Movies that became classics for strange reasons

Two women who refuse to play by society's patriarchal rules anymore. A death-obsessed young man and his septuagenarian girlfriend. A cross-dressing mad scientist from planet Transsexual, Transylvania. And an unlikely anti-hero who prefers to be called The Dude. 

What do these disparate characters have in common? They're the central characters in movies that became classics for strange reasons, from their witty dialogue to their sexual liberation to their accidental nihilism. Whether they flopped at the box office and found new life in home distribution, or broke box office records because of their rewriting of cinematic rules, these films are cult favorites beloved by fans everywhere.

The Princess Bride (1987)

Few movies are as beloved as The Princess Bride, a chivalry-laden comedic fantasy about true love that debuted in 1987 to a mediocre box office reception. The film, as inconceivable as it may seem now, did not make many waves upon its release, even though it featured greats like André the Giant, and had no shortage of action, adventure, romance, and humor. 

But these elements alone are not what made this film so popular. Nor was it the handsome visage of Cary Elwes (though that helped), or the talent behind the camera, at least by itself. Rather, it was an amalgam of these things, along with lovable characters and good acting, banded together by the most important element: dialog that is so quotable that it sparked the rise of this film as a VHS cult classic. 

That's what brought so many people together for midnight screenings in theaters, chanting in unison, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Top it off with swords and of course, mawwaige, and you have an enduring cult classic that everyone can love. As you wish.

Mad Max (1979)

"He is a boyishly bland young actor and lacks a presence to make the character work," wrote movie critic Charles Champlin about Mel Gibson's break-out performance in the first Mad Max film. Little did Champlin know that not only was Mel Gibson to ascend the throne of superstardom, but also that this and the other Mad Max movies would become a beloved cult favorite for years to come. And although the plot — a cop avenging the death of his wife and child at the hands of a ruthless motorcycle gang — was criticized for being unoriginal, this Australian cop flick, along with car chases, gritty aesthetics, and brutal fight scenes, secured for itself a place in movie history. 

Additionally, the first Mad Max film made way for the next two films in the franchise, The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. The Road Warrior, with its bondage-inspired costumes, punk aesthetics, and hunger for gas and water, was the pinnacle of the series for years until the release of Fury Road in 2015 — which I gleefully saw in the theater six times while bathing in the tears of pissed-off man babies. And the strength of all of these films is no doubt the vision of George Miller, whose steady hand made these films so great.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Who knew that a sci-fi rock opera that defied conventional sexuality and celebrated being on the outside would have such an enduring legacy — and be so darn catchy? Well, The Rocky Horror Picture Show debuted in theaters over 40 years ago in a few select cinemas. It was panned rather harshly by critics, so it was never released nationwide, and eventually was left to collect dust on a shelf. But then something happened that would change the course of this film for decades to come: it was selected to replace the midnight movie at The Waverly Theater on April Fool's Day. And thanks to the audiences, who responded organically to the film with vocal reactions, the audience participation revolution began. 

From throwing rice to yelling call-out responses to full-blown acting out the film in front of the screen, The Rocky Horror Picture Show invited audience members to let loose and succumb to absolute pleasure, all the while singing and dancing to classic songs like "The Time Warp" — and who doesn't love Tim Curry in lingerie? You can still find screenings in most cities on Halloween, and I highly recommend you go. As a former RHPS cast member, I can promise you that you'll have a blast.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

I remember when Pulp Fiction was released — it blew my mind. It was the first film by Quentin Tarantino I had ever watched, and people had never seen anything like it at the time. For one, the dialog was carefully crafted, giving each character a nuance and personality that made them edgy, sexy, often quirky. There was also that (now signature) Tarantino violence, with lots of guns, drugs, and blood. And was that really the soul of Marsellus Wallace in the briefcase? 

Hollywood had never seen an indie film — or really, any film — like this. Tarantino, love him or hate him, redefined the genre with Pulp Fiction, giving Hollywood "a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart," according to Time magazine (via Vanity Fair). And only Tarantino could make such an enduring classic on a paltry budget of $8.5 million. It's the reason why people can recite bible verses by heart, will threaten to "get medieval" on you, know what a banana slug is, and sport wallets with edgy, profane slogans. Royale with cheese, anyone?

Blue Velvet (1986)

It starts with an ear. A severed ear, that is — the first indication that all is not well in cheery Lumberton, North Carolina. Released in 1986, Blue Velvet was unlike anything else playing at the cinema, with its noir stylings, disturbed characters, and dreamlike sequences that constantly jolt the viewer, reminding them that they're in a whole different reality.

There are a few scenes in particular that stand out in this David Lynch master work: Dorothy's (Isabella Rossellini) performance at the Slow Club, Frank's (Dennis Hopper) nitrous-oxide fueled, sadomasochistic sex with Dorothy, Ben's (Dean Stockwell) lip-synched performance of Roy Orbison's In Dreams while Frank and his gang beat Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), and the final, bloody stand-off at Dorothy's apartment. 

And even though critics like Roger Ebert panned it, the raw sexuality, utter surreality, and carefully-scripted dialogue have made this film endure as a true cult classic. Is it a commentary on the decay at the center of small-town America? A post-modern dig at what had become the norm? Whatever meaning you extract from the film, it's cemented its place as a gritty classic, and remains some of the best work Lynch has ever produced.

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Two women, one car, some righteous violence, and a legacy of female friendship and empowerment: that's what comes to mind when you think of Thelma & Louise, a Ridley Scott film that emerged on the cusp of 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman

Unlike its contemporaries, Thelma & Louise was intentional in its focus on female friendship and women's issues, like gender violence, domesticity and its frustrations, and of course, sexuality. And even though those scenes with Thelma (Geena Davis) and J.D. (Brad Pitt) are super sexy, the movie didn't center on Thelma and Louise's interactions with men — rather, it was about the bond between Thelma and Louise, a bond that a lot of women have with each other, but is seldom seen on screen.

Even today, over 25 years later, it's difficult to find films that are as female-centered as this one that doesn't end in a wedding. The closing scene in Thelma & Louise, although it's clear that the women have driven off of a cliff toward their imminent death, is of the two women holding hands, finally free from a male-centric world that suppressed their fire for too long. If you haven't watched it in a while, it's definitely worth revisiting this feminist classic.

Heathers (1988)

Teenage suicide: don't do it! Sound familiar? That's because it was one of the most catchy songs featured on the soundtrack for Heathers, the OG of mean girl movies. Featuring a young Winona Ryder, Shannen Doherty, and Christian Slater, the '80s dark comedy centers on high school students who accidentally make suicide popular at their high school. That strange premise, along with the memorable, quotable dialogue (do what with a chainsaw?) are why it rose to cult status and continues to stand the test of time. There's even a musical based on the movie that's played off-Broadway and in various places around the world.

The movie also tackles other issues besides teenage suicide, like bullying, self-harm, and sexual assault. And it does so in a way that's self-aware, forcing the viewer to witness these horrible actions in a manner that can make you uncomfortable if you have a moral compass. It's certainly disconcerting to sit idly by while J.D. (Slater) commits murder in Veronica's (Ryder) dream sequence. But that's the bold genius of the film, in that it dares you to sympathize with a psychopath — it takes guts to pull that off. 

Pink Flamingos (1972)

You can't call yourself a cult film enthusiast if you've never seen Pink Flamingos, a seminal 1972 John Waters film that deliberately sought to be the filthiest film possible (and whose original trailer to sell the film didn't include a single scene from the movie). And it succeeds in this endeavor, celebrating all that is trashy and taboo. Roger Ebert was generally horrified by the film, noting that, "If the events in this film were only simulated, it would merely be depraved and disgusting." So you know it's got to be genuinely disgusting. 

And that's why it's so great. With drag queen and queer hero Divine at the helm, the movie follows the misadventures of her and her family, who are competing with Mr. and Mrs. Marble (David Lochary and Mink Stole) for the title of filthiest people alive. And that's no small task, given that the Mables kidnap women so they can impregnate them and sell their babies, and sell drugs to high school kids. 

There's sex scenes with live chickens. There's an anus that sings. And most notoriously, Divine straight up consumes feces fresh from the dog — and no, that wasn't fake. And that's not even all. So it's no surprise that it holds the title for filthiest film ever, over 40 years later.

Harold and Maude (1971)

My goth adolescence wasn't complete until I saw Harold and Maude for the first time. And I promptly developed a crush on young Bud Cort, who plays Harold, a morose, death-obsessed son of a wealthy widow. In spite of her attempts to straighten him out and find a nice girl for him, Harold instead stages fake suicide attempts, leaving his mother to find him in all kinds of gruesome conditions.

But that's not why this film, released in 1971, holds the title of the original cult classic. Rather, it's because Harold meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a septuagenarian on the cusp of her 80th birthday, and falls head over heels in love with her. And it's not hard to see why — Maude is one of the most lovable, free-spirited characters in film history. She defies any rule that gets in the way of her living a full, joyful life. And, her infectious love of existence rubs off on Harold, who's finally happy. 

But their love can't last, as Maude has committed to end her life on her 80th birthday — a task she follows through on to Harold's despair. Sadness aside, though, the movie is an utter delight from start to finish.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Arguably the Coen brothers' most beloved film, The Big Lebowski, with its crafty dialogue and memorable characters, is my favorite film, cult or otherwise. The cast is genius, with Jeff Bridges at the helm as The Dude, accompanied by John Goodman (Walter Sobchak) and Steve Buscemi (Donny) — it's clear that the Coens had specific actors in mind for these roles. 

The writing is spot-on, with witty one liners peppered throughout the script at just the right times. And the plot, which at first seems like it might be building to something, is comprised of a series of moments that never lead anywhere, as things are not what they seem to be.

Additionally, there's a supporting cast that's hilarious, featuring everyone from Julianne Moore to John Turturro to Flea. And although a lot of people aren't sure why people are so crazy about the film, those of us that do get it are devoted enough to attend Lebowskifest, a gathering where you can dress up as characters from the movie and watch it with fellow aficionados. So if you don't like it, that's just like, your opinion, man. 

Bucking the trend

The best cult movies, even though they are as diverse from each other as they can be, all have one thing in common: they stand out among their contemporaries. They're not afraid to defy convention, whether that means featuring cross-dressing, risqué language, or themes that folks deem morbid. And that's what makes them great, as toeing the line doesn't make for stand-out movies — instead, that results in more of the same. So no matter how strange these films may seem, they're some of the best celluloid out there.