Part 3

Cult Films
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Examples

Troma's Intentionally-Trashy Cult Films:

The Toxic Avenger - 1985Troma Studios, founded in the early 1980s, has either produced or distributed some of the most astonishing, sleazy, gross-out, tasteless movies ever made - revitalizing the entire horror/sci-fi genre with campy comedy. One of their most successful, bad taste, low-budget cult films, a spoof of heroic monster films, was director Michael Herz' and Lloyd Kaufman's The Toxic Avenger (1984). The B-film was about a weakling who was transformed into a vengeful, rampaging, crime-fighting creature after tumbling into green radioactive waste. It was so well-received that it was followed by three sequels about the mutant super-hero: The Toxic Avenger, Part II (1989), and The Toxic Avenger, Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie (1989), and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV (2000). It even spawned a light-hearted Saturday morning cartoon called The Toxic Crusader, about someone named Toxie - who was exposed to toxic chemicals, and his other mutant friends who fight crime.

Film titles from Troma tell all - their iconoclastic films are deliberately manufactured to be silly, offensive, absurd, and harsh, and venturing toward lurid sexploitation, although many have become gore-fest cult favorites of the midnight movie crowd: Jim Mallon's parody slasher film Blood Hook (1986), Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986) - a combination teen-sex comedy and slime monster film (followed by two sequels: Class of Nuke 'Em High 2: Subhumanoid Meltdown (1991) and Class of Nuke 'Em High 3: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid (1995)), Surf Nazis Must Die (1987) - about violent rival gangs fighting for beach turf, Fortress of Amerikkka (1989), Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1991), Tromeo and Juliet (1996) - a perversion of the Shakespearean story, and Terror Firmer (1999) - a 'film within a film' based in part on director Kaufman's 1998 book about his career with Troma, All I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger.

Foreign Cult Favorites:

Barbarella - 1968The French silent film from Luis Bunuel and co-creator Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou (1929, Fr.) - an early example of shock cinema, stunned audiences with its sequence of a straight razor slicing a young woman's eyeball. Michelangelo Antonioni directed Blow-Up (1966) - a thought provoking, absorbing work (and intriguing murder mystery) about perception and voyeurism in mod, mid-60s London. Writer/director Roger Vadim's 60's psychedelic sci-fi campy spoof Barbarella - Queen of the Galaxy (1968), based on a French comic strip (by Jean-Claude Forest), featured Jane Fonda as a 41st century, sexy astro-woman. And the Australian post-nuclear, action-adventure films Mad Max (1979) and its sequel, The Road Warrior: Mad Max 2 (1981-2) are two of the most-respected and enjoyed cult films. The ground-breaking anime Japanese film Akira (1988) from Katsuhiro Otomo was set in a visually-stunning, post-WWIII Neo-Tokyo of 2019 complete with gigantic skyscrapers and holographic advertisements. Amidst kinetic action sequences on motorcycles, the animated cult classic featured characters including a mutant teenager (Tetsuo), biker gangs, corrupt police, and other cyberpunk culture figures.

Bagdad Cafe - 1988The slick, visually-stylish and suspenseful French film Diva (1982), the debut film of Jean-Jacques Beineix, was about a young French mail carrier (and opera lover) who secretly and illegally taped the vocal performance of a black opera soprano, thereby becoming embroiled in affairs of the criminal underworld. Director Percy Adlon, in his first English-language film, created the off-beat, quirky comedy/drama Bagdad Cafe (1988) about a strange, rundown hotel/cafe in the middle of the remote Mojave Desert with a number of unusual offball characters, including Jack Palance as a bandanna-wearing, snake-skinned booted, weirdo artist.

The absurdly outrageous black French comedy/horror film Delicatessen (1991, Fr.), the debut film of directors Jeunot and Caro, featured the odd-ball occupants of a shabby tenement apartment building in post-apocalyptic 1950s Paris (of the future), where the building's tenants supply the fresh meat for the cannibalistic butcher and his shop below! A cultish, B-movie soap opera, Danish TV mini-series (of four and a half hours length) of social satire titled The Kingdom (1995) combined a modern hospital setting in Copenhagen with ghosts, creepy occultism, gory medical footage, and cinema verite.

British Cult Films:

Monty Python and the Holy Grail - 1975Fans of British lunacy from the original late 60s Monty Python's Flying Circus BBC-TV series have found the madcap Python humor in various films and settings. (The nom de plum Monty Python was composed of six writers/comedians: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and American Terry Gilliam.) They include the collection of classic sketches in And Now for Something Completely Different (1972), a medieval farce titled Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), the tasteless religious spoof-parody Life of Brian (1979) about a man named Brian whose life paralleled Christ's, and the irreverent satire Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983). Terry Gilliam's popular and inventive epic Brazil (1985), was a tale set in a Kafka-esque, bureaucratic future with surreal, totalitarian horror. Nicolas Roeg's controversial, bizarre science-fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) told of a fragile but intelligent earthbound alien. Bruce Robinson's debut film, the cult classic Withnail & I (1987) was a black comedy and original character study of two underemployed actors.

Other Films with Cult Followings:

George Lucas' tribute to classic swashbuckler films of an earlier era - the Star Wars (1977) trilogy (and its numerous prequels The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005)), have developed a loyal cult following despite the over-emphasis on special effects. The cultish Star Trek trekkies have a long-running series of Star Trek films with all the familiar plot elements and characters that were resurrected from the TV series. Lucas' first feature film THX-1138 (1971) (released with a director's cut in 2004) was a low-budget science-fiction cult film with a stark, white antiseptic subterranean setting in the dystopian 25th century future where sex had been banned and the population was soma drug-controlled. [Lucas named his revolutionary digital sound recording system - THX - after this film.]

A campy spoof of low-budget science-fiction films was showcased with the downright stupid Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978) - a tale of murderous and mean-spirited vegetables. The early exploitation film Reefer Madness (1936) dramatized the evil of "demon weed" (marijuana). George Romero's classic, low-budget zombie horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968) unleashed a wave of future zombie films by Romero and others, depicting humans who recently died and were re-animated. It was considered ground-breaking for its explicit violence, cannibalism, and somber ending.

Certain teen comedies have been chosen as cultish - the early 60's slice of adolescent life viewed in George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973), or its anarchic counterpart (National Lampoon's) Animal House (1978) with food fights, toga parties, beer drinking, and rock 'n' roll. Walter Hill's violent The Warriors (1979), a stylized tale of gang warfare between rival NYC groups in a surrealistic nighttime world, was enhanced by real-life gang violence at fim theaters during its initial opening.

W.D. Richter's cultish and bewildering sci-fi film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) was a quirky tale about the heroic title character - a neurosurgeon, theoretical physicist, and hard-rocker of the Hong Kong Cavaliers - who uncovered a vast conspiracy by a race of Red Lectroids from Planet 10 (led by evil leader John Lithgow). The Lectroids had escaped from their prison in the 8th Dimension with plans to return to conquer their home planet. Although unintended as a cheesy, trashy cult film, Paul Verhoeven's laughable NC-17 rated Showgirls (1995), with generous soft-core views of Vegas strippers, showgirls, lap-dancing, and an unintentially hilarious sex-orgasm scene in a pool garnered many 'turkey' and Razzie film awards as one of the worst-acted films ever made. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996) shared the same cult following as the classic Comedy Central (and later Sci-Fi Network) cable TV shows of the same name, featuring two robotic film audience hecklers (Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot) along with their human companion Mike Nelson, who commented upon and ridiculed Universal's sci-fi film This Island Earth (1955) being shown on a spaceship floating above Earth.

Heathers - 1989An offbeat, black-comedy satire on competitive teen social popularity in a modern high school (in Ohio) was found in director Michael Lehmann's darkly funny Heathers (1989) starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. The nihilistic teen comedy told about Veronica Sawyer (Ryder), a new addition to the popular clique of girls known as Heathers. Together with rebellious outsider Jason (J.D.) Dean (Slater), she began to kill off, one-by-one, the nasty girls in the group, while writing phony suicide notes to cover up the homicidal crime scenes.

Recent cult films cherished by Generation X teens (children of the children of the 60s) include the teen comedy from Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused (1993), a rambling tale of senior high schoolers in the late 70s (with stars Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey); and Ben Stiller's directorial debut film Reality Bites (1994) - a contemporary 'Generation X' story about a group of recent twenty-something college graduates in Houston (Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo and Stiller) who are seeking their place in the world - with scenes of Garofalo as a Gap worker and imagining her own funeral (a la Melrose Place). Independent film-maker Jim Jarmusch's oddball, stark breakthrough road film, Stranger Than Paradise (1984) took a minimalist approach with a slow-paced style, yet intrigued viewers with its perceptive vision of American society in the 80s. Actor/co-writer "Weird" Al Yankovic's screen debut was in the satirical and inventive UHF (1989) - a hilarious story about a nerdish guy (who idolized Indiana Jones) who became the innovative General Manager of Channel 62, a struggling UHF television station.

Kevin Smith's low-budget, black and white debut film, Clerks (1994), was a realistic portrayal of a day in the life of two clerks (for a Quick Stop market and a video store). Doug Limon's ultra-cool and cleverly-written Swingers (1996) brought a new candid look at relationships, especially among fast-talking guys from LA, and it also popularized the line: "You're so money!" Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998) found an appreciative audience for its story of a love triangle between a recently-widowed elementary school teacher (Olivia Williams), a precocious 15-year old private school student (Jason Schwartzman), and a wealthy but depressed industrialist tycoon (Bill Murray). Maverick director/writer Henry Hartley's unconventional comedy-drama Henry Fool (1997) told an unusual tale of a shy garbageman and a mysterious, heavy-drinking, self-styled and professed novelist. And the commercial and critical flop Glitter (2001) starred pop diva Mariah Carey as a version of her own soul- and chest-baring self.

Hong Kong action flicks and kung-fu, martial arts films that have established followings include John Woo's intense cop thriller about a warring Hong Kong mafia, Hard-Boiled (1992), with Chow Yun Fat as the hard boiled cop. Also Chang Cheh's Five Deadly Venoms (1978), in which a dying Venom master of the Poison Clan sends a young but faithful disciple to kill five other evil Venom pupils who have hyper-developed expert skills (based upon five venomous beasts, centipede, snake, lizard, toad, and scorpion).

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