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By Alyssa Miller · April 19, 2023
When a movie gains the status of a cult classic, it’s hard to not overanalyze and obsess over what makes the film a cornerstone of cinema. Cult movies come in all varieties–ranging from sweeping arthouse narratives about the fundamental aspects of life worth pondering about to bloody, gag-fueled fever dreams–but are nonetheless works of genuine, possessive devotion and love at their core.
While there is no concrete formula to creating a beloved cult classic, the status of a cult film is its ability to capture the imagination of the audience, inspiring the devoted following to express a part of themselves through the film’s narrative.
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Let’s take a look at movies with humble or overlooked beginnings that rose to prominence through the support of their devotees. Whether these films were too edgy for the mainstream audiences, comedies ahead of their time, or small indies that influenced a new wave in Hollywood, these are the cult films with the biggest followings that you need to watch at least twice in your lifetime.
There is a good reason why Clue lives in infamy. The outrageousness of the film was unceasing, and, in its attempt to elevate its source material for an adult audience, the film played its audience with multiple endings that would often change after each screening. This drove people up the wall, with many going to the theaters to try and watch all three different endings. Over time, we cherish the ambition of writer/director Jonathan Lynn who wanted to make create a film experience like no other. This is a film that exists solely for itself, and we will gladly join this cast and their wild reasoning skills in this classic whodunnit.
Labyrinth is one of Jim Henson’s darker and stranger films when compared to his other works. The film launched Jennifer Connelly into stardom while David Bowie strutted around his muppet minions in his Tina Turner wig while holding (and often singing to) a toddler he kidnapped. Labyrinth is a high-fantasy musical that is strangely captivating and bizarre with its fantastic power pop numbers and the Goblin King (Bowie) throwing the child into the air and walking away will also send a weird jolt of joy into our hearts.
I am and will always be a fan of a film that casts older actresses in leading roles that are complicated, developed, and see the weirdos who don’t fit into any mold. The 79-year-old Maude’s (Ruth Gordon) love for life and the 20-year-old Harold’s (Bud Cort) longing for death makes them a strange pair, but there is something that fundamentally changes them and the audience once they both learn to fully cherish life. Strangely, this film feels like a dream that is urging you to understand that life is worth living in any way that feels authentic to you. Cult movies are loved for being weird and campy, but they also appeal to another layer of humanity that encourages us to keep being the best and most authentic versions we can be, and Harold and Maude is no exception.
The bombastic Off-broadway rock opera is a sensation that cannot and will not be underscored. This glam rock musical is loud and in your face, as the most infectious music shakes your soul. Hedwig is as fearless as the ‘90s and proudly tasteless as the ‘70s glam rock, this is a queer story that demands to be heard, and we hear it. This one is for the theater community, the music-loving misfits, and those of us who love a good musical.
There is something laughable and honorable about an inexperienced filmmaker making a medieval epic on a $250,000 budget, yet the Monty Python Terries (Gilliam and Jones) did it. The low budget lent itself to the visual comedy of the film, the troupe adopting clopping coconuts instead of horses, the decapitating Rabbit of Caerbannog with a bloody stunt plushy, and an arrest scene that replaced a pricey big battle. Still, the production ran out of money, so the crew finished the film as best as they could. What remained was a film that was peak comedy for seven-year-old me and a couple of thousand others.Download the script!
The former Monty Python player, Terry Gilliam, found a way to adapt an odd-ball book that blends together themes of grotesqueness, wonder, beauty, profundity, rage, and nihilism against the background of Las Vegas. Gilliam’s portrayal of Thompson’s chaotic writing truly is no small feat, and Johnny Depp’s Raoul and Benicio Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo take us through the fear and loathing of drug-fueled nightmares that find clarity and truth in the end. Despite Roger Ebert’s infamous one-star review of the film, which states that the film “can’t communicate the genius beneath the madness,” Fear and Loathing finds a way to showcase something that can’t make sense to anyone who isn’t consumed by the madness. It’s a book and script worth indulging in if you have the time.
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From the endless quotes, reboot, musical, and iconic fashion moments that seem to bleed back into the culture every other year, Heathers is an unstoppable satire on High School that wasn’t appreciated when first released. High School is hell, and screenwriter Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann found a way to capture the chaos and unruliness of High School life through the eyes of an outsider who stood on the inside. The characters are deeply complex, although they present themselves as shallow and surface-level. It’s this level of identity dress-up that drew so many people to this explosive story.Download the script!
While we are on the subject of futuristic body horror movies, we have to talk about one of the most beloved anime films of all time that served as a source of influence for Jordan Peele’s, Nope. Director Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is a highly styled tech noir that has insane visuals that will melt your mind over and over again. The film’s balance of friendship, class dynamics, and the desire to be something more than what you take the film to a catastrophic place beyond our understanding. Sure, the Akira slide is cool, but I’m still obsessing over the animation of Tetsuo losing control in the stadium.
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Like Akira, director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a tech noir that is a stunning achievement in cinema. Inspired by Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Scott created a thematic complexity and visuals through a slow-burning pace and lack of action that challenged the action films of the time. The art-house approach to the not-so-distant future and the complex question behind what makes someone “human” make Blade Runner an instant cult classic that fans have been dissecting for the last 40 years.
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John Carpenter’s They Live is The Matrix of the ‘80s. The film follows an unassuming protagonist who uncovers the secrets behind the world they are living in. The staggering difference is that The Live takes place in sunny Los Angeles and features a whole lot of aliens trying to control the mass public through subliminal corporate messaging. Carpenter’s blend of post-Reagan American anticapitalist anxiety and extreme ‘80s bro-camp is tied together by his exciting direction and electrifying score. The film is also punctuated by quotable one-liners and an iconic fight between Roddy Piper and Kieth David.
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Not only did Bloodsport make a notable profit on its budget of $2 million and popularize the concept of full contact and mixed-style martial arts competition among its mainstream audiences, but it introduced the world to Jean-Claude Van Damme and his splits. Bloodsport is not a perfect movie by any means. Instead, it is a campy version of the action-hero movies that plagued the ‘80s. It asks the audience to not put any stakes into the film but to have a good time and enjoy the highly illegal, yet very easy-to-find, Kumite.
A Clockwork Orange is Stanley Kubrick and his style of filmmaking on full display. Released during a time when teenage delinquency was high, Kubrick’s visually hypnotizing film that half-heartedly looks at morality and human nature immediately drove the misfits to the theater. The themes of delinquency, corrupt power structures, and dehumanization are still relevant in today’s society, which draws newer audiences to the brutality of one of Kubrick’s most iconic films.
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Some films gain cult status by reflecting on niche social groups who don’t often get recognized in the pop culture, but American Psycho leans into the yuppie culture that was deemed aspirational and necessary for a certain type of class. In the hands of writer/director Mary Harron, the film is graphic, strangely funny, and twisted as reality and fantasy merge together and lose any sense of identity.
Read More: 5 Plot Point Breakdown: American Psycho (2000)Download the script!
It is impossible to separate Reservoir Dogs from the rise of arthouse cinema lover Quentin Tarantino. The lack of the film’s theatrical success was partially due to the fact that Tarantino wasn’t Tarantino yet. Instead, he was a film-obsessed video store clerk. Reservoir Dogs eventually found its audience on home video and moved from the underbelly of cinema culture to the mainstream. But the film, cool and violent, is a heist movie that doesn’t show the heist. It’s the part we didn’t see often in films: the aftermath. It is quintessential Tarantino in every shape, way, and form, and we are still inspired to make something as effortlessly stylized as Tarantino’s crime-ridden world.
Read More: The Defining Scripts of TarantinoDownload the script!
If there was a recipe for a cult horror film, look no further than Sam Raimi’s indie sensation, The Evil Dead. Sure, I could include the entire trilogy to this list, but The Evil Dead’s visuals teeter between the comedic quick zooms and utterly terrifying with Raimi’s DIY handheld first-person POV rig that leaves the characters with no place to hide. Every single horror-comedy has been influenced by The Evil Dead in one way or another and will continue to be until something else redefines the genre.Download the script!
From the incredibly tense blood test scene to the isolation of the Antarctic research base, John Carpenter’s body-destroyer film rides the line between ambiguity and explanation throughout its runtime. Audiences are hooked by that first sweeping shot of the isolation, reminding us that there is nowhere to run to before introducing the threat. Rather than following the act-first-ask-questions-later mentality of many sci-fi action films, Carpenter lives in the paranoia, building a mood that corners everyone, and nobody could stand this confrontation in 1982. Over the years, more and more horror fans flocked to Carpenter’s brilliance, celebrating The Thing as one of the best horror movies to exist.
Read More: TSL Quick Look: John Carpenter’s The ThingDownload the script!
With a Holden Caulfield-type protagonist and a labyrinth plot that deals with the philosophy of time travel, Donnie Darko is the perfect film for 18 to 22-year-olds to argue about while slowly falling in love with the art of cinema. Despite this film being a total Film Bro movie, much like American Psycho, writer/director Richard Kelly rewards audiences with multiple viewings. No two fans have exactly the same theory, and though I might consider that slightly lazy writing, I will still enjoy the palpable teen angst throughout Donnie Darko.
Read More: Screenwriter Richard Kelly on Writing Donnie DarkoDownload the script!
Before David Lynch turned into the cult filmmaker who makes some of our favorite and strangest surreal films, he made Eraserhead. Scraped together with funds from AFI and his paper route for The Wall Street Journal, Lynch made his surrealist horror to deal with the bizarre and horrifying realities of adulthood. Eraserhead is disturbingly assured in what it is, giving it the undeniable status of the ultimate cult film.
Although this film was booed at its premiere at Cannes in 1992, Fire Walk With Me has recently regained its cult status. This prequel of Laura Palmer’s final days is haunting, bleak, and hard to watch as it follows Laura’s loneliness and suffering as she comes to the realization that the demonic presence assaulting her is her father. It’s a masterclass in creating a prequel to a hit TV series, and a fun dive into naturalistic surrealism.
Hollywood is obsessed with seeing itself in the media. When its portrayal is a little too realistic and excessive, Hollywood shuns the film’s existence. This is what happened to Paul Verhoeven’s erotic drama, Showgirls. Once regarded as the worst film ever made, the film was lauded amongst the LGBTQA+ community as a camp cult film for its satirical nature. Showgirls was never afraid to display a fantasy achieved through a morally corrupt nature, and that’s why we love it.
This Is Spinal Tap is a wickedly smart satirical film that is earnest in its mockumentary humor. While this is arguably the funniest movie ever made, with quotable lines that are deeply imprinted into all of our brains whether you’ve seen the movie or not, Spinal Tap is a cult film simply because of how ingrained in the culture it is. You can’t avoid it, and you don’t want to avoid it. Embrace the pure love of rock-n-roll, and remember, there is nothing wrong with being sexy.
From the moment Pickford (Shawn Andrews) drives his iconic orange Pontiac GTO through the school parking lot to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” it is clear that this film is going to be a good time. Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused plays into the Hollywood tradition of high school coming-of-age films that revolve around a party, but Linklater focuses on the realistic suburbia lifestyle that many of us lived. Somehow, Linklater was able to create a party that lives on forever by creating an experience for its audience with the clothes, the characters, the one-liners, and the nostalgia of just simply looking to have a good time.
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Not every cult film is one that changes the course of cinema. In fact, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room sits firmly in as a disasterpiece that hypes audiences up. The endlessly quotable and uncanny plot, accompanied by the mystery of Wiseau and his infamous billboard that loomed over Highland Avenue in West Hollywood, made this movie a sensation in Hollywood. Yes, The Room is a bad movie, but that’s why people love it.
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I saw The Big Lebowski for the first time in the middle of a summer day with my dad in our house. My dad often showed me films that he deemed important, and he was right. The homage to Busby Berkeley, the “so-over-it” attitude of the Dude (Jeff Bridges), and Donny’s (Steve Buscemi) ashes in a Folgers coffee tin struck a chord in me. It is hard to believe that there was a time when not everyone knew what this movie was. This was the genius of the Coen Brothers.
Lebowski’s meaning and lasting impact are something that cannot be understated. There is a level to the film that invites everyone to sit and enjoy the saga of the Dude as he navigates a massive misunderstanding that has messed up the feng shui of his life. It’s an elevated stoner movie. So, thank you, Coen Brothers, for playing within different genres and tropes and making them something more.
Read More: Creating Complex Characters: The Big LebowskiDownload the script!
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is what turned me into a true lover of film. Its slightly aimless plot, pop music, melodramatic shots, and gothic camp elegance showed me that film could be anything and everything if you don’t dream it, but be it. This was a film that was never made to see the light of day, but instead lived in the midnight slot at arthouse theaters and slowly gained a reputation for inviting the audience to be a part of the film. You don’t watch it. You play a role in the experience. This is a film that forges community, and that is what cult films are all about.
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There are way too many of these babies to list in one article, so if you want more, check out these other classic cult movies.