Best Cult Classic Movies of the '70s, Ranked (2023)

The 1970s are often considered one of if not the defining era for modern cinema, the period where classical film transitioned into modern film. Between the release of classics such as The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, and Star Wars, there was no shortage of quality filmmaking during this time period.

Updated January 10th, 2023: If you're a fan of beloved cult classics, then you'll be happy to know this article has been updated with additional content and films.

However, this decade is also notable for essentially forming the definition of cult classics, with many appearing during this time and engaging audiences outside the mainstream. Some of these films have gone on to receive their proper level of acclaim and regard, while others are just starting to gain exposure and consideration. Here we take a look at some of the most noteworthy cult movies the '70s have to offer.


8 The Warriors

Best Cult Classic Movies of the '70s, Ranked (1)

Walter Hill's 1979 classic The Warriors still remains one of the most vibrant, brutal, and delightfully over the top films of its decade. Taking place in the gritty Bronx and Coney Island areas of NYC, the film is steeped in atmosphere and Hill truly revels in the seedy and eclectic nightlife the city has to offer. The film also has a wicked sense of dark humor and some truly exhilarating set pieces, resulting in a consistently thrilling and suspenseful experience.

The Warriors wisely avoids any pretense and lets its B-movie energy take front and center, but with a dose of artistry and flair that isn't always seen in modern action films today. With its mix of inventive action, vivid storytelling, and gritty realism, The Warriors remains a hard-edged yet undeniably captivating achievement and is a beloved cult hit for many.

Related: These Are the Best Cult Classics of the '90s

The Warriors was initially met with negative reviews but in later years has become well-regarded by critics and evolved into a successful franchise that's influenced video games, comic books, and spin-offs, and more movies are pulling inspiration from it all the time. In terms of relevance, The Warriors continues to engage film fans and still packs a punch years later.

7 Phantom of the Paradise

Best Cult Classic Movies of the '70s, Ranked (2)

Brian De Palma wrote and directed the 1974 rock musical horror comedy Phantom of the Paradise, which features William Finley as an aspiring musician who is double-crossed by a shady record producer and left devastated; after a tragic accident leaves the singer disfigured, he takes on the persona of the Phantom in order to seek revenge against the nefarious producer. The premise of the lively film is loosely based on both The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Phantom of the Opera, with the Paul Williams-composed soundtrack going on to earn both an Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination.

Critics panned Phantom of the Paradise and it was a box-office dud, though time proved to be quite kind to the De Palma picture, as it has since joined the ranks as a celebrated '70s classic. A fan festival was even organized in 2005 called Phantompalooza, with Finley and co-star Gerrit Graham even in attendance. Phantom of the Paradise is an exciting and underrated comedy horror knockout, that according to The List "has everything a cult classic needs: eccentric plotting, weird characters (watch out for Gerrit Graham as Beef), bizarre costumes and a rocking soundtrack."

6 Sorcerer

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A remake of the classic French film The Wages of Fear, William Friedkin's Sorcerer is a taut and tense thriller with an all-star cast that, while dismissed and overshadowed by bigger films upon release, is gaining more of the acclaim that it deserves. The film follows a group of convicts who have been tasked with driving trucks full of explosives back and forth in South America. The plot peers into their inner lives and motivations while also highlighting the fragile and deadly existence they're facing.

With a cast that includes Roy Scheider in the lead, Sorcerer is a tense and powerful experience that manages to be both complex and entertaining while also offering up some big ideas in the process. Add in its nail-biting set pieces and taut direction, and you have a first-rate thriller on your hands.

Sorcerer is now noted as one of the finest thrillers of the '70s, and one of William Friedkin's best films, with The Exorcistdirector saying of Sorcerer, "It is the only film of mine that I wouldn't change." Sadly, it was released right around the same time as Star Wars and was ultimately lost in the shuffle, resulting in a poor box office performance. However, time has been kind to Sorcerer;35 years later, it's now considered to be the exciting, intelligent and haunting triumph that it is.

5 The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Best Cult Classic Movies of the '70s, Ranked (4)

The delightfully strange, legendary cinema star Vincent Price headlines the 1971 dark comedy horror flick The Abominable Dr. Phibes, in which the silver screen great portrays the titular concert organist who goes on a bloody rampage against the doctors he believes caused the death of his beloved wife. Phibes draws inspiration for his violent vengeance from the Ten Plagues of Egypt, donning an amulet that reflects each of the various plagues with every murder he commits. Both the picture and Price's performance earned a mixed bag response upon its initial premiere, with some criticizing director Robert Fuest's screenplay and overall vision.

However, in recent years the horror comedy filmhas been reassessed and has earned praise for its superb makeup, eye-catching set design, brilliant blend of horror and humor and Price's memorable portrayal of the unhinged killer. Critic Christopher Null expressed in 2002 that the film features "Vincent Price at his campy best ... A crazy script and an awesome score make this a true classic."

4 Eraserhead

Best Cult Classic Movies of the '70s, Ranked (5)

David Lynch is responsible for several cult classics (and downright masterpieces), but Eraserhead arguably has the biggest cult following of them all. The 1977 film is a twisted and surreal psychological experience shot in gorgeous, high contrast black and white. Eraserhead is a darkly comic and gothic meditation on fatherhood and insecurity, and it's also a gonzo showcase of Lynch's imagination and surrealist style.

The film announced Lynch as a genuine talent and also influenced a number of other filmmakers with its experimental approach. Upon release, Eraserhead, like many other cult classics, was misunderstood and shunned by mainstream critics and audiences. (Weirdly enough, comic genius Mel Brooks recognized Lynch's brilliance and hired him to direct The Elephant Man, kicking off Lynch's big-time career).

Related: Here's Every David Lynch Movie, Ranked: Part Two

In the years since, Eraserhead has only grown in stature and is now considered an essential piece of American cinema that has been studied and analyzed by many. In the great filmography of every David Lynch movie, it remains one of his most iconic and still attracts a devoted following to this day. Overall, Eraserhead is one of the definitive cult films of the '70s and is widely recognized as a groundbreaking masterpiece.

3 Suspiria

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Dario Argento's acclaimed supernatural horror hit Suspiria stars Jessica Harper as a gifted ballet dancer who travels abroad to Germany to attend a distinguished ballet school, only to discover a terrifying supernatural force lurks within its walls after a series of brutal murders. The innovative picture is the first installment in Argento's The Three Mothers trilogy, and is widely recognized as a highly-influential film of the horror genre due to its unique storytelling style and visuals as well as memorable musical score.

Suspiria is remarkable for its exceptional use of color and detailed set pieces, and its foreboding elements have been favorably compared to the iconic works of Edgar Allan Poe. The infamous Italian masterpiece has developed a passionate cult following since its release, with many considering it the crème de la crème of horror movies; AllMovie declared that Suspiria is "one of the most striking assaults on the senses ever to be committed to celluloid ... this unrelenting tale of the supernatural was — and likely still is — the closest a filmmaker has come to capturing a nightmare on film."

2 Harold and Maude

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An extremely charming and poignant coming-of-age story, yet one of the most offbeat funny movies of all time, Harold and Maude has amassed a loyal following since its release. With its quirky and darkly comic premise, the film depicts the unlikely friendship between depressed loner Harold and elderly yet still mischievous Maude. The film subverts many coming-of-age tropes and offers up plenty of imaginative situations for our protagonists to explore.

Despite its dark undertones, Harold and Maude was still embraced by audiences, and eventually critics began to assess it favorably as well. Since its release, Harold and Maude has been considered a classic, and many have listed it as one of the best coming of age stories of all time. For fans of heartfelt cinema, this film is truly an unforgettable and unique experience that's aged remarkably well and is getting the proper recognition it deserves to this day,

1 The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Best Cult Classic Movies of the '70s, Ranked (8)

One of the most infamous cult movies of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has become a phenomenon that has influenced film, TV, and musical theater. The plot revolves around mild-mannered couple Brad and Janet who find themselves stranded at the castle of the sweet transvestite Dr. Frank n Furter, in a legendary performance from Tim Curry. The film's storytelling hardly matters, as its main attraction is its wild set and costume design, rock and roll infused musical numbers, and campy yet edgy sensibility. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a pure embrace of its influences and while some may argue whether it's a coherent film or not, it's undeniable that something made Rocky Horror Picture Show so iconic.

The film has been embraced for it's pro-LGBTQ+ characters, and while it didn't make an impression upon first release, Rocky Horror has since grown into a midnight movie staple that continues to garner fans. In terms of a true cult classic experience, Rocky Horror is the definitive title, and while it's not for everyone, it's completely memorable no matter what. For that reason alone, it's the ultimate cult film of the '70s.

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