A great cult movie is like a weird underground discovery, that feels so strange and wonderful, you suspect that you’re the first person ever to appreciate it properly. But certain cult films have acquired fame and influence to rival any blockbuster, and have become part of our shared vocabulary. Here are 30 essential cult movies that everybody ought to watch, at least once.
Note: We debated a lot what we would consider a “cult movie” for the purposes of this list, and we mostly stuck to films that were not huge box-office hits and didn’t get massive mainstream exposure when they were first released. The films on this list mostly either flew under the radar or were considered massive flops when they came out originally.
This is a movie set in the post-apocalypse year 2293 that features Sean Connery with a ponytail wearing some kind of red, leather, knee high boots/suspenders thing along with a fake god that spouts the following doctrine: The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was, but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth ... and kill! The only way a person could properly appreciate this movie is with cult status, and a handful of LSD. But it’s absolutely something you have to experience at least once.
What do you do with a Kevin Bacon film about tongue like appendages attached to giant subterranean monsters that attack a small town in the western United States? You watch the hell out of it, of course. This movie received a warm reception from audiences and critics despite not making a whole lot of sense. But you know what? That’s part of this movie’s charm — the mystery of the “Graboids” didn’t need to be explained to make this movie fun. All anyone cared about was the crazy ride.
28) The Warriors
On their way back to Sesame Street, the Warriors learn important lessons about who can and who cannot dig it, how to make a popsicle using only a baseball bat and a buddy and the proper way to use beer bottles to invite your friends to come out and pla-eee-ay.
27) Lost Boys
When two Arizona teens move to Santa Clara, they cross paths with some vampire hunters who warm them that the town is filthy with blood suckers. And to educate the teens, the hunters give them an expert’s tome — horror comics. But when one of the teens gets turned into a half-vampire, it falls to the other teen and the hunters to kill the lead vampire and life the curse. This movie achieved cult status purely because it was way ahead of the vampire craze.
26) Born in Flames
This documentary-style movie by feminist film-maker Lizzie Borden takes place in a dystopian world where women are brutally oppressed — until they decide to fight back by any means necessary. This groundbreaking film is notable for featuring Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow in a small role.
Syfy has given us many instant cult classics, but Sharktopus is still exceptional, with its gleefully absurd creature mash-up and its subversive story about greed gone too far. Roger Corman brings us the tale of a genetically engineered half shark, half octopus who wreaks havoc at the beach.
24) Tales from the Hood
An anthology film of African American themed horror shorts, this movie’s frame story involves three drug dealers trying to score from a mortuary owner. Over the course of the four loosely related episodes, the film explores subjects like haunted dolls, the KKK, and psychopathic gang members. The whole thing ends with an excellent twist, that wraps everything up perfectly.
23) Death Race 2000
David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone star in this salute to the fine American traditions of car racing, vehicular manslaughter, life, death and clam sauce. Treacherous French need not apply.
22) The Hunger
Love triangles often make for classic movies — but make two of the members vampires and you have an instant cult classic. A seductive vampire offers men eternal life, but not eternal youth — until she seeks the help of a doctor who specializes in aging. This film is remembered for its torrid encounter between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.
21) Plan 9 from Outer Space
Ed Wood is remembered as the worst director of all time, and Plan 9 is remembered as his worst movie. This train-wreck of a film features Bela Lugosi and aliens who plan on turning all of the Earth’s dead into zombies. What’s not to love?
20) Dark Star
Beach ball space aliens, solipsistic time bombs, Dan O’Bannon and other bizarre creatures inhabit John Carpenter’s madcap tribute to Catch-22...IN SPACE!
We debated whether to include this film, or James Gunn’s more recent superhero weirdfest Super — they’re both off-kilter comedies that are not for the faint of heart. Slither, though, keeps your skin crawling for hours and contains a bizarrely subversive story about a woman who just can’t escape from her evil husband, thanks to the appearance of a deadly alien parasite.
18) Buckaroo Banzai
John Lithgow travels across the eighth dimension, crash lands on the third rock from the sun and discovers that no matter where RoboCop goes, there RoboCop is.
17) Time Bandits
Kevin discovers a group of little people, who travel through space and time while being stalked by Evil and pursued by the Supreme Being. Of all the projects to come out of the Monty Python crew, this might be the most anarchic, with the broadest comedy and the darkest tragedy — and its layered narrative rewards repeat viewings.
16) Evil Dead 2
Ash Williams battles Deadite Bad Grandma in the film that single-handedly saved both the word ‘groovy’ and the career of Bruce Campbell from the dustbin of film history.
15) Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s first film is also arguably his most influential. In this classic zombie movie, we see seven people trapped in a Pennsylvania farmhouse besieged by the living dead — and we discover the most horrific side of human nature.
14) Brother from Another Planet
Pursued by extraterrestrial cops, mute, dark-skinned alien Joe Morton travels to America to work a series of crappy jobs and teach people to literally see the world through his eyes in John Sayles’ in-no-way-allegorical film.
13) Cherry 2000
Sam and Edith travel to the ruins of Las Vegas to hunt for aftermarket talking Fleshlight parts only to find Tim Thomerson instead.
12) Altered States
Anthro-psychopharmacologist William Hurt drops South American lycanthropy acid to get in touch with his inner caveman and his outer Blair Brown.
11) Repo Man
Edge City resident and apprentice car repossessor Otto Maddox spends a long weekend chasing nuke-happy scientists, space aliens, United Fruitcakes, repo wives, sushi thieves, beer-phobic government agents and Gypsy dildo punks across Los Angeles when all he really wanted was a Pepsi.
10) Monty Python and the Holy Grail
One of the most quotable films of the 20th century, Monty Python and the Holy Grail parodies the legends of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail. The Knights of the Round Table encounter all kinds of hilarious obstacles on their quest, from attractive women to flesh wounds.
9) They Live
In a world where aliens rule our lives, money is our God and television our electronic leash, Roddy Piper learns that the future is so psychotic, he has to wear shades.
All the Huey Lewis in the world won’t help you unravel the Gordian plot of this mind bending tech startup time travel saga. Poster by RedLord
7) Naked Lunch
In David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William Burroughs’ novel, we learn that the problems of a bug powder junkie and an elite corps centipede don’t amount to a hill of Mugwump jism in this crazy, mixed up world.
6) The Man Who Fell To Earth
David Bowie is an androgynous space alien who came to Earth to make gobs of money and have sex with supermodels. Also he was in this movie.
In the classic HP Lovecraft story, Herbert West’s patented reanimation fluid can turn even the most severed of heads into the most cunning of linguists.
4) Big Trouble in Little China
Kurt Russell stars in John Carpenter’s outlandish, supernatural action adventure film about a man with the uncanny ability to drive and park an eighteen wheel semi in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
David Lynch’s Eraserhead is an unforgettable surrealist body horror film that has left its mark on a generation of film-makers. This nightmarish film about a father with a disfigured child living in an industrial area is revered for its strange visuals and complex audio track.
2) Donny Darko
Troubled teen Donnie Darko begins hallucinating a giant rabbit named Frank who tells him the world will end in 28 days. This movie creates a rich world full of unexplained events and memorable characters — repeated viewings might answer some questions, but most fans are left wondering and concocting complex theories for how it all fits together.
1) Rocky Horror Picture Show
This musical about an average couple who stumble upon a mansion full of strange people and aliens has become an iconic rite of passage for countless people. Midnight screenings, full of costumes, props and responses shouted at the screen have become a vital tradition, celebrating this movie’s campy subversiveness.
Additional reporting by Meredith Woerner, Annalee Newitz, Rob Bricken, Ed Grabianowski, Lauren Davis and Charlie Jane Anders