What are Cult Classic Movies?

Cult classics are movies that start with a small, devout following but grow in popularity, evoking passion and familiarity everywhere like a religion. These films have become timestamps of special years, offering a reference to look back on like an anchor to a period’s memories. 

Filmmakers make movies to win awards or accolades. However, not all films find success on release.

Cult classics tend to be unpopular movies that explode later on, turning into epics years or even decades after their initial release. Cult classics have a way of inspiring new followers, aided by a word-of-mouth admiration that spreads like wildfire beyond its enthusiastic fans. They don’t always start successful but eventually find their way there.

A deep-seated theme that scorns society, such as in The Holy Mountain, can fuel a film’s rise into stardom. However, it’s not always the case that this society-defying aura makes a movie a cult classic. Other times, it’s the level of artistry, nostalgia, and the ability to tap into pop culture or mold it in a new direction, that earns a movie cult status. 

A perceived under appreciation for a modest film may also catalyze a following. You’d think a cult classic would have to be good, but that’s not always the case. Awful movies can sometimes be so terrible that they are loveable, making an impression that lasts on audiences. 

Elements of a cult classic movie

  • A humble beginning at the box office.
  • A catchy quote or repeated phrase.
  • Mainstream divergence or controversy.

A humble beginning

Cult movies may start small at the box office. They may initially not have huge audiences drooling over them, but gain momentum as a small faction seeks to get the film the recognition they believe it deserves. A limited low-budget release is often the starting point. 

Alternatively, it may be a big-budget studio project that doesn’t do as well as hoped in terms of cinematic revenue. Either way, staunch believers of the film set out to right the wrongs, spreading the movie’s appeal to the rest of the world like a cult preacher.  

A catchy quote or repeated phrase

A cult movie is famous among its fans with repeated dialogue. That may be a simple one-liner or quotes constantly retold by one of the characters. These stem from icon scenes or catch phrases repeated throughout significant moments of the film. 

As an example, you might remember “I’ll be back,” from Terminator. These famous lines spread into a language of communication among its followers, identifiable among fans like an anthem, almost fashioning a new dialect.

Another great example is Matthew McConaughey’s quote “alright… alright!” —

And this is why dialogue is an important element in screenwriting. Great dialogue can elevate a mediocre film into a cult classic.

Mainstream divergence or controversy

A cult classic may become so for breaking cultural taboos or absconding Hollywood or big-studio conventions. Met by strong resistance as it seeks to question society’s norm or stretch the limits of acceptability, it inspires a cult following that stands in its corner. 

This societal defiance may be in the way of a combination of excessive profanity, sexuality, gore, or violence which may result in restrictions and sometimes flat-out bans. It can be done with a rebel character or through visual metaphors.

The dedicated minority defends it vigorously in a battle that plays out like an “us against the world” campaign. 

Top 5 Cult Classic Movies Pre-2000

The Boondocks Saints (1999)

When The Boondocks Saints first hit the box office, it flopped. Not because it was poorly made but because it featured excessive, over-the-top, doesn’t-make-any-sense violence. It was quite graphic and the action scenes were more than what most audiences could handle. 

The film didn’t make it past five theaters with critics labeling the violence as disturbing and distasteful. However, the movie that would inspire a franchise was just getting started.

On DVD, The Boondocks Saints was reborn, sneaking its way into homes as a favorite for offering something different from Hollywood mainstreams. It experienced huge success on the platform and began amassing a cult audience. A sequel arrived ten years later. The loveable vigilante pair of catholic, crime-fighting twins, on a mission to avenge a murdered priest, have ensured The Boondocks Saints remains alive in many hallowed corners of the interwebs. 

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption is today one of the most celebrated classics, presently sitting pretty on the no. 1 spot on IMDb’s film rankings. But that wasn’t always the case. During its first release, the film earned $16m which was far from satisfactory given its $25m budget. 

However, that was largely due to the spotlight-hogging success of two huge titles that year, Forest Gump and Pulp Fiction.

Its portrayal of the U.S. prison system has helped it become a cult film:

Its tongue-twister title certainly won it no favors as well, but Shawshank would have its day in the sun. Comprehensive VHS rental campaigns and a couple of award nominations paved the way for the film’s victory.

The Shawshank Redemption is about a falsely accused banker forced to spend 19 years in prison for murder. He makes new friends in Shawshank prison and uncovers a huge drug operation run by the warden. The film impresses with its slice of humor and exploration of diverse themes. 

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1990)

As war looms between the human race and the machines, the human resistance steals and reprograms a highly advanced robot and sends him back in time to protect a key leader. The machines have sent back their own assassin as well.

It’s a battle of wits and determination, as the older heroic model goes up against the new, ultra-improved, and seemingly unkillable T-1000.

Like the movie before it, Terminator 2 also thrived on home media, becoming a staple of Saturday night entertainment in homes across the US and beyond. Initially misunderstood and undervalued, the movie rightfully started to turn heads with DVD releases. 

Classic quotes and scenes made this movie a classic:

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s naïve and witty portrayal (and his famous one-liner) of the cold cyborg that grows a conscience, is largely responsible for the cult success. We hope he’ll be back on the big screen soon enough. 

Citizen Kane (1941)

Firmly within a safe placing in IMD’s assortment of the industry’s crème de la crème, Citizen Kane remains a historical film even in the eyes of present society. Orson Welles brought his radio charm and followers with him on to the plot of a film that didn’t look to conform to patterns but rather pushed progressive themes. 

It generated lots of controversies even before its release. So much so that the chosen theater refused to show the film and Citizen Kane had to make do with a smaller, alternative venue.

Its preview was widely favorably received, but for one influential critic who took issue with Welles and his depiction of the character. She kicked up a storm and there was a huge back-and-forth with threats of legal action at one point. 

Luckily, Citizen Kane got past its obstacles, thanks in no small part to fan dedication. The movie retraces the scandalous life of publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane after his death, including the meaning of his last word. 

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

A budget of $2.7 million made The Wizard of Oz a reality. While that amount might be seen as quite modest by today’s standards, it was a substantial figure back in the day. 

With such a sizeable financial investment, a return profit of barely $300k saw the cult hit branded a financial flop. A couple of decades down the line and things have turned out differently. Where once there was failure now lies immense success.

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most celebrated movies of the past century. It was at one point one of the most-watched films in history according to findings of the Library of Congress. For the uninitiated, the movie is a musical fantasy adaptation of the similarly-named novel. 

Dorothy discovers a magical land and embarks on a quest to retrieve a special broom with a couple of unusual friends she makes along the way. Its success is also in part to the political allegory at play.

Top 5 Cult Classic Movies Post-2000

Donnie Darko (2001) 

A man in a large rabbit suit starts appearing to a troubled teen after a near-death experience. The rabbit suit guy gradually nudges him to commit mistakes that eventually turn into crime. Donnie Darko was a bit laughable in concept. 

How about that ending:

Despite a decent cast, it tanked in cinemas. The movie came on the heels of 9/11, at a time when people may be desired a lighter touch and that may have contributed to its underperformance. 

It was bailed out by global home video sales and, of course, the undeterred resolve of a handful of followers who found the movie a masterpiece. Today, not too many critics would disagree. It asks cosmic questions we can relate to and there’s more to it than initially meets the eye. Its layered complexity of issues makes it hard to place in terms of genre but it’s a classic nonetheless. 

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Mulholland Drive isn’t a movie for everyone. Cinephiles weren’t scrambling for tickets when it was released in 2001. David Lynch’s neo-noir drama would ultimately go on to attract a couple of accolades his way but it was first shot down before it was considered a cinematic achievement.  

Another talked about ending:

Time has been kind, and almost 20 years later, Mulholland Drive has developed a religious fanbase across the world. The film is about an aspiring actress who stumbles into an amnesiac girl who’s been in an accident. 

The film feels more dreamy than real. You’d expect that the goal would center around trying to uncover the amnesiac girl’s identity but it ventures in totally different directions. It is this unconventionalism that sets it apart, aided by catchy musical interludes that nostalgically rushed us back to the 1960s. Overall, the diverging plot tangents seem to work to its benefit. 

The Room (2003)

This 2003 sci-fi may just be in contention for one of the weirdest films ever made, but it has won over a cult following with myths of its mysterious filming conditions. Taking on the roles of director, producer, and writer, Tom Wiseau was trying his hand at something way outside the mainstream realms. The result is an incoherent and awkward plot that’s a lot campy, with almost nonsensical dialogue at times and disjointed subplots.

Perhaps the best way to reach cult status is to make the worst movie possible:

The Room was a deserved flop at the box office, but its popularity grew immensely in the years since. A Hollywood miracle saw the film rise from the cinematic gutters to lips around Hollywood and beyond, aided by whispers and notions spread by a few fans, some including famous names. The Room offers a tale of betrayal, as one man’s life is turned upside-down when his girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend. 

Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008)

By the time the third iteration of the Franchise came along, Starship Troopers still wasn’t at the top of everyone’s cinematic wish list. With works such as Total Recall and Robocop to his name, director Paul Verhoeven brings to life the story of invading humans met by the resistance of aliens who will not have their planet conquered. 

He succeeds, for the most part, turning cliché sci-fi into a captivating watch as a war between man and aliens plays out intensely.

Yet it still tanked at the box office. An absence of A-list talent has been pinpointed as one of the reasons behind its unpopularity. The main actors took on lead roles for the first time in their careers. A mistimed theatrical release also saw it go up against some huge movies of the same niche. Over time though, a handful of believers have come to appreciate the political satires at play and how the film was tastefully and intelligently different from the book from which it is adapted.  

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook is a fairly decent and scary horror movie. A mother and her young son discover a haunting supernatural presence after a mysterious book they read comes to life. Jennifer Kent made her directorial debut with The Babadook, which surprisingly attained cult status among the LGBTQ+ society three years after its release.

What started as a meme on Tumblr quickly grew into a movement that took social media by storm as the top-hat-wearing ghoul was declared gay by fans.

The plot is seemingly straightforward but it has been dissected and speculated as a social allegory for the stigma that the openly gay face from their families and societies at large. Many have found parallels to that from the movie’s resounding theme of isolation as school and friends turn their backs on a mother and her special needs son.

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