What exactly is a cult film? The term gets thrown around a lot, but there are a number of misconceptions that are often attributed to it. For instance, a cult film does not necessarily mean the movie bombed at the box office, even though that is often the case. And it also does not mean the movie is overflowing with gratuitous sex and violence, though that’s often the case as well.
Instead, a cult film is simply a movie that has gained a passionate and persistent following. These fanbases often participate in multiple viewings of the film, quote the dialogue, and even emulate the characters in some cases. This can be because the movie is so enjoyable that it demands repeat viewings, or because it is downright awful and needs to be appreciated ironically.
Cult classics are often divisive films, which is why you will probably either love a cult classic or absolutely hate it. On the flip side, pretty much everyone loves the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, so no one needs to walk around championing Indiana Jones. But if a movie receives a fair amount of backlash or if it bombed at the box office, fans of the film need to take up the cause and let others know that it's still a film that's worth checking out.
Let’s see how many of these cult films you can name!
A 1975 musical
Possibly the biggest cult film of all time, this 1975 horror-comedy musical claims the title for the longest-running theatrical release of all time. The film stars Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter, Susan Sarandon as Janet Weiss, and Barry Bostwick as Brad Majors. Initially a box office flop, the film went on to become an extremely popular midnight movie, especially during the month of October. Here, audiences would dress up like the characters, act out scenes in tandem with the film, and yell and throw things at the screen.
A 1998 comedy
Originally considered a box office failure, grossing just $17 million against a $15 million budget, this 1998 cult classic has gone on to spawn its own annual festival and even inspire a real-world religion. The film stars Jeff Lebowski as “the Dude,” a slacker living in Los Angeles County who enjoys bowling, White Russians, and the occasional acid flashback. The film was directed by the Coen Brothers as the follow-up to their Oscar-winning Fargo, which may have been another reason that critics originally disliked this film.
A 1982 sci-fi film noir
Made on a $28 million budget, this 1982 sci-fi neo-noir film made only $33.8 million at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics. Pretty hard to believe for a movie that is now often cited as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. The film, which was helmed by master sci-fi director Ridley Scott, stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, an ex-police officer who’s job it is to track down replicants and exterminate them. A sequel starring Ford and newcomer to the franchise, Ryan Gosling, will be released in October of this year.
A 2001 thriller
If you enjoy movies that contain time travel, schizophrenic characters, and a six-foot tall demonic-looking bunny rabbit then we have just the thing for you! This 2001 film may have been favored by critics, but it failed to connect with audiences in theaters, and instead found a strong follow after it was released on DVD. The film stars Jack Gyllenhaal as the eponymous character, who is either deranged teenager or someone who has supernatural powers — possibly a bit of both. The film asks many questions and gives few answers, which makes it so intriguing to watch again and again.
A 1981 b-movie horror flick
Made on a shoestring budget, this 1981 horror film directed by Sam Raimi made $2.6 million at the worldwide box office and went on to spawn two sequels, a remake, and TV show that's currently airing on Starz. The film stars Bruce Campbell as Ash, a college student who ventures into the woods with some friend who accidentally end up unleashing demonic forces upon themselves. The film is the epitome of the “cabin in the woods” horror film, which remains just as creepy today as it was at the time of its release.
A 1999 gen-x anthem
Believe it or not, this 1999 cult classic actually received mixed reviews from critics and was a box-office bomb in the United States at the time of its release. Directed by David Fincher, the film stars Edward Norton as the Narrator and Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden — an imaginary character subconsciously created by the Narrator. The film divided critics and audiences alike, who often enjoyed the acting and the style of the film, but were hung up on the relentless violence and over nihilistic tone of the film.
A 1969 road-tripping adventure
This 1969 film, made on a meager budget of $360,000 grossed a whopping $60 million during its run in theaters, going on to become the third highest-grossing film of that year. The film follows two bikers who sell a large quantity of cocaine and end up traveling throughout the American Southwest. The film featured real drug use and perfectly captured the highs and lows of the 1960s hippie movement. The film starred Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson in one of his first notable big screen roles.
A 2003 romantic drama
Most cult movies become cult movies because they are undiscovered gems that gain traction through DVD sales or online streaming. This is NOT one of those movies. Instead, this 2003 film written, directed and starring Tommy Wiseau has been called the Citizen Kane of terrible movies. The film was meant to be romantic drama, but the acting, dialogue, plot line, and pretty much everything else featured here are beyond horrible. It’s one of those movies so bad that it needs to be seen. Sometimes multiple times.
A 1974 horror
You know a movie has a cult following when it inspires a handful of sequels, spin-offs, remakes, video games and even a comic book! This low-budget 1974 horror film, written and directed by Tobe Hooper, centers on a group of friends who are hunted and killed by a family of cannibals — the most notable one being Leatherface. This film was at the forefront of the slasher genre, though it contains nearly no gore itself, but gives off an overwhelming grimy and unsettling feel, causing it to be banned in several countries.
A 1979 thriller
Originally met with negative reviews from critics, this 1979 thriller has been reexamined over time and is now considered a late ‘70s classic. Many of the initial negative reviews may have stemmed from a number of real-life violent incidents that took place during the film's opening week, carried out by those who were either on their way to see this film or those who had just left. The film centers around a young NYC street gang who is framed for murder and must fight to escape the clutches of their enemies.
A 1971 dark comedy
This 1971 black comedy revolves around an 18-year-old young man who is obsessed with death and his 79-year-old girlfriend who believes that every day is a new adventure. It goes without saying that this is not your conventional romance flick, but rather an existential drama that tries to take a different approach to examining life and death. The film was a box office bomb that was met with mixed reviews by critics, but it has continued to persist over time, gaining a cult following and eventually turning a profit over a decade after its release.
A bureaucratic 1985 sci-fi
Drawing from George Orwell’s iconic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, this 1985 British sci-fi film failed to land with American audiences during its initial run but is now considered one of the greatest films in its genre. The film was written and directed by Terry Gilliam, who would go on to make the equally trippy films 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The film centers around a man who searches for the women he’s seen in his dreams while living in a dystopian, totalitarian future.
A 1965 exploitation
Though initially a critical and commercial failure, this 1965 exploitation film has continued to be an inspiration to filmmakers today and was one of the primary influences for Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof. While many critics called the film equivalent to soft-core pornography at the time of its release, standards have certainly changed in the last 50 years, and the film now holds a “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story follows three go-go dancers who embark on a murder spree through the American desert.
A 1968 horror
This 1968 low-budget horror film is responsible for turning the “zombie” to the creatures that we recognize them as today. The film also helped reinvent the entire horror genre, by making the villain seemingly motiveless, and offering a nihilistic look at the world where the hero doesn’t always win. The film was directed by George A. Romero, who would go on to make a number of sequels further exploring the zombie epidemic. This first installment focuses on a group of survivors as the fight off the walking dead at a rural farmhouse.
A 1993 teenage comedy
Few movies have characters that you’d actually want to hang out with in real life, which is probably what makes this 1993 coming-of-age comedy so easy to watch over and over again. Though the story may be set in 1976 Austin, Texas, the film shows us that not much has changed when it comes to being a high schooler on the verge of summer vacation. The film was directed by Richard Linklater and stars many actors who have gone on to become A-listers, including Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck.
A 1984 sci-fi comedy
For a film that had a low budget, no big movie stars, and a fairly wacky story, this cult classic went on to become one of the best-reviewed movies of 1984. The film stars a young Emilio Esteves as Otto, a punk rock teenager who takes a job at a repossession agency after being fired from his job as a supermarket stock boy. But little does Otto know that the car he’s sent to repossess is storing an extraterrestrial life-form! The film was praised for its depiction of Los Angels and its non-conformist storytelling.
A 1999 comedy
This 1999 off-beat comedy wasn’t originally a box office success, though it has found a rabid following in anyone who has ever had to work a boringly soul-sucking 9-to-5 day job. The film was written and directed by comedy genius Mike Judge, who was then famous for creating the Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill, who now works on HBO’s Silicon Valley. The film follows a group of lowly computer programmers who decided to rip off the company they work for a fraction of a penny at a time.
A 1994 comedy
Kevin Smith’s 1994 directorial debut was one of the films that helped define the independent movie scene that loomed large in the 1990s. The film was shot on a ridiculously tiny budget of just $27,000 and was filmed at the real-life convenience store where Smith actually worked. Many of Smith’s go to actors and recurring characters make their appearance in this cult comedy, and the film has inspired a sequel and the spin-off, titled Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
A 1986 action fantasy
Director John Carpenter is mostly known for making gritty sci-fi and horror films, but for this 1986 film, the writer/director teamed back up with one of his acting favorites, Kurt Russell, to make this lighter affair. Unfortunately, like too many of Carpenter’s movies, this one also was considered a box office failure that would once again go on to be renowned as a cult classic years after its release. Here, Russel plays Jack Burton, a truck driver who gets caught up in a fantastical underworld in San Fransisco’s Chinatown.
A 1968 sci-fi
Though this 1968 science fiction film is now regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, it had a rocky start amongst audience and critics, who were divided over the film’s narrative structure and its deliberately slow pacing. During its original box office run, this Stanley Kubrick film only grossed near $30 million against a $12 million budget. But once word of mouth spread the film continued to gain popularity in the proceeding years and decades and is now regarded as one of the most influential and scientifically accurate films in the genre.
A 2000 dark comedy
Based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Brett Easton Ellis, this 2000 black comedy stars Christian Bale as a psychotic stockbroker named Patrick Bateman who goes on a murderous rampage. Or does he? Much like the source material the film leaves many questions unanswered and isn’t interested in being a murder mystery, but more of an observation on materialism and greed. Even 17 years after its release, the film has spawned an internet following, who have made Patrick Batman the figure of various gifs and memes.
A 1985 adventure
Believe it or not, the success of this 1985 film (along with 1988’s Beetlejuice) is what ended up getting director Tim Burton hired to make the 1989 live-action adaptation of Batman starring Michael Keaton. This off-beat comedy was inspired by a TV show based on the titular character, in which Paul Reuben’s plays a quirky man-child who’s on a quest to locate his stolen bicycle. The film retains a strong following today and has spawned two subsequent sequels, one released in 1988 and anther in 2016.
A 1992 crime thriller
For his first feature film, writer/director Quentin Tarantino decided to make this 1992 heist film that never actually shows the heist. The independent film was made on a $1.2 million budget and stars Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth, as a group of criminals who set out to rob a jewelry store when they discover they’ve just walked into a trap. The film may not get as much attention as Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds, but it's a beloved film amongst true Tarantino fanatics.
A 1971 sci-fi
Based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, this 1971 film directed by Stanley Kubrick stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, a demented young man who enjoys drugs, violence and Ludwig van Beethoven. Though the film initially received an X rating and was condemned by certain religious organization for its excessive sex and violence, the film was a hit amongst audiences at the time of its release, and it retains a strong following today by packing just as big of a punch now as it did in the 1970s.
A 1982 sci-fi horror
Writer/director John Carpenter has made a number of films that are now considered cult classics, and this 1982 film may be one of his most recognized films today. The film stars Carpenter favorite Kurt Russel as a helicopter pilot stationed in Antarctica with a team of scientist who stumbles upon an extraterrestrial discovery. The film competed at the box office against E.T. and Blade Runner, where it failed to gain an audience; however, today it is often cited as one of the best sci-fi horror films ever made.
A 1996 dark comedy
This 1996 dark comedy was actually fortunate enough to enjoy widespread acclaim at the time of its release, being hailed by critics and becoming a box-office success. But even after 20 years since its release the film still has a strong following, earning it the title of cult classic, which went on to spawn a sequel just earlier this year that was still enjoyable in its own right. The story centers around a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland, and remains just as relevant today as it was at the time of its release.
A 1968 sci-fi
This 1968 sci-fi flick was based on the French comic character of the same name, and starred actress Jane Fonda in the title role. The story centers around the action heroine, who is sent out to locate the evil scientist Durand Durand and stop him from using his Positronic Ray to destroy the galaxy. The film was a commercial success in the United Kingdom though critics were split over the film, with some praising its visuals and special effects, while others criticizing the weak plot that falls apart after the first act.
A 1985 horror comedy
Loosely based on the novella by famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, this 1985 sci-fi horror comedy centers around a young scientist who has discovered a serum that brings corpses back to life. The film was written and directed by Stuart Gordon and stars Jeffrey Combs as the slightly mad scientist and Bruce Abbott as his more reasonable roommate. Despite its abundance of gore and an X-rating, this horror film was actually well received by many mainstream critics who found the film to be a smart and very self-aware horror comedy.
A 1975 comedy
Despite being made over 40 years ago, this 1975 British comedy is just as quotable now as it was at the time of its release. The film, which is equal parts slapstick and satire, is set in the Middle Ages and was shot on location in Scotland, featuring comedic actors John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam. The film is often considered one of the greatest comedies of all time and even spawned a successful Broadway play, titled Spamalot, which went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.
A 1979 action
Released in 1979, this exploitation action flick starred Mel Gibson as the title character in one of his first big screen roles. The film was shot in Australia and is set in a dystopian future where a police officer embarks on a revenge spree against a violent motorcycle gang. The film quickly developed a strong following and spawned two sequels, both starring Gibson and directed by George Miller. A series reboot, also directed by Miller, was released in 2015 to critical and commercial acclaim.
A 1975 sci-fi
This 1975 sci-fi comedy stars a young Don Johnson as Vic, a boy struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. Vic’s only company for the majority of the film is his dog, Blood, with whom he can communicate telepathically. While the two make the best of what they can scavenge, Vic is coerced into venturing into an underground city, where he is captured and used for his ability to reproduce. Though the film was not well known at the time of its release it has developed a cult following and even served as inspiration for the Fallout video game series.
A 1989 dark comedy
This 1989 black comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater follows a group of three popular high school girls who all happen to share the same name. Though the film won over critics at the time of its release, the film was a box office failure, grossing just over $1 million against a $3 million budget. But since then the film has found its audience through home and online releases and is now considered one of the best high school movies of all time.
A 1977 horror
David Lynch’s first feature-length film may not have gotten much attention or money from mainstream audiences, but it did earn the writer/director praise from film critics and fellow directors during its time on the midnight movie circuit. This surrealist horror film stars Jack Nance as Henry Spencer, a man who must take care of his horribly deformed child in an industrial wasteland. The film features a number of dream sequences and hallucinations that play like a bad drug trip, and it’s fair to say that this film is not for the faint of heart.
A 1959 sci-fi
Often considered as one of the worst movies ever made, this 1959 sci-fi horror film centers around a group of aliens who seek to stop humans from making a doomsday weapon and thus decide to raise the dead on Earth to reek havoc. The making of this film became the focal point of the 1994 biographical comedy Ed Wood, which starred Johnny Depp as the quirky director who would helm this 1950s cult classic, along with a number of other equally terrible films.
A 1995 erotic drama
This 1995 erotic film is notable for being the only NC-17 movie to receive a widespread release in theaters, though it would ultimately go on to be a box office bomb. The film stars Elizabeth Berkley from Saved by the Bell fame, along with Kyle MacLachlan from Twin Peaks. The film, which was directed by Paul Verhoeven, is chalk full of kinky and ridiculously over-the-top sex scenes, which would eventually make it a hit on VHS and DVD, ultimately make its budget back, and establish this film as a kitschy cult classic.