Cult Classics and Classic Cults

Image of a desk covered in various paraphernalia. On the left, a stack of VHS tapes sit behind miniature game figurines. On the right is a clapboard, a vintage camera, and a pair of tickets.
Three people in renaissance wardrobe stand in front of a mottled green background. They are looking towards the camera excitedly, one is holding a megaphone, another a bag of popcorn.
An aerial view of a desktop covered in dvd covers, VHS & Cassette tapes. Everything is covered in a blue filter.



  1. a relatively small group of people having beliefs or practices, especially relating to religion, that are regarded by others as strange or sinister or as imposing excessive control over members.
  2. a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing.
  3. a person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society. 

Cult classic. This term has always made me laugh. Given to movies that have developed a "cult-like following” that embodies some of the more intense sides of fandoms and demonstrations to further portray their love of a particular movie, it just makes a piece of pop culture sound so intense. But most notably, and more importantly, a cult classic is a movie that is often unpopular or obscure from the mainstream and is either enjoyed in an ironic sense (because of how bad it is) or was less successful in landing with audiences (meaning it didn't make very much money). The money factor plays a big role too; if a film's opening weekend isn't showing to be as profitable compared to the production budget of what it cost to make the movie, it usually isn't considered successful. Most cult classics follow a similar pattern but end up finding a more profitable future. As there are many movies with "cult-like followings” that don't fit the last part of this criteria, they are not technically considered to be cult classics, even though this is a broad term. Examples of this would be the entire “Harry Potter” or “Star Wars” series. The fanbases are dedicated but they were also extremely profitable movies from the start. These concepts added onto the dedicated fanbase, are what make them what they are. My favorite way to distinguish between a cult and a regular classic is to think of cult classics as the "cool misfits" while typical classics are the "standard popular kids."   

Some of the most wonderful (and wonderfully terrible) cult classics are more than well-known now. To the point that some argue that the term is outdated and can really be applied to any movie that isn't really a favorite but still has a decent group of actual fans. Keeping that in mind, I went with some of the most classic cult classics (say that five times fast) that continue to make a significant cultural impact still to this day.

Cult Classics

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)

In my opinion, perhaps the most recognizable and classic of all cult classics, this story follows an "ordinary" couple that gets lost and finds themselves spending an unforgettable night at the castle of a mad scientist from the planet Transsexual. Since its initial opening weekend, the movie only made around $21,000. For a film with a production budget around $1.2 million, it was considered a significant "flop." But it would find its audience later, making a little over $113 million to date with re-screenings that invite a plethora of audience participation.

“The Room” (2003)

Originally written as a play and with a score of 3.6/10 on Rotten Tomatoes, Tommy Wiseau's film has truly earned a spot in the wonderfully terrible category. The plot of this film is so broken and has so many open-ended points that never get resolved that writing out a brief summary proves to be a bit of a challenge. Essentially, it is a rather wonky love triangle between a banker, his fiancée and his best friend. It's even listed in most catalogs as a comedy film, when Wiseau has made it clear that it's supposed to be a drama. Numbers-wise, it made a total of $1,900 upon its initial release, with an estimated budget of about $6 million (no one actually knows where this budget came from either). Since earning its cult classic fame, it has made about $4.99 million. While it is rather confusing to watch, it has such a fanbase that there are dedicated viewings of it monthly. It was even the subject of a less-than-stellar biopic style film starring the Franco brothers entitled "The Disaster Artist."

“Donnie Darko” (2001)

This dark teenage era film boasts a star-studded young cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Seth Rogan, and even a few other big names in cinema, but this film is an acquired taste to say the least. With a production budget of $4.5 million and an opening weekend of about 7.5% of that ($110,494), it was not the success that it was thought to land as. The story follows a troubled and depressed teenager, Donald "Donnie" Darko. He is prone to sleepwalking and often finds himself compelled along by a voice that turns out to be a scary-looking rabbit costume named Frank. Frank tells Donnie that the world is going to end, and he is the only one who can stop that from happening. The movie came out in 2001, but was set in 1988, finding that the audience of teenager that was most present did not take to the film as the creator, Richard Kelly, had hoped they would. But it turns out it was just a little ahead of its time, as it did find audiences in some of the kids who were actually born in the years around when it came out. Some 20 years after its box office weekend, it has now made around $6.9 million from the fans who came after and bumped it up into cult classic status.   

“The Big Lebowski” (1998)

Perhaps the highest grossing as far as an opening weekend for our list, but still not even breaking even with its own budget, is this film. It follows ultimate LA slacker Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, who gets mistaken for a millionaire of the same name and seeks restitution for a rug ruined by debt collectors, enlisting his bowling buddies for help. He does all this while also trying to find the real millionaire's missing wife. Its overall opening weekend profit was $5,533,844, which sounds like a lot compared to some of the other movies on this list, but when compared to the production budget of $15 million, it didn't come close enough to what the studio was aiming for. However, this movie has gone on to produce a following of a philosophy-type religion called "Dudeism" that promotes being carefree and not taking things to seriously. There are actual groups that practice this so much so that it has been deemed an official religion. It also has an annual festival where the fans, called "Archivers," can come together to re-watch, discuss and even occasionally meet the cast of “The Big Lebowski.” The profits now have reached around $46.75 million.  

“Fight Club” (1999)

Rule number one (and two). I probably shouldn't be talking about “Fight Club.” Based off a novel of the same name, the story follows a narrator (Edward Norton), whose name we don't learn, who is vastly unhappy with his ordinary and unexciting life. He ends up meeting a charismatic soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and both are determined to lead more exciting lives, so they start an underground fight club. This club eventually spirals into a political organization known as Project Mayhem that is anti-everything that has made all the members’ lives boring and unexciting for them. The opening weekend made the movie $11,035,485, which is a lot of money and does sound like a lot, but as we saw with “The Big Lebowski,” this doesn't matter if you don't make a dent into your production budget, which for “Fight Club” was $65 million. Perhaps what lands it in our category of cult classic is the number of times it takes to watch the movie to get some grasp of what the message is or what is trying to be portrayed to audiences. The story is presented so ambiguously that the interpretation of what is actually going on is kind of in the hands of the viewer. Is it an anti-capitalist story? Is it a piece on masculinity? Is it about a character who is hallucinating a version of himself he wishes he could be? It really is in the eye of the beholder. Grossing an income of around $101.21 million to date, this movie makes you think constantly and has even in some cases changed the opinions and thoughts of its viewers.


As mentioned in our definitions above, cults are groups with similar beliefs about specific topics or even the way that things should be done. They notoriously have a leader, and the groups are considered to be scary or sinister in some capacity, as the things they practice or believe to be true are often outside of a realm of normativity that we as a society expect.  From cult classics to classic cults, here are some movies that fall on the other side of that line. For the purposes of my fun, I looked specifically at movies that are classified more under a fictional and horror category, but Anythink does have some intriguing documentaries on this topic as well, should this curiosity voyage take you there, you can check those out here! 

Classic Cults

“Children of the Corn” (1984)

This film follows a young couple who is trapped in a small and rather eerie town where a cult of children believes that everyone over the age of 19 must be killed. They are instructed that this is true according to the scarecrow-like deity that they worship who informs them it’s necessary to ensure a productive harvest year. It is based off a Stephen King short story of the same name. As creepy as it is, the world and character building really get into your head, especially with the thought that the characters don't believe they are doing anything wrong.   

“Ready or Not” (2019)

Follow the main character Grace (Samara Weaving) as she navigates a deadly game of hide-and-seek against her new board game-owning mogul in-laws. It turns out that they have made a deal with the devil (but like literally) and each new member in the family must pick a game to play from a specially cursed deck. If the new family member picks the card of hide-and-seek, they must be hunted down and killed before dawn or else something very bad will happen to the family. This movie is much funnier than it sounds, definitely in the realm of horror comedy, and is probably one of my favorite movies because of it.  

“Midsommar” (2019) 

“Midsommar,” starting Florence Pugh, is about a group of friends who travel internationally to Sweden for a once-in-a-lifetime festival that only occurs every 90 years. As they travel to get there, they stumble into a place to stay, only to find themselves stuck in a Scandinavian pagan cult. Also classified as horror, “Midsommar” takes a shocking twist that isn't often seen in horror films - it takes place in broad daylight. We are so used to the bad guys lurking in the dark shadows of the night that the unsettling nature of the entire bulk of the plot taking place while the sun is perfectly shining on a flowering meadow really speaks to the punch that it packs.  

“The Babysitter” (2017) 

Following a 12-year-old boy that finds himself with no friends except for his babysitter whom he is in love with, this Netflix original is both witty and creepy. Our main character Cole discovers one night that the object of his affection, and some of her high school friends, are actually part of a cult. This movie also features a lot of funny horror-comedy moments and a few good one-liners from a few of the eccentric characters. It's almost like “Home Alone” ... just about 100 times more intense.  

“Us” (2019)

A family lead by the mother and father duo Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke are faced with a terrifying group of doppelgangers that seem to portray the worst things about themselves. While not directly ever called a cult, it is hard to say that this group of mirror images doesn't fit the category. They have a leader and beliefs that they strongly believe in and will do anything to enforce and follow through with them. From the brilliant mind of Jordan Peele, “Us” is a film that will take you on a psychological roller coaster with twists and turns to match.


I would love to hear about your favorite movies that fall into either of these categories! Perhaps you are more of a documentary and true crime person, or you prefer something like “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” where there is a sprinkle of cult subtext, but it is not the main plot point in the story. Regardless, I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations! 

Check out more fictitious films and stories based off real events in the Anythink Catalog.