Cult movies creep up on us all the time. Sometimes a movie has bad publicity or word-of-mouth just doesn’t cut it, and the people don’t go see it. When that happens, the movies tend to bomb at the box office, but get noticed on the video rental/VOD market. There are a lot of really good and really bad movies that fit these criteria, but to be considered a true cult classic the movie has to have a following and be fun to watch. Here are ten of the greatest cult films of the 20th-century people might have missed, but should definitely see.
#10 – Brazil (1985) Embassy International Pictures, Terry Gilliam
When someone sits down to watch a Terry Gilliam film, they should already know that they are about to go on a wild ride. His work in the 1980s was phenomenal and produced some truly incredible films such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits, but this list had to highlight only one entry from the great Mr. Gilliam and Brazil is it!
Brazil entered cinemas and enriched audiences to an imaginative and surreal world that couldn’t have come from anyone’s mind other than Terry Gilliam. Brazil is reminiscent of his artwork for Monty Python and his style in his other works, but representative of a bureaucracy gone incredibly wrong. The film is a stinging representation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four told in a Kurbikian style, satirically reminiscent of a truly Strangelovian experience. This darkly funny tale is visionary in its telling of what happens when a literal bug infects the system.
Starring the amazing talent and eventual longtime collaborator, Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Brothers Grimm, and Game of Thrones) and many others, Brazil is a true look at the dystopian reality that awaits us all in this post-Trumpian democracy, yet the film came out decades ago. Could it be that Gilliam’s analysis of the world gone mad was prophetic of today’s reality? Only time will tell, but time has already solidified this amazing film in the annals of history. Truly a cult classic that should be missed by nobody, Brazil offers a poignant view of humanity’s flaws and our ability to overcome Some truly ridiculous obstacles.
What it’s Like: George Orwell and Monty Python team up to bring the world 1984… in 1985.
#09 – The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), Sherwood Productions, W. D. Richter
Few people have gone through life without thinking of what it might be like to see a movie about a doctor who is a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock star with his own comic book take on an evil group of interdimensional aliens called Red Lectroids from Planet 10. Ok, so maybe nobody by the screenwriters for what amounts to one of the campiest films to ever get made had those thoughts, but since they did, the world has become a much better place.
Folks looking for a convoluted plot need look no further. Banzai, played by Peter Weller (Robocop, Star Trek into Darkness, and The Dark Knight Returns) tests a modified Ford F-350 with a jet engine and oscillation overthruster by passing through a mountain. Unfortunately, he carries along an alien parasite from another dimension. Hearing of his success, former scientist and current insane asylum resident, Dr. Emilio Lizardo, played by John Lithgow (3rd Rock From the Sun, Dreamgirls, and Shrek) who is infected with the alien psyche of Lord John Whorfin who commands the Red Lectroids… Actually, it’s way too confusing to get into here. Essentially, what we have is an action/sci-fi flick about a superhero and some aliens going toe-to-toe in a battle to save all of mankind. It’s fun, it’s silly, and it’s a classic.
What it’s Like: A bad acid trip while also taking peyote and trying to recreate the peyote scene from The Young Guns while running into a wall at full speed.
#08 – They Live (1988), Universal Pictures, John Carpenter
If society had to define a cult movie in the 1980s, John Carpenter’s They Live is really the only definition needed. This movie bleeds camp and has some of the best one-liners ever uttered on film. Former WWF superstar, Rowdy Roddy Piper (A Gothic Tale, Blind Eye, and Honor) takes the lead in this psychological techno-science fiction classic about a man who is down on his luck when he stumbles upon the greatest conspiracy in the history of mankind. Think of a world inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four mixed in with a splash of satire, video games, and sunglasses finally resulting in the 80s camp and cult classic that is have They Live!
By cinematic standards, it certainly isn’t the greatest movie ever made, but it does have a few things going for it. The movie holds the record for longest fight scene ever filmed and it’s all about one character refusing to just put on the damn sunglasses! When he finally does, the world changes and the plot can progress forward. There’s of course, a love interest as well as some humans working alongside the aliens to make it all worthwhile, but the best parts of this movie can be found in the one-liners most people have probably heard already without even knowing where they came from. “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum” as well as the classic, “Lady, you look like you fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down” are only a couple of the gems spread throughout this 80s classic.
What it’s Like: John Carpenter made a film version of Duke Nukem 3D three years before the game came out.
#07 – Barbarella (1968), Paramount Pictures, Roger Vadim
Based on the French comics of the same name, Barbarella was a massive flop when it came out in 1968, and some would argue that was for good reason. This movie was more a reason to show off Jane Fonda’s physical traits rather than her acting chops, a good story, or really anything that might otherwise drive a film. Like the other movies on this list, it has gained a cult following over the years and is worth watching for a variety of reasons:
The film has an ultimate weapon called an Orgasmotron, which is designed to kill its victims through pleasure.
The film’s sexuality is initially akin to Woody Allen’s Sleeper in that physical sex is no longer needed, but what the hell, they go ahead and do it anyways as sex is pretty much what this movie is about. Save the heroine’s life, bom chicka wah wah…
The main villain’s name is Doctor Durand Durand, which was the inspiration for the band of the same name (Minus a couple of Ds).
The following quote: “You mean, the secret password is “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch?”
When the film was re-released in 1977, it gained a cult following that has continued to this day. Many aspects of the film have been parodied in places like The Simpsons and The Fifth Element, which clearly took inspiration from some of the film’s design. Given that the movie came out in the late 60s and clearly had a limited budget, they did an amazing job with set and costume design helping to make the film visually quite compelling.
What it’s Like: Soft-core pornography in SPACE! Really… that’s basically what it is.
#06 – UHF (1989), Cinecorp, Jay Levey
Back in the 80s, the go-to guy for making parodies of famous songs was none other than Weird Al Yankovic. Actually, the guy is still pretty much the main attraction when it comes to spoofing songs and music videos even today, but it was the 80s that Yankovic was king. Like other powerful people of the day who had no skill or training to act, he was given a film to headline and from that project, the world of cult classics was gifted U.H.F.
U.H.F. is a lot like Yankovic’s songs; it’s a parody of pretty much anything and everything, but put to film. The premise is simple enough. He ends up with his own local-access television studio and has to fill 24 hours of air to ensure it becomes profitable. He does this by hiring anyone who comes along to include his friends who come up with the silliest and most bizarre television shows ever conceived. U.H.F. brought the world Wheel of Fish and other insane programs making this movie a fun film to watch.
What it’s Like: A crazy uncle gets trashed and takes over a local Television Studio after his meds wear off.
#05 – Raising Arizona (1987), 20th Century Fox, Joel & Ethan Coen
This was one of the Coen Brothers’ earlier films coming out soon after Blood Simple. It failed to achieve much recognition when it came out, but once it hit the VHS market, it rebounded into; that’s right, cult status.
The plot is simple enough: A couple can’t have kids so they decide that it would be best to steal/kidnap a newly-born quintuplet since “They have more than they can handle” and raise it themselves. The couple consists of an ex-con played by Nicolas Cage (The Rock, Leaving Las Vegas, and The Wicker Man) and his wife, a former police officer played by Holly Hunter (Always, Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice, and The Incredibles). Along for the ride are John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane, Roseanne, and Barton Fink) and William Forsythe (The Hollow, Daredevil, and The Rock). Like all of the Coen Brothers’ work, this film is a bit odd, yet highly entertaining.
What it’s Like: Committing the worst possible crimes for the best possible reasons… and becoming a better person for it
#04 – La cité des enfants perdus [The City of Lost Children] (1995), Canal+, Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Like the other works of Jaunet, the film is visually beautiful and simultaneously horrifying. Visually, it is very akin to steampunk with a somewhat Anime-esque nature to the characters.
The story involves an insane scientist who steals children from an unnamed city so that he can steal their dreams due to his inability to have dreams of his own. The film is visually stunning and like most of Jaunet’s work follows a specific color palette. For this film, the primary color making up each scene is green and it is used masterfully throughout. A frequent player in Jeunet’s works, the great Mr. Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Alien: Resurrection, and Hand of God) plays a circus strongman and is amazing in the film. The City of Lost Children is similar to Jaunet’s other dystopian film, Delicatessen and was a pivotal film in his development as a filmmaker leading to his award-winning romantic comedy, Amélie.
This is definitely considered a cult classic in the United States, likely due to it being an international release, but it was received very favorably when it premiered at Cannes in 1995 and holds a high rating on most film aggregate rating websites.
What it’s Like: Dreams become nightmares and a person’s worst nightmare comes to life.
#03 – Heathers (1988), New World Pictures, Michael Lehmann
Heathers was an interesting film when it came out in 1988. It features such notable actors as Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands, Black Swan, and Dracula) and Christian Slater (True Romance, Interview With The Vampire, and Mr. Robot) as two relative outcast-types who decide to take on the popular clique of girls, all of whom are named Heather. Unlike other High School movies from the 80s, they don’t go for the revenge plan to have the hot chick standing naked in front of the school, or release horrible information in the form of a diary… no, they decide the best way to handle the Heathers is to kill them and make it look like a suicide. Of course, they don’t stop with the Heathers, and things get dark… darker. It’s unlikely a film like Heathers would be tolerated by society today. After the rise of school shootings following the Columbine Massacre, the public’s desire to see violence played out in schools has certainly abated.
The film was highly acclaimed by critics but didn’t do very well at the box-office. Like most on this list, it found its audience in the home video rental market and has been listed as one of the greatest films of all time on several lists.
What it’s Like: Mean Girls meets Natural Born Killers written by J.D. Salinger and Ted Kaczynski.
#02 – C’est arrivé près de chez vous, It Happened in Your Neighborhood [Man Bites Dog] (1992),Les Artistes Anonymes, Rémy Belvaux André Bonzel Benoît Poelvoorde
Another foreign film on the list, this time it’s from Belgium. Shot in a mockumentary style in black and white, the film follows the misadventures of Ben, a serial killer who is on the go with a film crew showing the who, what, when, where, why, and especially the how of his killing technique. As the film begins, the film crew is more of an accomplice who witnesses the murders and documents them. By the end of the film, they become more like Ben and often take part in his crimes while continuing to document everything. Presented in a matter-of-fact depiction of the cruelty and insanity of murder, the film can be difficult to watch.
This film was very successful when it came out and won the SACD award at Cannes in 1992 for Best Feature. It is very difficult to watch because most normal people can’t identify with a sociopathic killer, though the audience sees Ben as the protagonist, not the antagonist and in a way, the audience becomes a part of the film crew while they watch him on his serial killing journey.
What it’s Like: The audience gets to live out their fantasy as a serial killer… sick bastards.
#01 – Killing Zoe (1994), October Films, Roger Avary
Killing Zoe arrived in theaters in the 1990s as filmmakers such as Quintin Tarantino were embracing the burgeoning gangster film for a new era. As such, the film follows a similar pattern as its contemporaries, Pulp Fiction and True Romance, but stands on its own merit.
The movie stars Eric Stoltz (Pulp Fiction, Jerry Maguire, and Mask) as a safe-cracker who came to Paris to reunite with a childhood friend and pull off a caper, which goes somewhat awry. After first arriving in the city, he is entertained by the lovely Julie Delpy (Before Sunrise, An American Werewolf in Paris, and Broken Flowers) who plays the titular Zoe, a prostitute by night and as it turns out, a bank employee by day. As far as a film about a bank robbery going south, this one nails it perfectly. Almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong, but that difficulty is only impacted by the insane nature of the men involved in the crime. Like the other films mentioned previously, this is a very violent depiction and the film’s body count reflects that while maintaining its grounding in reality.
This movie did well with critics and poorly at the box office. Most people probably didn’t see it and they definitely should. It’s one of my favorite performances Stoltz has delivered and that is saying something.
What it’s Like: A buddy invites everyone over to hang out and rob a bank, but turns out to be a psychotic killer and maniac.