Alejandro Jodorowsky hijacked the popular western genre in a bid to connect with American audiences – though none of them had seen anything quite like his mind-trip oater in which traditional genre tropes (revenge, gunfights) blur with deep spiritual symbolism (stigmatas, much roaming in the wilderness). The Mexican maverick’s mad vision found plenty of apostles on New York’s midnight movie circuit of the 1970s – especially at the old Elgin Theater in Chelsea, where it screened seven days a week for over a year and got the ball rolling on the whole late-night screening concept. It’s worth noting, too, that it’s one of those rare cult movies to feature an actual cult.
No one sets out to make a cult film. Not really, anyway. No matter how low their professed ambitions, if someone is going to go through all the trouble of writing, casting, directing, financing and shooting a movie, somewhere in their auteurist heart, they’re wishing to score a leftfield hit – the next ‘little low-budget indie that could.’ Most of the time, cultdom is the best they can settle for. But hey, there are much worse fates for any piece of art. In fact, as time has gone on, and the phrase has become more commonly understood, filmmakers have started to wear ‘cult’ as a badge of honour. And well they should – especially given the company they keep.
Putting together this list requires figuring out what exactly defines a ‘cult film’, which is a challenge in itself. As best as we can lock down, it’s a movie in which the fervency of its fans far outstrips its box-office returns. Mostly, though, you just know one when you see it. Or maybe that should be how you see it: most likely, it won’t be at an expensive multiplex but a midnight screening at a dingy second-run theatre, or on a grainy VHS tape with tracking issues, or a scratched DVD pulled out of a charity shop bin. Shoot, maybe the closest you could even get to a copy is reading the plot summary on Wikipedia. Basically, it should feel rare, like a secret handshake shared between you and a small circle of devotees. Each of these 40 all-timers fit the bill.