Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Old Cult Canon: 16 cult films that paved the way for the new cult canon

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Each week, Scott Tobias' New Cult Canon column directs its spotlight at a film that's gathered a cult following over the course of the past 20 years or so. As the name implies, the New Cult Canon couldn't exist without a previous Old Cult Canon, movies that helped make the world safe for the eccentric and the unexpected. Scott is in Toronto this week, so in his absence, we thought we'd offer a crash course on some essential films that defined the way cult was, and in many respects still is. For further reading, we highly recommend Danny Peary's excellent, and sadly out of print, Cult Movies series (Cult Movies, Cult Movies 2, Cult Movies 3, and Cult Movie Stars) and Midnight Movies, a history of the midnight-movies phenomenon, co-written by Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman.

1. Freaks (1932)

Cult before cult was cool, Tod Browning's Freaks combined his lifelong interests with circus and the grotesque. An unsettling morality play about a beautiful trapeze artist who marries a midget, Freaks filled out its cast with real circus performers that included such sideshow notables as the legless Johnny Eck and Koo-Koo The Bird Girl. In spite of the grim finale, the freaks are Browning's heroes, commanding audiences' sympathies, while the beautiful people become repulsive. That notion has resonated with outsiders ever since, even those who can pass as "normal."


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Absolutely. Browning, who also directed the original Dracula with Bela Lugosi and some of Lon Chaney's best-liked films, has a gift for atmosphere, and for images that stick in the brain, whether viewers want them to or not.

Films that couldn't exist without it: The Devil's Rejects, Hairspray

2. Pink Flamingos (1972)

John Waters' breakthrough film is essentially a race to the bottom between several Baltimore residents desperate to be called the "filthiest people alive." In one corner, the challengers: Mink Stole and David Lochary, a married couple who kidnap teen girls, shoot them up with drugs, lock them in their basement, let their manservant impregnate them, and sell the babies to nice lesbian couples. In the other corner, Divine and her family. It honestly isn't much of a contest, as the film's infamous final sequence makes clear. But while it remains the film's most-talked-about scene, the transgressive joy Waters takes in portraying people who take their square-upsetting lifestyles to extremes is what accounts for the film's appeal.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Almost as well. This is low-budget filmmaking at its finest, and at its most obviously cheap. The seams don't just show, they're practically another character. Also it isn't a film to watch over lunch, particularly if your lunch involves chicken or eggs.

Films that couldn't exist without it: There's Something About Mary, Freddy Got Fingered

3. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Strictly speaking, Jim Sharman and Richard O'Brien's goofily transgressive musical Rocky Horror is more a cult experience than a cult film. The only point of watching it at home alone—or even with a couple of game friends—is to become familiar enough with the songs and dialogue that you can follow along at the public screenings, where aficionados perform the movie live in front of the screen, shout rote responses to what's happening onscreen ("Rocky doesn't get it!"), dance in the aisles, and throw things on cue. Admittedly, Rocky Horror has some sequences that stand on their own just fine—Tim Curry vamping and prancing in fishnets and a lace-up leather vest while singing "Sweet Transvestite" is a particular highlight—but taken as a whole, it's full of segments that are draggy in more ways than one. The story of a square couple (Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick) tutored in the ways of illicit sex and campy hedonism by a Frankenstein-like doctor and his hunky "monster" is too erratic, cheap, clunky, and campy to stand on its own as a quality film, but at this point, it's an enduring rite of passage for cult-film fans.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? No more than Halloween costumes, vampire makeup, or fetish parties.

Films that couldn't exist without it: The incoherent, uninteresting sequel Shock Treatment. Also, pretty much any cinematic audience-participation event of the last 30 years, particularly the touring sing-along editions of films from The Sound Of Music to the Buffy episode "Once More With Feeling."

4. Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch's first feature film is an exercise in endurance, a deeply creepy, barely narrative experience in surrealism. The star, Jack Nance, is informed that his girlfriend has had a mutant child after a weirdly short pregnancy, and that he must marry her. Abruptly trapped in an unwanted, hellishly oppressive domestic life as a husband and a father, he winds up caring for the hideous "child" on his own, then having the nightmare that gives the film its title. More a series of eerie encounters and off-putting moments than anything else, Eraserhead seems like a dream, and the fact that the story includes a dream just makes it all seem more disjointed and unreal. So does Lynch's terrifying soundtrack, which emphasizes grating noises like the "baby"'s horribly labored breathing. Eraserhead isn't for the impatient or the faint of heart, but its profound extremity, its strangely quoteable non-sequitur dialogue, and its striking, almost Georges Méliès-like black-and-white images make it stick in people's haunted minds. It also feels like an early warning about Lynch's bent toward unsettling surrealism.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? No nightmare does.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Lynch's Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., The Shining (Stanley Kubrick reportedly screened Eraserhead for his crew before filming started, to give them a sense of the tone he wanted), the films of Crispin Glover, Darren Aronofsky's Pi


5. Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972)

A line of Spanish conquistadors and their Indian porters wind their way down the mountainous slopes of Amazonian Peru, nearly swallowed up by the jungle like a puny stream of ants. This long, unhurried, and gorgeous tracking shot opens Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, the breakthrough movie for Werner Herzog, one of the leading lights of the New German Cinema movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Aguirre was also the first of five movies teaming Herzog with Polish-born actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog's bleak view of human nature was enlivened by, and gave shape to, Kinski's uncontrolled ferocity. Their relationship was stormy, to say the least; they loved each other like brothers, hated each other like enemies, and together made the best work of either man's career.


Kinski stars in Aguirre as a mutinous, scheming soldier in Pizarro's army. Sent into the rainforest to find the illusory golden city of El Dorado, he seizes the opportunity to rebel and claim South America for himself. Inspired in part by Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, it's far from an action film—it's moody and slow, with long stretches of inactivity. But it builds to a suspenseful, dreamlike state of dread—the cruel, seemingly infinite jungle makes a mockery of Aguirre's dreams of conquest, as his expedition descends into chaos before they see a single native to oppress.

Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Sure. Existential dread doesn't follow a clock.


Films that couldn't exist without it: Apocalypse Now, Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Mission, The Blair Witch Project, Herzog's blistering documentary My Best Fiend

6. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

With Hammer Films and Roger Corman largely having had their day, horror movies felt a little moribund at the end of the '60s. Then came George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, which turned its low budget into a virtue by building its apocalyptic vision of the dead walking among us out of the humble materials of rural Pennsylvania. Your dead friends and neighbors? They're back, looking largely like they before, except now they want eat you. Released as the world seemed on the verge of turning upside down, it provided a dark reflection to the social turmoil of its time.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Largely, yes. There's one rough spot in the weak attempts to explain why the zombiepocalypse is happening. Also, the acting doesn't work quite as well in the cold light of day. But it remains a damn scary film whenever you watch it.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Any zombie movie anywhere, ever.

7. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

This Rudy Wurlitzer-scripted, Monte Hellman-directed road movie couldn't have happened without Easy Rider, which updated the existentialist Americana of Steinbeck and Kerouac for the '60s counterculture. But like another Rider-inspired cult favorite, Vanishing Point, Blacktop stretches the bad vibes of Easy Rider's finale out to feature length. James Taylor (yes, that James Taylor) and the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson play "The Driver" and "The Mechanic," two gearheads traveling from town to town, funding the next race with the proceeds from the last. They pick up a passenger (Laurie Bird as "The Girl"), and a rival in the form of Warren Oates' "GTO," a man whose history changes depending on who's listening. Maybe it doesn't matter. The film is set in a world where people are defined by what they do rather than who they are. And what they do is drive, because, in the words of one of the dialogue-light film's mantra-like lines, "You can never go too fast."


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Maybe better. This is an American classic by any standard, with an abrupt, perfect ending that may not be the best image with which to end a night.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Cannonball Run, The Brown Bunny

8. The Harder They Come (1972)

Reggae star Jimmy Cliff stars as a would-be-reggae-star-turned-criminal in the film whose soundtrack served as a primer for new reggae enthusiasts throughout the world. The film works as a Jamaican offshoot of the then-blooming blaxploitation film, a look at the underside of Kingston and the dark side of Jamaica's music industry, and an ironic portrait of outlaw cool. The soundtrack keeps repeating Cliff's optimistic "You Can Get It If You Really Want," but returns just as often to the many obstacles in his character's way.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Yes. While no doubt many midnight-movie fans arrived under the influence of midnight toking, it's an accomplished film.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Boyz N The Hood, Menace II Society


9. El Topo (1970)

Where to begin? There's a man in the Old West named El Topo. He's got a naked kid and an umbrella and… Well, that's when things start to get confusing. Writer-director Alejando Jodorowsky plays the title character. There's a lot of violence and symbolism that's really more like SYMBOLISM! And… From there, you'll have to see for yourself why early '70s audiences (including superfan John Lennon) packed one midnight screening after another. Loosely enforced marijuana restrictions no doubt played a part.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? No. While it had its defenders in its day—including a four-star-dispensing Roger Ebert, who compared it to T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"—this is one intensely unpleasant slog of pretension that's now more interesting as a historical curio than as a film. (Jodorwosky's 1988 film Santa Sangre, on the other hand, is surprisingly good.)

Films that couldn't exist without it: Greaser's Palace.

10. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970)

Speaking of Ebert, he did some work on the creative side of cult filmdom by scripting Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Russ Meyer's first foray into studio filmmaking. Together, they turned an ostensible sequel to an absurd Jacqueline Susann novel into a wild, candy-colored send-up of Hollywood, rock 'n' roll, the counterculture, and whatever else occurred to them, all while making sure that nearly every frame came filled with Meyer's trademark cheesecake. It's ridiculous, and it gets only more ridiculous as it goes along, until it finally goes beyond ridiculous in a violent finale inspired by the Manson family. But for some reason, it works.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Midnight doesn't hurt its excesses, but lines like, "Ere this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!" work pretty much any time of day.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Showgirls

11. Enter The Dragon (1973)

There are kung-fu films—which played in grindhouses and drive-ins throughout the '70s—and then there's Enter The Dragon, the ne plus ultra of the genre. Enter The Dragon has it all: a bloody tournament, an underground dungeon, the most intense Bruce Lee fight scenes, a funky (and heavily sampled) Lalo Schifrin score, and a rainbow coalition of cool co-stars made up of John Saxon and Jim Kelly. Adding to the mystique: Lee died shortly after its release, lending an eeriness to his elegantly choreographed life-or-death struggles.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Maybe even better. For 13-year-olds of all ages, there's nothing better for a Fritos-and-Sunkist-fueled afternoon inside.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Virtually any kung-fu flick made after it. Also Kentucky Fried Movie, which contains a long parody of the film.

12. Performance (1970)

The studio was looking for a film starring pop icon Mick Jagger—and hoping to get A Hard Day's Night by way of The Rolling Stones. Instead, they got this dark, difficult, ultimately rewarding head-trip, in which a British gangster hides out in Jagger's basement and listens to him pontificate. The foxy naked chicks that hang around Jagger eventually slip the gangster some 'shrooms, and he quickly turns on—and learns that his life isn't that much different than Jagger's. Or something like that. The studio hated it and held it up for two years, but it eventually became a midnight-movie hit, and now, it's generally regarded as one of its era's landmarks. It certainly influenced music videos (Oasis copied one musical sequence exactly for the "Live Forever" video), and future filmmakers found its jumpy cuts and hardboiled aesthetic useful.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Absolutely. Performance worked its way slowly out of the midnight circuit, and it can easily be viewed as a top piece of filmmaking, or as a weird trip.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, much of MTV's contents, Pink Floyd: The Wall

13. Suspiria (1977)

The Italian film genre known as giallo enthusiastically embraces the most lurid, trashy side of the scary movie, thanks in part to the abiding influence of the particularly sex-and-violence-crazed Italian pulp fiction that was its immediate predecessor. Dario Argento crowned himself king of the giallo film with his 1977 masterpiece Suspiria, the first in a loose-knit trilogy based on three female spirits of darkness mentioned in Thomas De Quincey's Confessions Of An English Opium Eater. Jessica Harper stars as an innocent young woman who discovers that her new ballet school is also the home of a murderous coven of witches, and works to uncover its secret while the body count rises and supernatural menaces loom ever larger. Suspiria's plot is often thin, and the acting is haphazard at best (all the dialogue was dubbed in postproduction), but logic has never been Argento's goal. He thinks on a grander scale to create a nightmare world that feels like a monstrous version of a fairy tale. He achieves this through a bold, inventive mix of bright colors (using a palette based on Disney's Snow White), whip-crack editing, and an aggressive, creepy score by Goblin, the rock band that also worked on George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Not really. Almost all horror is more effective in the dark, and this is no exception.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street, the slasher-film craze of the 1980s


14. Wizards (1977)

Fiercely indie animator Ralph Bakshi made more coherent films than Wizards (The Lord Of The Rings, for instance, or Fritz The Cat), and he made more whacked-out, phantasmagorical ones. (Coonskin in particular.) But none have been so wildly, weirdly ambitious as Wizards, which he's described as a personal movie about the formation of Israel and the rise of fascism, but which takes the form of a dark, sloppy fairy tale pitting elves and fairies against Nazi propaganda. Cheaply made and inconsistent, it makes heavy use of rotoscoping and simple color-wash backgrounds to save money. But it's still an unforgettably original film that's slyly sour and cynical about fantasy tropes. The "hero," Avatar, a foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping little wizard, takes on his demonic brother, Blackwolf, in a grotesquely bloody battle pitting cute little fairies against monsters with machine guns and tanks. The ending is a classic piece of bitter shock cinema.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? The film contains all the darkness necessary for the experience; it doesn't really matter whether the sun's out when you watch it.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Heavy Metal, Rock & Rule, a generation of "sick and twisted" Spike & Mike shorts

15. Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959)

Ed Wood's sci-fi crapterpiece has often been called the worst movie ever made, which isn't quite true. There are movies with worse scripts, flimsier set design, clunkier acting, and more boneheaded directorial choices—several from Wood himself—but Plan Nine From Outer Space is entertaining nonetheless, because the sheer volume of incompetence makes the film more loveable. Wood's catalog of blunders and heroically misjudged attempts to overcome disastrous setbacks are seemingly innumerable, starting with the basic storyline, a nonsensical plot about aliens whose previous eight attempts to conquer Earth have failed, and who have decided to try reanimating the dead this time. The script is full of clumsy lines and howlers, such as the narrator's solemn pronouncement "Future events such as these will affect you in the future." The flying saucers are clearly on strings, and the cardboard gravestones in the cemetery set tend to wobble when the actors lurch past them. The tiny budget left room for only a single take of most shots, resulting in reams of flubbed lines, visible boom mics, and other mistakes. Most egregiously, Wood's plan to have Plan Nine star his friend Bela Lugosi, the iconic star of Dracula who had since fallen into Z-grade obscurity, were scotched by the actor's death. Instead, Wood used a few minutes of previously shot Lugosi footage and filled the rest out by recasting the role with his chiropractor, who was a foot taller than Lugosi and "disguised" his lack of resemblance by keeping his cape over his face at all times. It wasn't meant as a comedy, but Plan Nine is best viewed as an unintentional one: Call it a secret success.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? This movie doesn't work no matter what time it is. But this is really a midnight flick: Plan Nine is best enjoyed with a crowd of fans who will laugh when Tor Johnson trips over the gravestone.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Without Plan Nine to cap his career, Wood's legend might not have lasted long enough for Tim Burton to memorialize him with the biopic Ed Wood. The movie's more lasting influence is probably subtler: Who knows how many budding filmmakers were emboldened by Plan Nine? After all, if Ed Wood could make movies, anyone can.

16. Repo Man (1984)

Straddling the borderline between the New Cult Canon and the Old, Alex Cox's grubby, shaggy-dog tale feels like the starting line for modern dark-comedy indies. Its low-budj production design, roster of quotable lines, sharp punk soundtrack, and overall hangover aesthetic. Emilio Estevez stars as a kid learning the repo-man trade from grizzled veteran Harry Dean Stanton; as he sees how rough-edged and intense the real world can be, Estevez starts to see his old punk-rocker pretenses as shallow and empty. Meanwhile, everyone in the trade is chasing a mysterious car whose glowing trunk is an homage to the 1955 noir classic Kiss Me Deadly.


Does it work at noon as well as it does at midnight? Not particularly. While stoner movies are generally more about cheap laughs and pot humor than anything else, Repo Man lives off a bleary, end-of-the-night, drunk-stoned-and-exhausted vibe that doesn't fit in with the searing light of morning.

Films that couldn't exist without it: Pulp Fiction, Raising Arizona, Wristcutters, and many, many more.