For the sake of argument, I'm defining a "cult movie" as something that, upon its release, was too strange or too obscure to find a major audience, but that, in the years since, thanks to cable and home video, developed a massive following. (In other words, Star Wars isn't a cult movie, but Blade Runner is.) This list is not designed to show you how hip I am. Rather, it's about how public perception about a work of art can change as time goes by. I may have missed Rocky Horror, Repo Man, and Blue Velvet during their original theatrical runs, but I did catch:
- Brazil, 1985. I remember seeing this with my friend Craig at the Century 25 dome in San Jose. I was fifteen. I don't recall why we went to see it - I had seen Terry Gilliam's previous film Time Bandits (yes, also in a theater) so I assume I must have caught an ad for it saying "From the director of Time Bandits." As with most of the following films, Craig and I were pretty much the only people in the theater. When it was over, we weren't really sure what we saw, but I definitely liked it and was creeped out by it.
- Donnie Darko, 2001. This film came out shortly after 9/11. As you might imagine, nobody cared to see some art house flick about airplane parts falling out of the sky and onto a spooky teenage boy. With no fanatical cult following around to sway me, I found Donnie Darko to be pretentious, pseudo-Lynchian hogwash. Five years later, my wife convinced me to watch it again (as the "director's cut") on DVD, after forcing me to read all the Cliffs Notes so I would understand that really it's a science fiction story. I liked it better on a second viewing, but it still leaves me cold. Probably the one thing I really appreciate about Donnie Darko is that it's the only movie set in the '80s that I've seen where the teenagers wear Ocean Pacific T-shirts, like I did.
- Office Space, 1999. The year 1999 was jam-packed with milestone films: Episode I, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, Magnolia, American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, and so forth. So can you blame Mike Judge's quiet little comedy - perhaps best enjoyed at home, with buddies, while drunk - for not making a splash when it came out? I saw this at the cheap theater shortly before it retired from the big screen entirely and told my friend Jamal, who I saw it with, that it would probably play better on TV.
- Raising Arizona, 1987. A handful of cineastes in Los Angeles and New York must have known about the Coen Brothers in 1987, thanks to their thrilling first feature Blood Simple, but in San Jose and the rest of mainstream America, nobody could care less, and the movie bombed. As for me, I knew it was a winner, thanks to those crazy chase scenes. By the way, I also saw the Coens' even bigger cult hit The Big Lebowski in theaters - and I couldn't stand it.
- Tron, 1982. This is like the Velvet Underground of movies: nobody saw it except for a bunch of impressionable young nerds who each went on to create some amazing film and art. And then there was me. I'm sure I saw this three or four times in the theaters when I was a kid. Video game junkie that I was, it was almost required viewing. Decades later, its eerie lighting, sound effects, and rudimentary CGI are still pretty amazing.
- The Dark Crystal, 1982. I tell you, 1982 was a great year to be a 12-year-old kid who had yet to learn that sci fi and fantasy were dorky. Had I been three years older, I might have written off Tron and The Dark Crystal as kid stuff. Had I been three years younger, I might not have had the patience for them. But I can quote The Dark Crystal as well as any latter-day fan - even if I haven't seen it in 25 years.
- Heathers, 1989. As I write this list, I realize how so many of these films come from the '80s. Perhaps when the '90s hit, filmmakers became more self-conscious about creating a "cult" movie, and so the thrill of discovery weakened? 1989's Heathers may have symbolized the shift: an early Sundance hit, dark comedy aimed at teenagers, an instantly quotable screenplay - it all seems so obviously calculated to be a cult classic, looking back now. Yet I still enjoyed it, and I continue to enjoy it to this day. (Unlike the even more self-consciously culty Buckaroo Banzai, which I also caught new in theaters.)
- Dazed and Confused, 1993. I saw Richard Linklater's Slacker when it was fresh and new and film critics everywhere were raving about it. It rated a big ho hum with me. But I got hip to Linklater's Dazed and Confused thanks mostly to an article in Film Threat (back when it was an actual magazine). I fondly remember Film Threat, and how it turned me on to up and coming filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, and others. Dazed and Confused was pretty ordinary, but it would be fun to watch it again now that half of its cast (Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Adam Goldberg) are big names.
- Mulholland Drive, 2001. You'd think David Lynch would have a built-in audience by now. But he continues to confound filmgoers so frequently that I think a lot of people stay away from a new Lynch offering until enough of their friends tell them to go. And although Mulholland Drive was a cult hit even during its theatrical release, I have yet to meet anybody who actually saw it before it arrived on DVD.