Cult movies are often defined as those which fail to garner much attention during their theatrical release but later gain a devoted audience through either the home video market, midnight showings, or television broadcasts. While notable examples include Pink Flamingos, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Harold and Maude, this list is dedicated to those cult movies you’ve either overlooked or didn’t know were classified as such in the first place.
- 1941 (1979) – The rare box office disappointment from director Steven Spielberg, 1941 takes a humorous look at the panic that occurs in Los Angeles following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. To make matters worse, a Japanese submarine surfaces off the coast of California, intent on taking the fight to Hollywood. Mickey Rourke makes his screen debut in a small role, and Japanese icon (and frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator) Toshiro Mifune shows up in one of his few American roles. The cast is beyond impressive, including the following: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Robert Stack, Warren Oates, Nancy Allen, Treat Williams, John Candy, Patti LuPone, Slim Pickens, and James Caan in an uncredited role as a sailor.
- Heavy Metal (1981) – Adapted from stories taken from Heavy Metal magazine (along with a few stories inspired by the publication), this Canadian animated anthology shocked viewers in the early ‘80s will all its scenes of animated nudity and violence. The film’s linking device is a story about a green sphere named Lok-Nar that claims to be “The sum of all evils.” While holding a girl captive, this vile entity forces her to watch a number of tales from across the galaxy. These include: a film noir set in 2031 and involving a New York cabbie who falls in with the sex-crazy daughter of a murdered archeologist; a nerdy teen transported to a world where he’s transformed into a muscular warrior, has sex with lots of beautiful women, and battles against the mad plans of an immortal being; a space captain put on trial and pursued by his mad character witness; a WWII bomber pilot who must contend with an aircraft filled with zombie crewman; an Earthen woman who gets stoned and tries robot sex after being accidentally sucked into an alien spacecraft; and a warrior woman who must avenge a peaceful city after its inhabitants are wiped out by mutants influenced by the Lok-Nar. All kinds of trippy, Heavy Metal also makes one helluva stoner movie.
- Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) – This indie film and coming-of-age black comedy found legions of fans on the home video market thanks to Todd Solondz’s writing and directing talents, not to mention the performance of Heather Matarazzo. She stars as Dawn Wiener, a 7th-grader mercilessly tormented by her classmates and at odds with her family. As she deals with failed attempts at love and lust, Solondz (Happiness, Storytelling) creates a portrait of rebellion, isolation, and forced conformity that will ring true with anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider.
- Blade Runner (1982) – Melding film noir sensibilities with science fiction in a hellish future cityscape, director Ridley Scott peppers his masterpiece with plenty of symbolism and comments on the nature of humanity, both real and perceived. Considered a box office disappointment at the time–largely due to competition from fellow science fiction movies E.T. and The Wrath of Khan–Blade Runner has nevertheless become a much-respected cult classic. Harrison Ford stars as retired cop Rick Deckard, a man who once specialized in hunting down and “retiring” rogue replicants (aka artificial humanoids used for pleasure, manual labor, and warfare). Forced to come out of retirement in order to catch four replicants who’ve illegally entered Earth (including Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, and Brion James), he grapples with his emotions while falling for an advanced replicant played by Sean Young.
- Red Heat (1988) – Most films get labeled cult movies due to poor box office performance followed by a renewed interest among a certain group of fans. In the case of Red Heat, that’s only half right. This Walter Hill (48 Hrs., Southern Comfort) action movie was actually a hit at the box office, but it was largely panned by critics and later forgotten by audiences. Then English-speaking Russians discovered it, and Red Heat has since become a cult hit among them for its ridiculous use of stereotypes and butchery of their native language. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Moscow narcotics officer Ivan Danko, a humorless cop in pursuit of the drug lord (Ed O’Ross) who killed his partner. This chase leads all the way to the United States, where the level-headed Danko suddenly finds himself thrown into an unwelcome partnership with a loud-mouthed Chicago cop (James Belushi). Peter Boyle, Gina Gershon, and Laurence Fishburne also get in on the politically-incorrect action.
- Angel Heart (1987) – My personal favorite of all Mickey Rourke movies, Angel Heart takes place in 1955 New York City as rumpled private eye Harry Angel (Rourke) is hired by a client (Robert De Niro) to track down a once-popular crooner who disappeared during World War II. What follows is a violent and sexually-charged look at New Orleans voodoo and Satanic rituals, all presented with a film noir flair and some of the best acting Rourke has ever put up on the screen. The film broke even at the box office, and it garnered a great amount of attention at the time due to the graphic and bloody sex scene between Rourke and Lisa Bonet of The Cosby Show. Since then, it’s become a highly regarded cult movie that reminds viewers of how much potential Rourke had before personal demons nearly destroyed his career.
- The Thing (1982) – Now regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made, John Carpenter’s The Thing met with disappointing box office results thanks to the release at the same time of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. While the latter presents a vision of space aliens as sweet and cuddly, the visitor in The Thing is looking to devour the men stationed at an research station in Antarctica, impersonate them, and eventual make its way to the major population centers of Earth. Fear and paranoia reign, and this is heightened by Ennio Morricone’s ominous score and the performances of Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, and Keith David. If you pick this one up on DVD or Blu-ray, be sure to listen to the commentary track, as Russell and Carpenter have a grand ‘ol time looking back on the production.
- Man Bites Dog (1992) – The lone Belgian film on this list, Man Bites Dog stars Remy Belvaux as Ben, a serial killer who takes a camera crew along for the ride during his sociopathic adventures. Nobody is immune from his lethal designs, including men, women, children, and especially postal employees. As the camera crew becomes increasingly involved in Ben’s crimes, the audience is made uncomfortably complicit in this inventive mockumentary riddled with dark humor and observations about human nature. The film generated a certain amount of controversy during its brief theatrical release in Europe, but it’s since went on to be included in the Criterion Collection, a testament to its status as a cult film.
- Legend (1985) – The second Ridley Scott film on this list, Legend stars a young Tom Cruise as Jack ‘o the Green, a forest dweller who must aid a princess (Mia Sara) in stopping the evil Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) from killing a unicorn and bringing about perpetual darkness. A massive flop at the box office, this endearing tale has slowly picked up steam as a cult favorite thanks to the excellent make-up work, the presence of a pre-crazy Cruise, and Tim Curry as one of the coolest-looking villains to ever be depicted on the screen. If you’re partial to fantasy movies, be sure to add this one to your queue.
- The Beastmaster (1982) – When I saw this fantasy movie as a kid at my hometown theatre, I never imagined that I would be writing about it on the Internet years later. Then again, I could’ve never even imagined the Internet. If I had, I would’ve made damned sure to invent Google or Facebook before anyone else. Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) directs, while Marc Singer stars as a young man gifted with plenty of muscles, superb sword skills, and the ability to communicate telepathically with animals. After his village is wiped out, he goes looking for revenge against the man responsible: a diabolic sorcerer played by none other than Rip Torn. Oh, and it also turns out that our hero is a long-lost prince, so you can imagine where all that is leading. Tanya Roberts plays the love interest, and she jockeys for screen time with a pair of ferrets named Kodo and Podo. While it was only a modest success at the box office, its growing cult status has led to a pair of sequels. And check out this crazy-ass tagline: “The courage of an eagle, the strength of a black tiger, and the power of a god.”
The next time you’re in the mood for a few cult movies, be sure to give one of these selections a try. They should all be readily available on GreenCine or Netflix, and movie fans with a few extra bucks in their bank accounts can also pop over to Amazon and add them to their permanent collection.