I hope no one is expecting a Sharknado movie to show up on this list of the 15 best cult movies ever. Besides not being very well-made, entertaining, or even interesting, they are “cult movies” of the absolute worst kind. They are not happy accidents, which is how you can, and should, define most of the top cult films of all time. The Sharknado series represents a type of movie that insists on winking at the camera so often and with such obnoxious intensity, you can barely hear the miserable dialog.
They are fine, if you aren’t interested in being surprised.
Because most of the greatest cult films of all time will surprise you, if you haven’t seen them before. Most cult movies can be defined as films that struggled to find an audience. Whether they found one on the home video market, through midnight movie screenings, or by simply existing until the right gang of passionate weirdos came along, the best cult movies had to earn that status. They weren’t made for cynical, lazy reasons.
Well, perhaps some of them. Then things took a turn.
A lot of the cult movies on this list found their audience by sheer force of will, or by accident. In some cases, the movies have become among the greatest cult classics in cinema because the audience took to them in a way the filmmakers never intended. A lot of cult movies feature interviews with people who are pleased that people like the work, but remain confused that people are still talking about it after 10, 20, or 40 years.
One more thing: Cult movies are not just horror movies. A cult classic can exist in any genre, and will sometimes in fact combine two or more genres, creating a truly fascinating cinematic mutant. It’s A Wonderful Life is a cult film, simply for the fact that it built its reputation through decades of free screenings on TV.
Cult movies are a broad concept. That fact will occur to you again and again, over the course of this collection that ultimately just scratches the surface.
People have written lengthy books about classic cult cinema, on top of blogs and discussion groups. Seek them out. Demand a better brand of strangeness than the bullshit being rolled across the landscape by the likes of Syfy and Asylum.
No, at the end of the day, there’s nothing really wrong with those movies. This list is not out to condemn them, or the people who enjoy them.
Nonetheless, they aren’t invited to this party.
The 15 Best Cult Movies Of All-Time
1. Freaks (1932)
Freaks was badly cut, released to extremely poor reviews, and then promptly forgotten. It essentially destroyed the career of director Todd Browning, who had just been coming off the triumph of Dracula in 1931. Browning died in 1962, and then Freaks finally found its audience later in the decade.
The story is simple enough, in which a horrible trapeze artist named Cleopatra tries to con her midget coworker out of an inheritance. It goes badly for her. That scene alone ensures Freaks is as stunning and memorable as it has ever been. If nothing else, you will stay for the truly unique, remarkable human beings who were cast for the carnival freaks.
Despite the movie’s title and reputation among some, Freaks actually treats them with a good deal of respect.
Watch if: You want to be “One of us.” Avoid if: You don’t.
2. Reefer Madness (1936)
After surviving on the grindhouse circuit in the 1930’s, Reefer Madness eventually found its audience in California college campuses in the 70s. After a while, it made its way to the midnight movie circuit. Then came the musical. It has been riffed a handful of time, most notably by RiffTrax. Allegedly, someone is currently working on a remake.
While a fundamentally awful movie in every conceivable way, Reefer Madness is a true cult classic. The ludicrous cautionary tale about marijuana has managed to find enthusiastic viewers from one decade to the next. It isn’t hard to see why. The unintentional humor in its subject matter will be popular for as long as people remember the absurdity of anti-marijuana laws. Reefer Madness also features some of the worst performances ever committed to film. In this case, that’s a good thing.
Watch if: You want to see one of the best unintentional comedies in film history. Avoid if: You don’t want to be tempted by the devil’s lettuce.
Ed Wood’s third feature may well be his best one, in terms of writing, editing, directing, and whatever else he did. That still isn’t saying much, but let’s not judge Ed too harshly. Bride of the Monster at least has some atmosphere going for it.
You also get Bela Lugosi, near the end of his life, addicted to drugs, and desperate for work. The years were not kind to Bela. That is particularly true in the last decade. There is still something oddly inspirational about his performance. In spite of everything, Bride of the Monster gets the best of what Lugosi had to give at that moment in time.
Of course, who can forget Tor Johnson, the face that launched a thousand Halloween masks?
Bride of the Monster is weird. It also suggests the creative potential of its director. There was indeed something there.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most famous bad movies of all time. Avoid if: There isn’t any room on your schedule for cross-dressing directors.
4. A Bucket of Blood (1959)
It would be odd for any list of the best cult classics to exclude Roger Corman. As a producer, he is responsible for dozens of movies that qualify for this category. The same goes for his work as a director, although nothing in his canon is quite as weird and wonderful as A Bucket of Blood. That even includes the famed Little Shop of Horrors.
A Bucket of Blood has two things going for it. First, it has the late, great Dick Miller in the first of a series of unconnected characters named Walter Paisley. Miller got a rare lead role here. It’s a blast to watch an actor as distinctive and inventive as he was making the most of a rare opportunity. The ridiculous plot, in which a man becomes a wild success as sculptor, using murder victims encased in clay, is a close second to the movie’s appeal. It’s also dated, but that’s part of the charm.
Watch if: You want to see something that’s mostly silly, but genuinely creepy at times, as well. Avoid if: You’re hoping for something as gory as the title suggests.
No other filmmaker created a range of work quite like Russ Meyer. The consistency among his films is that you’re going to get large-breasted women in peril, who eventually strike back against their (usually male) enemies. Even to this day, his movies are controversial. If you find yourself curious, and you want to know where to start, few in his oeuvre are more enjoyable and unique than Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
The story boils down to three go-go dancers who go on a crime spree. That’s pretty much it. Yet with an amazing cast (particularly Tura Santana), tons of cathartic violence, and wildness that makes the whole thing impossible to ignore, Faster, Pussycat is a drive-in classic. It’s a perfect degree of ridiculousness and sheer badassery that can appeal to any generation.
Watch if: You like a good exploitation movie with (unintentional) feminist overtones. Avoid if: You’re a little creeped out by how much Russ Meyer liked big tiddies.
6. El Topo (1970)
El Topo is widely regarded as the first midnight movie. It is probably the most famous movie in writer/director/actor/absolute-fucking-lunatic Alejandro Jodorowsky’s career. Playing the titular El Topo, the movie basically starts out as what feels like a spaghetti western. That changes quickly, as the landscape of the film becomes increasingly populated by visual freaks, spiritual freaks, and circumstances beyond the scope of reasonable understanding.
El Topo is one of the sincerest masterpieces ever constructed in the surrealist mindset. It is one audacious moment after another. If you make it all the way through, congratulations. El Topo isn’t particularly disgusting, but it unsettles you with an intensity and pace that still holds up after nearly 50 years.
At age 90, as of this writing, Alejandro Jodorowsky remains a raving, beautiful genius. Go check out Jodorowsky’s Dune, when you get through this.
Watch if: You’re in the mood for a granddaddy of a weird movie. Avoid if: You’re big on ideals like “hope” and “sanity” in your film choices.
Powered by the music of Cat Stevens, as well as one of Ruth Gordon’s best performances, Harold and Maude is perhaps my favorite romantic comedy of all time.
It is a maligned genre of film, but there are gems to be found. Harold and Maude, directed by the iconoclastic Hal Ashby, is one of the finest. It is a love story between a much younger man (the ever-delightful Bud Cort) and an elderly, anarchistic woman (Gordon). That is the main thread of the film.
At the same time, Harold and Maude is also amiable, sweet, and brilliant in its observations on death, the search for purpose, and the fluidity of happiness and sorrow running side-by-side.
Watch If: You want a sincere, kindhearted cinematic love story. Avoid if: You’ve read a synopsis, and actually believe Maude is an early manic pixie dream girl.
8. Pink Flamingos (1972)
What can you honestly say about Edie? The dog crap scene? Even in this day and age, Pink Flamingos lives with a certain degree of infamy.
The movie has a plot, involving the title of “Filthiest Person Alive” (among other points of interest). There are characters, including writer/director/producer John Waters as the narrator, and the iconic Divine as a hellish career criminal. There are moments that occur in sequential order, leading to a conclusion as bizarre and gloriously shocking as everything that came before it.
Pink Flamingos simply cannot be boiled down to a few words. Perhaps, “dog crap eating”, but that’s probably it. It has to be experienced from start to finish. Let me know how it goes.
Watch if: You want to see a movie that is as joyful as it is disgusting.
Avoid if: Incest is a subject you prefer to avoid, even in dark comedies.
William Marshall was a phenomenal actor for decades. You may remember him as the King of Cartoons on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. His other iconic role is Blacula, essentially a blaxploitation remake of the more traditional Count. Yet Blacula comes about after an encounter with the original Dracula.
Quite a bit happens in this hilarious, blisteringly action-packed horror movie, which moves from the 1780s to the 1970s. Marshall is so effortlessly agreeable as Blacula, the character works in any century.
Blacula isn’t the most technically proficient horror movie. It also features a rather disappointing sequel. Yet the humor and sheer energy of this first film more than make up for those failing points. Blacula is essential viewing for so many reasons.
Watch if: You want to see one of the funniest horror movies of the 1970s. Avoid if: You can’t stand campiness in any form. Or you’re racist against black vampires.
10. House (1977)
Japan’s reputation for weird movies is pretty well-deserved. This is also the country that has produced some of cinema’s finest dramas. There’s a lot going on over there.
House is one of the strangest films in Japan’s long history with the medium. I’m sure someone can think of weirder ones. I’m sure I can. House isn’t just strange though. It is distinctive. It is a bold series of insane circumstances, nightmarish visuals, and a cast that at times seems to respond as though they don’t know they’re in a movie in the first place.
The plot? There’s a haunted house. Some hapless idiots descend upon it. Decapitated heads biting asses ensues. This is a classic of strangeness in cinema. I can promise you one of the most memorable films you will ever see.
Watch if: You want to see one of Japan’s weirdest. Avoid if: “I don’t know, man. Funky Forest was pretty odd.”
Director/writer John Carpenter’s filmography could damn near fill any list of the best cult movies. While there is a case to be made for virtually all of his films to be on a list such as this, Escape from New York is ultimately the one that stands above them all. There are several reasons for that.
The simplicity of the story is one of its best features. It has a man named Snake (Kurt Russell, in one of his best) sent on a near-impossible mission to rescue the President (Donald Pleasence, wonderful as always) from the prison island of Manhattan in a dystopian hellscape. Snake has some micro-explosives injected, designed to go off if anything goes wrong. A few more characters come along, but the story remains gritty, compulsory, and straightforward.
Escape from New York is a blunt-force neo western with influence and charm to spare.
Watch if: You like action movies with star-studded b-movie casts. Avoid if: You’re scared of Ox Baker.
12. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
Described as a “superhero comedy splatter movie”, The Toxic Avenger launched a lot of ships for such a grubby, violent, and uniquely hideous film.
It gave Troma Entertainment the opportunity to move slightly up the ladder in recognition. It also gave co-director/co-writer Lloyd Kaufman the surprise hit he so richly deserved, as one of the hardest-working, most inventive producers and filmmakers of his time. Troma Entertainment is still standing, still releasing movies. Of their many comic-horror masterpieces, none are as much fun as this story of a nerdy janitor, transformed into a vicious superhero by bullies and toxic waste.
Truly, a classic American tale.
Watch if: You want to see something brutal and hysterically funny in equal measures. Avoid if: You have a weak stomach for live-action cartoon violence.
The British have a knack for combining human oddities with very depressing bouts of manic comedy. Withnail and I is a pitch-perfect example of such a notion. The tragedy and comedy run beside one another so intently throughout, you tend to leave the film as close to death’s door as literally everyone in this movie seems to be.
Withnail and I is basically a toxic friendship story between two men (Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann), who burn through drugs, friends, good times, and just about anything else. The whole thing comes to a deceptively gentle head.
Watch if: You want to see an oddly realistic story of shitty friends. Avoid if: You like movies where everything works out for at least one character.
14. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Joel and Ethan Coen are two more directors whose work could stack a list of the best cult movies. The Big Lebowski is perhaps their purest cult film. That is at least partially because no one, certainly not the Coens, imagined it would take on the second life it currently enjoys.
This story of a perpetual stoner named The Dude (Jeff Bridges) whose life takes several unexpected, hilarious turns after a man pees on his rug, was not terribly successful upon release. Less than ten years later, it has a convention drawing fans from all over the world. Lebowski-Fests are continuing to this day, with thousands of people who know these characters and dialog on a level rivaling that of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
If you don’t care about any of that, The Big Lebowski is a noir mystery in the Raymond Chandler vein. It is a relentlessly surprising movie for a first-time viewer, with memorable performances from Bridges, Julianne Moore, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Ben Gazzara, and many others.
Watch if: You want to see an immensely quotable movie. Avoid if: You can’t watch it alone. Lovely as they are, the Lebowski Achievers can be a little too enthusiastic at times.
Supposedly, this comedic martial arts classic from writer/director/producer Stephen Chow is going to get a sequel in the near future. That’s pretty exciting.
At the same time, it is difficult to imagine even someone as talented as Chow topping the endless joy and action that permeate every single moment of this breathtaking film. This is a grand martial arts epic with the ability to appeal to anyone. I would even throw people who outright dislike martial arts films.
Although I honestly don’t know anyone who hates kung fu movies.
Kung Fu Hustle is sprawling with eccentrics and legends of the genre. It is bursting with creativity in a variety of ways in every scene. The story of two dumbass conmen who run afoul of a local gang sets the stage for, well, a lot.
Kung Fu Hustle is a busy movie, to be sure. It is also never confusing, and it certainly isn’t boring.
Watch if: You want to see a comedy that may or may not be among Bill Murray’s favorites. Avoid if: You don’t think comedy and martial arts should get mixed up, those crazy kids.
Any list of the best cult films ever made is ultimately going to be personal. The above list, while trying to think in larger terms, still leaned on the ones that meant the most to me. I’d love to hear about which ones you think I missed.
However, before you get to that, make sure it isn’t among these runners up. This is the longest runners up list for one of these articles to date. If you understand what I’m dealing with here, with this subject, then you understand why I couldn’t leave without at least mentioning the following:
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Repo Man (1984)
Army of Darkness (1992)
They Live (1988)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
The Warriors (1979)
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Zorro, The Gay Blade (1981)
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