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...
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).
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.
3 - LES YEUX SANS VISAGE / EYES WITHOUT A FACE- Georges Franju - 1959
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.
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.
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...
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
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.
10 - PINK FLAMINGOS - John Waters - 1972
12 - THE NIGHT PORTER - Liliana Cavani - 1974
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!
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