Thursday, 2 October 2008

20 Movies to enjoy at midnight!

Just realised this title sounds like an invitation to watch porn, rather than a reference to cult movies. Sounds like it should be followed by "with a fresh box of tissues in your hand". Which was certainly not my intention. Oh well...

Defining what -if anything- constitutes a "cult" movie is a near-impossible task. The idea of a cult movie varies pretty much from person to person. For some, it's a film that federates a whole generation or so, with thousands able to quote lines back and forth to one another. Good examples would be the Star Wars movies (I think most straight men aged 40 and under have often fantasized about Princess Leia and her gold bikini), The Godfather or comedies like The Full Monty and 4 Weddings and a Funeral. For others, a cult film is one that has languished forever in near-total obscurity, save for the attentions of a few devoted and lucky souls, who therefore venerate every second of said movie. A lot of horror films would enter this category, or the early works of John Waters and Russ Meyer. It was this that led to the Midnight Movies and Grindhouse trends of the early seventies, whilst Britain's "Video Nasties" governmental ruling in the eighties drove so many horror films into obscurity that they of course gained instant cult status among gore-thirsty cinephiles. In the era of the DVD, of course, more and more of these films are getting re-released, meaning the likes of Cannibal Holocaust and El Topo are no longer swathed in quite the same mystery as before. Which, for me at least, who came along too late to see them in their glory days (or not so glorious, in the tasteless Cannibal Holocaust's case), is really a good thing.

So, no matter what sort of films you choose for a silly list such as this one, you're always going to get someone expressing outrage at such and such a film's omission. "What, no Mad Max!? Are you mad? (har har, geddit?). It's soooo a cult movie!". How can you not include When Harry Met Sally!???" (the answer to this one seems pretty obvious to me, but I have actually had this asked of me. To each their own tastes, I guess). So, I'm just going to have to be 100% subjective and go with my gut (as it were). Basically, the films below just feel like they're cult movies.

The one trait that binds them is a rather odd one: all these films, as arrestingly brilliant as they are, seem to be, for a lack of a better word, flawed. Which makes sense really. These are films that push back the boundaries of contemporary cinema, something which has never been much of a selling point for major film production studios... Which invariably means that the films below were made by very skint, albeit visionary, people. So, you sometimes get shaky production values, occasionally mediocre acting, or dated special effects.

For example, Phantom of the Paradise, featured below, may be a stunning visual piece, resplendent in its use of colour, lighting and studio trickery. It's funny, with stirring music and some great acting from Paul Williams as the devilish Swan. However, his counterpart, William Finley (The Phantom) is downright poor, a ham of the worst order, whilst the script's denouement features such a ludicrous Deus Ex Machina, you sometimes wonder if it wasn't written by a student filmmaker rather than the much-lauded Brian de Palma. And yet, it works. Its rather implausible ending is in keeping with the garish beauty of the whole piece, whilst Finley's camp affectations become quite effective once he's in Phantom mode. It's obvious time was tight and that de Palma and co. were limited in their means, and this ends up giving the film a frenetic, over-the-top energy quite in keeping with the glam rock environment it is set in. Hence, it is perhaps the most out-there and irresistible of de Palma's movies, and is truly deserving of cult status.

And it's the same with the rest of these films, from the dodgy production values of Pink Flamingos to the somewhat thin script of Shortbus. And yet all 20 are irresistible, unique and fascinating films, defining moments in cinema history (despite often getting completely ignored by audiences and critcs alike upon their release). Without further ado, blah, blah, blah, okay will shut up now...

1) VAMPYR - Carl Theodor Dreyer - 1932

Not sure if a film this old can qualify as being a "cult" film. Certainly at the time, the absence of video formats to view films kind of reduced the chance of any picture gaining cult status. But, over the years, this dreamy and oniric answer to Murnau's Nosferatu, that disappeared quite quickly at the time, has slowly edged its way into the consciousness of more and more cinephiles, who all have become enthralled by its strange beauty and creepy atmosphere.

It's a loose adaptation of J.Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, starring producer Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg as a wandering traveller who stumbles on a village being plagued by an ageing female (!) vampire and her doctor slave. The script may be simple, with little by the way of character development, but this just gives Dreyer full freedom to dazzle with some stunning effects, that help create a deperately bleak and creepy atmosphere. Shadows dance across a deserted warehouse, despite there being no people attached to them, a door appears to unlock itself, and skulls move seemingly of their own accord. Not to mention the scene where our hero finds himself buried alive in a glass coffin.

Vampyr is truly unique, a ghostly film that relies more on atmosphere and a sense of unease than adventure and gruesome shocks. The surreal effects and gothic sets are perfect for creating a latent tension that few films of the time achieved. In many ways that puts it as a precursor to the creepy, suggestive masterworks of the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur duo in the forties (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie).

2) NIGHT OF THE HUNTER - Charles Laughton - 1955
Charles Laughton's sole film as a director was an unmitigated disaster. Critics savaged it, so the public stayed well away. Which is the sort of tragedy that renders redundant any "if people like it, it must be good" arguments when it comes to movies or art or music (although, Ronan Keating's success is also a strong counter-argument in itself. If ever you needed proof that the public doesn't always know best, his hit songs are it!). Because Night of the Hunter is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic horror/fantasy, and features one of the best acting performances of all time from Robert Mitchum. He plays a machiavellian and murderous preacher who learns that one of his fellow inmates has stashed a huge lump of money on his property, which could be the preacher's if he can seduce the man's "widow in the making", as Mitchum's preacher says in a devilish internal conversation with God. So, he woos the mourning woman, and sets about trying to find the money, which he gradually realises is in the hands of one of the dead man's children. Cue a nail-biting pursuit across a dream-like nocturnal landscape as the children flee the murderous preacher (who in the meantime has slit their mother's throat).

With very little budget, Laughton managed to create that most unique of movies: one that does not fall into any particular genre or style. It's a crime movie, complete with murderous psychopath, but it's also a fairy tale, with the children's trip down a foggy river evoking the Styx from Greek mythology, whilst an aging Lilian Gish plays a friendly rescuer seemingly straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. It has elements of German expressionist horror, with dark, arching shadows and bold ciaroscuro lighting. The scene where the preacher murders the widow under a lofty celing, knife-wielding arm raised high with almost pious zeal, is as haunting as the shadow image of Nosferatu clambering the stairs to Mina Hutter's room. Likewise the scene when the children are cowering in a barn, only to hear the sound of the preacher's creepy singing resonate from the distance, followed by the heart-stopping vision of him appearing, silhouetted against the night, along the horizon. "Kneeeeling", he keens, a pure embodiment of evil. And there are countless more scenes like these.

Sadly, it all fell on deaf ears. The controversial decision to have a preacher as the incarnation of ultimate evil in the film, in such a puritanical country as the USA, probably played a part. And there's the fact that, as noted, this is a film that just doesn't fit into any category. Critics and audiences were baffled by this, and put off by the pure evil that radiated out of Mitchum's preacher, despite the magnificence of the great actor's performance. His chillingly cold, yet handsome, gaze, staring out of the screen as he explains the tattoos of HATE and LOVE that adorn his knuckles, is one of the most arresting images in the history of the cinema.


Kind of cult just by being a good French horror film! In the year of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and A bout de Souffle, those staples of the Nouvelle Vague, Les Yeux Sans Visage must have stood out like a sore thumb. It's a gruesome and macabre tale of a guilt-ravaged doctor, who kidnaps young women to drug them, remove their faces and graft them onto his badly disfigured daughter's, his way of making ameans for causing her injuries in the first place.

The result is one of the finest psychological chillers of all time. Pierre Brasseur is superb as the machiavellian doctor, so obsessed with finding success that he is willing to commit the most heinous acts (aided by his creepily devoted mistress, who disposes of the corpses and watches with fixed adoration as he cuts a girl's face off). The graft sequence is truly stomach-churning, and provoked outrage at the time due to its graphic details and deadpan, realistic tone. Yet perhaps the most gripping scenes as those involving the daughter, whose face remains hidden by am expressionless pearly white mask. Despite this, actress Edith Scob carries across a perfect mix of quiet desperation and hopeless melancholy. She hates herself and her father for the murders, but is desperate to get a new face and reclaim the life she has lost by being hidden away. So she drifts, ghost-like, through the house, dead features lit up by her pained gaze, and Franju's superb cinematography. And the scene where she removes her mask to show her disfigured face to one of the girl prisoners is as chilling as the operation scene itself.

Given its oniric nature and graphic scenes, Les Yeux sans Visage was probably doomed to failure. To my knowledge, it's still unavailable in France and most of Europe, but luckily the Criterion Collection released a sumptuous DVD package in the USA. If you can get a copy, you will discover one of the greatest, and most moving, horror films of all time.

4 - PEEPING TOM - Michael Powell - 1960

A film so loathed, it effectively ruined the career of the man who created it. Phew! That's some intro! But it's true. Up until Peeping Tom, Michael Powell had been one of Britain's most successful and respected director's, thanks to such memorable films as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Granted, his career had slowed down a tad since his split with scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger, but his reputation as one of the country's leading cinematographic lights remained intact.

And then he did Peeping Tom. The critics were united in reviling this "immoral", "disgusting" and "sick" film. Here's just one snippet, from The Observer: "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom". Another critic suggested it would be best to flush it down the toilet. And why such anger? Well, in fairness, Peeping Tom takes an angle that few films had dared up until then: the "hero" of the film is a murderous, sex-obsessed psychopath. Carl Bohm plays creepy cameraman Mark Lewis who, in his spare time between working on sets and taking nude photographs for the local pornographer, stalks young women and then films them as he stabs them with a concealed knife in his tripod. The opening scene, filmed through Mark's camera lense as he follows a prostitute home before killing her, sets the tone: this is a dark, unflinching study in murder and obsession.

The obsession is fear. Traumatised by his childhood, Mark is determined to capture on-screen a picture of absolute terror, befitting the experiments his own father did on him. But what Peeping Tom captures even better is the grim line that exists between the art form that is the cinema and voyeurism. And this was what the critics completely missed. It has taken decades of championing by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert to finally see this psychological masterpiece get the recognition it truly deserves. To watch it today is to marvel at the complex psychological issues on display (aided by a superb Norman Bates-ish performance by Bohm), as well as at Powell's gorgeously garish cinematography, where every shot is drenched in neon red, evoking both dripping blood and the seedy tints of London's red-light district.

5 - CARNIVAL OF SOULS - Herk Harvey - 1962

A bona fide gem, this, as it might just be the very earliest true cult film! Predictably, it's a horror (most cult films can be grouped into one of three categories: comedy, sci-fi and, most often, horror). It's also one of the best horrors of its age, one that is still stunningly effective over 40 years on. And this despite its minimal budget (somewhere in the realm of $30 000 - a pittance even back then). The very fact that it has survived earns it cult status as far as I'm concerned.

Herk Harvey, more than Ed Wood, surely deserves the title of "Orson Welles of B Movies", as he produced, directed, wrote and starred in Carnival of Souls. His turn as the creepy ghoul-like figure who pursues accident survivor Mary Henry into a netherworld of darkness and fear under the decaying ruins of a dilapidated pavilion, is terrifying. It's a theme that would later crop up numerously in films, from The Others to Final Destination: the idea of being trapped on this earth after "death", living a soul-less existence in the shadows. And Herk Harvey was one of the first to approach it. He used clever tricks and effects to convey the supernatural events that bring unease and fear into Mary's life. People become deaf to Mary's voice, whilst all surrounding sounds go dead, leaving her alone with just the sound of her footsteps and despairing cries to be heard. And as the film progresses, more and more ghoulish spectres with pale faces and mad staring eyes begin to chase the heroine, appearing on the buses she tries to take out of town, all leading her inexorably to the pavilion by the lake...

Like I said, Carnival of Souls is basically budget-less, yet Harvey masterfully dodges this hurdle with his simple yet effective effects, characters and production tricks. The ghouls are particularly terrifying, walking with arms outstretched, cackling menacingly, faces locked in a grimace of pure malevolence. Surely an influence on Romero's zombies or Carpenter's Michael Myers.

6 - EASY RIDER - Dennis Hopper - 1969

A truly generational film, one that enshrined the hippy dream -and fatality- into the collective consciousness with such brio and swagger that it made icons of Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, and probably would have done even if they'd never made anything else of note (almost the case for Fonda!).

Few films have seemed so guaranteed for success, apart from maybe Titanic or Jurassic Park. And Easy Rider was made on a fraction of those films' budgets, hastily shot, edited and released by a bunch of Hollywood hippies and catapulted to fame at the Cannes Film Festival. And what a triumph. Easy Rider pretty much launched a genre, the "road movie", and had audiences head-banging to the thrilling chords of emblematic soundtrack centrepiece 'Born to be Wild' as they watched two cooler-than-anyone-else bikers glide along the American highway, the symbols of the new society's freedom.

But Easy Rider was no simple hippy trippy fun ride. It eventually showed the peaceniks' dreams come smashing into a wall of prejudice, conservatism and narrow-mindedness, underlining the severe cultural and social divide that was gripping the USA at the time. This was '69, and Altamont and Kent State were mere months away. Manson had already tipped the dream into his own version of horror and gore, and the Vietnam War showed no sign of relenting. As the tag line on the film's posters read, "A man went looking for America, and couldn't find it anywhere". As such, Easy Rider is the ultimate film of its age: it defined the hippy generation's dreams, but also their limits. So much more than just a "road movie".

7 - EL TOPO - Alejandro Jodorowsky - 1971

Not sure they can get much weirder than this. El Topo is the cinematographic equivalent of a Samuel R. Delany novel: all peculiar time shifts, fractured dialogue and hidden mysticism. It's a spiritual, haunting and intelligent film, and a disturbing one.

The director himself plays 'El Topo', a black-clad gunslinger in some unknown, Spanish-speaking desert, who rides through the desert with his nude son, cutting a bloody swathe through gangsters, bandits and rival gunslingers. Slowly, his journey becomes a spiritual one, as he has to confront three gun masters and deal with betrayal, faith and a life underground with a bunch of deformed renegades. Does any of that make sense? No, thought not. El Topo needs to be seen to be believed, to be understood, yet I think most will pretty much see, believe and understand what they like. Surely that's the mark of great cinema, a film that means something different to everyone.

El Topo's main significance would be as the first "Midnight Movie" (hence my title!). Ignored when it was first released, it became a staple of New York's art-house scene, with 12 o'clock screenings every week attended by the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The trend would continue to grow, encompassing such greats as Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plus leading to a revival for Freaks, Night of the Living Dead and Targets. A fitting legacy for one of the weirdest and most iconoclastic movies ever made.

8 - PINK NARCISSUS - James Bidgood - 1971

Pink Narcissus is part of perhaps the most obscure and limited cinematographic current around: gay underground cinema. Yeah, not just gay cinema, this stuff is gay and underground!

As one of the community, discovering that gay cinema was not just limited to ridiculously cliched Hollywood comedies (you know, where the gays are funny and basically sex-less, most often some neurotic girl's best friend and played by Rupert Everett) or the odd hilariously camp foreign comic gem such as La Cage aux Folles or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, has had a major impact on my life. For there are countless superb films that deal with gay issues (sex, coming out, homophobia) in an intelligent, realistic and artful way. Although, in most cases (Boys Don't Cry was a notable exception), they are pushed to the sidelines, left to the obscurity of LGBT film festivals and rare DVD releases.

Pink Narcissus was one of the first films I saw that showed the potency of the gay underground. It's a pure art-movie, which will put some off, and it's 100% gay, which will put even more off. It has no dialogue (still reading?), and virtually no plot. But it is sublime, gorgeous, and moving. It features the exquisite Bobby Kendall as a, you guessed it, narcissistic male prostitute who fantasizes his way around his fancy loft appartment, picturing himself as a field-dwelling fawn, a roman slave, a harem keeper and a matador in a series of self-indulgent and erotic vignettes. At the end, however, the real world of New York's decadent underbelly encroaches onto his dreams in a final nightmarish vision.

Pink Narcissus was shot entirely on 8mm in a single location, Bidgood's New York appartment, which the former set designer had gloriously kitted out to represent each fantasy universe. The imagery is stunning, with gorgeous sets that seamlessly transport you from one imaginary world to another. Of course, the highlight is the beautiful Kendall, whose turn as the self-absorbed gigolo is stunning, his sultry good looks and effortless arrogance coming across with every glance. It's a wonder Cristiano Ronaldo isn't a fan of this movie, as he's got all the looks down to a tee!

Pink Narcissus, which remained in obscurity for eons (mainly because Bidgood rejected the completed cut forced on him by producers, and refused to have his name put to it) can be seen as one of the founding movies of the gay underground, and it would go on to influence the works of such luminaries as Derek Jarman and Bruce LaBruce. Themselves pretty obscure as well, sadly.

9 - DELIVERANCE - John Boorman - 1972

From the mid-sixties until the end of the next decade, a strange thing occured in American cinema, which hadn't happened before and has yet to reproduce itself. Basically, Hollywood went indie! The studios turned to the creation of low- to mid-budget dramas and comedies, often dealing with provocative, controversial and political subjects, and so gave us the true Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. For perhaps the only time in movie history, the big studios moved with the times, delivering such great counter-cultural masterpieces as M.A.S.H., Midnight Cowboy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver.

Into this wealth of creativity and originality came Deliverance, to deliver the biggest shock of the pre-Exorcist world. Based on a book by David Dickey, it told of 4 wannabe adventurers canoeing down a remote river in hillbilly country, Georgia. At first they think themselves better and smarter than the locals, and tough enough to take on the river, but soon get dragged into terrifying horror and are forced to commit drastic and criminal acts in order to survive.

Deliverance rests on a familiar concept: that of urban man descending on a remote country location only to find himself at a loss when confronted by the harsh realities of said location. It was done with less class in Straw Dogs. But Boorman takes things to the limit, with a graphic rape scene and several moments of such tension it's no wonder the film gave people of my mother's generation nightmares. It's a dark, uncompromising film, and for that it deserves more applause even than most of the other classic Hollywood "indies" that also graced our screens in that golden period.

10 - PINK FLAMINGOS - John Waters - 1972

However, miles away from Hollywood, both geographically and spiritually, in a dank corner of Baltimore, John Waters was preparing to launch his own brand of cinematic madness. Put simply, Pink Flamingos is perhaps the most disgusting film ever made!

Waters is one of the cinema's true mavericks. He made Pink Flamingos all on location in Baltimore, filming cheaply with a bunch of friends playing a rag-tag collection of freaks, perverts and lunatics. And star of the film is Divine, a 25-stone transvestite who here plays Babs Johnson, recently crowned "Filthiest Person in America". She lives with her perverted son Crackers, her Marilyn-lookalike lover Cotton and her egg-obsessed, cot-ridden mother. Between them, they rack up a number of gross antcis, from shagging with a chicken stuffed between the two bodies (Crackers and his missus), incest (Crackers and Babs) and voyeurism (Cotton). Not to mention the farting guy (complete with anal close-up!) or the mother with egg all over her tits.

And those are the good guys! For Babs' nemesises are The Marbles, an even more degenerate couple of freaks who are vying for the "Filthiest Person" title and so kidnap young ladies whom they impregnate forcibly to sell their babies to child-less lesbian couples. When they openly attack Babs, war is declared, with horrendous consequences.

Pink Flamingos is not for the squeamish, the politically correct or the easily-offended. It's cheaply made, with camp performances, poor-quality production values and a bonkers storyline. But it's also hilarious and off-the-wall, and it's notoriety alone ensures it gets cult status. Watch for the very last scene, I won't tell you what happens, but I'm sure it's pretty much unique in the world of US cinema!

11 - THE WICKER MAN - Robin Hardy - 1973

I am not prone to what I like to call "cinematographic nationalism", where you want a film to do well or win at some festival, just 'cos it's from the same country as you. It used to reach fever pitch in France whenever Cannes came around because a French film hadn't won the Palme d'Or since 1987. Not sure I get it: I couldn't care less if the Oscars are all won by Brit films, as surely films go beyond frontiers and boundaries, touching on something universal. But, as I said before, to each their own.

However, an interesting cinematographic fact is that in the late sixties and early seventies, the UK produced a string of singular and original movies that made the country, never a powerhouse like France or the USA in movie stakes, stand out more than possibly ever before (sorry, classicists and David Lean fans!). Whether it was maverick foreign directors adopting the country for their greatest works (Kubrick with 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, Antonioni with Blow Up) or homemade films like If... and Don't Look Now, there was a creative urgency about the country that left behind some of the most peculiar and original classics ever made. Chief among them, I feel, was The Wicker Man.

The Wicker Man is unique, undefinable. It's supposedly a horror film, but it goes waaaaay beyond simple shocks and things that go bump in the night. It has musical passages, but you can't compare it to West Side Story. It features a police detective trying to find out about a disappeared girl on a remote Scottish island, but to call it a crime movie would be barking up the wrong tree big time. So what is it? A U.F.O. A film that crosses boundaries, stumps expectations and bewitches by its sheer audacity. Featuring a glorious score, fantastic performances by Edward Woodward (as the stiff, highly-Christian detective) and Christopher Lee (as the creepy island overlord) and a superb, twisting script, plus one of the most shocking endings in British film history, this is a film that deserves its legendary status tenfold.

12 - THE NIGHT PORTER - Liliana Cavani - 1974

The Night Porter, Italian director Cavani's most famous film, may just be the most controversial film on this list. That it was directed by a woman has only added to its mystique over the years, and it now stands as one of the great Italian films of the seventies, a decade that saw that country supply us with quite a few strange and controversial ones, such as Salo o le 120 Giornate de Sodom and Suspiria.

Cavani's film tells the story of a former Nazi war criminal, Maximilian Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) who is hiding under a false identity, working as a night porter for a seedy viennese hotel that seems to be overflowing with similar ex-Nazis all intent on staying well hidden from prosecution. But one day a gorgeous young woman (Charlotte Rempling, in a stunning performance) checks in to the hotel, and Maximilian recognises her as a former concentration camp prisoner he used to torment and torture and then ended up in a violent sexual relationship with. And she recognises him back. But, rather than denounce him, she is drawn perversely to her former tormentor and they rekindle their unholy and sadomasochistic liaison.

In 1974, The Night Porter was unbelievably controversial in its depiction not only of the horrors of World War II (remember, this was around the same time that John Cleese's Basil Fawlty character would order his staff in hushed tones: "don't mention the War!" when in the presence of their German customers), but also of the complex relationship between a torturer and his former victim. This was before anyone had ever mentioned "Stockholm syndrome". As such, the mutually destructive and violent relationship between Max and the girl was seriously shocking, and even today it will make you squirm with discomfort. The Night Porter is despairingly bleak, with grainy colour, grim lighting and a typically downbeat ending. Not for the faint of heart, but if you like films that make you think, and have superb actors, I can't recommend it enough.

13 - PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE - Brian de Palma - 1974

And rock'n'roll hit the movies, and in such a glorious fashion. I doubt this was the first proper rock movie (there were Elvis' dire ones for a start, plus the Woodstock documentary), but it did predate the awful Tommy and the even more irresistible Rocky Horror Picture Show by a full year, therefore setting the standard for garish, lushly camp glam-rock cinema.

A wonderfully over-the-top rock take on the stories of Faust and The Phantom of the Opera, Phantom of the Paradise sees gawky composer Winslow Leach sell his soul to devillish rock producer Swan (the peerles Paul Williams) in order toget the girl of his dreams and finish his magnum opus. Of course, Swan betrays him and steals his music, and Leach, horribly disfigured along the way, returns as a Phantom with black nails and teeth and a proto-futuristic costume to haunt Swan's lavish club, the Paradise.

As I say, Phantom of the Paradise paved the way for a generation of technicoloured rock movies that cashed in on the mid-seventies glam rock movement. It has fantastic tunes, gorgeous sets and a wild campness that is pure, unadulterated rock in spirit. Plus, with Brian de Palma at the helm, you also get a good dose of superb camerawork, inventive imagery and a few humorous Hitchcock references.

14 - THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE - Tobe Hooper - 1974

Forget The Exorcist, this is the greatest, and most terrifying horror film of all time! I'm not one for hyperbole, but then most films don't deserve it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre deserves every compliment and every over-the-top description, even the ones saying it's sick, cruel and bleak. It is terrifying. It is cruel. But then, it was meant to be. And in barely more than 80 minutes, Tobe Hooper revolutionised the horror genre. For good.

Consider its simplicity: 5 young people head to an abandoned farm in the Texan desert and get caught and picked off one-by-one by a family of psychopathic cannibals living nearby. It's the basis for almost every slasher film ever made since. Actually, scratch that. It's the basis for almost every horror film made since. Yet, even in that, Texas Chainsaw stands head-and-shoulders above all that followed.

Indeed, Hooper's approach is unconventional even 25 years on. Instead of splatters of gore and sensationalistic violence, he goes for a subdued, realistic tone (somehow, the film's reputation is one of extreme bloodiness, despite there being very little hemoglobin on display during the film). The picture is grainy and yellowed, heightening the oppressive atmosphere of dust and heat. Buildings are dark and sparsely furnished, with the cannibals' house decorated in all manner of grisly bric-a-brac and cadaverous remains. The camera is shaky, close to the actors, hemming them in as night and the cannibals close in. So, not just slashers, but also The Blair Witch Project and its ilk have taken their cues from Hooper's chiller.

Above all, Hooper refuses to play the audience game on this. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is gritty and grim, with little in the way of comic relief, and no happy end. With little means at his disposal, the director uses his camera and sets to brilliant effect, the culmination being the horrific "dinner scene" and the revolutionary close-up of an imprisoned girl's terrified, bulging eye as the cadaverous cannibal grandfather is wheeled up to her to feed. It is just one of a series of scenes that have gone down in horror film history as examples of celluloid terror.

15 - THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW- Jim Sharman - 1975

When asked to list my top ten or five favourite movies (or albums, or paintings, or books) of all time, my five or ten invariably always end up becoming 20 or 30. And the list seems to change according to my mood, current tastes and what-not (I might be going through a sci-fi phase, meaning I'm likely to go for Gattaca or Alien). But, along with Fanny and Alexander, Naked and Midnight Cowboy, you are always certain to get The Rocky Horror Picture Show in there. It may not be a very intellectual thing to say, but it's possible The Rocky Horror Picture Show is my favourite film of all time!
I mean, what's not to love? For me, I was entranced from the first nano-seconds, as delicate piano floated out of my clapped-out TV's speakers and a glorious pair of bright-red lips began to serenade me about a "Science Fiction Double Feature". It was camp, very gay, and perfectly glamorous. If it had been off a Bowie album, it would have been a hit track. And the film doesn't relent from then on. We get the hilarious introduction to our heroes, Brad and Janet, a couple of right squares who find themselves whisked into the decadent world of mad scientist Frank'n'furter (a stupendous Tim Curry), a transvestite from the planet Transylvania who is intent on creating a muscle man in gold underpants named Rocky. Only in the seventies, eh? (well, maybe not, as some prick has decided to remake the film!)

Tim Curry's entrance alone is stunning, as he prances around in heels, stockings and a corset, all dolled up and singing the immortal lines: "I'm a sweet transvestite from traaaaansexual Transylvaniaaaaa!". None of it makes much sense, but it's hilarious, infectious, and the songs are just superb, pure glam-rock majesty. And in fact, hidden away under the garish sets, campness and goofy B-movie references, is a strong plea for tolerance and open-mindedness, perhaps best summarised by Frank's lament "Don't dream it... be it".

I must have seen Rocky Horror Picture Show 20 or 30 times now. It never gets old, and it remains one my friends and I put on at parties, so we can all dance around and, for a few minutes, stop dreaming it and actually start being it.

16 - THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH - Nicolas Roeg - 1976

The considerable reputation and aura of The Man Who Fell To Earth (man, why do I keep going for movies with ridiculously long titles?) rests on the shoulders of one man. And, no, it's not Nic Roeg, a maverick director who also gave us such wonders as Don't Look Now and Walkabout. No, if The Man Who Fell To Earth stands apart as one of the most exciting and singular films of all time, it's because of David Bowie, who was here making his first appearance in a leading role in a film.

That's not to say that Roeg's talents are not visible here. They are, in abundance, and The Man Who Fell To Earth overflows with the Brit's trademark stunning visuals, innovative camera techniques and disconcerting time shifts. It's a lyrical visual poem, detailing the arrival on Earth of androgynous alien Thomas Jerome Newton who's looking for ways to bring water back to his dried-up home planet. Before long, though, he finds his projects taken over by the government, whilst he himself becomes a slave to sex, booze and television. Typically for a Roeg film, though, this is told in elliptical style, as the dreams, memories and reveries of Newton cross into reality, giving us some marvellous and unforgettable scenes along the way.

But make no mistake, this is Bowie's triumph (although kudos must go to Roeg for taking a chance on the untried singer and for bringing out the best in the drug-addled Bowie). The Thin White Duke is fabulous as the suave, elegant, intellectually superior Newton, exhuding a natural grace and delicate beauty that makes him mesmerising in absolutely every scene. And it gets better as he descends deeper and deeper into decadence, his character becoming more and more detached, more and more sinister, and perverse. Yet throughout, Bowie retains his aura of cool elegance, but where once it hid a warm, caring soul, by the end it comes with a cold disinterest in everything, a subtle change that few actors could have handled with such panache. With The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie took a step away from being "just" a rock star and towards becoming a great actor. Whilst Roeg continued to prove he deserved a place as one of Britain's greatest ever directors.

17 - VIDEODROME - David Cronenberg - 1983

Sticking to science-fiction, I give you the incomparable Videodrome, by Canada's most notorious director, David Cronenberg. Sci-fi is the perfect genre for cult films, as it's pretty much a cult genre in itself, with books like 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' and Marvel comics having almost fetish-like status among collectors and nerds around the globe.

Luckily not all sci-fi is the realm of geeky comic book fans (I should point out here that I am a massive fan of Philip K. Dick's books), and from around 1979-onwards directors began moving away from Planet of the Apes-territory and into a type of sci-fi that was smart, disturbing and no longer very fanciful. The way had been paved by Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and by the aforementioned Man Who Fell to Earth, but Ridley Scott's double whammy of Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) - both of which I could have included here- really set the tone: vicious, blood-thirsty aliens raced around drifting spaceships or murderous androids were chased through dank, rain-soaked cityscapes. Sci-fi had basically got gritty, urban and disillusioned.

And never more so than in Videodrome, which had the particularity of being set more-or-less in the present. But it's a present that is warped and premonitory, anticipating the rise of satellite TV and the vicious consumerism it entailed. James Woods plays Max, a seedy director of an adult satellite station in Toronto, who stumbles on a creepy broadcast called "Videodrome" that shows snuff movies with unbelievably realistic scenes of violence. He and his semi-partner (played by Debbie Harry, no less) slowly become obsessed, to the point that Max begins experiencing nightmarish hallucinations such as getting sucked into a TV screen and pushing a video tape into his own gut. As the increasingly bizarre film advances, Max is drawn into a nightmarish Orwellian underworld of mind control, corruption and disease.

Frightening stuff, and all the more so because it feels so real. In today's consumerist, TV-driven world, Videodrome still seems unbelievably modern (helped by the amazing special effects), like a distorted prediction of what our world will -or already has- become. Since Videodrome, Cronenberg has gone on to be one of modern cinema's most sucessful mavericks, always staying true to his themes of madness, bodily horror and nightmarish underworlds. But this is probably where he first crystallised those themes to perfection.

18 - BRAZIL - Terry Gilliam - 1985

Bizarre doesn't really begin to describe Terry Gilliam's masterpiece. Every time I watch it, I marvel at how the ex-Monty Python star managed to encompass so much in barely two hours.

Part of the "sci-fi boom" I mentioned, Brazil was also a film that took the genre to new heights. Whilst David Cronenberg was exploring the psychological and physical effects of new technologies in dank, realistic environments, Gilliam opted for an oniric fantasy future of towering buildings and modern technology. Yet, Brazil's future is easily as nightmarish as the one in Videodrome or Scanners. It's a world where, in true '1984' fashion, surveillance is omnipresent, apartments are close and oppressive, and bureaucracy reigns supreme. When minor administrator Sam Lowry gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity (not even his!), he finds himself set upon by government forces on one side, and a group of anti-establishment terrorists on the other. The results at first are amusing, courtesy of Jonathan Price's bumbling performance as Lowry, and Gilliam's off-the-wall humour, before rapidly getting troubling, and then horrifying.

That is Brazil's ultimate strength. Gilliam surprises his audience, catches them off guard. And what starts out as a witty critique with a hint of romance quickly becomes a terrifying race against time, with Lowry hemmed in by forces he can't resist, and that he doesn't even understand. Funny, moving, mind-blowing and scary: Brazil has it all, yet it bombed. It's enough to make you despair. Thank fuck for Cult movies!

19 - WITHNAIL AND I - Bruce Robinson - 1987

You couldn't get further from Science Fiction than this low-key, yet hilarious, comedy from ex-actor Bruce Robinson. It stars Richard E Grant as an upper-class actor, currently out of work and constantly drunk, and Paul McGann as his roommate, an equally struggling actor whose name is never revealed (hence the "and I"). Tired of slumming it in dreary Camden, they hoodwink Withnail's lecherous gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) into lending them his Lake District cottage for a relaxing country getaway, that turns out to be just as morose as their lives in London. Cue hilarity, though I'm not selling that side very well.

Eddie Izzard once did a stand-up routine about how British movies are often low-key, "room-with-a-view-with-a-staircase-and-a-pond"-type character pieces. Withnail and I demonstrates marvellously just how monumental such films can be. It is subdued. It is low-key. This is no special effects-laden rom-com with Jack Black doing slapstick to a hard rock soundtrack whilst looking perpetually bemused, goofy and smug all at once. Withnail and I is slow-paced, melancholic. And utterly, utterly hilarious. It may just be the funniest film ever. It relies on wit, cunning dialogue and a trio of magic performances from the inimitable Grant, McGann and Griffiths. Grant, in particular, give a stunning display of wanton perpetual drunkenness, a feat that has led to a drinking game being especially created for the movie (apparently not be tried if you value your health). It's a film that will have you quoting lines, mostly from Withnail ("I demand to have some booze!!", "Monty, you terrible cunt!", "You can shove it up your arse and fuck off while you're at it!!") and chuckling to yourself days after watching. A true comic masterpiece.

20 - SHORTBUS - John Cameron Mitchell - 2006

A bit of a leap forwards in time, I admit. I'm not sure if cult movies became rarer in the 90s, the video and DVD decade -apart from the movies of Tarantino, Wong Kar-Wai and the occasional leftfield one such as Gattaca- but as it is, I've jumped forward nearly 20 years to talk about one of the most provocative films of the last ten years.
Shortbus, put simply, is a film that dares. It dares to go where few movies have gone before. Director Mitchell saw it as his anti-Bush manifesto, a film that would fly in the face of the US president's ridiculously conservative laws and edicts. For the Bush years have been dominated by religious and moral puritanism of the most bogus degree. Sex has in America become taboo: kids shouldn't know about it, teens and young adults shouldn't do it until they marry, and the less said about the gays, the better.

Shortbus doesn't just address sex - it revels in it. It celebrates it. The result is one of the most graphic films you'll ever see. The actors actually copulate and orgasm before your eyes. A lot. Of course, this caused a bit of a scandal, meaning the film was barely seen in the US outside New York. Even European audiences seemed squeamish when confronted with such blatant sexuality (there's indeed quite a bit of gay sex, including a hilarious threesome scene), so the film fared poorly. Luckily, those that did see it mostly loved it, and a bit of a cult, and a political movement has grown up around it.
Because Shortbus is not just about shagging. It's an intensely moving film about the sexual, but also emotional tribulations of modern society. It's about freedom, to be with the person you want, to love that person, and to have sex with them, without fear of disapproval or hatred. The place you can do this is in a club called Shortbus, where an array of lost souls gather to try and find each other, and themsleves. It's about their self-discovery. And it's even about one city -New York- rebuilding itself after the horror of 9/11. For Mitchell, it needs to come from the same counter-cultural, humane, and sexually mature spirit that has long defined the city of Warhol, Allen, Hujar and Wojnarowicz. And I can only say "Amen" to that.