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Classic Cult Movies - Early Off-Beat Films

Updated on June 27, 2019
Dolores Monet profile image

Long time movie buff, Dolores shares some of the great classic and cult movies of all time.

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.


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.




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

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.

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

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.

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 (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.

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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