Cult films are the rejects. These are the movies nobody went to see when they came out, presumably because they weren’t any good. They’ve become cult films not just because those nobodies were wrong, but also because at least some of the early audience members have since changed their minds. All of the motion pictures on this list were either released within the past 40 years or achieved their following in that period, as cult status is a distinctly modern cultural phenomenon.
10. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
The only exploitation film on this list, it’s among the best of its genre. Filmmaker John Waters famously called it “beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made.” That’s hyperbole, but Russ Meyer’s delirious adventure about three go-go dancers in the desert is the kind of flick that generates strong reactions, particularly among those with breast fetishes. Faster, Pussycat, like most of Meyer’s pictures, is all about female empowerment, the twisted stepmother of later titles like 1991’s Thelma and Louise. The women’s costumes, hair and makeup are all over the top. Virtually everything that occurs or is said in the movie is ridiculous. It could never be anything other than a cult film. But when a picture leaves an impression as strong as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! always has, whether it’s positive or negative, it deserves some measure of respect.
9. The Warriors (1979)
New York City is not, and probably never was, as cartoonishly violent as it appears in this flick about warring street gangs. But in 1979 it wasn’t hard to imagine the place ending up something like this. The New York of The Warriors is dangerous, but it’s a stylized menace. The acting here, largely by actors unfamiliar today, isn’t very good, and the dialogue is worse, but there’s a balletic choreography on display in Walter Hill’s film that’s truly impressive. It’s the kind of energy that demands repeat viewing, a big part of what defines a cult film. The gang of the film’s title resides in Coney Island, but decides to stir things up by going back to its native Bronx because, well, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Along the way they encounter many rival gangs and a sea of powerless cops. Watch it without humming the music from West Side Story and you’ll enjoy it.
8. Harold and Maude (1971)
If you see just one movie about a January-December romance, you’ll want to make it this one. There aren’t any others. Harold (Bud Cort) is about 20, Maude (Ruth Gordon) is 60 years older. He’s obsessed with death; she’s one of those rare souls who has mastered living for the moment. Happily, her perspective rubs off on him and not the other way around. Before it was a movie, Harold and Maude was a Broadway play that closed after just four performances. The movie bombed as well, as viewers found the idea of an emotionally intimate relationship between a very young man and a very old woman kind of icky. Critics also blasted the film, directed by Hal Ashby, but they only get the first word, not the last. The aimlessness of Harold’s Vietnam generation, contrasted with the can-do spirit of Maude, who lived through much worse, is held up for all to see.
7. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Every generation deserves its own cinematic touchstone; not every generation gets one. For those in high school during the early 1960s, American Graffiti resonated, and luckily for that generation that was a classic motion picture. Nostalgia for 1979 has never been quite as celebrated, nor was Dazed and Confused when it came out. A plot that’s barely there didn’t help, but what this film excels at is capturing a moment in time, and oh, how high school had changed since 1962. The film, directed by Richard Linklater, opened the door for actors who would later become much better known like Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich and Matthew McConaughey. Possibly more popular than the movie is its soundtrack, with tunes by Ted Nugent, ZZ Top, Foghat and the like. Listening to it, fans can relive memories, not necessarily of the film but of their own adolescence.
6. Fight Club (1999)
Maybe moviegoers just didn’t properly understand it at the time. They were hardly alone. The film got the green light from 20th Century Fox because the studio thought it bore some similarity to The Graduate. Well, it really didn’t. Fight Club isn’t so much a coming-of-age tale as it is a call to arms, against the oppressor identified as advertising in the Chuck Palahniuk novel on which the picture is based. Inevitably, Fox botched the marketing of this misunderstood film as well, and it wasn’t until the release of the DVD that Fight Club found its audience and got its point across. The lingering criticism of the movie, that it glorified violence, appeared on the face of it to come from sources who hadn’t seen it. Meticulously directed by David Fincher, Fight Club added to Brad Pitt’s growing fame, but didn’t do the same for Edward Norton, who portrayed the decidedly unreliable narrator.
5. Groundhog Day (1993)
Unlike other movies on this list, Groundhog Day was a modest hit upon its release, and well regarded by critics. But it wasn’t just another romantic comedy; this film was something different, and that has kept it in the public consciousness ever since. As a TV weatherman fated to live the same day over and over until he gets his life straightened out, Bill Murray carries the movie, as he has often in his film career, but it’s chemistry with leading lady Andie MacDowell that gives the picture heart. The movie’s theme is recognizable to anyone who’s familiar with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but the plot here is infinitely more complicated. One draft of the script had Murray and MacDowell’s characters living Groundhog Day over together for 10,000 years. That’s why they do rewrites. Director Harold Ramis has said publicly that he believes four to five years elapse during the course of the film.
4. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Every title on this list is a good film on at least some level, except for this one. Calling it “the worst movie ever made,” as film critic Michael Medved famously did in 1980, is unfair. But the pronouncement had a huge impact, rescuing this sci-fi flick from the obscurity where it truly belongs. There are certainly worse movies than Plan 9, but few are as fun to watch — in the “so bad it’s good” frame of mind — as this one. The plot is kind of sketchy, but at least it’s original. Aliens, concerned earthlings are developing a really big bomb to destroy the universe, turn human corpses into zombies to distract us. The dialogue is laughable, the production values even worse (one character can be seen reading from a script), but the film’s loopy awfulness made a posthumous star of director Ed Wood. Johnny Depp even played him in a well-regarded 1994 Tim Burton movie.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Over the years a degree of pretension has seeped into the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, a high-toned affectation that suggests little concern for the audience. Happily, The Big Lebowski predates all of that. The level of cult fandom that surrounds this movie — annual festivals around the country, an online religion — defy reason, but the wonderful thing about cult films is that the affection fans have for them needn’t make sense. This is a fun picture, about three eccentric fellows — played by Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi — who enjoy bowling, get into pointless arguments and embark on a picaresque caper. The picture is suffused with a sublime oddness every step of the way. But it’s Bridges’ portrayal of the Dude that makes the movie sing. No, he’s not playing himself, but the actor’s understanding of his character here is simply as good as it gets.
2. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This movie started a trend that continues to this day. The mock documentary format, or mockumentary, didn’t begin with This is Spinal Tap, a comedy that spoofs the many rock ’n’ roll documentaries of its time, but when today’s movies and TV shows adopt this storytelling device, it’s this film they’re referencing, even if they don’t realize it. Although not as subversive today as it felt nearly 30 years ago, Spinal Tap’s humor is more recognizable now. Many rock gods of its era — Eddie Van Halen, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, to name just a couple — believed they were watching a real documentary film when they first saw it and didn’t find it particularly funny. Carl Reiner, who plays the faux director in the movie, and actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer may have hit too close to home as they wrote the movie on the fly. Now everyone’s in on the joke.
1. Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Here’s the obvious No. 1 choice for a list like this. No other motion picture comes close to having attracted such fervent fans, who bring to each viewing of Rocky Horror a creativity that far surpasses anything seen on the screen. From the remarks shot back at the movie by the audience, to the costumes they wear, even the miming of the actors by what are called shadow casts, fans bring audience participation at a Rocky Horror screening, usually at midnight, to a level unseen with any other film. And they’ve been doing it for nearly 40 years; Rocky Horror is the longest running, continuously played motion picture in movie history, although it’s becoming increasingly hard to find. Affection for this kinky, creepy rock musical of sorts, based on a British theater production, is largely generational today, but its cult following has yet to be equaled.