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.
What makes a cult movie? More than anything, it’s that strange alchemy that happens when a film meets its viewing public in an unexpected way. It’s measured in longevity, dedication and midnight screenings rather than box-office figures (indeed, it’s almost an article of faith that a cult movie flops when it first comes out). Gradually, audience members become fans, then disciples – spreading the word to others, who embrace the film with equal fervour. Their place of worship is repertory cinemas – historically, the kind with sticky floors and last week’s popcorn stuck to the seats – and once upon a time, video stores. Devotees will often talk in hushed tones about how they still own the movie on VHS, years after their actual VHS player went to the dump.
The end of the VHS era – and, to a lesser extent, the DVD one – has made a movie’s journey to cult status tougher to traverse. Algorithms are the enemy of the cult film, so Netflix and its fellow streamers rarely spawn cult classics (though Bird Box, for one, has a shot). And occasionally, a film’s popularity will reach a tipping point that sees it outgrow its culty roots – The Princess Bride and The Thing for two. But there are many, many films that are destined to remain midnight movie staples for generations to come – and that’s just how we like them. Here’s 40 of the best.