What makes a cult classic? One man’s cult is another’s mainstream hit, but a few common denominators unite cult movies: a cult classic must, by definition, have a cultlike following of slavish devotees. It should probably not have found favor in its initial release — or, at least, widespread acceptance. Often it can be traced back as the originator of a genre, accompanied by the phrase “before its time.” And it must either be really, really good or so bad that it’s good. The eighties, best appreciated after the fact, were a ripe time for cult classics, and these are the ten best of the decade.
10. Better Off Dead…
Starring John Cusack, this dark comedy was so misunderstood in its original run that Cusack actually told the director never to talk to him again. Over time the flick has been recognized as a heady mix of absurdity and drama, with scene after scene becoming iconic canon of the ’80s — who’s seen a paperboy since the movie’s release without thinking, “I want my two dollars!” Even Cusack has accepted Better Off Dead, paying homage to it in Hot Tub Time Machine.
9. Vision Quest
Falling under the “so bad it’s good” category, Matthew Modine’s tale of a high-school wrestler just trying to be his best has gained cult status, particularly among…high-school wrestlers. The nonstop training sequences would be enough to secure its place in film history, but Vision Quest marks the first screen appearance of Madonna, who sings two songs in the film.
8. Repo Man
Grossing a meager $129,000 in its initial box-office run, Repo Man should be a failure of epic proportions. But this cult classic, which features Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton as the titular repo men driving around to find a car full of dead space aliens, has gone on to become one of the more critically beloved sci-fi films of the decade. Repo Man has even inspired a recent graphic novel and sequel, both of which should have their own cult followings in another few decades.
7. They Live
John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror film has a lot going for it: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper kicking ass, magical sunglasses that let Piper see the evil aliens controlling the world, and a litany of quotable lines. Yet it failed to make a dent at the box office. Years later, the film is considered a lost Carpenter classic and an inspiration for the Evil Dead video games and an entire generation that questions what’s real.
6. Road House
Patrick Swayze is basically a cult classic onto himself, and he’s the center of Road House, as a bouncer brought in to tame a rough-and-tumble bar ruined by a criminal element. Though the movie was a modest success in theaters, it has gained in infamy over time, even inspiring a long-running live version that played Off-Broadway and around the country. With Swayze’s untimely death, Road House may be a cult classic that’s just starting to get its legs.
One of the biggest success stories for a cult classic, Scarface was a disappointment upon its release. But thanks to Al Pacino’s blistering portrayal of mobster Tony Montana, the movie lived on — first in the underground rap scene and then on posters and clothing. Scarface has since broken into the mainstream and become a legitimate success, recognized as a modern classic both critically and financially.
Home video saved this black comedy, which inspired countless subsequent high-school comedies. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater team up to taunt the original diabolical mean girls (the Heathers). With a unique tone that mirrors how high-school students actually feel (quite misunderstood), Heathers made black comedy become the default for high-school comedies and still retains a life on video…or DVD, that is.
Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi head trip was repeatedly hampered by studio interference, so much so that Gilliam was forced to release his preferred (darker) version of the movie himself. After several home-video releases and numerous theatrical cuts, Gilliam’s superior version finally saw the light of day. With interest stoked in the behind-the-scenes story as much as the one onscreen, plus Gilliam’s avid fan base, it was inevitable that Brazil would draw a cult following, which is exactly what happened.
A fantasy film directed by Jim Henson, produced by George Lucas, and starring David Bowie seems like it couldn’t fail. But Labyrinth, dream team and all, did fail to connect with audiences in theaters. However, the film has become a classic with families and adults alike, inspiring a manga series sequel, a yearly masquerade ball in Los Angeles called the Labyrinth of Jareth, and untold viewings by marijuana enthusiasts worldwide.
1. This Is Spinal Tap
Without This Is Spinal Tap, we wouldn’t have the mockumentary genre — for better or for worse. Though Rob Reiner’s parody fared poorly in theaters, on home video fans ate it up, quoting lines, playing covers of the songs, and trading VHS copies of the four-and-a-half-hour version of the movie. Since its release, the members of Spinal Tap have toured successfully in character and sold millions of videos and DVDs. This cult classic goes all the way to eleven.