10 must-see modern cult classics
People often disagree about what constitutes a “cult film.” Some argue that only movies that inspire cosplay and line-quoting have reached cult status. Others say cult films must deal with taboos, such as graphic violence or explicit sex. Many believe that a cult film must be panned by critics. Others believe that a major studio flop, which receives a second life due to cable, DVDs, and streaming services, counts as a cult film. Unintentionally funny, “so bad they’re good” films that are appreciated for their camp factor, such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are often classified as cult films. Whether they are oddball, low-budget, independent, or box office flops, the following plucky survivors have all been overlooked by the mainstream and are deeply beloved by a following of devoted fans.
1. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)
Cult film masterpiece Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is as much a film about prejudice and miscommunication as it is a highly entertaining horror satire. The movies turns the murderous hillbilly sub-genre of horror upside down. A pair of against-stereotype rednecks, sensitive and insecure Dale (Tyler Labine) and supportive and wise Tucker (Alan Tudyk), accidentally run afoul of a group of preppy binge-drinking college students. The college students, influenced by films like The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance, mistake Tucker and Dale for murderers, a misunderstanding which leads to a series of accidental deaths, kidnapping, torture, and romance. This movie was directed by Eli Craig and written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson.
2. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun of the Dead is a love letter to the zombie films of George Romero. Written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright and directed by Wright, Shaun of the Dead tells the story of underachieving Brit, Shaun, played by Pegg. Shaun is stuck in a dead-end job, hangs out at the same pub nightly, and is weighed down by his obnoxious pot-dealing best friend, Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun’s girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield) dumps Shaun the night before a sudden zombie invasion descends on London. Now Shaun must win back Liz while protecting a motley crew of friends, family, and acquaintances. He must shepherd everyone safely to his favorite pub, The Winchester, where they can have a pint and defend themselves.
3. Donnie Darko (2001)
Physics, time travel, parallel universes, romance, free will versus destiny, and a grammar school dance team called “Sparkle Motion” come together in the trippy and darkly amusing film, Donnie Darko. Written and directed by Richard Kelly, the film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie, a troubled teen haunted by a terrifying 6-foot tall rabbit named Frank. Frank tells Donnie that the world is ending in 28 days and encourages Donnie to commit various crimes. Meanwhile, Donnie negotiates the social dynamics of high school, his family, and falling in love with Gretchen Moss (Jenna Malone).
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4. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Directed by David Wain and co-written by David Wain and Michael Showalter of MTV’s cult comedy sketch show, The State, Wet Hot American Summer is a wacky, surreal satire of ’80s camp movies such as Meatballs and Poison Ivy. Set in 1981 on the last day of Camp Firewood, Wet Hot American Summer features early performances by Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Ken Marino, Elizabeth Banks, Joe Lo Truglio, and Michael Ian Black, as well as performances by Christopher Meloni, Jeannine Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, and Molly Shannon. Wet Hot American Summer spawned two Netflix original television series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later.
5. Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Produced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods opens in the tradition of many horror movies with a group of attractive college students (Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, and Fran Kranz) preparing to embark on a cabin-in-the-woods vacation. We soon discover that, instead of being stalked by the usual serial killer, the protagonists are being monitored and controlled by a shadowy organization led by Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, and Amy Acker, who are arranging the death of the group for unknown reasons. Cabin in the Woods is an intellectual slasher containing Jungian archetypes and Lovecraftian monsters.
6. The House of the Devil (2009)
Financially-strapped college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) answers an ad to babysit at a remote mansion. Hired by the mysterious Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan), Samantha soon discovers that the job isn’t as advertised. She soon becomes embroiled in a life-or-death struggle. The House of the Devil is an homage to ’80s horror films, such as Halloween and Friday the 13th with a nod to Rosemary’s Baby. Writer-director Ti West perfectly recreates the look of the ’80s with scrupulous attention to detail such as video games, Walkmans, and feathered hair. The House of the Devil is a legitimate horror movie as well as a subtle satire.
7. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Trick ‘r Treat is a series of interwoven vignettes set on Halloween in a small town that takes the holiday extremely seriously. The film borrows a comic book motif as well as themes of retribution and dark irony from the old E.C. horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. Linked by what appears to be a child dressed as a scarecrow who wanders in and out of each scene, Trick ‘r Treat was written and directed by Michael Dougherty and contains an impressive cast including Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, Tahmoh Penikett, and Leslie Bibb.
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8. The Station Agent (2003)
The Station Agent tells the story of Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage), a withdrawn man afflicted with dwarfism who inherits a train station in rural New Jersey. Finbar’s plan to live a solitary life is soon foiled by relentlessly friendly hot dog vendor Joe, (Bobby Cannavale) and the beautiful, but damaged, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson). Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, The Station Agent is a touching drama dealing with isolation, friendship, and finding the courage to trust.
9. Hamlet 2 (2008)
Hamlet 2 is the warped, bizarre, and inappropriate story of failed-actor-turned-drama-teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) who decides to write a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, giving the tragedy a happy ending. Marschz uses time travel and divine intervention in the form of Jesus who has a ’50s style song, “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” that honors his sex appeal and “swimmer’s bod.” Tasteless, hilarious, and oddly sweet, Hamlet 2 was written by Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming and directed by Fleming.
10. The Babadook (2014)
Written and directed by first-time director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is the story of frazzled, widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her special needs son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel is terrified by a mysterious pop-up book, inexplicably found in their home, which features a threatening character called Mr. Babadook. The child’s terror prevents him from sleeping, disrupts his and his mother’s life, and finally leads them to to isolation in their home in a tense and paranoid climax. Frightening and oddly touching, The Babadook has achieved cult status in the LGBTQ+ community.