Though much of today’s cinematic landscape is saturated with big-budget blockbusters, occasionally a movie comes along that breaks the Hollywood mold and earns itself a niche but loyal following. And even if they may be a little offbeat or controversial, many of these films have lingered in our cultural consciousness long after their releases. Take these 20 iconic cult flicks, for example – all of which have arguably earned their places in movie history.
20. Easy Rider (1969)
The ultimate cult road movie, Easy Rider sees Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper star as two biker buddies who decide to travel cross-country to Mardi Gras for good times. And given its free-wheeling sense of rebellion and general air of cool, it stands to reason that the film has gathered a cult following in the decades since its release. Plus, of course, there’s its classic rocking soundtrack – “Born to Be Wild,” anyone?
19. Clerks (1994)
Clerks tracks a day in the lives of two slacker store employees. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Thanks in part to writer/director Kevin Smith’s knack for wringing humor out of the mundane, though, the 1994 movie became an almost instant cult hit. Clerks also spawned a sequel in 2006, although that film hasn’t to date acquired the avid fanbase of its predecessor.
18. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Reservoir Dogs set the tone for Quentin Tarantino’s future work, possessing as it does highly stylized dialog, often gruesome violence and a soundtrack full of obscure musical gems. Unlike the director’s follow-up work Pulp Fiction, however, it was hardly a big-hitter at the box office upon its release. Still, that hasn’t put off Reservoir Dogs’ legion of loyal fans, nor has it diminished the film’s standing in the eyes of many critics. Indeed, in 2011 Empire magazine named Tarantino’s debut feature as the second greatest American independent movie of all time.
17. Labyrinth (1986)
It’s perhaps not surprising that an oddball ’80s musical starring David Bowie as a goblin king ended up becoming a cult favorite. And few films can boast the sheer creativity of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, nor anything like the dark fantasy world, populated by strange creatures, that he helped bring to life. Even today, Labyrinth-themed masquerade balls still appear around the globe, populated by fans still looking to get lost in the maze.
16. Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko certainly didn’t achieve blockbuster status upon its initial release in 2001. But in true cult fashion, the film gained unexpected popularity on the midnight-screening circuit and then on DVD. Perhaps that’s down in part to the psychological thriller’s mind-bending narrative, which practically demands rewatching just in order to figure exactly what’s going on. Jake Gyllenhaal’s career-defining performance as the titular troubled teen doesn’t hurt, either.
15. Trainspotting (1996)
Following a young heroin addict navigating life in the shabbier parts of the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was filmed for a relatively paltry $2 million. But word of mouth and stellar reviews may have helped the movie take many times that amount at the box office – despite its often harrowing scenes and criticism for apparently glorifying drug use. And more than two decades after its release, Trainspotting’s enduring cultural relevance has cemented its position as arguably one of the most influential British films ever made.
14. Pink Flamingos (1972)
John Waters has made a name for himself by toeing the line between bad taste and straight-up perversity – and nowhere is this more apparent than in his 1972 flick Pink Flamingos. Part of Waters’ aptly named “Trash Trilogy,” it sees a trio of outlandish characters all attempting to nab the title of “Filthiest Person Alive” in ever more stomach-churning ways. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Pink Flamingos initially picked up its fanbase on the midnight movie circuit, nor that the film was outright banned in some parts of the world for a while.
13. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
This Is Spinal Tap nailed the excesses and quirks of rock bands so well that some have even been convinced that the whole movie is actually a documentary. But, no, the British group were entirely fictional, although they did indeed tour on the back of the film’s success. And as a spoof of life on the road, it remains a hilarious gem. What’s more, the Rob Reiner-directed flick has even been preserved by the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
12. Mulholland Drive (2001)
If you’ve ever seen Mulholland Drive, chances are that you were both delighted and confused. In a plot that meanders between dream and reality, aspiring actress Betty moves to LA and meets Rita, a beautiful stranger with amnesia who needs Betty’s help. Well, that’s one interpretation. But the David Lynch film’s foggy narrative has perhaps boosted its cult appeal, as fans watch it again and again in a search for new clues and hidden meanings.
11. The Warriors (1979)
The Warriors is set in a New York City replete with gang rivalry – even if the street toughs in question are often sharply dressed. And Walter Hill’s 1979 thriller prompted no small amount of controversy upon its debut in theaters, thanks to the copycat crimes it was said to have inspired. Yet the movie’s following remains loyal; decades on, die-hard fans still flock to Coney Island to commemorate this cult masterpiece.
10. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Today, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is regarded by some as one of the best coming-of-age movies of all time. That said, when the film first hit theaters in 1993, it tanked –cashing just $8 million in total. Still, the paean to youth found a new lease of life on VHS and eventually rallied an ardent group of fans who fell for its ’70s rock soundtrack and nostalgic appeal. Quentin Tarantino has even named Dazed and Confused as one of the top ten films ever made.
9. Heathers (1988)
When Heathers was first released in 1988, it didn’t make much of a splash at the box office – perhaps because it was rather darker than other teen flicks of that period. Three decades on, however, and the pitch-black satire on high-school drama is a bona fide cult classic; there’s even now a musical version of the film on stages around the world.
8. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The ultra-violent dystopian future of <em may just have been too much for early ’70s audiences. Certainly, Catholics were forbidden from seeing the film at the time; the movie was even banned entirely from British theaters for over 20 years by Stanley Kubrick’s decree. And with that amount of mystery and taboo surrounding the film, it was almost inevitable that the often-shocking tale of Alex and his thuggish droogs would find an audience somehow – even if that came from viewings of illicit VHS copies.
7. Pulp Fiction (1994)
It may seem odd to call Pulp Fiction a cult movie considering its success at the box office, but Quentin Tarantino’s slick crime drama was arguably too strange and violent ever to fit neatly into mainstream cinema. Yet it may have been this progressiveness – not to mention some infinitely quotable dialogue – that saw Pulp Fiction become an integral part of ’90s pop culture and secure itself a fiercely loyal cult following. Even the promotional poster for the movie, which features Uma Thurman’s character coolly posing with a cigarette, remains iconic.
6. Fight Club (1999)
The first rule of Fight Club? Don’t talk about Fight Club. But we have to, because David Fincher’s thriller is undeniably now an iconic cult movie. That’s despite the fact that the film went somewhat under the radar when it came out in 1999 – especially for a Brad Pitt vehicle. But Fight Club’s audience slowly grew after it was released on DVD, with the nihilistic take on what it means to be a man in the late 20th century eventually finding favor with certain swathes of the public. And yes, the movie has inspired actual real-life fight clubs too.
5. The Room (2004)
Sometimes cult status has nothing to do with the quality of a film. Take The Room, for example; the Tommy Wiseau flick has regularly been called one of the worst movies to ever be produced. It flopped spectacularly at first too, allegedly making a pitiful $1,800 after a $6 million production. Today, though, hardcore fans revel in the movie’s bizarre plot and unintentional humor. And The Room’s legend may have only strengthened after the 2017 release of the James Franco-directed The Disaster Artist – a relatively faithful retelling of the making of the original film.
4. Eraserhead (1977)
Another offering from the warped mind of David Lynch, Eraserhead is the peculiar tale of a father attempting to care for his mutated child in the deserted wilderness. It’s as unnerving as that sounds, and the movie’s monochrome palette arguably adds to the overall feel of dread. Unsurprisingly, then, people took a little time to warm up to the body horror flick, but it eventually became a spooky hit at midnight showings. And 40 years later, Eraserhead’s ability to unsettle has far from faded.
3. The Blues Brothers (1980)
Years before Wayne’s World took a sketch from Saturday Night Live and turned it into a feature-length film, The Blues Brothers proved that concept could work – and work well. Indeed, the hugely quotable musical comedy even went on to spawn hit albums and live shows as well as a rather underwhelming sequel. And as with other cult classics, The Blues Brothers is a film whose energy seemingly can’t be confined to the movie screen, as audience participation screenings are held worldwide to this day.
2. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Like many of the films on this list, The Big Lebowski tanked at the box office. But the Coen brothers’ comedy has since become adored by legions, thanks to its oddball characters and far from conventional plot. Said narrative centers around the Dude – Jeff Bridges’ iconic slacker – who’s mistakenly hired to retrieve a millionaire’s wife from kidnappers. And The Big Lebowski may well have the craziest cult fan base around. How? Well, not every film spawns an entire religion – in this case, the self-explanatory Dudeism.
1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
It would be unthinkable to have a list of cult films without The Rocky Horror Picture Show. After all, its boundary-pushing narrative and controversially campy style was never going to attract a wide audience; in time, though, the iconic sci-fi-flavored flick has garnered its own gang of rabid devotees. And now, more than 40 years on, audiences donned in fishnets and corsets still flock to late-night showings, ready to recite every line and throw toilet paper at the screen.