and a society of racist religious fanatics.
During the 1970s, El Topo became a staple of midnight movie screenings at theaters, where it caught the eye of John Lennon, who helped finance Jodorowsky’s next film, The Guardian reports. Unfortunately, a dispute with the distributor prevented El Topo from being released in the U.S. on DVD until 2007. The longtime unavailability of El Topo in America only seemed to add to the movie’s mystique, and today, more than 40 years after its original release, the film still has a devoted fan base.
2. Harold and Maude (1971)
Directed by Hal Ashby, Harold and Maude tells the unusual love story of the titular characters, a young man named Harold and an elderly woman named Maude. In the film, Harold is a wealthy 20-something who has a morbid fascination with death and spends his days simulating various methods of suicide and attending funerals. At one of these funerals, Harold meets the love of his life: the 79-year-old Maude. Although she appears to have a positive effect on Harold’s glum outlook, the carefree Maude has her own death issues, since she plans on ending her life at the age of 80.
While Harold and Maude received mixed reviews from the critics when it was first released, the film has since garnered a loyal cult following from fans who appreciate its unique brand of dark humor. Besides the unlikely romance between its two main characters, this cult movie classic is notable for its stellar soundtrack that features several original songs composed and performed by renowned musician Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam).
3. Pink Flamingos (1972)
John Waters directed, wrote, produced, and narrated this 1972 cult movie that is still probably his best-known film. In the movie, drag queen Divine plays an underground criminal figure who lives in a pink trailer with her mother and son, and relishes her title as “the Filthiest Person Alive.” When rivals Connie and Raymond Marble make a bid to usurp Divine’s title, the two opposing groups of bizarre characters engage in a contest to outdo each other in repulsive behavior. This contest culminates with the film’s notorious closing scene, which only moviegoers with strong stomachs should watch.
Like many of the other films on this list, Pink Flamingos became popular via late-night movie screenings at theaters. With its controversial and deliberately transgressive content, Pink Flamingos remains one of the most famous cult films ever made, and its ongoing popularity is reflected in its relatively high 80% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.
4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
If there’s one film that everyone can agree deserves to be called a cult movie, it’s probably The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman, this musical comedy-horror film has become an international social phenomenon. In the film, a young couple with a broken-down car seeks help at a nearby castle, where they encounter a group of bizarre characters led by an extraterrestrial transvestite (played with relish by Tim Curry in his feature film debut).
Despite being 40 years old this year, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is still shown in many movie theaters around the world and holds the record for the longest theatrical release in film history, according to IMDb. It has become tradition for fans to watch the film dressed as their favorite characters while shouting standardized responses to the action happening onscreen.
The ongoing popularity of The Rocky Horror Picture Show has even led to a recent effort to remake the film for television. Fox is reportedly developing a two-hour remake special to celebrate the movie’s 40th anniversary, although it’s debatable whether fans of the original will appreciate a TV network tampering with such a beloved cult classic.
5. Eraserhead (1977)
With its haunting sound design and disturbing surreal imagery, Eraserhead may be David Lynch’s most cryptic film. The titular character in Eraserhead is an anxious factory worker named Henry (Jack Nance) who lives in a nightmarish industrial city. During a dinner at the house of his girlfriend’s parents, Henry is invited to carve a disgusting “chicken” that writhes and bleeds on the table.
His girlfriend’s mother informs Henry that his girlfriend is pregnant and that they must get married. However, the “baby” is a monstrous-looking creature that doesn’t seem to be human. After moving in together, Henry attempts to care for the creature, but the baby becomes feverish and sick. From that point, the movie becomes even less comprehensible, as a singing woman appears in a radiator and Henry makes the fateful decision to open the baby’s swaddling. Yech.
Although the initial critical reaction to Eraserhead was mixed, the film has since been widely recognized as a masterpiece and was even added to the Library of Congress’s prestigious National Film Registry in 2004. According to Uncut, notable fans of this cult classic include writer Charles Bukowski, director Stanley Kubrick, and musician Tom Waits.
6. The Warriors (1979)
Directed by Walter Hill, The Warriors is set in a dystopian future, when various violent gangs share control of New York City. In the film, a gang known as the Warriors is falsely accused of killing a popular leader named Cyrus. This forces the Warriors to battle their way through various hostile gang territories in order to reach their home on Coney Island.
With its combination of stunning visuals, over-the-top violence, and quotable dialogue, The Warriors seems to have been intentionally designed to become a cult movie. Unlike many other movies that have achieved cult status, The Warriors was a box office success, with nearly $22.5 million in domestic gross, according to Box Office Mojo.
Several incidents of real violence that were linked to The Warriors when it was first released only seemed to increase the film’s popularity, according to Time. The Warriors still has a strong cult following today, and the film continues to be shown in revival theaters around the world.
7. The Big Lebowski (1998)
In this Coen brothers-directed crime comedy, a laid-back, pot-smoking character named “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges) muddles his way through a series of absurd events that seem to have started with a case of mistaken identity. Helping him on his quest to solve the mystery are the Dude’s bowling buddies, the mild-mannered Donny (Steve Buscemi) and the high-strung Walter (John Goodman).
Like many movies that go on to develop cult followings, The Big Lebowski was considered a box office failure, with a total domestic gross of just $17.4 million, according to Box Office Mojo. However, since its original theatrical release, the film has developed a cult following from fans who refer to themselves as “achievers” and who strive to emulate the Dude’s slacker lifestyle. The film has even spawned annual gatherings across the world known as Lebowski Fests, where like-minded fans can share in their love of bowling, bathrobes, and White Russians. And if you don’t know why those things are significant, then you obviously haven’t seen The Big Lebowski, man.
8. Office Space (1999)
Mike Judge turned his satirical eye on the American workplace in this 1999 comedy about disgruntled IT workers at a software company. With a $10.8 million domestic box office gross that barely covered its production budget, Office Space was considered a flop when it made its debut in 1999, according to Box Office Mojo. Luckily, Office Space got a second wind when it was released on DVD, and today, this film is widely considered a cult classic that perfectly captures the experience of many white-collar office workers.
The film’s popularity has even impacted the design of a common office product. According to The Wall Street Journal, Swingline introduced a bright red stapler to the company’s product line in 2002 due to requests from fans of Office Space who wanted the famous red stapler that was a cherished possession of one of the film’s characters.
9. Donnie Darko (2001)
While the 1970s were a particularly fruitful era for the production of many films that are considered cult classics today, Donnie Darko proves that a film doesn’t have to be decades old before it reaches cult status. This strange science fiction film barely made a ripple at the box office when it was released in theaters in 2001, but after it was released on DVD the following year, it soon became a cult hit, USA Today writes.
Directed and written by Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko tells the story of a troubled teenager who frequently dreams about a mysterious figure dressed as a ghoulish rabbit who delivers cryptic messages. His efforts to uncover the meaning of those dreams soon lead him to explore strange theories about time travel and the possible end of the world. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the titular character, while Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jake’s real-life sister) plays Donnie Darko’s sister, Elizabeth. Other notable costars include Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, and Noah Wyle. A sequel to Donnie Darko, S. Darko, was made in 2009, but it failed to achieve the cult status of the original film.
10. The Room (2003)
The Room is the brainchild of amateur filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film. While most cult movies are well-made films that just happen to have quirky aspects that make them appealing to certain subcultures, The Room has achieved its cult status by simply being a poorly made film. Thanks to its wooden acting, nonsensical dialogue, and continuity errors, The Room has become a cult favorite for fans of unintentionally hilarious cinema.
The Room has even inspired audience participation rituals similar to the ones seen at late-night screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, reports Entertainment Weekly. Audience members throw plastic cutlery at the screen every time a framed picture of a spoon appears and yell “Focus!” during the movie’s out-of-focus scenes. While it remains to be seen if The Room will have the staying power of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or even The Big Lebowski, this so-bad-it’s-good film has maintained its popularity with fans for more than 10 years now.
All movie cast, crew, and awards information are courtesy of IMDb.
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