Movies

The 50 Greatest Cult Movies of All Time

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It's midnight somewhere.

By Phil Nugent and Andrew Osborne

"Cult movie" is a hard thing to pin down. For the purposes of this list — celebrating the tenth anniversary of Donnie Darko — we've put a premium on the intensity and selectiveness of a movie's appeal. We've also limited each director to one film. See
you at midnight!


1. Barbarella (1968)

The first R-rated comic-book movie stars Jane Fonda as a planet-hopping secret agent who has trouble keeping her clothes on. It was directed by Fonda's then-husband, Roger Vadim, who must have seen it as an opportunity to spend nine million dollars' of producer Dino De Laurentiis' money just to tell every ticket-buying man in the world, "Eat your heart out!" — P.N.

2. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Any movie can have fans, and just about any science fiction, fantasy, or superhero movie these days might inspire those fans to dress up as their favorite characters and attend a convention. But the cult of the Coen Brothers' stoner detective bowling phantasmagoria is even more grassroots and bizarre, with the faithful not just mimicking characters from the film, but also props and appendages (like the rug that really ties the Dude's room together and Bunny Lebowski's severed toe). — A.O.

3. Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam's Brazil is the arguably the best (unofficial) movie version of Orwell's 1984 ever made, and certainly beats the pants off every official version. The movie only became more legendary, and more dear to the hearts of its cultists, thanks to Universal Pictures' attempts to geld it; their "happy ending" version is hilarious precisely because it looks as if it had been re-edited by Brazil's propagandist villains. — P.N.

4. Breathless (1960)

American film brats from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino have long been devotees of the French New Wave, helping to popularize the movement's aesthetic of handheld cinematography, jump cuts, and cool-cat naturalism. Jean-Luc Godard's tale of lovers on the lam was itself inspired by film noir, and has since returned the favor by influencing the style of countless Hollywood film and TV productions, from Bonnie & Clyde to Breaking Bad. — A.O.

5. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale's sequel to his own 1931 Frankenstein is the wildest and greatest of all the classic Universal horror movies, and, with Ernest Thesiger's high-camp performance as the misanthropic mad scientist, an early Hollywood landmark of coded gay sensibilities. — P.N.

6. Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Ornery genius filmmaker Sam Peckinpah effectively dynamited what was left of his Hollywood career with this movie, which was released to universal condemnation but endures as one his most personal films. Cult character god Warren Oates plays the scurvy loser whose last chance to make some bread is to perform the action alluded to in the film's cut-to-the-chase title. This might be the movie whose existence demanded that somebody coin the term "scuzzball classic." — P.N.

7. The Brood (1979)

David Cronenberg redefined the possibilities of the horror movie as a vehicle for personal filmmaking with this, his first great movie. Samantha Eggar plays a woman who becomes so successful at channeling the rage she feels towards her parents, her estranged husband, and others, that she literally births a series of monsters that brutally attack whoever she's mad at. Cronenberg, who conceived the film while going through a divorce, calls it his version of Kramer vs. Kramer. — P.N.

8. Clerks (1994)

Clerks made a big splash for its DIY aesthetic and ear for vulgarity, but its lasting appeal suggests it has a kind of universality. Dante and Randall are the patron saints of wise-ass wage slaves everywhere, while Jay & Silent Bob (and their real-life counterparts, Jason Mewes and the film's auteur, Kevin Smith) represent the freedom (and hazards) of life beyond timecard conformity. — A.O.

9. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Probably the cultiest big-name American director of his generation, Stanley Kubrick in his prime had a delightful habit of concocting large-scale outrages, presenting major studios with the bills, and making them like it. His urban sci-fi black comedy about violence and free will made Malcolm McDowell an icon and changed the way people think about movie brutality, and also how they hear "Singin' in the Rain." P.N.

10. Death Race 2000 (1975)

Roger Corman's signature mixture of action, satire, titillation, politics, and cheap thrills reached its zenith in this sci-fi splatter comedy. Death Race 2000 (about a futuristic game show based on running over pedestrians) just about demanded that someone step up and create the video-game industry, so that its gimmick could find its true home. Holding the loose elements together is David Carradine, a natural star and a man whose whole life was a cult movie — one where too many of the best parts probably happened when no cameras were around. — P.N.

11. Donnie Darko (2001)

Opening a month after September 11, 2001, and virtually ignored upon release, Richard Kelly's directorial debut now seems like both a snapshot of the seemingly safe but deeply ominous world we remember living in just before the planes hit, and a direct response to events that happened after it was made. — P.N.

12. Down By Law (1986)

Before the Sundance Film Festival essentially transformed it into mainstream Hollywood's minor league farm system, American indie film routinely produced weird hipster gems like Jim Jarmusch's deadpan debut Stranger Than Paradise. But his follow-up, the existential prison film Down By Law, was (arguably) even cooler and cultier, if only for the inclusion of surrealist beatnik idol Tom Waits. — A.O.

13. Easy Rider (1969)

While Hollywood was stubbornly ignoring the counterculture (or, worse, pandering to it with tone-deaf misfires), Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper pushed all the right peyote buttons and hit the zeitgeist jackpot. Together with Jack Nicholson, the stoner auteurs shook up the film industry with this lived-in portrayal of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll, while inadvertently ruining "Born To Be Wild" for all future generations. — A.O.

14. Eraserhead (1977)

Any number of David Lynch's movies could be here, but his first feature remains a startling testament to the richness and variety of what one man can pull out of his own head, if he's determined to work as long as he has to to get it out. (Because Lynch kept running out of money, Eraserhead was in production off and on for five years.) The moral, as with the punk movement that exploded around the same time, is "do it yourself" — if the people you try to explain your dream to just look at you funny, get a camera and crew and just do it yourself. — P.N.

15. The Evil Dead (1983)

Sam Raimi's feverishly inventive, Karo-syrup-drenched, $400,000 horror movie is a Hollywood calling card that the director probably had to live down before he could persuade anyone to trust him with something like the Spider-Man franchise. But the legions of kids whose heads exploded as they watched this on video throughout the '80s will always be Raimi fans. (If you actually saw this in a theater at any point before 1984, you earn a lifetime coolness certificate.) — P.N.

16. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Russ Meyer's best-known (and least breast-obsessed) exploitation classic is the kind of fantasy that most people would only put on film if they already had plans to burn the negative before any respectable people could get a look at it. The first twenty minutes — featuring freelance dominatrix babes racing their sports cars in the desert and killing anyone who looks at them funny — are like a drive-in movie from Mars. What happens after that? I'm not sure. I usually just watch the first twenty minutes again. — P.N.

17. Fight Club (1999)

With the end of the millennium breathing down his neck, director David Fincher and his stars Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter took a deep breath of their own and plunged into the deep end. Positioned to be the movie of a generation and a zeitgeist blockbuster, Fight Club proved too strange for most of the mass audience to take in on its initial release. But it refused to go away quietly and today lives on, a big bar of eye candy that talks like an unhinged and overcaffeinated street preacher. P.N.

18. Freaks (1935)

Legendary horror director Tod Browning, a former man of the circus who had a real feel for the seedy carnival atmosphere, broke every rule of polite movie entertainment with this intense melodrama. (One woman claimed the film had caused her to have a miscarriage.) Many early Hollywood movies were rediscovered by audiences on the midnight movie circuit of the '70s; Freaks was one of the strongest and strangest. Its cult included the Ramones, who got an anthem out of the freak-show stars' chant of "Gabba gabba." — P.N.

19. Grey Gardens (1975)

Many listeners were surprised by Jacqueline Kennedy's blunt statements in recently released tapes from 1964. For me, however, the most shocking part of that interview was how closely the former First Lady's informal cadences mimicked those of her cousin "Little Edie" Beale, the eccentric and beloved star of this paean to impoverished gentry, defiant individuality, and the perils of utter denial. — A.O.

20. The Harder They Come (1972)

Like many films on the list, this offbeat, low-budget crime story failed during its initial run in theaters, then later gained an enthusiastic word-of-mouth following thanks to midnight screenings. But what truly makes the Jimmy Cliff vehicle a classic is its indelible soundtrack, which helped to introduce Jamaican reggae to the world. — A.O.

21. Harold and Maude (1971)

A deeply romantic, life-affirming movie dressed up as an outrage of a black comedy, Harold and Maude was the perfect movie for its shell-shocked era. You could say that only in 1971 could Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon pass for movie stars, let alone as a movie-star couple. But then, a lot of people who love this movie weren't even born in 1971. — P.N.

22. Heathers (1989)

Though far from the first movie to rip the lid off high-school life, Heathers' formula for black comedy — murderous slapstick and invented, baroque teen slang — made it one of the most influential cult hits of the late '80s. It set off a wave that Joss Whedon caught and rode like Moondoggie. And did I mention that I love my dead gay son? — P.N.

23. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Mickey Spillane's novels about the detective Mike Hammer pushed the hard-boiled genre about as far as it could go, and director Robert Aldrich's movie version pushes it over a cliff. Kiss Me Deadly's take on the ruthlessness of film noir is so extreme that it crosses into parody, and keeps going until it becomes something close to hard-boiled science fiction. Quentin Tarantino famously tipped his hat to it with Pulp Fiction's glowing suitcase. — P.N.

24. The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

Nicolas Roeg's poison-pen letter to America stars David Bowie as a reclusive genius-businessman, who's actually an alien visitor who just wants to make his fortune and get the hell back to his home planet. No other movie has managed to make our planet look so ravishingly, frighteningly beautiful while basically making a case for why we ought to just blow the place up and start over. — P.N.

25. Mommie Dearest (1981)

Movies that knowingly court ironic cult status rarely work. Instead, the classics tend to be the ones that fully commit to their own weirdness, like this over-the-top adaptation of the bitter, score-settling memoir by Joan Crawford's daughter, Christina, featuring a sincerely unhinged performance by Faye Dunaway as the (allegedly) monstrous screen diva. Say it with me, drag queens: "No… wire… hangers!" — A.O.

26. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)

Holy Grail is the kind of historical burlesque you could only get from people who are serious enough students of history to know how ludicrous most of it is. It's also one of the most compulsively quotable primary artifacts of the geek universe. (It's sobering to think that, without this movie, someone could say he has three questions without reducing half the people within earshot to hysterics.) — P.N.

27. Mothra (1961)

Japanese monster movies are a whole denomination of cult films unto themselves, and we'll probably get some grief in the comments section for not representing the subgenre here with its biggest star, Godzilla. But our Saturday afternoon hearts will always belong to Toho Studios' giant psychic moth. Not only is she a kick-ass chick, but she travels around with a pair of tiny priestesses who sound like The B-52s! — A.O.

28. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

George Romero's $114,000 independent production came out of Pittsburgh to spread across the planet, powered solely by stunned word of mouth. At first, the closest thing it earned to reviews was a string of angry editorials (including one by the young Roger Ebert) wondering how anything so nasty could be exhibited in theaters. One measure of how influential it's been is that zombies are now the biggest players in horror, with the possible exception of lovesick vampires. They'd always been the also-rans of the monster derby, until Romero gave audiences a good look at what they're like when it's feeding time. — P.N.

29. Office Space (1999)

Mike Judge's first foray into live action was quietly released and received mostly tame reviews, but was picked up on video and spread like wildfire among viewers for whom its juicy satire of cubicle drudgery struck a nerve. Eager to learn from its mistakes, the studio that produced Judge's next feature, Idiocracy, did its best to not release it at all. — P.N.

30. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

A dual triumph for its deep-in-character star, Paul Reubens, and its first-time director, Tim Burton, Adventure captures a certain kind of mid-'80s sensibility. It's a live-action-cartoon tribute to kitsch, with one crowd-pleasing foot in the multiplex and one in the art scene. — P.N.

31. Pi (1998)

Sure, Darren Aronofsky's films can be humorless, pretentious, and downright ridiculous. (Seriously. Watch Black Swan again.) But even those less enamored of his oeuvre have to admire the audacity of his breakthrough feature about a math genius dodging Hasidic Jews, Wall Street weasels, and his own impending madness. — A.O.

32. Pink Flamingos (1972)

Predating punk rock, the gay-rights movement, and the mainstreaming of bad taste, John Waters and his Dreamland Players celebrated extreme fashion, outré culture, and the comedy of shock long before they were trendy. And while Hairspray may be Waters' most beloved creation, Pink Flamingos remains his most notorious, thanks to cheerful scenes of depravity (like Divine's notorious shit-eating grin) that still elicit gasps in a post-Human Centipede world. — A.O.

33. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Ed Wood, Jr.'s masterpiece received a Golden Turkey as the worst film ever made, but that's not why it's on this list. Plenty of drive-in (and mainstream) movies of the '50s had silly dialogue and wooden acting, but Wood's consistently cracked vision, proto-goth aesthetic and all-star ensemble (including Vampira, Tor Johnson, and Bela Lugosi) make Plan 9 genuinely entertaining, while the failed director's can-do optimism in the face of insurmountable odds serves as an inspiration (and cautionary tale) for indie filmmakers everywhere. — A.O.

34. Re-Animator (1985)

Stuart Gordon's screwball H. P. Lovecraft adaptation was one of the first "video nasties." You just had to be sure to tell your friends to get the "unrated" edition, or else they'd miss the scene involving a trussed-up naked woman and a living severed head, which reportedly inspired the screenwriter to call the director in the dead of night and yell, "I've just written my first visual pun!" Testament to its lasting late-night appeal, Kevin Spacey gives it a stoned shout-out in American Beauty. — P.N.

35. Repo Man (1984)

In the old days, indie films weren't just low-budget versions of Hollywood product with more sex, drugs, and cursing. Instead, they were often singular, inexplicable one-offs like Alex Cox's mash-up of punk rock, L.A. noir, Gen-X malaise, and sci-fi conspiracy theories involving radioactive Chevy Malibus. Back then, the life of a repo man was always intense. — A.O.

36. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Back before Quentin Tarantino ruled the world, he was just another guy at the Sundance Film Festival with a movie under his arm. It turned out to be the genre movie of the year, an accomplishment that did not go fully appreciated in that high-minded environment. Tarantino had to wait until his movie went viral on videocassette to see it begin to achieve what he had been put on Earth to do: kick-start the American independent film movement by proving that indie movies could be fun. — P.N.

37. The Road Warrior (1981)

Like the man who played him, Max Rockatansky is an angry, troubled dude from Australia. And while it's hard to understand why a movie star as rich and handsome as Mel Gibson is so full of hate and bile, it's easy to sympathize with Mad Max. After seeing his loved ones cut down by punks in a world gone to hell, the former cop just wants to wear a bad-ass leather jumpsuit and roam the wasteland with his faithful dog in a tricked-out muscle car. But then more damn punks show up, resulting in the tightest, coolest action film of all time. — A.O.

38. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Catchy tunes aside, it's hard to fathom why someone would finance a cinematic adaptation of a bizarro British musical about intergalactic sex fiends in the first place. But for whatever reason, the decision paid off, spawning one of the most successful midnight movies of all time, as well as a weekly rite-of-passage safe haven for sweet transvestites and other misfit toys around the world. — A.O.

39. Sisters (1973)

Brian De Palma's fifth feature film was his first real horror movie, and you could almost hear the universe clicking into place. With its bloody killings and off-the-wall humor (especially in the opening sequence), combined with Bernard Herrmann's old-timey yet zingy score, it sums up both the early-'70s cult audience's lust for something harshly new and their nostalgic taste for something that felt "old." — P.N.

40. Slacker (1991)

Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater's patchouli-soaked ode to summer, stoners, and '76, is a beloved cult classic in its own right. But the director's debut, a plotless love letter to his beloved Austin, is a touchstone for eccentrics of every generation. — A.O.

41. Stop Making Sense (1984)

People had been filming rock concerts and calling the resulting footage "movies" for decades before Jonathan Demme took command of the director's chair. But working with his stars, Talking Heads, Demme made a concert movie with no out-of-focus shots, catch-as-catch-can camerawork, or even the intruding interviews that characterized even Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. Plus, the Heads had already designed the concert to have the escalating feel of a movie, which didn't hurt. — P.N.

42. Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

The coolest thing Bill Cosby ever did was to help finance Melvin Van Peebles' labor of love about a righteous black man kicking ass at a time when pop culture was utterly devoid of such imagery. Like an African-American Easy Rider, the underground hit fed the hunger of an underserved audience (while launching the career of Earth, Wind & Fire as an added bonus). — A.O.

43. Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, a couple of hometown boys on their way to becoming legendary, worked together to create one of the most intensely alive visions of New York City ever. Taxi Driver's New York is a squalid, writhing beast with a hooker on every street corner and a gun dealer in every hotel lobby. The idea was to make the feelings of a lonely killer comprehensible to sane people. But Taxi Driver didn't just make those feelings comprehensible —  it burned them into the screen with acid. — P.N.

44. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Tobe Hooper's nightmare in bright Southwestern sunlight is one of the smartest films ever to be consistently described as "harrowing." It is harrowing, even though it plays on your nerves instead of waving entrails in your face — it's much less gory than the uninitiated probably assume, and than many who have seen it probably remember. Along with another 1974 drive-in movie, Macon County Line, it also led the way in the innovation of flat-out lying about being based on "a true story." — P.N.

45. The Thing (1982)

Sure, the 1951 original is a sci-fi classic, but the monster that attacks a frozen research base in that film is basically James Arness with a forehead prosthetic. And, yes, the 2011 prequel has CGI. But the jaw-dropping, pre-digital effects in John Carpenter's version still blow our minds. And besides: who kicks more ass than Kurt Russell? — A.O.

46. The Toxic Avenger (1984)

According to hyperbole-prone director Lloyd Kaufman, his New York-based Troma Entertainment may be the most truly independent film studio of all time. Indeed, the company's been sticking it to The Man with its own distinctive brand of political gross-out horror (and sex comedy) since 1974, with their signature nerd-turned-superhero "Toxie" serving as the (melted) face of Tromaville like a mutant Mickey Mouse. — A.O.

47. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two-Lane Blacktop is the ultimate road movie, which is to say that, like a lot of road trips, it captures the thrill of feeling the country passing by your car window even though it doesn't really go anyplace. Esquire magazine published Rudolph Wurlitzer's script in its pages and put the lead actress, Laurie Bird, on the cover with the promise, "Movie of the Year." The magazine later repented after the movie died at the box office, but even though 1971 turned out to be a pretty good year for movies, they were closer to being right the first time. — P.N.

48. The Warriors (1979)

"Warriors… come out to play! Warriors! Come out to plaaay-hay!" Walter Hill's spare, compelling (and, yes, kind of goofy) urban adaptation of an ancient Greek heroes' journey deserves its spot on this list just for the scene where David Patrick Kelly's rogue gang leader taunts the hunted Warriors. The Riffs, the Lizzys, the Baseball Furies, and especially the hot lips of Lynne Thigpen's disembodied DJ all just sweeten the deal. Can you dig it? — A.O.

49. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

For Todd Solondz's likably unlikable dork protagonist, Dawn "Weiner-Dog" Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), puberty is a hilariously grim nightmare of abuse, neglect, and hideous kitty sweatshirts.Welcome to the Dollhouse is the perfect movie for anyone who's ever tried to forget their own teenage wasteland. — A.O.

50. Withnail and I (1987)

Richard E. Grant gives the performance of his life, in the role he was born to play, as a character who's a cult object all by himself: Withnail, the profane, druggy, vicious would-be actor whose career will never take off, because what role could be grand enough to tempt him to ever be anyone but his own thrilling self? Oscar Wilde said that you have to decide between putting your art into your work or your life. This movie makes the best possible case for making the wrong choice. — P.N.

Runners-up: The Adventures of Buckaroo BanzaiAguirre – The Wrath of GodAkira, AuditionBad LieutenantBlade Runner, Bottle Rocket, Brick, Chungking Express, El Topo, Fantastic Planet, Hands on a Hard BodyHeadHeavenly CreaturesHedwig and the Angry InchIrma VepThe Little Shop of HorrorsLiquid SkyMy Neighbor TotoroMysterious SkinNight of the CometOnce Upon a Time in the WestPutney SwopeReefer MadnessReturn of the Living DeadSexy BeastThe StepfatherSuspiria, This is Spinal Tap, Troll 2, Velvet Goldmine, Wet Hot American Summer, The Wicker Man