Classic Cult Movies - Early Off-Beat Films

What is A Cult Movie?

The definition of a cult film is a bit hazy and many of the aspects are iffy. Opinions differ on what constitutes a cult movie. Some film buffs insist that a box office hit can not be a cult classic as its popularity negates cult status and flies in the face of the very word.

They claim that movies like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and the Bad Seed were too popular to be granted cult status, while others feel that weirdness is what earns the elusive position of cult status.

A cult movie is generally odd, eccentric, or just plain weird. The plot is often controversial, offering the viewer a story told in a manner that has not been used in previous films. Perhaps the characters are original and unique, often frightening, or just peculiar. Cult film protagonists are often outsiders and include anti-heroes, lovable villains, losers, or slackers.

A drama presented in a ridiculous fashion can earn cult status. Where the movie is intended to upset, shock, or move the viewer, and , instead, creates hilarity, the results often gain cult status.

Many, if not most, cult movies were flops at the box office, but drew a dedicated following of fans much later.In fact, it is time that grants cult status to a film. Like fine wine, a movie needs to age in order to draw the type of followers that create the cult.

Home videos, DVDs,. and the easy availability of older movies at business like Netflix have increased the opportunity for viewing movies that without that technology, may easily have been forgotten.

Cult movies came into their own in the 1970s with the advent of midnight showings of films on college campuses and in hip, urban settings. Of course, the king (or should I say queen) of the midnight movie circuit is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a musical based on the old Frankenstein story with a twist. Fans flocked to RHPS in costume. They recited dialogue along with the film and acted along with the plot, even bringing props along to add to the fun.

In this article, I will present some earlier films that achieved cult status, movies that could have been forgotten, but thanks to the interest of a particular crowd of movie-lovers, were resurrected and saved.

Here is a list of 13 early cult movie classics:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Made in Germany by Robert Wrene, starring Werner Krauss, Fredrick Feher, and Conrad Veidt. Silent. This film student favorite presents a horror story told in flashback by a young man named Francis who visits a carnival and meets a diabolical magician who used a hypnotized slave named Conrad to murder people.

When Francis discovers that the evil magician is actually the director of the local insane asylum, a plot twist is revealed that delves into the nature of madness. Perhaps the 1st real cult classic, this film offers long takes, beautiful composition, and weird sets and has influenced horror movies for 90 years.

Nasferatu

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Nosferatu

Nosferatu (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau, starring Max Schreck. Silent. Made in Germany. This unauthorized adaptation of Bran Stoker's Dracula features a creepy, rodent-like vampire named Count Orlock. When a business traveler visits the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, the townspeople warm him by providing him with a book about vampires.

Complete with neck wounds, a derelict castle, and dirty old coffins, Nosferatu is a charmingly dated, tough still scary introduction to the classic vampire genre - a long way from Twilight. Nasferatu has the distinction of introducing the concept that sunshine kills vampires.

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Freaks

Freaks (1932), directed by Tod Browning. This melodramatic tale of side show freaks at a carnival features actual carnival novelty actors instead of movie actors. Beloved of outsiders everywhere, the film depicts the 'freaks' as the protagonists and the 'normal' people as monsters.

When Freaks hit the theaters, side show acts featuring deformed and disabled people was a staple of the American carnival circuit. Today, the classic cult film presents a voyeuristic look at a people and time that is long gone, but offers us the ability to identify with a historic, separate culture.

Reefer Madness - Who Can Resist the Allure of People Behaving Badly

Reefer Madness

Reefer Madness (1936) directed by Paul Gosnier, starring Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig, and Lillian Miles.

Before marijuana was made illegal, it was used by jazz musicians, actors, and other artists and outsiders. But certain groups feared that its use was spreading into the mainstream population. They funded a film to educate people about the dangers inherent in marijuana use.

The film they produced is widely available today, but does not have the effect the producers hoped for. Quickly forgotten in the 1930s, Reefer Madness was dredged up for the college campus midnight show circuit.

The sleazy film depicts a good boy who partakes of weed at a party and runs wild in this over the top film featuring doped up floozies and lunatic danger.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard (1950) Directed by Billy Wilder with Gloria Swanson and William Holden. William Holden portrays a hack screenwriter down on his luck who, in Frankenstein fashion, is marooned in the decrepit mansion of a has-been silent film star. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is the quintessential cast off movie star, neurotically hanging on to her glamorous past in a creepy old house.

Night of the Hunter

Night of the Hunter (1955) Directed by Charles Laughton starring Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters, and Lillian Gish.

Charles Laughton's only attempt at directing produced this haunting and weird look at good vs evil. Striking black and white shots highlight the story of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a sociopath in search of his former cell mate's hidden cache of money. Posing as a preacher, Harry torments the widow and children. When the children flee down a river at night, menaced by Harry, the effect is dramatic and eerie with all the stragneness that makes a cult classic. The stand off between silent screen legend Lillian Gish and Robert Mitchum is priceless.

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Rebel Without a Cause

Rebel Without a Cause  (1955) starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. Jim (James Dean) is the new boy in town, rejected by the popular kids, whose struggle to find himself brings him up against a gang of car heads and in league with a lonely outsider (Sal Mineo) and the girlfriend of the leader of the pack. There are moments when success in in reach, but lost. Cool choreographed fight scenes, a weird scene with his father who is dressed in the mother's ruffled apron, and James Dean in his iconic red leather jacket make this movie the ultimate teen angst film.

The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed (1956) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, and Henry Jones. A concerned mother worries over her daughters increasingly sociopathic behavior in this creepily bizarre tale featuring characters that are so exaggerated and weird, you just have to laugh. Rhoda may be filmdom's worst brat ever, a sickenly sweet little girl who kills to get her way.

The Blob

The Blob (1958) Directed by Irvin S Yeaworth Jr., starring Steve McQueen, and Anita Corsant. Heroic teens discover an extraterrestrial life form at what they believe is a meteor crash site. The oozing, disgusting creature soon begins to gobble up townsfolk in this typically awful 1950s style sci-fi thirller.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane


Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) Directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis as Jane and Joan Crawford as her sister Blanche.

Two has-been movie stars holed up in a Hollywood mansion torture one another and seem to vie for title of weirdest in a peculiarity contest. The drunken Jane plans a comeback in a raggedy childish dress and hideous pancake make-up while her bedridden sister slowly starves to death. A must see.

Barbarella

Barbarella (1968) Directed by Roger Vadim, starring Jane Fonda, David Hemmings, and Anita Palinburg. Adapted from a 1960s comic strip, Barbarella features crazy costumes, and set designs, a 41st century super-girl who falls in love with a blind angel, and a villainous fiend called Durand Durand who drives his victims to death with pleasure.

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Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Directed by George A. Romero, starring Judith O'Dea, A.C. McDonald, and Duane Jones. This fuzzy low budget horror film is poorly acted yet is effectively frightening as slow moving yet relentless hordes of zombies attack a house. Night of the Living Dead spawned a whole series of zombie films and, while not the fist movie to offer us the brain eating, shambling living dead, is the greatest zombie flick of all time.

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Comments 35 comments

Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

Danny Peary has three volumes about Cult Movies they are all excellent...great hub.


juneaukid profile image

juneaukid 5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

What an excellent hub! You have provided us with a compendium of film information-- Thank you, Dolores.


sweetie1 profile image

sweetie1 5 years ago from India

hi Dolores Monet,

Very detailed and informative hub, I used to thing cult movies are something like where they are trying to push you in to something bad or not normal for the society like drugs or trying to influence you to go for tattoes all over body and usually boring movies but it is an eye opener. thanks


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Cogerson - I gave 2 of the books that I have listed above as Christmas gifts. My son and a young friend are real cult movie buffs and we were talking about these entertaining films some time ago - that's how this article came about. Thanks!

juneaukid - hi Richard! Thanks! I am now working on cult movie hub #2 - cult films made after 1970 and will post a link here when it's done.

sweetie1 - I can see how one would think that. There are some pretty weird ones out there and I have pretty much avoided the too too awful. Thanks!


JaneA profile image

JaneA 5 years ago from California

I just watched Sunset Boulevard last week as part of a class I am taking on the the History of American Cinema. It was put in the film noir category - Gloria Swanson is great! How times have changed - she was considered old at 50!


Frieda Babbley profile image

Frieda Babbley 5 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

Ohhh juicy ones. I haven't seen them all. I think it might be time to introduce my oldest son to some of these. Great list. Love your lead in.


Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

Thanks for the info. I was not aware of many of these. Sounds like a movie night coming up soon!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Jane - h a! 50 is the new 40! Thanks! I haven't watched Sunset Boulevard for some time and must rectify that soon! Cult movies can be in any category - horror, documentery, thriller, sci-fi...

Frieda - thank you! Some of the later cult type movies made after 1970 may be a bit much for a younger kid! Freaks may be a bit disturbing to a young child. \

Truckstop - glad you liked. I am always on the prowl for an interesting 'new' movie and love to read movie hubs for that very reason. Thanks!


Frieda Babbley profile image

Frieda Babbley 5 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

Oh, he's older now than you think. The years go by quite fast. I'll be sure to check them out first though anyway... with popcorn and soda of course!


akirchner profile image

akirchner 5 years ago from Central Oregon

I've not seen any of those except Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Rebel Without A Cause - just because I guess I love old movies. Thanks so much for sharing these great movies, Dolores!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Frieda - ha, I don't think. My own sons are suddenly quite grown and I feel like my daughter is almost as old as I am, haha.

akirchner - Hi, Audrey! One Halloween, I went to a party as Baby Jane Hudson and only one person knew who I was supposed to be. The lovely man threw out his arms and yelled, "Jane! Where have you been?" Thanks!


swedal profile image

swedal 5 years ago from Colorado

A great list of classic movies. I have seen a few of them but not all. I think my favorite would be Army of Darkness. Not sure that it qualifies as classic, but sure hits the offbeat mark dead on. My wife hates that I love it.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

swedal - oh, I ought to make a hub about Zombie movies - there have been so many. So scary and fun! I don't think a lot of women love the zombies - it's a guy thing! Thanks!


Bilalnr profile image

Bilalnr 5 years ago from Islamabad, Pakistan

Excellent Hub Dolores!!!


emilybee profile image

emilybee 5 years ago

Love Bette Davis! Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a strange but good movie!! Very nice hub!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

emilybee - Oh so do I. I was looking for All About Eve which I had seen on NetFlix streaming and was so looking forward to watching, but it disappeared. Sadly. Margo Channing was one of her great roles. Thank you !


Neon_Letters profile image

Neon_Letters 5 years ago

I loved Nosferatu, but after seeing him in one sponge bob episode i could not took him seriously again.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Neon - Nasferatu is very creepy with his rat like look, no handsome vampire there. I'd love to see the Sponge Bob Nasferatu treatment. It must have been hilarious.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore

Some cult classics there for sure Dolores..I probably would've chosen a very similar list but perhaps included Metropolis.

I was introduced to "Freaks" at Uni years ago and it shocked me. What a strange film. It started out with a sympathetic portrayal of the sideshow "freaks" but ended by making them seem like a malevolent force.I can still vaguely remember that scene when the woman is turned into a chicken-like creature and the end, with the dark shapes moving in the stormy darkness..."one of us...one of us". Or something like that.


ChristineVianello profile image

ChristineVianello 5 years ago from Philadelphia

Whatever happened to BabyJane is my all favorite movie of all time. Thanks for the great info!


imatellmuva profile image

imatellmuva 5 years ago from Somewhere in Baltimore

Just last night I watched a cult film called, "The Apple", I never heard of it before. "D" it was crazee, and horrible, yet I couldn't stop watching it. I've seen many of the films mentioned here, and in some way, I kinda like these films, even when they're horrible.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Jane, I thought of including Metropolis but wanted to use movies that I have actually viewed. The Freaks thing was just revenge. She got what was coming to her. Thanks!

Christine - oh yeah! One of my top 20! Loved it. Thank you.

imatellmuva - Hi, Sharon - never heard of that one. And they are a bunch of strange movies for sure. That's what makes them unique. Art often makes us uncomfortable! Thanks!


marcoujor profile image

marcoujor 5 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

Thanks for a trip down memory lane with some (RHPS & WHTBJ were such favorites) and some tips on movies to check out as a lover of cult classics... voted UP and AWESOME!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

marcoujor - thank you! I myself enjoy reading other people's movie hubs. Always looking for a good film!


Sinea Pies profile image

Sinea Pies 5 years ago from Northeastern United States

Ah yes....the Blob! My brother's favorite!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Sinea - it's been a long time since I last saw 'The Blob.' Even the title is funny!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California

I think we would both agree that the definition of a cult classic is nebulous, although the best of the bunch tend to be campy or so corny they're fun to watch, such as the timeless "Reefer Madness." Hey, I'd add "Freaks" to this bunch. Remember that one? Anyway, great idea for a hub and congrats for your inclusion in the latest Hubber Weekly!!! Later!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Kosmo - oh, you must have missed it! Freaks is up there for sure! Thank you for stopping by and commenting!


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

Hush hush sweet charlotte staring betty davis is also a good cult film.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 4 years ago from Chicago

I love these movies! No red-blooded American man failed to see the allure of Barbarella. Freaks was great; Reefer Madness a hoot. Night of the Hunter and Sunset Boulevard are excellent films. And of course Rebel Without a Cause is an American classic.

I enjoyed your Hub very much. Thanks for the journey.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Hi, James - I remember being a kid and watching Night of the Hunter late at night on my little black and white TV. It scared me to death, I was afraid to leave my room! Thanks for reading and commenting!


ishwaryaa22 profile image

ishwaryaa22 3 years ago from Chennai, India

A riveting hub! I enjoy watching certain cult films. Among the cult films listed above, I saw 'The Bad Seed' & 'Night of the Living Dead'. I would like to see other cult films mentioned by you in this engaging hub. Well-done!

Thanks for SHARING. Useful & Interesting. Voted up


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 3 years ago from East Coast, United States Author

Hi ishwarya - I love the Bad Seed, it is so creepy yet ridiculous but Night of the Living Dead I kinda hate, it's so scary for me. Thanks!


FatBoyThin profile image

FatBoyThin 16 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

There's a couple here I haven't seen - I think maybe I'd better rectify that! I'm not too sure about Night of the Hunter - while I can appreciate why it's a cult movie (and I do love the wonderful shadowy scenes and the creepy tension), I've never really liked it, even though I'm a big fan of both Laughton and Mitchum. Maybe some movies have to grow on you. Great Hub. Voted up.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 16 months ago from East Coast, United States Author

FatBoyThin - of course many of these films will annoy people. It seems to got with cult films that they are a bit off-putting. It's part of the culture! Thanks!

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