What then is typical about the content and style of those films? I think it is their subversive and offbeat character, in the widest sense of the word. Notions of good and bad taste are often transgressed, and the same is true for notions of gender and morality, as well as cinematic conventions. There is also often a liberal dose of (very) black humor involved. These are boundary-testing films, and happily, there is no cult required to enjoy them today.
Here are some of my favorite cult films:
- Showgirls (1995) by Paul Verhoeven and with Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon. A young woman arrives in Las Vegas with the intention of pushing her way to the top as a dancer. She starts as lap dancer, but quickly moves on to the chorus line of a show in a high-class hotel, and finally manages to become a star - at the cost of personal integrity. Bare bosoms were never more boundless and everything is deliciously over the top. The expensive production was mowed down by critics and the public for its gratuitous nudity (the Dutch director bumping against American political correctness), but since then the controversial film has become a cult classic. In fact, Showgirls has lots of humor and satire and is fun to watch, as long as you don't get upset by some bare flesh.
- The Big Lebowski (1998) by Ethan and Joel Coen and with Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Julianne Moore. "Dude" Lebowski is a great figure (both literally and figuratively speaking), a sort of aged hippy with pony tail and dressed in Bermuda shorts who all day long sips White Russian cocktails, goes bowling, and philosophizes. But when the laziest man in Los Angeles is mistaken for a millionaire and a hoodlum urinates on his precious rug, he has to come into action to redress the wrong done to his ruined tapestry. Luckily he gets some help from his bowling friends. The fun of the film is in the conversations, which properly lead nowhere at all.
- Pulp Fiction (1994) by Quentin Tarantino and with Uma Thurman, John Travolta and Samual L. Jackson. Three interwoven tales of hard-boiled violence reminiscent of cheap "pulp fiction." (a) Two hitmen have to retrieve a suitcase stolen from their employer, a mob boss. (b) The mob boss has asked one of them to take care of his wife when he himself will be out of town. (c) An aging boxer who is paid by the mob boss to lose his next fight. And (d) there is a pair of diner bandits as a sort of running gag. The chronology of these tales is out of order and the film is filled with bizarre incidents. Much time is dedicated to conversations and monologues that are so memorable one would like to put a frame around them and hang them on the wall.
- Crimes of Passion (1984) by Ken Russell and with Kathleen Turner, Anthony Perkins and Bruce Davison. A mix of campy sex and suspense that was too much for the politically correct critics. A prim sportswear designer leads a double life at night as a kinky hooker named China Blue. A sleazy street preacher who is working the red light district and spends more time in peep shows than in church pews decides he has to save her soul by loving her beautiful body and begins hounding her in a psychotic way - his weapon of attack is a razor-tipped dildo. Luckily, an investigator from her company whose marriage is falling apart and who is increasingly interested to find out who she really is, is also on her track. Daring performances by Turner and Perkins in outrageous roles. One-liners with sly puns. Atmospherically filmed in red and blue neon to bring out the sordidness.
- Blue Velvet (1986) by David Lynch and with Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan and Dennis Hopper. After finding a severed human ear in a field, a young man discovers a sinister and voyeuristic underworld of crime lying just beneath his idyllic suburban home town. The destiny of his search is a mysterious beautiful women involved with a perversely evil man. A mix of neo-noir (including the femme fatale) and surrealism. Nightmarish atmosphere.
- Coffy (1971) by Jack Hill and with Pam Grier and Booker Bradshaw. Quintessential soft-core blaxploitation film which has it all: violence, pimps, drugs, nudity and sex, larded with crazy dialogue and overall campiness. An African-American nurse goes after drug dealers who turned her younger sister into an addict. She uses her not inconsiderable cleavage to attract the baddies and stands well-posed for the kill. Pam Grier shines in the action scenes, but she also has excellent acting abilities, which is why Tarantino asked her for the main role in Jackie Brown (see my post about neo-noir films).
- Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) by Russ Meyer and with Tura Satana, Haji and Lori Williams. Exploitation film originally meant for the drive-in circuit which became a famous cult film. Meyer's trademark super-busty chicks dominate the screen, especially the deadly vamp played by Tura Satana. Three strippers seeking thrills by racing in the desert kill a young man and take his girlfriend hostage. Next they visit a crippled old man living in a lonely place with his two sons to relieve him of his hidden cash. Lots of gratuitous violence, provocative gender roles as well as some great one-liners. A guilty pleasure. This film was in fact the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
- Audition (1999) by Takashi Miike and with Eihi Shiina and Ryo Ishibashi. A friend wants to help a widower find a new bride and arranges a fake audition with young women so that he can pick his choice. The demure girl he selects is, however, not what she seems at first sight - on the contrary, she is a disturbed and sadistic femme fatale as becomes clear in shocking scene upon shocking scene. You will never forget the way she says "Kiri kiri kiri kiri" while cutting off her suitor's foot with a wire saw - unless you walk out in disgust, as several persons did during the theatrical showings.
- Harold and Maude (1971) by Hal Ashby and with Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort and Vivian Pickles. If you think all cult films are violent or disgusting, watch this beautiful and life enhancing fairy tale about love between a 20-ish young man and a 79-year old woman. A self-destructive and alienated young man is obsessed with death and spends his leisure time attending funerals and simulating suicides to evade the girls his mother pushes him to meet. Then he becomes friends with an unconventional elderly woman which opens new perspectives on life for him. Existentialist drama with lots of black humor, urging us to have a purpose in life.
- Easy Rider (1969) by Dennis Hopper and with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. Two counterculture bikers travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans to take part in the Mardi Gras. They encounter a commune of hippies, a drunken lawyer, a jail cell, and the death of a friend - until meeting their own fate at the hands of a couple of dim-witted rednecks. Groundbreaking soundtrack with The Band. The majestic landscapes in the first half of the film are very impressive.
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) by Jim Sharman and with Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick. The quintessential rock opera. Kinky horror movie spoof about a square couple who after their car breaks down end up in a mansion peopled with transvestites where terrible orgies take place. Outrageously spiced up with transvestism, rock and sex.
- Battle Royale (2000) by Kinji Fukasaku and with Takeshi Kitano, Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda. The ultimate film of youth violence - harsh and cruel as youth can be. A group of violent delinquent youths on whom parents and schools have given up all hope is dropped on an uninhabited island with the order to kill each other - only the winner will be allowed to leave. They receive randomly selected weapons and are fitted with explosive collars that go off when they try to escape or are in the "wrong sector." Kitano plays the sadistic instructor who gleefully announces new deaths over a loudspeaker system. Film led to questions in the Japanese parliament, especially as real life cruel murders by juveniles were then getting much media attention.