Thursday, July 19, 2012

Classic Cult Movies A to Z

What's a cult movie? Let's skip the formal definitions and focus on five common attributes: (1) a cult film wasn't a a success--with audiences or critics--when first released; (2) it has since acquired a fan base that champions it; (3) it features an offbeat plot, theme, or visual style; (4) it features people who weren't famous, but became famous; and (5) it may have acquired a following due to its camp or nostalgia value. With our own description in mind, let's get to the Cafe's A to Z rundown of classic cult movies:

Assault on Precinct 13 - John Carpenter's directorial debut was a taut, contemporary remake of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo about a revenge-minded street gang attacking an almost-closed police department manned with a skeleton staff.

Bugsy Malone - A gangster musical with all the adult characters played by kids. Thirteen-year-old Jodie Foster played Fat Sam's moll Tallulah.

The City of the Dead - Better known in the U.S. as Horror Hotel, this atmospheric 1960 suspense tale shares several plot elements with the same year's better-known Psycho.

Detour - A hitchhiker encounters big trouble courtesy of a dead body, a femme fatale, and a very long telephone cord in this 1945 film noir. Another fine choice for "D" is D.O.A.

Eraserhead  - David Lynch's visually compelling feature-length directorial debut is about...well...I'm not sure.

The Flesh Eaters - An actress, her assistant, and a hunky pilot are forced to land on an almost-deserted island. Its one inhabitant is a mad scientist who has created microbes that live in the saltwater and snack on human flesh. A more mainstream choice for "F" would be The Fearless Vampire Killers.

Gun Crazy - John Dall, a young man with a lifelong fascination for guns, meets comely Peggy Cummins, a "bad girl" sharpshooter at a local carnival. Love, a crime spree, and tragedy ensue!

Harold and Maude - Harold is a young man obsessed with death; Maude is a 79-year-old who embraces the joys of life. They meet at a funeral and love--of a kind--blossoms between them.

Invisible Invaders - Invisible aliens inhabit the bodies of dead Earthlings and try to wipe out the human race. Awful script and flat performances...but the premise is fun and the striking images of the walking corpses pre-date Night of the Living Dead.

Jack the Giant Killer - The best Ray Harryhausen fantasy adventure made by someone other than Ray Harryhausen. The special effects wiz in this case was Jim Danforth. Bryan Singer (X Men) is currently remaking it.

Mike Hammer has no time for love!
Kiss Me Deadly - Ralph Meeker is lean and mean as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer in a film filled with a mysterious stranger, an even mysterious-er box (dubbed "the great whatsit"), and a nuclear explosion.

The List of Adrian Messenger - A clever mystery about a murderer who is a master of disguises. Its cult rep, though, is due to the cameos by famous actors in deep disguise (e.g., Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra).

The Maze - There's something moving through that Scottish castle's giant maze at night--and you will never guess what it is! Unique 1953 3-D flick directed by the famous set designer William Cameron Menzies.

Night Tide - Sailor Dennis Hopper falls in love with a sideshow mermaid, who claims to be a descendant of the real thing--only these are murderous mermaids.

O Lucky Man! - Malcolm McDowell is an ambitious young coffee salesman who eventually finds "the reason to live on and not to die" in Lindsay Anderson's witty update of Candide--complete with an incredible song score by Alan Price.

Peeping Tom - The film that ruined Michael Powell's directorial career in 1960 has since been hailed as a masterpiece by Martin Scorsese and other notables. The mix of violence and voyeurism is still potent today.

Look up in the sky. It's a, Q!
Q, the Winged Serpent - An Aztec god in the form of...well...a winged serpent flies around New York City biting off the heads of residents. A quintessentially quirky classic from writer-director Larry Cohen.

Reefer Madness - An unintentional camp classic about the perils of marijuana. It was one of the first "midnight movies" shown at theaters across the U.S. in the 1970s. Of course, one could argue that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is more deserving of the "R" slot.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians - Pia Zadora's five minutes of fame in the 1980s hastened this 1964 film's entry into the cult classic status. Still, its subject and camp value may have been enough without Pia.

Rockin' in Spinal Tap.
This Is Spinal Tap - Rob Reiner's  hilarious mock-documentary about a rock band is so popular among its loyal fans that a 4 1/2 hour bootleg version exists.

The Undying Monster - Someone or something is killing local villagers near the Hammond estate. Are there supernatural forces at work? A rare foray in the 1940s horror genre from 20th Century-Fox.

Vanishing Point - A driver who delivers souped-up sports cars bets he can make it from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. As he eludes various highway patrols, a blind disc jockey dubbed Super Soul turns him into a media "hero."

Whistle Down the Wind - Three children in rural England discover an escaped criminal in their barn and believe he is Jesus. Written by Hayley Mills' mother; later made into an unsuccessful stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes - Interesting, downbeat sci fi with Ray Milland who experiments on himself with a new X-ray vision drug. Directed by Roger Corman.

You Never Can Tell - A wealthy dog named Rex is murdered--and then reincarnated as human private eye Rex Shepard (Dick Powell). His goal: Track down his killer.

Zardoz - Futuristic jumble is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Yet, there are enough interesting ideas and Sean Connery as a guy named Zed to make it an acceptable choice in the hard-to-fill "Z" spot.


  1. Rick, I always enjoy your A to Z posts very much! There are many choices that I have seen but some I haven't, including "Eraserhead" which doesn't even appeal to me. My favorite on your list is "Whistle Down the Wind." You made me smile with "Kiss Me Deadly" and the "even mysteriouser box" which is pretty scary (the box, not the comment). Excellent post!

    1. Toto, I'm a huge fan of WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND and have always been curious to see Lloyd Webber's stage musical adaptation. I guess that's not likely happen.

  2. A great list - and, as you indicate, you can add more movies to each letter (I thought of 'Queen of Outer Space' for Q - Zsa Zsa Gabor leading a female rebellion on Venus, what's not to like? Plus 'Cat Women of the Moon' for C - needs no explanation). Films like 'Detour,' 'Gun Crazy,' and 'DOA' seem to have transcended cult status and are now viewed as classics, which just goes to show how 'cult' should not automatically be equaled with 'bad.'

    1. GOM, I debated between Q and QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE. Often with the A to Z lists, "Q" is a problem letter. It was not the case this time!

  3. Rick, a clever subject for a post and lots of amusing choices. Some of these ("Gun Crazy," "Kiss Me Deadly," "Peeping Tom," "Whistle Down the Wind") are actually outstanding movies, and today it's hard to see why this wasn't recognized when they were released. While "Reefer Madness" was an apt choice for R, an even better one might have been "The Rocky Horror Picture" show. It easily satisfied all your criteria--even the one about featuring future stars, to wit, future Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon.

    1. At least, I mentioned ROCKY HORROR in the "R" write-up! It was a tough choice and, in hindsight, Dr. Frankenfurter's film was probably a better choice.

  4. I haven't seen half these movies, but they all look like excellent choices. Glad to see Gun Crazy and Kiss Me Deadly on the list. I never pass on a chance to watch 'em!

    1. Thet're both excellent films. It's a shame that Peggy Cummins got so few meaty parts. Even in one of my favorite horror films, CURSE OF THE DEMON, she was under-used. She and John Dall are marvelous in GUN CRAZY.

  5. Cool stuff! I didn't know "You Never Can Tell" was a cult classic. I always thought it was my movie. Mine. All mine!

    Psst: Read over your summation of "Assault on Precinct 13". You may want to change something.

    1. Thanks, CW! I gave John Ford undue credit. I've always loved YOU NEVER CAN TELL (just the word "humanimal" always makes me smile).

  6. List of Adrian Messenger is SUCH a fun movie. I recently bought a DVD - just because. :)

    I never knew I was a cult movie follower until now, Rick. Ha!

    I never saw ZARDOZ, but I did see a pix of Sean Connery wearing a costume from the movie - it looked like he was wearing a diaper.

    I did see THE MAZE many eons ago. Don't remember what the 'monster' was. May watch it again just to see...!

  7. "Detour" is one of the best B-noir films, a minor masterpiece on a shoestring budget- and the femme fatale is one of the wickedest women in the history of film. A gem of its kind.

  8. Cool list Rick. I would have put Boy And His Dog for B. For Yvette Sean was not the first choice for Zardoz. Burt Reynolds was signed to do the film.