"Donnie Darko" almost didn't make it to theaters. It was gearing up for a straight-to-video release when Drew Barrymore, who had a small role in the sci-fi drama, stepped in to release it through her production company. The teen time-travel thriller starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal finally opened in a limited capacity mere weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It would then be another year before the film, which involves a plane crash, opened abroad. Ultimately, it earned $7.5 million on a budget of $4.5 million. But that wasn't the end of the little movie that could, which found an eager audience in the home-video market, earning millions of dollars in DVD sales. There's been so much love for "Donnie Darko" over the years, director Richard Kelly released a director's cut in 2004. A sequel, "S. Darko," arrived in 2009. In honor of the film's 20th anniversary on Oct. 26, 2021, Wonderwall.com is taking a look back at more cult films that have developed loyal fanbases over the years.
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"Grease" is one of the most popular musicals of all time. But "Grease 2" is its own creature. A then-unknown Michelle Pfeiffer starred in the 1982 sequel, which tanked with critics and claimed just $15.2 million at the box office on a budget of more than $11. "I hated that film with a vengeance and could not believe how bad it was," the Oscar-nominated actress told The Telegraph in 2007 about her time as a Pink Lady. And yet, somehow the flop developed its own extremely dedicated fanbase completely separate from its older, decidedly more wholesome predecessor. Earlier this year, singer-actress Ivy Austin, who had an extremely small role in "Grease 2," told the BBC, "All my years singing with New York City Opera at the Lincoln Center and doing all these big Broadway revivals. I thought surely that's the stuff that will impress people. No, it's 'Grease 2.'"
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"Showgirls" — the Las Vegas-set drama — tanked with critics and audiences alike, failing to recoup its budget at the box office and scoring an abysmal 20% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film won seven Razzie Awards — including worst picture, worst director, worst screenplay and worst actress for "Saved By the Bell" alum Elizabeth Berkley — and scored another six Razzie Award nominations. To make matters worse, it won two more Razzie Awards years later for its legacy of awfulness: worst picture of the decade in 2000 and worst drama of the Razzie Awards' first 25 years in 2005. But somehow… against all odds… the bad buzz paid off. Over the past 25-plus years, "Showgirls" has become immensely popular, earning a legion of devoted fans. It even inspired a well-reviewed 2019 documentary, "You Don't Nomi."
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You don't get much more "cult" than "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." The low-budget musical arrived with a whimper in 1975 — its planned opening in New York City was even reportedly canceled due to lack of interest. But then something wild happened: The film gained fans among the midnight-movie crowd. Decades later, it can still be seen in late-night interactive screenings, making it the longest running release in film history.
Another musical that's achieved cult status over the years? "Cry-Baby." Johnny Depp starred as the titular troubled teen in the '50s-set John Waters-directed flick, which performed well with critics but failed to make an impression at the box office when it opened in 1990. At the time, it was a major flop, but over the years, it's developed a loyal base of fans watching from home.
"King of the Hill" and "Silicon Valley" creator Mike Judge made his live-action feature film directorial debut with the 1999 black comedy "Office Space," which performed well with critics but failed to make an impression at the box office, earning just $12.2 million on a $10 million budget. Fortunately, word-of-mouth goes a long way! Also helpful? Repeat showings on Comedy Central. "It felt like it kind of went viral before that concept even existed," star Ron Livingston told Entertainment Weekly in 2019 of how the comedy took off with fans watching from home.
"This Is Spinal Tap" had some modest success at the box office when it debuted in 1984: The mockumentary banked $4.7 million on a budget of $2 million, which wasn't exactly much to write home about. Still, Rob Reiner's feature film directorial debut, which centers around a fictional heavy metal band, was a huge hit with critics. The good buzz helped attract new viewers long after the comedy left theaters. It's now considered one of the best films (not just one of the best comedies!) in cinema history… It goes to 11! The band, by the way, released three real albums between 1984 and 2009, while fictional bassist Derek Smalls continues to play live even today: He toured the West Coast in late 2019 and had plans for a world tour in 2020.
Widely considered one of the worst films ever made, "The Room" has nonetheless developed an incredibly loyal fanbase since it debuted in 2003. When it first opened in theaters, it recouped just $1,800 of its $6 million budget. However, writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau has reportedly banked millions of dollars off the drama since it gained a second lease on life via late-night interactive screenings. James Franco earned a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the mysterious actor-filmmaker in "The Disaster Artist," the Oscar-nominated 2017 biopic he directed about the making of "The Room."
It's a shame, really. This horror-comedy written by Diablo Cody had all the makings of a commercial success but it was overlooked by audiences and critics alike. The 2009 film "Jennifer's Body" starred Megan Fox as a seriously possessed teenager who craves the flesh of high school boys. As with many movies that go on to becoming cult classics, the film didn't impress at the box office — it earned just $31.6 million on a $16 million budget and also received generally mixed to negative reviews. However, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the feminist horror-comedy has been seen in a whole new light and taken its place as a cult favorite.
"Dazed and Confused" wasn't a total flop when it opened in theaters in 1993, banking $8 million on a budget of nearly $7 million. But it certainly wasn't a hit — even though it received almost universal acclaim from critics. (Some would say it performed alright, alright, alright…) The good buzz — coupled with an all-star cast of A-listers before they were famous and a killer soundtrack — helped the Richard Linklater-directed coming-of-age comedy achieve its legacy as one of the greatest high school movies ever made. Matthew McConaughey made his feature film debut in the '70s Texas-set comedy, in which Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Rory Cochrane and many more appeared.
In 1990, the world was introduced to David Lynch's now-iconic horror-drama series "Twin Peaks," which he co-created with Mark Frost. While the series only ran for two seasons on ABC, it has since developed a deeply devoted cult following. In the wake of its cancellation, fans rejoiced over the release of the prequel film "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" in 1992. The psychological horror movie followed the murder investigation surrounding Teresa Banks' death in addition to chronicling the final week of Laura Palmer's life — whose death, as fans are well aware, drove the show's first two seasons. Rid of strict network guidelines, David and Mark had increased creative freedom in crafting the film — they were able to really lean into the surrealism that was vaguely echoed throughout the series. Despite being a box office bomb ("FWWM" lost $5 million and was also booed at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered), it remains a favorite among "Twin Peaks" fans.
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" debuted to mixed reviews in early 1975. The infinitely quotable low-budget British flick, which skewers Arthurian legend, is now considered one of the greatest comedies of all time! It gained so much popularity on home media that it eventually inspired the 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Spamalot."
Sam Raimi launched one of Hollywood's biggest horror movie franchises on a budget of somewhere between $350K and $400K. The original "The Evil Dead," which debuted in 1981, was technically a bit of a sleeper hit: It banked more than $2 million at the box office — quite a feat considering its super-humble origins. Still, no one could've possibly imagined that it would spawn a franchise that now includes two sequels and a reboot with a third sequel to come, the three-season Starz series "Ash vs Evil Dead," several comic books and a series of video games.
Kevin Smith famously sold off his comic book collection, maxed out several credit cards and dipped into his college fund to finance his feature film directorial debut, "Clerks." His dedication paid off: The 1994 comedy made a modest $3.2 million at the box office, which easily recouped his $27,575 production budget. The real money came later: After "Clerks" scored three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including best first feature and best first screenplay, it gained a dedicated following and launched a franchise centered around the actor-filmmaker's on-screen alter ego, Silent Bob, and his constant companion, Jay.
Two years after he released "Showgirls," director Paul Verhoeven released another film that's gained cult status over the years: "Starship Troopers." The beloved sci-fi flick, which is based on a 1959 novel of the same name, made more money during its initial run that any other film on this list: $121 million on a $105 million budget. But it tanked with critics, who widely misunderstood the satirical nature of the 1997 film, which skewers fascism, xenophobia and nationalism under the guise of a creature feature. Still, "Starship Troopers" earned an Oscar nomination for best visual effects, scored a legion of devoted fans and spawned four sequels as well as a short-lived animated TV spinoff.
Ed Wood's 1959 masterpiece "Plan 9 from Outer Space" — which centers around an alien invasion involving zombies and vampires — is another example of a film that's so bad, it's good. The low-budget sci-fi flick might not have made an impact when it first opened in theaters, but it's since become an important part of pop culture. Jerry Seinfeld even dished on its significance during a 1991 episode of "Seinfeld," telling his pals, "Just a movie? You don't understand. This isn't plans one through eight from outer space. This is 'Plan 9.' This is the one that worked — the worst movie ever made!"
"Repo Man," which was written and directed by Alex Cox, is a sci-fi dark comedy. The 1984 film, which starred Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez, focused on a punk rocker who joins an automobile repossession agency and, in the process, finds himself on the hunt for a vehicle that may have ties to extraterrestrial activity. Although the movie didn't garner critical praise, it's since been dubbed a punk cinema cult classic and a critique of American life at the time.
How did a morality tale about the dangers of marijuana use become a cult stoner comedy? Ah, irony! "Reefer Madness," which was originally funded by a church group and released in the mid-'30s, was rediscovered by the midnight-movie set in the '70s and quickly became a cult classic. Famed film critic Leonard Maltin once called the low-budget melodrama "the granddaddy of all 'worst' movies."