There’s much disagreement over what exactly constitutes a cult film, but one thing that most people agree on is that the movie must at least have a devoted, passionate fan base. The best cult films span a variety of genres and all have unique origin stories. They include movies that were ahead of their timethat did not resonate with mainstream audiences but found a dedicated niche, or which greatly influenced movie history despite modest ticket sales.
The rise of cult movies really began with home video, which allowed box office flops to find new audiences in people’s living rooms. Social media and online file-sharing have further increased movies’ ability to quickly find an audience beyond the multiplex. In fact, some of today’s most beloved movies actually started out as critical and commercial failures.
This black comedy revolves around a high school clique of four girls: three named Heather, and one named Veronica (Winona Ryder). The Heathers terrorize Veronica, and Veronica dreams of escaping their toxicity. She gets her chance after she meets a mysterious new kid JD (Christian Slater). They fall in love, and Veronica becomes entangled in JD’s plot to murder the Heathers and stage their deaths as suicides.
Heathers was a box office flop, grossing a little over $ 1 million against its $ 3 million budget, but its popularity grew after it was released on VHS and LaserDisc. It’s since garnered a large cult following. Critics’ perception of Heathers has also improved substantially in the decades since its release. It has been praised for inverting teen movie tropes and delivering a withering satire of high school, which was a major departure from the teen movies that were popular in the 1980s.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
When it premiered, Dazed and Confused was a disappointment, grossing only $ 8 million on a budget of $ 6.9 million. Despite its modest opening, the movie has since become a cinematic touchstone and a must-see 90s classic.
Its ensemble cast includes many actors who would go on to become stars, like Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Renée Zellweger, Milla Jovovich and Matthew McConaughey. Of course, it introduced McConaughey’s catchphrase: “Alright, alright, alright.”
Donnie Darko (2001)
A young Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this offbeat sc-fi about a troubled teenager who has visions of a rabbit bringing warnings about the future. Its initial release was a disaster, as the film raked in just over half a million dollars. A large part of this was due to the film’s lack of advertising. Its trailer included a plane crash, which the studio felt would not go down well with audiences in 2001, just six weeks after 9/11.
Donnie Darko would be released later, eventually earning significantly more than its debut. It has since been praised for its philosophical themes and for transcending genre limitations and is beloved by many cult film fans the world over.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
This warm-hearted comedy follows a group of mostly teenage counselors on the last day of camp. Wet Hot American Summer received mostly negative reviews on release and made a loss at the box office. Director David Wain called it a “financial disaster.”
However, with each passing year, it appears that Wet Hot American Summer gets more popular. Like Dazed and Confused, Wet Hot American Summer features an ensemble cast including many future A-listers, like Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and Bradley Cooper in his film debut. Its appeal shows no signs of abating. Netflix released a prequel series in 2015, followed by a sequel series in 2017.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The initial reaction to The Rocky Horror Picture Show was negative, and most moviegoers ignored it. The film’s cult following only began after New York’s Waverly Theater began midnight screenings. Soon, fans started shouting the movie’s lines during screenings, which eventually evolved into full-blown audience participation. Rocky Horror Fan clubs popped up around the world, and stage productions of the film proliferated.
Rocky Horror remains in limited releaseto this day, making it the longest-running theatrical release in movie history. Its soundtrack also continues to serve as an anthem for misfits everywhere. “Let’s do the Time Warp again!”
Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010)
Scott Pilgrim vs the World made a loss at the box office, but it has since become one of Edgar Wright‘s most cherished movies. Its popularity grew so much that large celebrations and a cast reunion were held to mark its 10-year anniversary. Directors Quentin Tarantino and Jason Reitman have expressed their love of the film. Even hip-hop stars like Lil Uzi Vert and Kid Cudi have released projects that overtly reference Scott Pilgrim.
Scott Pilgrim has also been the subject of a significant amount of scholarly analysis. Several academics have called it a “transmedia narrative”, meaning one which employs a variety of creative techniques. For example, it frequently makes use of sequences reminiscent of comic books and videogames. These techniques have since been used by several films, but they were stylistically daring in 2010.
Blade Runner (1982)
Believe it or not, Ridley Scott‘s dystopian sci-fi wasn’t always so beloved. It actually underperformed in theaters and drew mostly negative reviews. This might be because the film serves up a much bleaker, harsher future than the sunnier sci-fis that were popular at the time, like Star Trek and Star Wars.
Over time Blade Runneracquired cult status. These days it is widely recognized as one of the finest achievements in sci-fi cinema. It was a landmark in the development of the cyberpunk genre and exerted considerable influence on later movies, video games, and anime. Blade Runner also prompted Hollywood to adapt several more novels by Philip K. Dickincluding Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Jennifer’s Body is a comedy-horror starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried and written by Diablo Codythe screenwriter behind Juno and Young Adult. It performed poorly at the box office and critics had a lukewarm reaction. Cody argues that a large part of this was because 20th Century Fox marketed the film “all wrong”. Advertising promoted it as a run-of-the-mill horror, with a big focus on Megan Fox’s star power.
In recent years, Jennifer’s Body has been re-examined by critics. In particular, after the #MeToo movement, some critics have argued that Jennifer’s Body was ahead of its time as a feminist film.
The Thing (1982)
Kurt Russell stars in this sci-fi horror from director John Carpenter about a team of Antarctic researchers who are attacked by a shape-shifting alien. It had a disappointing theatrical run and drew negative, even hostile, reviews. Some commentators have suggested that The Thing’s bleak tone and dark story did not connect with 1982 audiences who were seeking out more escapist fare like ET
Nevertheless, The Thing had a second life on home video and TV. It has since come to be regarded as Carpenter’s masterpiece and one of the best horror movies ever made. Some leading directors of the next generation like JJ Abrams, Guillermo Del Toro, and Edgar Wright have cited it as an influence. Not to mention, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is an overt homage to The Thing. The Hateful Eight shares much in common with Carpenter’s film, from the snowy setting and themes of mistrust to the same lead actor and an original score from Ennio Morriconewho also produced the music for The Thing.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
It may come as a surprise since The Wizard of Oz is one of the most iconic movies of all time, but it was not a hit when it first came out. It failed to make a profit until it was re-released a decade later. In fact, the movie only really connected with audiences after CBS broadcasted it on TV in 1956.
Since then, The Wizard of Oz has, of course, become one of cinema’s most beloved classics. It has appeared on scores of critics’ lists of the best movies ever. Its music and imagery, from Dorothy’s (Judy Garland) ruby slippers to the witch’s feet jutting out from beneath Dorothy’s house, are seared into the public imagination. It’s sure to continue to delight audiences for decades to come.
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