A movie that attracts a near-rabid fan following is a cult movie, that is if or until it “goes public” and finds itself on famous lists like the American Film Institute’s. Examples of cult movies that turned pop would be The Shawshank Redemption, A Clockwork Orange, and Dr. Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. They have, sadly, become unculted.
This is a real list of true cult movies that will always attract outsiders, eccentrics, and rebels. Normal people (we prefer to call them “ordinary”) simply don’t get these movies.
10. Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman
Not Christopher Guest’s 1993 remake for television, but the original 1958 black & white version, directed by Nathan Juran, that came out on DVD in June 2007. You’ve gotta love a movie with an alcoholic housewife, Nancy (Allison Hayes) married to a cheating man (William Hudson) who has a diabolic mistress named Honey (Yvette Vickers). Violently jealous Nancy is exposed to radiation from an alien satellite and grows to a height of 50 furious feet. Sure the special FX are obvious and corny, but that doesn’t diminish the overall thrill of a SciFi revenge flick. It actually qualifies this film as being both cult and campy. Besides, the poster for the original Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman is one of the most titillating ever created.
9. The Day of the Locust
Written by Nathaniel West, this stinging indictment of old-time Hollywood goes beyond the casting couch and into the starlet’s psyche. If you think you’ve got the cajones to survive in show biz, take a hard look at the trials and false promises given to hopeful blonde starlet Faye (Karen Black). There may be grotesqueries galore, especially as portrayed by Burgess Meredith and Billy Barty, but they still ring true with only an echo of exaggeration. Directed by John Schlessinger, this classic cult film reveals the cannibalistic movie business for what it is. The movie also stars Jack Bauer’s dad, Donald Sutherland, and the always-underrated William Atherton.
8. Army of Darkness
Number 3 in director Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy has enough zombies in it to satisfy Michael Jackson’s dream video, should he ever make a comeback. Studio politics and lawsuits screwed up the 1992 theatrical ending and made it a happy one, but true movie fans search out the original cut, now on DVD with a restored ending plus outtakes and commentary. The main loser-like character of Ash (Bruce Campbell, another underrated actor) is zapped back to the 12th Century with no way to get back unless he finds the Book of the Dead. He also has to battle animated skeletons in order to save the woman he loves (Embeth Davidtz). Ash says pithy things like “Gimme me some sugar, baby.” The R rating makes it even more appealing.
Terry Gilliam’s 1985 SciFi-fantasy borrows from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, but then so does Blade Runner. An homage to Orwell’s 1984, Gilliam’s government-preaching signs and speeches lauding conformity and obedience to Big Brother likens storm troopers to cops and depicts ordinary people as helpless, obedient, and complacent. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) cannot function any longer in the bureaucratic Ministry of Education and dreamily escapes reality. Brazil is without a doubt one of the most imaginative, complex films ever created, and leaves its many images of chaos, oppressed society, and political nightmares forever imprinted on the mind. Be sure to see the director’s cut and not the watered-down Hollywood-happy-ending version which was released in 1986 and probably helped Brazil to flop at the box office. Also starring Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins and Robert De Niro, Brazil may well be the greatest social satire of our time. Or any time.
6. Reefer Madness
If this cult gem does nothing else, it will make you want to get high. That may be because it’s supposed to accomplish the opposite and make you want to get straight. Drug dealers manage to persuade teenagers of the joys of marijuana, wild parties, and jazz bands. Dorothy Short and Kenneth Craig star in this campy take on the wild life in 1936. Interestingly, the movie was originally financed by a church group, out to convince teens that smoking dope would result in hit and run accidents, suicide, rape and the obligatory descent into madness. Some things never change.
5. The Big Lebowski
The Coen Brothers could easily qualify any of their films in the cult category, but 1998’s The Big Lebowski, starring Jeff Bridges as the laid back hippie called The Dude, is the one that made this list because it’s the least appreciated and just as good as their other stuff. A pair of thieves breaks into The Dude’s house mistaking it for the millionaire home of the Big Lebowski (David Huddleston). One of the thieves pisses on The Dude’s rug (“That rug really tied the room together”) The Dude, assisted by his pals Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) subsequently gets involved in the kidnapping of the Big Lebowski’s wife (Tara Reid). Like most Coen films, it’s almost impossible to predict what’s going to happen. That’s what makes the brothers so fabulous.
4. Basket Case
Frank Henelotter directed this 1985 low-budget comedy, sometimes called a “splatter comedy” about separated Siamese twins. One is normal and the other is a slimy, creepy, revolting little thing who lives in a basket carried all over the place by the normal brother. The twins live out a vendetta of hatred against the doctors who separated them. This is definitely a high-class, low-class grindhouse cult film which earns its R rating. R for Right up Quentin Tarantino’s dark alley.
3. The Black Cat
The first pairing of horror stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff occurred in 1934’s The Black Cat, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who studied under Fritz Lang. That accounts for the intriguing dark expressionist angles and shadows. The Black Cat was made before the Hays Code came into being and gets away with even more brutality than 24‘s Jack Bauer can inflict on a terrorist. A young couple and their new companion, Werdegast (Lugosi) accidentally end up in the castle of evil Poelzig (Karloff). Werdegast and Poelzig have a longstanding rivalry, one of the highlights of which is the always attractive Satanic ritual.
2. Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s 1982 bleak SciFi story of a Replicant hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford). Against his will, Decker falls in love with one of the Replicants (Sean Young) and betrays his mission. David Peoples and Hampton Francher based Blade Runner on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick, with a nod to Fritz Lang’s original Metropolis. Standout performances by Rutger Hauer and Joanna Cassidy, also starring Daryl Hannah and M. Emmet Walsh. Again Hollywood insisted on a phony happy ending, but Ridley Scott has gotten even with his director’s cut DVD released for the movie’s 10th anniversary. Overcoming various legal problems, all versions of this dark, ambiguous, necessarily slow-moving masterpiece are now available in hi-def on the 2007 complete collector’s edition, Blu-Ray and HD DVD.
1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Written and directed by Jim Sharman in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show defies even the word cult. This movie still attracts hundreds of fans at midnight every Saturday night in theaters all over the world, fans who know every nuanced line, every unique costume and every bizarre segue. They come to the theater dressed as characters and this may be the first interactive entertainment, long before computers. The audience is now the real star, but the movie’s stars are Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and Meatloaf. This is the story of lovers Frank and Janet (Curry and Sarandon) lost in an isolated area with no choice but to call on maniacal Dr. Frank N. Furter. Even Fellini never had Frankenstein wearing golden panties. Dancing to Time Warp is now a rite of passage for everyone under 25. There are two great posters from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, both with pillow lips that are more sensual than those of Angelina Jolie.
Other cult films such as Freaks which is actually my favorite because I so love pinheads, deserve to be mentioned, so go ahead and list your selections in the “Sound Off” section below.