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The best cult classic horror movies

Cult classics can be quite strange, not only when you consider the typically off-the-beaten path narratives, characters, or settings they present, but also when you think about the fact that most of these little artistic masterpieces were either ignored or completely despised when they were first released. And in the world of horror cinema, there are hundreds of cult classic flicks to absorb, often because these unique films are made on such small budgets, receiving minimal promotion and only hanging out in theaters for a small window of time (or going straight to home video).

We’ve gone ahead and rounded up the best cult classic horror movies you can stream right now. If you’ve been in the mood for something unusual, ridiculous, or completely unexplainable, one of these seven movies will likely check a box or two for you.

Need more horror movies in your life? Check out our monthly roundups of the best horror movies on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Shudder.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project
81 %
r 81m
Genre Horror, Mystery
Stars Rei Hance, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard
Directed by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez

The 1999 film The Blair Witch Project was a viral marketing sensation that took the world by surprise — a realistic promotional website and other ancillary publicity tools convinced a number of individuals that the film’s actors were actually missing or presumed dead. The movie itself is a truly inventive and groundbreaking “found footage” flick about three film students who find more than they bargained for when investigating the titular local legend.

Filled with the kind of scares that hit hard because we’re forced to use our imaginations to fill in the unseen gaps, The Blair Witch Project turned a mighty profit at the box office, cementing the film as one of the most recognizable cult classics of all time and paving the way for the found footage sub-genre. Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity, you can both thank Blair Witch for your = immense successes.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Eraserhead (1977)

87 %
r 89m
Genre Fantasy, Horror
Stars Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph
Directed by David Lynch

Writer-director David Lynch is one of the most confounding auteurs of the last half-century or so, delivering films and TV shows with oddball characters, surreal stories, and enough nightmarish imagery to keep us up at night for a lifetime. And it all started back in 1977, with Lynch’s feature debut, Eraserhead — a cult classic for the ages. Starring Jack Nance as Henry, when the big-haired pariah of a protagonist learns that his girlfriend is having a baby, the father-to-be is horrified when the newborn turns out to be some kind of humanoid infant.

Forced to raise the infernal being on his own, Henry’s hallucinatory daydreams of a world inside his radiator are the hapless father’s only escape from his creepy kid … until his dreams devolve into sinister nightmares, that is. Shot in black and white, the film was financed in part by the AFI Film Conservatory and would take over five years to actually complete. But if it weren’t for Eraserhead, we wouldn’t have Blue VelvetTwin Peaks, or even Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (the director famously screened Eraserhead as a reference film for his Stephen King adaptation). 

Eraserhead (1977) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook
86 %
r 94m
Genre Drama, Horror
Stars Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney
Directed by Jennifer Kent
The Babadook is a 2014 Australian horror film from writer-director Jennifer Kent that explores themes of depression and grief through the metaphorical emergence of a haunting phantasm and its psychological consumption of anyone that dares cross the entity. Essie Davis stars as widowed mother Amelia Vanek, and when Amelia’s son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), asks her to read him a pop-up book called Mister Babadook, both mother and child begin experiencing a medley of supernatural events that lead the two to believe that the creepy Babadook monster from the story may actually be real. Originally a short film that would be turned into a full feature, Jennifer Kent’s proper film debut is as fresh and original as horror movies come these days, with plenty of excellent scares and two very believable and gut-wrenching performances from both Davis and Wiseman as the mother/son pairing.
The Babadook Official Trailer #1 (2014) - Essie Davis Horror Movie HD

Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie Darko
88 %
r 114m
Genre Fantasy, Drama, Mystery
Stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, James Duval
Directed by Richard Kelly
About as disorienting as movies get, 2001’s Donnie Darko was written and directed by Richard Kelly and stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular protagonist, an enigmatic, moody teenager who begins having vivid “daydreams” about a man in a rabbit costume known as Frank (James Duval). Warning Donnie of the world’s imminent ending, the rabbit-man makes repeat visits to the troubled youth, convincing him to carry out a series of misdemeanors in a lead-up to the supposedly apocalyptic final hours of life as we know it. If you can successfully piece this one together, props to you and your intelligence, because as far as cult classics go, Donnie Darko is one of the most sincerely confusing features we’ve ever seen. But it’s an incredible, thought-provoking mystery that’s certainly worth steeping yourself in.
Donnie Darko (2001) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls
r 78m
Genre Horror, Mystery
Stars Candace Hilligoss, Herk Harvey, Sidney Berger
Directed by Herk Harvey

Director Herk Harvey didn’t spend much time making narrative features — in fact, Carnival of Souls is his only fiction film, with previous cinematic efforts dedicated solely to industrial and commercial productions. But it seems destined that Carnival of Souls would be the man’s one and only stab at proper filmmaking, because the little shoestring effort of a feature would go on to inspire artisans like David Lynch, George Romero, and countless other genre stalwarts.

The quick hour-plus story follows Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a woman who miraculously survives a horrific drag-race accident and decides to take a job as a church organist in a local town. But as disturbing visions of a ghoulish man begin plaguing her, Mary soon learns that her near-death experience may not have been so “near” after all. It feels primitive, looks primitive, and is even performed in a kind of off-beat, avant-garde fashion. Is it because Harvey didn’t know how to direct his talent and just went with his gut? Who knows. But what we do know for sure is that the results are most certainly eerie. 

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead
89 %
r 96m
Genre Horror, Thriller
Stars Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman
Directed by George A. Romero

When it comes to zombie cinema, there’s no maestro more recognizable and revered than George A. Romero. And it would be the writer-director’s 1968 feature film Night of the Living Dead that would cement the auteur’s calling card as the go-to king of the flesh-eating hordes. About as simple as a zombie story gets, the film follows a band of survivors who have holed themselves up inside a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania as the titular undead begin emerging from the earth, gnawing their way through any human flesh they come in contact with.

Utilizing guerrilla filmmaking techniques and shot for a measly $100,000, Romero’s zombie classic would go on to inspire countless horror films over the years, and it all started with one Pittsburgh filmmaker’s dream to break out of industrial and commercial work to make a cool little fiction film (sound similar to Carnival of Souls’ Herk Harvey?).

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Frailty (2001)

64 %
r 100m
Genre Drama, Thriller, Crime
Stars Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe
Directed by Bill Paxton

The late, great Bill Paxton is perhaps best known for acting roles in movies like Twister, Aliens, and Titanic. But as many onscreen talents do, the charismatic performer hopped into the director’s chair for the 2001 horror-thriller Frailty, starring Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, and Paxton himself.

The story follows Fenton Meiks (McConaughey), a man who pays a visit to FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Boothe), claiming that his deceased brother, Adam, is the man behind a string of murders known as the “God’s Hand” killings. Intercut with flashbacks, the narrative explores Fenton’s childhood, where his father (Paxton) claims to have been visited by an angel who tasked the patriarch with eradicating demons that are disguised as human beings. An often-overlooked psychological horror entry, Frailty is a powerful film with arresting performances, plenty of scares, and a major third-act twist.

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from:
Michael Bizzaco

Michael Bizzaco has been writing about and working with consumer tech for well over a decade, writing about everything from A/V components and smart home devices to encryption software, cloud backup platforms, search engine tools, and more. He has written for Digital Trends for over three years, covering entertainment content, A/V, and smart home devices.

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