Standing on the fringes of mainstream cinema, cult films transport viewers into terrains rarely explored by typical Hollywood efforts. Although the question of what exactly constitutes a cult film is open to debate, each of these movies connects with people on a visceral level. Sure, such excellent flicks as TThe Big Lebowski, Donnie Darko and The Rocky Horror Picture Show have rightfully earned their devoted followings, but there’s still a plethora of would-be cult movies that are deserving of your extreme fanaticism. Misguided, hard-to-find or simply underrated, the films on this list are flowers in a hailstorm trying to bloom. Here’s a breakdown of 10 neglected gems that are waiting for your love.
10) Penn & Teller Get Killed
The bullshit-debunking magicians wrote and starred in this jet-black comedy that has Penn mentioning that it would be exciting if someone were trying to kill him. When that happens, the duo is thrust into an adventure involving psychic surgeons, hired assassins, a discourse on the meaning of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and the most elaborate practical joke ever caught on film. Directed by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), the film had a small theatrical run before its VHS release and subsequent disappearance into not-on-DVD purgatory. With a little hunting, you can procure a copy online. If nothing else, it’s worth checking out just to finally see Teller speak.
9) A Bucket of Blood
Filmed for $50,000 over the course of five days, this Roger Corman classic stars the great Dick Miller (best known as Mr. Futterman in Gremlins) as a coffeehouse busboy who dreams of being an artist. After accidentally killing a cat and covering it in clay, he becomes a sensation when he shows his “sculpture” to the pretentious poets and painters that he so admires. Desperate to keep the respect of his peers, he continues to create more works by killing people, including hip policeman Bert Convy. Eventually, Miller’s secret is revealed and he is so consumed by madness that he hangs himself.
An effective skewering of modern art and the beatnik counterculture, this is a breezy comedy highlighted by Miller’s performance as a hapless schlub antihero. (Miller would later reprise his role of Walter Paisley in Chopping Mall). When production on this film wrapped, Corman reused the sets to film another tale of a nebbish who gains fame through murder?The Little Shop of Horrors. Why there isn’t yet an off-Broadway musical version of A Bucket of Blood is anyone’s guess. Since its running time is a brief 66 minutes, this one makes a perfect warm up to a great movie night.
8) Miracle Mile
The first of two apocalyptical films on this list, the thriller Miracle Mile stars Anthony Edwards as a Los Angeles-based trombonist who meets diner waitress Mare Winningham and instantly falls for her. Shortly after securing a date for later in the evening, he receives a phone call warning him that nuclear war is imminent. As he tries to figure out if the call was real, he frantically searches for his would-be love while the city slowly becomes gripped with panic.
Packed with the type of quirky characters that only exist in films about L.A., Miracle Mile does a lot with its limited budget and running time. Suspense percolates until the end of the second act when a torrent of chaos is unleashed. Despite the bedlam, the film’s heart is its portrayal of Edwards and Winningham as a couple who had the misfortune of falling in love during the end of the world.
7) Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century
The closest thing we’ll ever get to a disco Bigfoot film, Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century is an astonishing cinematic achievement. Rumored to have been created to cash in on the anticipation for the 1976 King Kong remake, this Italian production (which, for no good reason, takes place in Toronto) examines what happens when a Yeti with a heart of gold is thrust into a world he doesn’t understand.
Speaking of not understanding, I’m at a loss as to why this little gem isn’t a staple of repertory film houses. There’s magic in each frame, especially the ones in which Yeti mugs at the camera endlessly while his size changes from shot to shot. The semblance of a plot involves an industrialist who wants to exploit the Yeti. But the story hardly matters. The genius of the flick is watching a guy in a bad Abominable Snowman suit crushing stuff. It makes this list for the joy of seeing that alone. The fact that it also features a groovy theme song urging listeners to understand that “the man of snow” is friend to all humans is just icing on an already damn sweet cake.
6) Black Belt Jones
The film that gave us the phrase “I’m Batman motherfucker,” Black Belt Jones is the most over-the-top martial arts film ever made. Right out of the gate the movie lets you know what you’re in for during a jaw-dropping opening credits sequence. Check it:
If you’re not sold by that, what are you even doing at a website like this? Go back to writing The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise fan-fiction. Black Belt Jones is a film whose excessive violence is matched only by its poor dialogue. (Both elements are combined into a climactic fight at a car-wash so that is so dizzying you’ll be convinced that you have suffered some sort of head injury). This one gets bonus points for featuring Hong Kong Phooey himself, Scatman Crothers, as the toupeed owner of Belt’s karate school. How meta!
5) Kicking and Screaming
Potato is an entr?e? Second only to The Big Lebowski on the list of the most quotable films of the 1990s, Noah Baumbach’s debut feature chronicles the experiences of a group of recent grads as they try to figure out just what the hell they are going to do next. When aspiring novelist Grover (Josh Hamilton) loses his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) to a writing program in Prague, he is forced to spend his days hanging with his shiftless friends, including manchild Otis (the brilliant Carlos Jacott), misanthropic Max (Chris Eigeman), na?ve dreamer Skippy (Jason Wiles) and eternal student/sage bartender Chet (Eric Stoltz). While Grover contemplates jetting to Prague to be with his lost love, Skippy deals with spitfire co-ed Miami (Parker Posy) and Max begins a hesitant relationship with college cafeteria worker Kate (Cara Buono).
Instead of paying attention to their problems and the ladies in their lives, these painfully familiar characters focus their attention on trying to figure out the names of each film in the Friday the 13th franchise during their frequent trips to the bar. They are utterly unwilling to grow up, even though their adolescence has long gone. At times poignant?especially in an airport scene where Grover finally tries to take control of his life, only to have his plans blow up in his face?and frequently hilarious, Kicking and Screaming revisits the emotional limbo that is post-collegiate life.
4) Howard the Duck
Executive Producer George Lucas received his first taste of fan backlash in this notorious failure that jettisoned the wit of Steve Gerber’s comic in favor of bad duck puns (i.e. that Breeders of the Lost Egg poster that hangs in Howie’s apartment in Duckworld) and Prince soundalike songs. You never saw it, so here’s the plot: a duck named Howard is sucked from his planet into Cleveland by a research experiment gone wrong. He meets an aspiring rock star, her nerdy janitor pal and a scientist who has been possessed by an evil alien lifeform. After saving the Earth from being taken over by stop-motion Rancor-looking beasts, he dances around in the lamest musical sequence since The Apple polluted theaters.
By no means is a good movie. It is, in fact, a monumentally crappy one. But I implore you to check it out because it rhas some of the most shithouse bonkers moments ever featured in a Hollywood film geared towards kids. Examples:
? Beverly (Lea Thompson) finds a condom in Howard’s wallet. Instead of being creeped out of thoughts of his bizarre duck penis, she joking coos “Oh Howard” at him while he sleeps. (FYI-This scene was deemed too risqu? for British audiences and was cut out of oversea prints).
? Unable to find work, Howard takes a job at a bathhouse. One frequented by furries, no doubt.
? Beverly tries to stop rednecks in a diner from chopping up Howard by screaming “He’s my boyfriend!” This suggestion of an interspecies relationship is played for laughs, unlike the silhouetted kiss that they share. I don’t have a clue what the audience is supposed to feel about that.
? Dr. Jennings (Jeffrey Jones) brutally vaporizes a state trooper. This is just one of the film’s many tonal shifts that occur completely out of the blue. One minute, it’s a wacky comedy about a space duck who wants to get it on with a singer, the next it’s an action-adventure with aliens violently killing cops. Wasn’t the PG-13 rating created to warn about stuff like this? I saw this movie in the theater on opening day, and when this scene occurred I watched in wonderment as the jerky classmate who gave me a shitty game of checkers in a third grade Christmastime Pollyanna ran crying out of the theater with his mom. Pollyannas suck.
? There’s an action sequence featuring ultra light planes. Make that an incredibly dumb action sequence.
? Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins) inexplicably forgets his dreams of being a scientist and throws away his lust for Beverly to become the roadie for her new wave band.
? A junkie at a rock club declares that he has “been doing too much toot.” Whatever the hell that means.
I would love to hear what Lucas and screenwriters Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz have to say that about the movie these days, but I doubt they’ll ever go on the record with why this film turned out so strange. The DVD was recently released overseas, but there are still no signs of a U.S. release.
3) Nothing Lasts Forever
Set in a future version of New York City that strangely looks like the 1930s, this sci-fi comedy from Tom Schiller (who directed short films for Saturday Night Live during the show’s early years) is equal parts Eraserhead and SCTV. Zach Galligan stars as an aspiring artist who is forced to take work as a traffic director in the Holland Tunnel under the direction of his maniacal boss (a scenery-chewing Dan Aykroyd). Following a jaunt through the city’s pretentious art scene, he discovers that an enclave of vagrants secretly control the fate of the world and he is promptly sent on a bus trip to the moon to meet his true love. It doesn’t matter how many times you read the last sentence, the plot of the film is still incomprehensible. They don’t get much cultier than this one.
The film’s obscurity has led to Galligan, Aykroyd and Bill Murray (who plays an unhinged bus conductor) frequently championing the film. Legal difficulties most likely due to the film’s use of stock footage have resulted in it never being available on VHS and DVD, although it is publicly screened in New York City from time to time. At times threatening to collapse under the weight of its own quirks?including a Wizard of Oz-esque switch from black and white to color once Galligan arrives in the underground world of the bums?this film is a perfect example of oddball cinema.
2) Last Night
What do you do on the Earth’s final day? That question is explored in this riveting dramedy from Canadian auteur Don McKellar (best known in the U.S. for his cult comedy series Twitch City). McKellar stars as a recent widower who plans on spending his final hours saying goodbye to his loved ones before heading to his rooftop to commemorate the oncoming calamity with a bottle of wine and some music. Along the way, he visits his best friend (Callum Keith Rennie), a free-spirit who plans on making all of his sexual fantasies come true during what little time he has left. After fate strands him with a woman (Sandra Oh) desperately seeking to get home to her husband, McKellar’s plans for a solitary death are shattered. When Oh realizes that her husband (David Cronenberg, portraying the world’s most dedicated gas company employee) won’t be able to carry out their suicide pact, she enlists McKellar?s help. Planning on shooting each other just as the apocalypse arrives, the duo kiss instead. Their world doesn’t end with a bang or a whimper, but rather an intimate moment shared between two strangers who suddenly have become everything for each other.
Whereas Miracle Mile examines the horror that grips the world in its final hours, Last Night chooses to focus on the subtle ways in which people would deal with the end of everything. Part of its brilliance is that it doesn’t feel the need to explain what the disaster befalling the Earth is. You can speculate on what it may be, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The film isn’t about what’s happening. It’s about human interaction and yearning for connection when things are at their worst.
1) Breaking Glass
Fame, ain?t it a bitch? Set in a pre-Thatcher England beset by social turmoil and labor strikes, Breaking Glass stars Hazel O’Connor as Kate, an idealistic singer/songwriter whose life forever changes after she meets small-time promoter Danny (Phil Daniels of Quadrophenia fame) and forms the band Breaking Glass. When neo-Nazis crash the group?s appearance at a ?Rock Against 1984? anti-fascism concert and kill an audience member, Kate?s horrified response makes her headline news. Unprepared for the attention suddenly thrust upon her, she loses her grasp on reality?breaking Danny’s heart and alienating her band members along the way. Following an exhausting sold-out gig in which her new manager has to forcibly dope her up to get her to play, she has a mental breakdown and is institutionalized. The film’s ambiguous ending has Danny bringing Kate a keyboard to play during her sure to be lengthy recovery process.
Much like Once, Breaking Glass is a naturalistic musical. Highlighted by O’Connor’s songs that were “inspired by punk,” the film differentiates itself from other rags-to-riches cautionary tales through the vulnerable performance of its leading lady. During the course of the movie, she often dreads an Orwellian future in which man has been replaced by robots. But by the time she takes to the stage in an outfiit that clearly influenced Tron?s production design to sing the climactic number ?Eighth Day,? her humanity is seemingly gone.
To paraphrase the film’s tagline, Breaking Glass is a shattering experience. It features the musical appeal of Rocky Horror and a uniquely British sensibility. Yet it remains virtually unknown in America and has never been available on DVD. But if you take the time and effort to locate a copy, you will be rewarded with a compelling viewing experience.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.