Written by Kirk BairdThe Princess Bride recently marked its 25th anniversary. Rob Reiner’s funny and sweet celebration of fairy tales, based on William Goldman’s novel, retains its charm all these years later. It’s also, along with another Reiner film, This Is Spinal Tap, a cult classic.
Contrary to widespread belief, cult films don’t have to be so awful as to be considered kitschy great by a host of dedicated fans, like Plan 9 from Outer Space and, more recently, Showgirls. What they do have in common is a failed, disappointing, or barely successful theatrical release followed by a rabid following that develops over time, often through video and DVD or midnight movies. Some other cult classics include The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead, the Evil Dead trilogy, Harold and Maude, The Big Lebowski, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Scarface, and Heavy Metal. Many cult classics are obvious; here are some more obscure films with devoted followings.
The Gods Must be Crazy (1980)
This South African comedy written and directed by Jamoie Uys stars N!xau as Xi (pronounced “key”), the leader of an isolated and primitive family of tribesmen in the Kalahari Desert whose world is turned upside down when a glass Coke bottle carelessly thrown from an airplane above lands near his home. Having never seen glass before, the tribe believes it to be a gift from the gods, but when Xi’s family begins squabbling and fighting over the bottle he decides to return the divine present by throwing it off the edge of the Earth. In the course of Xi’s incredible adventures to discard the bottle he encounters a clumsy white biologist (Marius Weyers) and his would-be girlfriend who try to help him, confusing and wondrous pieces of 20th century technology such as cars, and even war-minded rebels who, despite their guns and political mission, function as keystone cop-like comic relief. Uys’s film is a sweet, simple comedy with subtle commentary on our modern world as seen through the eyes of a stranger walking through it. There was a sequel, The Gods Must be Crazy II, in 1989.
Really, almost any film by animator Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, The Lord of the Rings, American Pop) could be considered a cult classic, but this post-apocalyptic tale of a struggle between two wizards — the good and rather randy Avatar (Bob Holt) and the evil Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) who plans to control the world through the ancient weaponry from the 20th century — was a popular midnight film, which may give it extra cult film cred. The dialogue hasn’t aged well; it’s very much a film of the 1970s, despite its futuristic setting. But the early rotoscope animation blended with traditional hard-drawn characters as well as the psychedelic backgrounds remain fascinating attempts at breaking ground in a brave new style of adult animation.
Zabriskie Point (1970)
Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni explored the monumental shift in youth culture in the late 1960s and its disillusionment with authority as well as social alienation in this story of protests, violence, and two twentysomethings bonded briefly through love, sex, and spirituality in the desert. The film offers subtext on a wide range of subjects — politics, war, civil rights, and consumerism — and climaxes in the youthful fantasies of fiery explosions of a home, followed by the slow-motion destruction of the objects inside (food, clothes, a refrigerator) to the score of Pink Floyd’s psychedelic rage “Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up.” Critics bashed Zabriskie Point when it was released and it quickly vanished from theaters. For decades the film was deemed a failure, but in recent years it’s experienced a substantial critical reassessment. This is hardly news to many film students and movie geeks, who consider Antonioni’s counter-culture work a masterpiece.
Time Bandits (1981)
This isn’t Terry Gilliam’s first solo movie — nor is it his best — but this dark children’s fable about a boy who hitches a ride with a group of time-traveling dwarves on the run from the Supreme Being and the Evil Genius is a great introduction to the filmmaker’s inspired and edgy Grimm Brothers style of the fantastic. Gilliam has been inconsistent with his films, but when he clicks (Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), as he does here, there’s simply no other director like him. Which is why his fans continually anticipate his work; even with a recent track record of largely noble failures, Gilliam always teases a return to past greatness. Time Bandits is Gilliam breaking free from his Monty Python roots, even though it was co-written by fellow Pythoner Michael Palin, and features cameos by Palin and John Cleese, also of Monty Python. The cast also features all-star cameos playing recognizable historical figures including Sean Connery as King Agamemnon and Ian Holm as Napoleon.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis was known best for directing comedies hits Animal House and The Blues Brothers when he tackled An American Werewolf in London. Not coincidentally, he effectively merged comedy — albeit rather dark — with horror, and thus inspired a new wave of films and filmmakers. An American Werewolf in London stars David Naughton (best known for his Dr Pepper ads in the 1970s) as David Kessler, one of two American college students traveling through England who are attacked by a werewolf plaguing the countryside. David’s friend dies, while David suffers an even grimmer fate: transforming into a werewolf during full moons. British actress Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run) plays David’s girlfriend, who desperately tries to help him with his unique condition. Rick Baker won the first Oscar for best makeup for his work in creating the monster. “Blue Moon,” the closing pop song as the film ends and the credits roll, remains one of the more-inspired music choices in the last few decades. There was a sequel in 1997, An American Werewolf in Paris.
Flash Gordon (1980)
The much-despised Showgirls was a cult film even before the credits rolled. But Flash Gordon, an obvious attempt by producer Dino De Laurentiis to cash in on the Star Wars-sci-fi phenomenon in the 1970s, earned its place as a cult favorite. The film is a revival of the classic Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s, only in glorious color and with wildly inventive sets and costumes, as star quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam Jones), journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), and scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) rocket to the mysterious planet Mongo to stop its evil ruler Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) from destroying Earth. The mixture of camp with classic science fiction failed to attract audiences, but through the years fans and critics have rediscovered Flash Gordon. This summer Seth MacFarlane even referenced the film throughout his comedy smash Ted, which featured an appearance by Jones as himself. Rock band Queen handled the soundtrack and, fittingly, scored a cult hit as well with the track “Flash.”
Alex Winter (Bill from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the MTV sketch comedy The Idiot Box) co-wrote and co-directed this bizarre comedy about a mad scientist who uses a special chemical to transform people into strange creatures for his freak show. Winter plays a popular and egotistical actor named Ricky Coogan turned into a hideous beast. The cast also features Mr. T as a bearded lady, Megan Ward and Michael Stoyanov as an activist and Ricky’s best friend, respectively, who are joined together as Siamese Twins, Bobcat Goldthwait as Sockhead — a man with a hand and sock puppet for a head — and Randy Quaid as the evil scientist behind the madness, Elijah C. Skuggs. Worth mentioning is Academy Award-nominated John Hawkes (Teardrop in Winter’s Bone), unrecognizable in makeup and costume, playing Cowboy, a cow-man. This anything-goes comedy has a 1980s vibe to its absurdist humor — think 1984’s The Toxic Avenger — and was to be released by 20th Century Fox, but a change in studio leadership proved disastrous for the film. The studio’s new president ordered the film’s title changed from the original Hideous Mutant Freekz to Freaked and its budget slashed. After testing poorly with preview audiences, the comedy was given a quick release into only a few theaters and then pulled for good. Freaked may have died in the cinemas, but video, cable, and DVD successfully resurrected it.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans (2009)
Werner Herzog’s no-boundaries drama about a cop gone bad isn’t a cult film yet, but it should be. This isn’t a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s The Bad Lieutenant from 1992, rather a companion piece or, perhaps, a tribute. In fact, the two Bad Lieutenants share few similarities, other than having the title character break all manner of rules while battling drug addiction, and featuring terrific leading performances by Harvey Keitel in the 1992 film, and a deliriously over-the-top Nicolas Cage in the 2009 version. Cage is Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans police detective injured on the job who then becomes addicted to painkillers and cocaine. This leads to a reckless lifestyle that gets Terence involved with a prostitute (Eva Mendes) and a ruthless drug dealer he must stop. It’s when he begins an investigation into the gruesome murder of a family that Terence is offered a chance at redemption. But will he take it? Herzog sets The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans in struggling post-Katrina New Orleans, and loads the film with social commentary, often questioning the roles of protector and criminal, and the intentions of the good and the bad. But this is Cage’s film all the way. His unhinged performances have become cliché, but that’s usually as much about the quality of the project he’s involved in. Herzog gives Cage the green light to push the boundaries as far as he can, and actor takes the director at his word. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans is better, and certainly more memorable, for it. Consider this a late 2000s version of the deliriously violent Scarface from 1983, written by Oliver Stone and starring Al Pacino — only without as many great lines or f-bombs.