Some movies capture peoples attention and admiration a bit more than others. And by that we mean people become utterly obsessed with a film. From midnight screenings to cosplay events to everything in between, some movies manage to gain a fervent audience for years and years after its released. And speaking of their release, many now-"cult films" absolutely bombed at the box office. Then, years later, people realized something magical about such movies and fell in love with them.
The word "cult film" comes from decades ago, used to describe the underground scene of indie films and midnight screenings for movies that were decidedly not mainstream. It's transcended that meaning into a catchall for movies that may not be conventionally popular but have a passionate, devoted fanbase that loves the living hell out of it. Cult movies can, and are, a part of literally every genre. But most often, they're ingrained in weird, obscure, and shocking little niches of the film world. Here are some of the biggest cult films of all time with some huge, crazy followings!
Working Title Films
This crime comedy film seems, on the surface, an odd choice for a cult film. While it's fun, funny, and a great blender of noir and crime film tropes, it seems to be standard Coen Brothers fare. But somehow the story of The Dude (Jeff Bridges) became a sensation. There are midnight screenings, the yearly "Lebowski Fest," and even a religion based on The Dude's beliefs: Dudeism. Thousands of members strong! Oh, and there are two African spiders with scientific names inspired by the film. Over two decades after its release, the hype of The Dude and The Big Lewbowski lives strong.
Based on the musical of the same name, this film adaptation brought the magic of the production to the big screen where it was accessible to a much wider audience. While the film bombed at the box office (grossing only $3.6 million), the story of transgendered rock star Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) has lived on eternally. The movie is a cult fave among not only the LGBTQ+ community but anyone looking for a bit of acceptance. The cult love of the film has brought the story back to the stage — this time on Broadway. With a rotating cast of huge stars playing Hedwig (Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall, and Andrew Rannells, just to name a few), it's clear that everyone has some sort of love for the story!
What began as the dramatic, "true story" of Christina Crawford has become a cult comedy classic. But beyond people loving it for a totally unintended reason, it's become a gay camp hit. From drag homages to hilarious interpretations of the "no wire hangers!" scene. Sure, it was supposed to be a dramatic retelling of a pained childhood. But it ended up being so campy, silly, and over-the-top that through airings on cable, fans began to love it as a comedy.
Based on the mind-bending novel of the same name, A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian story set in the near future where crime, delinquency, and "ultra-violence" run rampant. The film and the book have reached cult status because of all the violence. The film is known for being one of the first to have such violent, taboo subject matter allowed right in the open and helped to relax the film industry's standards. This controversial nature brought fans in as they clamored around something so new and revolutionary and the cult love has stuck ever since.
This is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary rock epic, was a bit of success when it was released, but once it came out on video the whole game changed. The cult status was solidified as fans flocked to the movie about a band people weren't quite sure existed or not. The unique nature of "Spinal Tap" — the fake band that eventually turned real — had fans asking questions and making theories. And the minute people start theorizing about your art is the minute you've got some obsessive fans on your hands!
Motion Picture Ventures
Reefer Madness was originally financed and created by a church group to advocate all that can go wrong when you smoke marijuana. But when it was purchased by a producer who re-cut it, the film was released as a film intended to shock and awe with the intention of capitalizing on the growing worry about marijuana. When it was re-discovered in the '70s, the film took on a new life, though. In a world where marijuana has become more and more accepted, it's seen as a hilarious satire of the ~horrors~ of the drug. It's still a popular midnight-screening movie and even more hilarious today considering marijuana is on its way to total legality!
View Askew Productions
The lives of two lazy store clerks and their friends really hit on something special when it was released in 1994. One of the biggest reasons movies become cult hits is that they connect on some level with a whole slew of different people, and Clerks did just that. With realistic characters and dialogue that actually sounds real, young people saw themselves. To this day, the movie feels like a true-to-life depiction of lazy, working life for twentysomethings. That's probably the reason why so many have latched onto it for so long.
Most people know Showgirls as the film Elizabeth Berkley used to try and shed her good-girl Saved by the Bell image. It's also a surprise cult hit. The erotic drama about a Vegas dancer has reached cult status for a few reasons. One, its ridiculousness. It's poorly acted and super dramatic and has become a bit of a comedy sensation. There's also the taboo factor of a child star shedding her image - along with her clothes - on-screen. ...which is probably why the film got a huge resurgence when it was released on VHS! The movie is regularly screened as a midnight movie and Showgirls parties are a totally real and assumingly-scandalous thing!
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Who knew a movie based on a board game would get so much love? The film went from '80s flop to genuine cult classic over the years. It was derided by critics, barely seen by fans, and yet now it's seen as the comedy classic it always should have been recognized as. There are jokes, clues, secrets, and three different endings. It's the type of film made to be loved for its off-kilter comedy and unexpected reimagining of a classic board game. Plus, it's not Tim Curry's only foray into cult film territory (more on his other cult movie a bit later!)!
As far as black comedies go, it doesn't get much blacker than this. When a teen and her boyfriend start killing all the popular kids in school, things get predictably out of hand. The dark comedy played regularly on cable after its release which is one of the easiest ways for a movie to become a hit. Accessibility is key! But the film also resonated with a whole generation of teens that felt out of place and angry at their clique-y high schools and mean girl squads. Sure, they weren't going to go out and kill the popular kids, but to know they weren't alone was huge. This film also has one more thing essential to a cult hit: the most quotable lines. What's your damage, Heather?
A Band Apart
I guess you can say most Quentin Tarantino movies are cult classics, but this one takes the cake. The crime classic full of humor, violence, and dancing is often regarded as his best film and the most beloved. It's the little indie film that could, shattering box office and critical expectations. It flipped the script in Hollywood for what an indie film could be, which is only part of the reason people are so obsessed with it. The pop culture references, quotable lines, and signature Tarantino-style made it unlike anything else before it. Of course people were obsessed! And they still are, inspiring cosplay galore and plenty of memes and homages to the cult film!
Act III Communications
The Princess Bride is such a cult hit you could likely see it playing in some movie theater today (there is a screening a mere half-hour from me tonight). Based on the novel of the same name, the film takes the tried and true storybook telling of a prince and her savior to new levels. It completely chops and screws the genre, giving something hilarious and poignant back. It was no big box office hit, but it ascended to cult status after its release on VHS. Movie star Wallace Shawn has said that, to this day, fans still come up to him and shout "inconceivable!", proving his famous line will never die!
Fox 2000 Pictures
When Fight Club first came out, it was a flop. It made very little money, was subject to mixed reviews, and then cast aside. But when it came out on DVD, it found new life in home media. Whether people loved it or hated it, it was one of the most talked-about films of the '90s and real-life fight clubs turned up around the country. This is one of the biggest movies of all time to gain cult status through word-of-mouth. Simply, people told their friends they loved it and to check it out. To this day, Fight Club quotes, memes, and references are everywhere as it remains one of the most obsessed-over movies of all time.
Also known as the film that launched Jack Gyllanhaal's career, Donnie Darko is a bit of indie surrealist cinema that hit all the right marks to become a hit. There's time travel, demented bunnies, the apocalypse and so much more that has kept fans coming back. Once it was released on DVD, the cult love began. Teens flocked to it for its sci-fi imagery and teen angst. This is when midnight showings of the film began across the country, continuing to this day. It has since gained a huge online following which has further promoted its status.
This franchise may be among the biggest in the world, but the cult is still strong with this one. While there are casual Star Wars fans, there's also a deep sect of fans who live and die by the galactic epic. With a gamut of merchandise, films, toys, and collectibles, Star Wars is one of the most profitable franchises of all time. And fans can't get enough of it. Movie pre-sale tickets go quickly, movies break records, and toys get swept off the shelves as soon as they appear. There is no bigger sci-fi franchise in the world thanks to the deep well of devoted fans.
Python (Monty) Pictures
Who would have thought that a slapstick comedy film based on Arthurian legends would be one of the biggest cult hits of all time? The parody film follows King Arthur's search for the Holy Grail and is regarded as one of the funniest movies of all time. So, of course, comedy nerds clung to it. It's infinitely quotable, widely beloved, and the 1975 movie still finds its way into theaters decades later for midnight viewings and special shows. The longevity of the flick has made it a mainstay, with comedy nerds and casual fans alike flocking to it.
How can a movie so bad, so poorly made, and so ridiculously written become such a huge classic? The power of Tommy Wiseau is impossible to understand. Much like his bizarre film about a man and his cheating girlfriend (among 100 other crazy things). But somehow, it's gotten the so-bad-it's-good reputation. Fans run to midnight viewings, order Wiseau's absurd products (like underwear with his name around the band), and share stories about the movie through word-of-mouth, advertising a filmmaker could only dream of. The movie has reached such heights that James Franco even made a movie about the making of the movie, The Disaster Artist!
Michael White Productions
This is the movie that essentially defined "cult classic." The musical, sci-fi, horror comedy about a transsexual from Transylvania has become one of the most popular midnight movies of all time. Screenings are held constantly — even more often around the Halloween season — and it's still shown in limited release in theaters around the country! Along with midnight screenings, the film is often performed by groups across the country in interactive settings with heavily costumed audiences. There are also conventions and traveling shows dedicated to the movie that seems to grow a more rabid fan-base by the year. And don't get us started on the number of TV shows and songs that have referenced the hit!