Science fiction movies aren't always a popular success. Sometimes they release to little box office acclaim, and are shuttered quickly when they fail to break even. It can take time for these films to emerge from the shadows — but when they do, they come out with a roar.
Many a classic has been created through the sheer devotion of their fans and the word-of-mouth power they provide. These nine cult sci-fi movies span tones and genres, from comedy to horror to musical delights, but each is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973)
Say cult favorite, and Rocky Horror will come to mind no matter who you talk to. It’s an iconic campy sci-fi comedy musical, and did you know it was originally based off a stage show? It was practically built to have an interactive audience.
Janet and Brad are the perfect cookie-cutter couple. On the night of their engagement, their car gets a flat tire in a rainstorm. Seeking help, they walk to a nearby castle. There, they discover a wild group of strangers holding the Annual Transylvanian Convention, led by Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
Dr. Frank-N-Furter introduces himself as a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” He has been building the perfect man in his laboratory, Rocky, who spends the movie wearing tight gold underwear and nothing else.
Frank-N-Furter seduces Brad and Janet, Janet seduces Rocky, Frank-N-Furter’s servants watch over the proceedings and goad them on, they dance many a musical number—this movie is a manic ascent into chaos, right until the final moments when it all comes crumbling down.
If you love old sci-fi and horror B-movies, you’ll love Rocky Horror’s affectionate parody. While the language might be outdated today, in the 1970s the LGBT community loved the show’s androgyny and sexual expression.
The movie really hit its cult classic status when the New York Waverly Theatre started showing midnight runs of the film. Viewers began calling out lines to the characters to entertain each other, and returned week after week to see what they could come up with next.
Soon, the show became an interactive adventure. Audiences began dressing up and acting alongside the screenings, and many of the original one-liners are still called out, verbatim, to this day.
Amphibian Man (1962)
Based off the 1928 novel of the same name by Alexander Beliaev, Amphibian Man is a Soviet-era sci-fi romance.
A community of pearl-fishers work off the shores of Argentina. Gutierre, a pearl-fisher’s daughter, encounters a strange amphibious man, Ichthyander. When Ichthyander was a child, his father was forced to surgically implant gills into Ichthyander’s neck. Now, Ichthyander can freely breathe underwater and on land.
Gutierre and Ichthyander fall in love, but Gutierre has a violent husband, Pedro. And when Pedro finds out, the true love between the unusual couple is threatened.
This movie was the highest-selling Soviet film for over ten years, but due to the Cold War, it never had the same popularity in the US.
Even so, it has a committed fanbase. Quentin Tarantino himself has cited it as his favorite Russian film, often watching the English dub during his childhood.
Avid fans of the movie have accused The Shape of Water (2017) of copying Amphibian Man with its character design and Soviet connection, but this seems to be more homage than plagiarism.
Night of the Comet (1984)
This movie was the influence behind Buffy Summers! If it weren’t for Night of the Comet’s cult status, we would not have the cult TV fav Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was one of the first films to have a PG-13 rating, too.
Eleven days before Christmas, the Earth is set to pass through the tail of a comet. Despite this event also coinciding with the dinosaur’s extinction, crowds gather to watch and celebrate. The next morning, they wake to a zombie-filled, apocalyptic world.
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Thom Eberhardt wrote this script because he wanted a post-apocalyptic film starring strong female protagonists. He interviewed teenage girls to research his characters and learn how they might react to waking up to an empty city. Every girl was excited by the idea and eager to imagine scenarios, which lent the film its light-hearted, adventuresome tone and its neon palette.
Fans love the film for its matter-of-fact approach to a weird premise. Neil Gaiman also praised the film for being amusing, thought-provoking, and imaginative while having no budget whatsoever.
Liquid Sky (1982)
Slava Tuskerman created a fable based around heroin, aliens, and New York City. His wife was developing a story about a woman who couldn’t orgasm. The stories merged into Liquid Sky.
The movie’s main character Margaret, an androgynous fashion model, has an alien spaceship perched above her gritty penthouse apartment. Originally seeking drugs, the aliens found sex pheromones were more potent, so they kill all of Margaret’s sexual partners.
Without realizing aliens are behind it, Margaret realizes she can kill people by having sex with them. She uses her alien-given power to exact revenge on men who have wronged her.
Tuskerman used synthesizers to utilize real-world sounds in this film’s eccentric sound design. His DIY mentality, emerging from the punk scene, certainly helped keep this movie under its half-a-million dollar budget.
Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner was not a commercial success when it first appeared in American theaters, but its avid cult following gave it longstanding mainstream popularity in the new millennium. Blade Runner transforms Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into neo-noir cinema. It has won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and is preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Set in the once-far-future of 2019, it follows Rick Deckard, a “blade runner” who tracks down bioengineered humanoids known as replicants. Deckard learns four replicants are on Earth illegally, and he is tasked with terminally “retiring” them.
Blade Runner’s longstanding cult status is undoubtedly related to the many versions that exist. Studio executives requested many changes, generating seven different versions. Combined with its popularity as a video rental, this made Blade Runner one of the earliest movies released on DVD, allowing fans to reignite their excitement with repeat viewings.
But more than this, it’s the film’s worldbuilding that excites viewers. Its futuristic Los Angeles residents speak a unique conlang called “Cityspeak,” created as a combination of many languages, including Japanese, Spanish, German, Hungarian, Chinese, and French.
Plus, the movie's urban dystopia is a cinematic spectacle that's compelling on both the big and small screen.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Little Shop of Horrors was once a Broadway musical that was once a B-movie. Got that?
The movie follows geeky florist shop worker, Seymour, who finds out his Venus flytrap can speak and has an unquenchable thirst for human blood. Seymour is also in love with his coworker Audrey, who is dating a sadistic dentist.
The plant, which Seymour names Audrey II, entices Seymour to murder, promising Seymour fame, fortune, and love if he does so. A three-woman Greek chorus styled after The Supremes narrates the movie through musical numbers as we watch Seymour struggle between greed, grisly murders, and abandoning his dreams.
This movie is beloved for its stunningly realistic animatronic talking plant. Frank Oz, the puppeteer behind the Muppets and Yoda, directed the film and used Lyle Conway’s design talents to create an elaborate alien plant without any blue screens. The largest version of the plant puppet required 60 puppeteers to operate!
In addition to Oz’s iconic talent, the movie also features music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the duo behind Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Steve Martin and Bill Murray make comedic cameos as well.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko has a unique production history. The film follows 28 days leading to the end of the world, so the crew shot the movie in exactly 28 days. Screened at Sundance to a tepid response, it had a limited theatrical release, shown on only 58 screens nationwide in the wake of 9/11.
Once it released to video, though, it was a surprising success, with a devoted fanbase that led to 28 consecutive months of midnight screenings in New York’s Pioneer Theatre.
Donnie Darko is a heady psychological thriller, full of neural science fiction and teenage angst. It starts when Donald “Donnie” Darko sleepwalks out of his home, led by a mysterious voice. He meets Frank, a figure in a monstrous rabbit costume, who tells Donny the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. He wakes up the next morning on a golf course, while back at home, a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom.
This movie is preoccupied with coincidence and fate as Frank’s end of the world looms closer. Donnie continues to have visions of Frank, who influences him into increasingly violent acts. It culminates in a polarizing, nihilistic end that questions if any of the plot even mattered at all.
In the wake of 9/11, it’s easy to understand how Americans became attached to the film’s exploration of fear, angst, and meaning. A generation of teenagers has since identified with Donnie’s troubled mind and his struggles to connect with his peers in the face of doom.
Death Race (2000)
Think Hunger Games mixed with NASCAR. The United States has experienced massive economic ruin after the “World Crash of ’79.” To quell civil unrest, the country restructures into a totalitarian regime, and pacifies the population with bloodsport. Enter the Transcontinental Road Race.
A group of racecar drivers speed across the country in high-powered cars suited up with gruesome killing devices. However, two characters hatch a plan to kill the president and end the races.
Roger Ebert gave this film zero stars in his original review because of its gory spectacle, so be warned. Viewers over the years have been kinder, calling it a campy classic, and drawing thrills from mindless ultra-violence. This one is definitely more for fans of sci-fi horror.
Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, 2002
This film doesn’t have a devoted midnight screening fanbase because its viewers were kids, who came of age with an explosion of social media. Instead, Spy Kids 2 is attaining cult status through Gen-Z’s endless memes.
In Spy Kids, Carmen and Juni Cortez discovered their parents were spies and used their tech to rescue them from a supervillain. Now, Carmen and Juni are spies in their own right, tracking down the “transmooker” device, a gadget that can shut down all electronics.
Their adventures take them to a mysterious island, which cuts off all power to their spy gear. Carmen and Juni must navigate the island’s mysteries using their wits and their sibling bond. Along the way, they encounter bizarre genetically-modified animals, created by Romero, a mad scientist. Played by Steve Buscemi, Romero casually drops existential bombs in the middle of an otherwise campy technicolor film, which is where the Gen-Z memes come in.
Robert Rodriguez produced, shot, edited, and directed the film. Despite his small budget, Rodriguez experimented with a variety of visual techniques, combining practical and stop-motion effects, contributing to the movie’s childlike, creative tone.