What makes a cult classic actually classic? Is it minimal box office success compared to enormous post-theater sales? Is it a film that gains popularity among a small, passionate fanbase in spite of the mainstream’s tepid feelings and responses toward it? I’m not sure. I do think with all cult films there’s always a heated debate about the importance of the piece. One group of movie fans suggest the film is not worthy of memory space, to which its box office failure is proof, while another, usually smaller group, will fight for the movie, proudly declaring the film’s value as something worthy and lasting. Sometimes, even a cult classic was received decently well at the time of its release in the box office results, but “decent” wasn’t quite good enough for the film, its fans and its destiny; it was headed for much bigger things.
On this list, there are all kinds and shapes of cult films. We’ve included the movies that people think about when they think about cult films, the ones that have defined the term. There are box office flops, underappreciated, unknown, so-bad-they’re-good films and films that age better with time like fine wine. Perhaps the one consistent thing about cult films is that they all age well. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be droves of people still watching them. No, maybe the special effects don’t look so great under a 21st century lens, but the message, the comedy or the performances have beautified over time. At the time of their release, no one could have predicted that these films would stand the test of time, let alone make the list of the best cult classics in the year 2016.
Many of the films on this list have years and years of diehard fan support entrenched into their fabric, so, even if you don’t enjoy them, don't voice your displeasure too loudly. Not all of these films have midnight showings or massive fan clubs dedicated to singing songs about them, but that doesn’t mean there isn't a rabid fan lingering nearby. So let’s get right down to business. Here are 15 movies that somehow became huge cult classics.
15 Plan 9 From Outer Space
There have always been movies that are so bad they’re good. We have an infatuation with laughing at the expense of others, and, if it makes you laugh, it’s got to be good, right? Even if the cause of the laughs is unintentionally bad acting, silly special effects or inconceivably poor art direction, laughs are laughs, and laughs make us smile. Well, if we assume that these movies have always been around then we can say that Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is the Adam of this category. It was Plan 9 that opened people's eyes up to what it meant to be a “so bad it’s good” cult movie and what it took to get there. Over the years, Plan 9 gained popularity and fame because of how bad it was. The fact that the legend Bela Lugosi died before this film was released definitely helped its iconic status as well. All in all, there’s an amazing feel to this film, silly, amazing, funny and sad all rolled into one. For that, it’s very special.
14 The Big Lebowski
There are two types of people in the world, those who love The Big Lebowski and those who do not. What makes The Big Lebowski so important is hard to put a finger on, and maybe that’s the reason it’s important right there. Sure, it brilliantly parodies classic film noir, capturing the essence of that genre and flipping it on its head. The Dude is the exact opposite of the type of protagonist you would expect, and, as all Coen Brother films do so fluently, the story is chock-full of ridiculous scenarios that snowball out of control. There’s also the characters who are subtle and clichéd but intensely committed to themselves and the dialog that is about as close to film and comedy perfect as it gets. Considering the film didn’t do very well at the box office at all, it is somewhat of a surprise that it did so well once it left theaters, even though this type of movie is better suited for the comfort of your own home. Today, however, it is not a surprise to hear someone tell you that The Big Lebowski is their favorite movie. It’s loved by a very large and very vocal group of people.
13 The Room
I’m curious how this movie got a cult following because it’s close to being unwatchable. It also bothers me that Tommy Wiseau, the mastermind behind this disaster of a film, retroactively claimed that this was intended to be campy and a black comedy, a truly ridiculous claim. Regardless of what I think though, The Room has captured audiences in great numbers, convincing them to flock to midnight showings to quote the insanely mundane dialog and reenact the mental actions of actors who clearly have no idea what they’re doing. The plot meanders about without any direction and several plotlines end abruptly without any explanation as to where they’ve gone or why they even started. This film feels like the result of someone who has absolutely no knowledge of how narratives work buying a camera and pointing it at stuff. It does, however, take a lot of courage to make a movie when you’ve clearly never even seen one.
12 Office Space
Almost everyone has seen Mike Judge’s Office Space. If you haven’t seen it you probably know about it, and if you don’t know about it, you can almost certainly still quote it. If you can't quote it, well, you've ruined my introduction. This is quite the claim for a movie that barely made back its $10 million budget. In addition to its low sales, at the time of its release, Office Space wasn’t very well-received by critics either, something that has changed over the years. Many people now feel that the movie is and should be considered as one of the best comedies, and best representations of office life, ever.
11 Troll 2
The following for Troll 2 has grown over the years as tales of this masterpiece travel around the globe. Easily the best worst movie of all time, Troll 2 captures on film some of the worst acting, screenwriting, special effects and plot points that you could ever see. The best part of the entire thing is that the cast and crew are clearly trying their best. I mean, these guys and gals are out there giving it their all, but their all is just the worst. If you ever want to have a laugh at someone else’s misfortune, pop this one in your DVD player, or whatever people watch movies on these days, sit back and enjoy the ride. The lines spoken throughout are so crazy that audiences in midnight showings repeat the entire thing just to prove they're real.
Despite being a box-office flop, the majority of people who did actually see Slither have liked it quite a bit. Once you’ve clued into its comedy-horror model, it’s a whole lot of fun. Full of overdone gore and gross-out humor, Slither never takes itself very serious and neither should you. Rammed full of little references to horror movies of the past, especially its B-movie brethren, Slither has the ability to get you laughing and not let up. It also fits the cult-movie design quite well. B-movie horror flicks with some good-fashioned comedy tend to do very well outside of theaters. It’s probably no coincidence that this Nathan Fillion-led feature and Firefly both have considerable cult followings because his style of acting is pretty cult-able. There’s also several references and connections to Firefly and Serenity as well, showing that the filmmakers were conscious of Fillion’s ability to draw in fans.
Mallrats is a pillar in Kevin Smith’s legacy and his canon of films that take place in the affectionately named “View Askewniverse”—in honor of Smith’s production company View Askew Productions. Mallrats is the second film of the series, the prequel to Clerks. Part of the reason that Mallrats is now considered a cult classic is because of how it looked next to the critical success of Clerks. Mallrats, in contrast, is much more base, gross and pointless, if that’s even possible. But these are all good things in this case. These are all Kevin Smith things, and the more the audience and fans grew to understand and love Smith's work, the more they loved Mallrats.
8 Wet Hot American Summer
Essentially a cult classic based on the current success of its stars. It’s actually mind-blowing how successful the cast of Wet Hot American Summer would go on to become, something that no one could have ever predicted. Released in 2001, the film’s cast included names like Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and so many more. It’s astounding watching this and seeing a collection of star power like this before most of them were famous, let alone megastars. Besides all of this, the movie is funny and, watching it today with some personal investment in the actors, it’s a lot funnier than it was in 2001.
7 Braindead/Dead Alive
This one is a case of being relatively unknown until years after its release. Braindead (known as Dead Alive in North America) is actually really great, and was always really great, but it was directed by a virtual unknown, a New Zealander that wouldn’t become a household name until he directed the greatest trilogy of all time, The Lord of the Rings. Once people realized what Peter Jackson could do with a camera, they started checking into the movies he had done prior to that and stumbled upon Braindead. It's excessively violent and simply amazing, really a classic entry into the horror genre.
6 Dazed and Confused
Directed by relative newcomer Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused sort of slipped under the radar on its release, earning less than $1,000,000 on its opening weekend. In total the film earned just over $7,000,000, but for a film that consistently ranks on the “best of” lists, that is peanuts. As Linklater’s fame grew, as well as that of some of the film’s stars (Matthew McConaughey, Mila Jovavich, Ben Affleck and Parker Posey), the film gained more and more traction. The fact that it depicts a 70s lifestyle from the vantage point of the 90s, it is able to get away untouched by time, a true marker of cult films. Add in the catchy one-liners and the nostalgic high school lifestyle, and you have yourself a hit.
For me, cult classic doesn’t do enough for this film. I won’t rest until it’s on every “best of” list out there. The darker, more sadistic and more hilarious version of Mean Girls, Heathers is the near-perfect black comedy. It shows a side of high school life that is often hidden, but it handles it with a smile, rather than the kid gloves that most films put on. The characters are ridiculously stereotypical and they bask in it. Filled with witty banter and pop culture references that don’t need to be current to be understood, fans of Heathers will argue that much of the high school dialog we see in current films is a direct descendant of this groundbreaking film.
4 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
It’s no secret that this film is beloved by audiences everywhere. It really laid out the red carpet for Johnny Depp as a phenomenal character actor, likely (for many) the best character he’s ever played (we're sorry, Jack Sparrow). Depp spent four months living with Hunter S. Thompson to get the character down and extremely accurate, and it seems as though a little bit of Thompson has stayed with Johnny Depp ever since. The trippy, drug-fueled journey type films tend to get latched on by audiences for normal films. For a great movie like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, they’ve just simply refused to let go, and with reason.
3 Donnie Darko
I have written about Donnie Darko in the past and I, admittedly, always struggle with it. I am incapable of nailing down what it is that makes Donnie Darko the film it is. Its concept is neat but not brilliant; the performances are strong, and though it does have an excellent cast, they're not all-stars by any stretch. So what is it? I think that Donnie Darko presents a complex premise in a relatively approachable manner. This allows fans to feel as if they’re digesting something much deeper than they really are. I don’t want this to seem like a knock on a truly beautiful film because I do think it’s masterful… I just don’t know why. Regardless of what I think, people around the world have eaten it up and made it a must-watch in so many circles.
2 Blade Runner
Blade Runner is often considered one of the best science fiction movies of all time. It earned about $33 million at the box office, more than its $28 million budget. So how and why is it on every cult classic list? Well, it turns out that Blade Runner was released in what is certainly the best two weeks of theater releases in the history of cinema. In a two-week span, Blade Runner, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, The Thing, Conan the Barbarian and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan were all released. That is a remarkable list of films, with all five being amazing movies and at least three thought to be some of the best ever. That helps to explain how Blade Runner didn’t catch fire right away, something it would do soon after.
1 The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Considered by most to be the greatest cult classic of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show almost definitely has the most dedicated fanbase of any film and any point in history. Originally, the film was panned by critics, or better yet, ignored by critics, but soon after its release, theater-goers began participating in the performance, dressing up, saying lines, acting out scenes and dancing. The campy acting and catchy songs helped it along and have made it a mainstay in film history. Roger Ebert called The Rocky Horror Picture Show a “long-running social phenomenon,” which might be the most apt description. One thing is for sure, 40-years strong and the midnight showings are still rocking, Rocky Horror isn’t going anywhere.