The 25 Best Cult Movies of The 1990s
The 1990s was another strong decade for midnight movie, eccentric oddities, and out there genre films. No doubt cult films from that era were still benefitting in popularity owing largely to the home video market, cable TV, as well as repertoire cinemas and Pay per view channels.
Part of the attraction with movies designated with cult status is that they are decidedly so very different and much more provocative than mainstream populist fare. While audiences were lining up to see pablum like Forrest Gump (1994) a more sophisticated counterculture audience was dedicating their time to Alex Proyas’ dark fantasy graphic novel adaptation The Crow (1994), for instance.
The cult film experience differs from conventional cinema by appealing to unique sensibilities, be it the counterculture, genre films, or niche audiences that joyfully zero in on taboo content and proscribed subject matter that deliriously upends convention with razor-sharp satire, exploitation, and/or legitimate ideological dangers or controversial content.
The following list looks at films from the 1990s that foster unhealthy obsession, stylish strangeness, and offer feelings of connection for the bravest or most eccentric viewers amongst us. Enjoy!
25. Tremors (1990)
Who knew that this low budget sci-fi/horror/comedy would become a modest sleeper success—later blowing up big on home video—and spawn four sequels (a fifth sequel is currently in production)?
Lovable losers Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) finally decide to leave their one-horse dead end desert town on the exact day that giant, carnivorous, grumpy, subterranean worms – dubbed “Graboids” from local fixture Walter (a hilarious Victor Wong) – who hunt using sonar and rows of nasty razor-sharp teeth.
Tremors, directed by Ron Underwood (City Slickers) and written by Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson, is a surprisingly solid B-movie melange. It’s funnier than one might expect, owing to the smart script and solid direction, sure, but the ensemble cast, including Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, and Finn Carter, are all peaceable and comedic. The concept, which could’ve easily flopped in lesser hands, gets evinced for all its worth.
One of Tremor’s many thunderbolt moments involves the gun-loving Gummers, Burt (Gross) and Heather (McEntire). As a commentary on gun culture tenacity and red neck lunacy, the Gummer’s stockpile ordnance and entitled bravado is both side-splitting and scary.
24. Event Horizon (1997)
The experiential starship the Event Horizon has mysteriously returned after a seven-year disappearance and answering its distress signal is the rescue ship Lewis & Clark in arguably director Paul W.S. Anderson’s finest film––this isn’t saying much FYI––the sci-fi horror freakout, Event Horizon.
Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne), Commanding Officer of the Lewis & Clark, is soon to be acquainted with Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill, a far cry from his family friendly Jurassic Park curmudgeon), designer of the Event Horizon, but before you can say “OMG, what happened to your eyes?” the shit and the fan are fatefully assigned.
Bluntly bringing together bizarrely over-the-top gruesome imagery, a kooky yet cool concept, and thankfully not too much of that awful late 90’s CGI effects, Event Horizon is, as Total Film suggests, “The Shining in space.”
No doubt part of what makes the movie work was a last minute rewrite from Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, but anyway you slice it, Event Horizon is in the tradition of The Thing in that it took a reappraisal a few years after its release for the cult to embrace it, and the critics to rethink its merits.
And kudos to Mr. Neill for inhabiting what’s arguably the most evil person in deep space. Yikes and yesss!
23. Troll 2 (1990)
Director Drake Floyd (real name Claudio Fragasso), for better or worse or both, gave the world this ultra-low-budget Italian cheapie, ostensibly an after-the-face sequel to John Carl Buechler’s Troll (1986), in name only. One of many oversights in Troll 2 is that there are no actual trolls of any sort––the plot, as such, concerns a terribly obnoxious family pursued by vegetarian goblins who first must transform their prey into more palatable plants so that they can be eaten.
Largely considered one of the worst films ever made, the film’s saving grace is the camp value of pretty much everything seen onscreen, and over the years the fanbase for the film has exploded, thanks largely to Internet memes, and repertory cinemas where late night screenings with audience participation and events like the Alamo Drafthouse’s “Nilbog Invasion” have made the movie the stuff of, uh, legend.
The child star of the film, Michael Stephenson, made an acclaimed and rather hilarious documentary on Troll 2’s production and cult base in 2009 called Best Worst Movie, which also increased its strange status, boosting its popularity, and validating it for the irresistible trash that it is.
22. Clerks (1994)
Here’s the film that started it all for Kevin Smith––is it too glib to suggest he peaked with this dialogue-driven debut?––and his View Askewniverse. This shoestring budgeted, foul-mouthed entrée was famously partially financed by Smith’s own extensive comic book collection. Shot at the convenience store and neighboring video store where Smith worked for a number of years, the DIY inventiveness, crass humor, matter-of-fact black-and-white photography, and deadpan comic panache is hard to traverse.
A film that helped define the slacker tenets of sarcasm and censure, with loads of pop culture posturing, Clerks is a welcome sale, a cult classic, and probably the highlight of Smith’s spotty (but funny) oeuvre. While it sucks that this film emboldened a generation of manchildren to make movies about geek culture, mansplaining arrested adolescence, and generating endless streams of f-bombs, it certainly became emblematic for low-end indie film and movies about nothing other than sarcasm.
To quote the jaded and self-inflated video store employee Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson): “This job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking customers.”
21. Man Bites Dog (1992)
This brutal black comedy from Belgium, Man Bites Dog, is a teeth-gnashing mockumentary written, produced and directed by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde. The film follows a complicit documentary team who follow the frequently funny but more often than not very distressing rampage of a charismatic serial killer named Ben (Poelvoorde), eventually becoming not just witnesses, but accomplices, enablers, and partakers in his brutal murdering spree.
A pitch-black and audacious film from its first few frames through to its chamber of horrors denouement, Man Bites Dog makes for a nightmare that’s upsetting and savage one minute and then funny and familiar the next.
What works best about this film, which many viewers are guaranteed to be alienated and alarmed by, is that it makes some startlingly profound observations on the nature of cinematic violence in ways that are thematically and stylistically very elaborate and risky. This was never intended for mass appeal, but the niche crowd who champion this film will be very taken by this original and impeding work.
20. Tank Girl (1995)
The post-apocalyptic British comic book series by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, Tank Girl, was the basis for director Rachel Talalay’s 1995 cult hit, which also benefitted from a best-selling soundtrack––including the alternative hit “Army of Me” by Björk––an endless stream of one-liners and zingers, and a rather iconic turn from star Lori Petty, whose buzz-cut and army boots became both a fashion template and cosplay fodder ever since.
Set in a savage Australia reeling from drought and recovering from an unspecified cataclysmic world-altering event, Tank Girl (Petty) and Jet Girl (Naomi Watts) and their army of Rippers––genetically modified super soldiers––square off against an evil mega-corporation called “Water & Power” that’s run by supervillain Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell).
The anti-establishment themes, feminist underpinnings, clever social commentary, and oddball performances cinch Talalay’s vision as an enduring cult classic. Also keep your peepers peeled for Iggy Pop’s cameo as Rat Face. Recommended.
19. In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Diehard John Carpenter fans know that this Lovecraftian deep cut, In the Mouth of Madness, also the third installment in the thematically bound Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by 1982’s The Thing and 1987’s Prince of Darkness), is one of the director’s most marvellously realized mindfucks, a ferociously playful, and startlingly surrealist success.
But it’s not just the devout Carpenter acolytes that worship at the altar of this film, it was well regarded by the prestigious Cahiers du cinéma (where it was ranked the 10th best film of 1995), and devotees of both Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft are appreciative of the movie’s acknowledged inspirations.
Ostensibly one wild WTF-is-going-on flashback centering on a straightjacketed John Trent (Sam Neill) explaining to his strangely laissez-faire disorders analyst Dr. Wrenn (David Warner) how he was, until recently, a successful insurance investigator. Charged with retrieving a manuscript from reclusive horror novelist Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow)––an amalgam of King and Lovecraft––in what should have been a routine roundup.
Things go from strange to stranger as Trent, accompanied by Cane’s editor, Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), track the author down to a New Hampshire hamlet, Hobb’s End, which is straight out of the author’s dark imaginings. Also steeping in the sludge is an epidemic of violence somehow connected to Cane’s work and the tantalizingly terrifying prospect that maybe Cane can affect reality with his writing.
The meta-narrative about insanity is also a smart twist and, once you’ve made it to the end of this mind-bending digression you’re sure to tremble if you ever hear the words: “Do you read Sutter Cane?”
18. Ravenous (1999)
Antonia Bird’s gruesome black comedy/horror-suspense movie messes around with the mystery around both the Donner Party and Alfred Packer tragedies in this decidedly strange tale of cannibalism and survival in 1840s California. The creep factor is considerably upped by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman’s score, Anthony B. Richmond’s lensing, Bird’s solid direction, and some whacked out performances from Robert Carlyle and David Arquette.
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is sent to investigate strange reports of missing men, women, and children at a remote Army outpost, Fort Spencer, on the Western frontier. It’s not long before Boyd and his regiment find wounded frontiersman F.W. Colquhoun (Carlyle), whose horrible report of a wagon train tragedy and a rogue Army colonel lead Boyd and his boys into the evil unknown.
As is oft the case with many films on this list and cult films in general, Ravenous originally received a tepid and lukewarm response from audiences and critics, though Roger Ebert rightly detailed it as “the kind of movie where you savor the texture of the filmmaking, even when the story strays into shapeless gore.” Now, in hindsight and rediscovered by adventurous audiences, Bird’s Ravenous is better appreciated for its satirical tact, horror elements, and silly-strange intensity.