Cult movies can be big or small. They can have huge stars credentialing their posters, or complete unknowns typed across the back of their DVD cases. It doesn’t matter how well a cult flick did at the box office, nor does it matter what professional critics determined the correct way to feel about a movie was. Cult movies are defined by the loving and loyal fanbases that follow them.
Any movie can be a cult movie in that sense, and accordingly, there are countless cult movies out there, depending on the audience. One of the more famous examples of a cult film would be The Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers’ great comedy that is so adored it has entire conventions named after it. Movies like this have ensnared the hearts and imaginations of their viewers. Cult movies are movies that people love.
But along with the adoration of fans, cult films almost always are movies that failed initially, whether commercially or critically, and yet in the time since their release have been re-evaluated for the better, if only by a small corner of the movie watching public. Cult movies are underdogs in one way or another, and everybody loves an underdog. So we decided to discuss this cause, and as a setting for this seminar we chose Netflix. The movie-streaming service has an amazing array of movies, and we chose the long shots, the dark horses, and any out-of-towners of note.
So with that, sit back, relax, and enjoy Screen Rant’s 11 Cult Classics on Netflix That Anyone Would Love…
11 Dead Man (1995)
When it was released in 1995, Dead Man surprised critics and befuddled audiences. It garnered strong opinions from well-known reviewers, who were almost split down the middle as to whether the movie was pretentious claptrap or one of the best offerings of the 1990s.
Probably director Jim Jarmusch’s best known work, Dead Man stars Johnny Depp as William Blake, an accountant who loses his new job, gets shot, and is left on the run from savage bounty hunters. At his side is Nobody, a Native American tracker who helps the luckless Blake get across frontier America.
Jarmusch is a sort of indie institution, imbuing his works with measured performances by great actors, dazzling soundtracks from the likes of Tom Waits and Neil Young, and never-ending allusions and direct references to great writers and artists. Dead Man is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to access a little bit of art house.
10 The Crow (1994)
Ticking the right boxes is not what cult movies do. They’re unique visions that if anything eschew commonly followed moviemaking tropes, and that’s a big part of why people get sucked in. There’s nothing getting in the way of a filmmakers’s purist vision here. And so while most of the public can’t relate to the new and unfamiliar territory, those who can really get into it. They can really relate.
The Crow, then, is a wonderful example of this working definition. It is a neo-noir drama based on a comic book, about a young musician (Brandon Lee) who is killed along with his fiancée by a group of toughs, but is resurrected a year later and exacts his revenge as a gothic entity called the Crow.
The film is best known because of its star, Brandon Lee, who was killed during the movie’s production by a faulty prop gun. The combination of Lee’s critically-acclaimed performance and his untimely passing before the film’s completion immediately sent it beyond normal cult status and straight into the stratosphere.
Though not a blockbuster by any stretch, it debuted at number one at the box office and left countless fans wondering what Lee’s career could have held with all the potential shown on the screen here.
9 The Warriors (1979)
Released in 1979 to resoundingly harsh reviews, The Warriors has since cemented its place as an iconic and revered classic. In 1970s New York City, the largest street gangs converge for a nighttime summit, when the leader of the prominent Gramercy Riffs is shot dead. Another group, The Warriors of Coney Island, are framed for the killing, and they must fight to survive as all of the city’s toughs turn out against them.
A story based on the 1965 novel by Sol Yurick, it delves into the themes of survival, reputation, loyalty, and justice. Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo paints a stark picture of New York’s fuming underbelly, and director Walter Hill does an excellent job balancing the film’s action with more tender moments.
In the intervening years, critics have warmed greatly to the picture, adorning it with much praise. And scruffy characters like Swan, Ajax, Cleon, and Fox have all weaseled their way into the pop culture consciousness.
8 Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Full of cheesy dialogue, lots of violence, and a crackling plot, Big Trouble in Little China was an archetypal action flick. It was part of a new school of '80s action moivesthat helped invent a genre, taking traditional motifs from the old adventure serials and injecting them with big guns, huge stars, and budgets worthy of the Reagan era.
Movies like this set the stage perfectly for an '80s and '90s dominated by larger-than-life personas like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and the film’s star, Kurt Russell.
Here, Russell stars as gruff truck driver Jack Burton, who inadvertently gets roped into a conspiracy that involves his best friend’s fiancée being taken hostage by a Chinatown crime lord. Dipping into the fantastical, the plot also has Burton fending off an evil immortal prince.
This was director John Carpenter’s third time working with Russell, after Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982). The pair had great chemistry, and the film is a kinetic rollercoaster ride. But unlike other movies with similarly muscular action, it didn't do so well at the box office; it scored only $11 million in ticket receipts, off of a big $20 million budget. The filmmakers have credited the weak showing to the fact that James Cameron’s Aliens was released only 16 days later, with that one scoring upwards of $130 million from a similar budget.
Despite all that, Little China is a cult classic, and it continues to gain newer generations of fans.
7 Let the Right One In (2008)
Foreign films have the ideal pretext for cult status: international production companies don’t have nearly the kinds of resources that Hollywood behemoths have, and language as well as cultural barriers can often be too daunting or mystifying to get past. Plus, who just adores reading subtitles for two hours?
So quite understandably, most people skirt right past the foreign and stick to the safety of domestics. Some films have made it through the door (Amelie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Life Is Beautiful), but these are aberrations.
So, the vast majority of overseas releases that even make it stateside gain varying degrees of awareness. And the Swedish romantic horror film Let the Right One In has found not a small place in many hearts. The winner of a slew of festivals and awards, it’s a critical darling about Oskar, a shy 12-year-old in the 1980s who develops a friendship with Eli, a young vampire. Their unlikely connection builds, and soon Eli shares with the boy her affinity for blood and even murder.
It’s excellently acted, especially considering the fact that the leads were only 11 (!) when it was made.
6 Trainspotting (1996)
There aren’t many directors who are better at building tension and keeping audiences breathless than Danny Boyle. From 28 Days Later to Slumdog Millionaire, the English director has shown time and time again that he can keep things tightly paced to spectacular results.
The film that really blasted him into acclaim was Trainspotting, which was a box office smash. It’s one of the great examples of a movie that was a commercial hit and remains an intimately held favorite for so many. It’s made it onto many best movie lists, and has kept such a passionate cult following that a sequel is, two decades later, now in the pipeline.
The film stars Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd, and Jonny Lee Miller as a group of buddies living in working-class Edinburgh in the 1980s. All are heroin addicts, and each has a way of scheming his way through the day and to the next hit. It’s Requiem For a Dream with a welcome dose of humor. No wonder it’s such a charmer.
5 eXistenZ (1999)
Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law deliver great performances in David Cronenberg’s criminally-underwatched eXistenZ. And with things being that way, it makes sense why the movie made it on such a list.
Leigh stars as Allegra Geller, an elite video game designer in the future who builds virtual reality systems that plug directly into players via surgical implants. The goal is to make for the ultimate escapes from reality, but when an unhinged fan attempts to kill her, things become very real.
With the help of businessman-turned-bodyguard Ted (Law), Allegra evades those after her, while trying to save the sole copy of her most important game yet.
eXistenZ does a great job with the theme of humanity living through an age of ubiquitous technology. Cronenberg does beautifully with both realism (Eastern Promises) and body horror (The Fly). eXistenZ is a fascinating clashing of these two favored genres. It’s the best Cronenberg movie you’ve never heard of.
4 Sonatine (1993)
The only Japanese entrant on this list, 1993’s Sonatine is a doozy. The Tokyo-set yakuza piece starred Takeshi Kitano, who also wrote, directed, and edited it. Somehow, one guy doing all of these jobs pulled everything off, as the result is a taut thrill ride with a distinctly fatalistic verve.
Kitano portrays as Murakawa, a senior yakuza enforcer, who is ready to drop the gang life. The plot is split into four parts: Murakawa and his men must head to Okinawa, they arrive there and play precarious games while awaiting orders, there is a grand shootout, and finally Murakawa must face his own demons.
As with many great cult hits, Sonatine did not do well at the box office, though it did jive quite well with critics. A common theory for its commercial failure was that because Sonatine didn’t play by the rules of more mainstream action flicks — it had action but not much, it wasn’t gratuitously violent — that many audiences understandably just couldn’t accept it as a gangster movie. And while that’s a shame, there is still a dedicated crowd who dig it for its humor and understatement.
3 Re-Animator (1985)
Made on a sub-million-dollar budget and only scoring $2 million at the box office, Re-Animator wasn’t anything special commercially. But otherwise? It’s a classic.
Stuart Gordon directed this twisted little sci-fi comedy, about an antisocial medical student who, when he’s not in class, specializes in bringing back the dead. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) invents a solution that reanimates any deceased subject it’s injected into. He moves from his native Zürich to New England, where he becomes roommates with Dan Cain. Together, they work on experiments until they are kicked out of medical school. Once night while working down in the school morgue, the school’s dean catches them trespassing but is promptly mauled by a reanimated corpse. The team then proceed to test their methods on the dean, as well as other professors who get in their way.
The movie expertly melds black humor with suspense, making it nothing short of pure awesomeness.
2 Hellraiser (1987)
The movie that made director Clive Barker a horror hero, Hellraiser is masterful flick and a solid cult classic. Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) purchases a mysterious puzzle box on a trip to Morocco and, upon returning home, solves the puzzle, only for it to consume him, taking him down into a hellish nether realm. Later, Frank’s brother Larry moves into the home with his wife and daughter. Frank is resurrected, and he divides the family down the lines of who will do his horrible bidding.
The movie was highly stylized, and incorporated a punchy synth-laden score from acclaimed composer Christopher Young. The film is violent — so gory that it was initially stamped with an X-rating, but would be edited down to an R-rating before its release.
Barker based the movie on a novel he had written called The Hellbound Heart, and he made the film on a million-dollar budget. It reeled in $14 million at the box office, making it profitable but not quite a hit, though it did spawn multiple sequels. Yet since its release, Hellraiser’s found itself securely in the annals of horror classics, and it has gained quite the loyal following.
1 Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Movies don’t get much weirder than Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, nor do they remain more lovable. The story tracks the life daily life of playful jokester Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens), who one day discovers that his beloved bicycle has been stolen. Pee-Wee mopes around town, then interrogates his neighbors and friends, but to no avail. On a last-ditch venture to a psychic, he is told by the hoaxer medium that his bike is located “in the basement of the Alamo.” Thus begins an epic cross-country adventure, on which he runs into angry bikers, escaped convicts, desperate waitresses, rodeo riders, and Hollywood stars.
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure was director Tim Burton’s debut, and it is filled to the brim with quotable lines and memorable scenes. Its goofiness belies great perceptiveness and plot cohesion. Plus, the humor is never mean-spirited or being delivered at the expense of others, and it’s refreshing bits like this that have helped propel Pee-Wee to cult status.
After a less well-received sequel and a children's TV show, Pee-Wee was derailed after star Paul Reubens became the subject of a scandal in the early '90s. He will return, however, in Pee-wee's Big Holiday, which premieres on Netflix on March 18, 2016.
Well, how did we do? What is your all-time favorite movie? We’d love to hear…
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