Cult films remain a tricky a genre to pin down. The traditional definition holds that they must be lesser known or regarded films, an underground indie or a box office bomb, that command a cult-like following with a small but dedicated fan base. They can be deliberately niche (Rocky Horror Picture Show), so bad they’re good (Plan 9 from Outer Space), or inspire heated debate about their actual quality (Jennifer’s Body).
In many ways, the horror genre itself fits these definitions, consistently charming a smaller but dedicated audience throughout film history, despite (or perhaps because of) controversy, small budgets, and/or challenging material. And while horror itself may be universal, its many permutations show just how diverse the genre can be. In this list alone, we have ghosts, vampires, serial killers, and… some sort of Nazi-eating eldritch horror.
Even the most dedicated horror fan can miss gems in such a vast and diverse genre, so this list highlights some unique and delightful cult horror films you’ve probably never seen, but definitely should. From slashers to arthouse, foreign and domestic, 1920s to the 2010s, comic to harrowing, this list is sure to have something for everyone.
1. Ice Cream Man (1995)
With slashers, filmmakers often struggle to balance self-awareness with earnestness, but Ice Cream Man manages to walk that line, thanks to the excellent performance of character actor Clint Howard. With pitch-perfect camp, Howard plays the titular character, an ice cream truck driver who also enjoys murder. A group of misfit neighborhood kids and a pair of detectives grow suspicious and try to defeat the ice cream man in alternating story lines, a la Stranger Things, with a fraction of the budget and none of the skill. Yet, the film stays engaging despite its nonsensical plot.
You can bet your bottom dollar that victims’ body parts end up in the ice cream, and the ethereally beautiful Olivia Hussey is also in the film… just because. With set pieces like a candy-colored mental institution and Chekhov’s giant, bladed, ice cream mixer, Ice Cream Man provides exactly what you want in a low-budget slasher.
2. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Like many a great horror film, this indie begins with a psychological premise: the heroine, Jessica (Zohra Lampert), has just been released from a mental institution. She, her partner, and their friend begin a new life, moving from New York City to rural Connecticut to restore an old farm. But this charming farmhouse comes with a charming resident, a mysterious young woman, Emily (Mariclare Costello), who slowly insinuates herself into the trio’s life. Jessica suppresses her anxiety for fear her husband will think she’s suffering a relapse while slowly becoming aware of a dark presence in the small town and her home.
The beautiful countryside makes for surprisingly great horror set pieces with chases through orchards, dark secrets found in barns, and a quiet lake that seems to blur the line between life and death. Naturally, the men in Jessica’s life fail her spectacularly leaving our final girl on a harrowing struggle for her sanity and life. Come for the campy 70s vibe, stay for the unsettling psychological horror.
3. The Hands of Orlac (1924)
If you ever wished the German Expressionist masterpiece, Nosferatu (1922), and the 90s stoner comedy, Idle Hands (1999), had a baby, then look no further. Directed by Robert Weine, of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) fame, it tells a story that has enjoyed several remakes: a man loses his hands in an accident, and they are surgically replaced with those of a murderer which now compel him to murder.
This premise would fit right in at a 1950s drive-in theater but in 1920s Germany, it becomes a darkly psychological exploration of free will. Is our hero truly possessed or is there something else afoot? The Jack Skellington-esque Conrad Veidt, who played the creepy somnambulist in Caligari and the head Nazi in Casablanca, gives 110% to his performance, with all the exaggeration and melodrama silent film fans adore. With the chiaroscuro lighting and striking set design characteristic of Expressionism, Orlac remains an artsy but enjoyable flick even a century later, demonstrating how Germany blazed the trail for the horror film genre.
4. Martin (1978)
Ten years after Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero created this underrated classic. The titular Martin (John Amplas) believes he is a vampire and thus goes around killing people and drinking their blood. Yet Romero carefully keeps the truth ambiguous. Is Martin a vampire or just a psychopath? Exploring the roots of vampire mythology in a modern setting, Martin keeps you guessing, even as he calls a local radio station to helpful explain what being a vampire is all about.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the film is how easy it is for this rootless young man to kill, and how easily he gets away with it. And, like many killers, he inspires sympathy and revulsion. Yet Romero leaves no easy answers.
5. Sweet Home (1989)
Sweet Home is a historically important film, but not in film history. You see, this Japanese haunted house film spawned a video game adaptation which then inspired the iconic survival horror game franchise, Resident Evil. The franchise thrives to this day thanks to the evergreen appeal of buxom vampire ladies. Still, the film holds up on its own merits. It follows a group of characters, as they visit a deceased artist’s remote mansion to restore his frescoes while also making a TV documentary. But, of course, the house is extremely haunted. The ghost of the artist’s wife, who endlessly mourns their dead child, torments and kills off the TV crew before finally kidnapping the director’s daughter. In an unusually feminist move for this time and place, it is up to a woman, the competent producer Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto), to save the day.
If House (1977) was just a little too batty for you, Sweet Home keeps its quirky characters and grotesque violence slightly more grounded in reality, while still delivering that one-of-a-kind cult horror.