*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review.
The imminent revival of “Rocky Horror Show,” stage progenitor of the beloved, similarly titled film, at Bainbridge Performing Arts has me thinking about cults.
Cult movies, that is.
Films that inspire a constant low-simmering kind of love, that are whispered about and recommended and perennially popping up on clickbait-type lists (not unlike this one) and stand the test of time in spite of — or perhaps because of — the fact that on paper they really shouldn’t be any good.
Go ahead and try to explain the plot of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to a “virgin” viewer and watch the glaze of polite disinterest coat their eyes.
Because you have to see it.
That’s the recommendation so often invoked in such discussions. What is it about “Repo Man” and “Donnie Darko” that so endear them? Long after even serious cinephiles are well past gushing over the merits of Howard Hawks and John Ford, an off-hand mention of “Phantom of the Paradise” is certain to incite at least one joyful squeal.
“Halloween” is flawless film, but please give me just five minutes and I’ll tell you why “In the Mouth of Madness” is John Carpenter’s secret masterpiece.
So, if you’re looking for something from the screen to pair with BPA’s stage revival, something to kick back with after too much Time Warp, or maybe something slightly spooky as an alternative Halloween option, allow me to recommend the following five films — worthy of cult-like devotion, all.
“Branded to Kill” (1967)
“When Japanese New Wave bad boy Seijun Suzuki delivered this brutal, hilarious, and visually inspired masterpiece to the executives at his studio, he was promptly fired.”
So begins the official description of this bonkers flick by the Criterion Collection, who released an as-usual stunning version of this previously hard-to-find yakuza tale in 1998.
And that’s just the start.
Joe Shishido plays the Japanese underworld’s third-ranked hitman, a renowned assassin (with a fetish for sniffing steamed rice) who botches an especially difficult job and ends up a target of the infamous ghostly Number One Killer, whose methods threaten his sanity as much as his life.
It’s satirical and chaotic, visually eclectic and highly stylized, repulsive and alluring, and it resulted in Suzuki being blacklisted and unable to make another feature film for about 10 years.
He’d reportedly come by his, ahem, unique vision for the movie by concocting many ideas the night before filming, or even on the set while shooting. It didn’t go over well financially at the time, and it upset the suits something awful.
“Suzuki should open a noodle shop or something instead,” said studio president Kyūsaku Hori.
What he actually did, however, was end up becoming a kind of counterculture hero. The movie has been cited as an influence by filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino.
See it, and see why for yourself.
“Spider Baby” (1968)
Though he’ll almost certainly be best remembered as the terrifying Captain Spaulding, as seen in the larger part of Rob Zombie’s cinematic oeuvre, legendary character actor Sid Haig (who just recently passed away) was a force to be reckoned with long before he donned that clown costume.
Case in point, this previously lost weird gem written and directed by Jack Hill (perhaps the Hitchcock of those women-in-prison films so popular in the early ’70s, and the man behind the one-two-punch of blaxploitation classics “Coffy” and “Foxy Brown”), featuring one of the final roles in the storied career of Lon Chaney Jr.
Haig plays Ralph, one of three orphaned siblings who suffer from a fictitious genetic condition which, upon reaching puberty, causes them to regress mentally and socially into cruel animalistic behavior. They are cared for by chauffeur Bruno (Chaney), who means well but is obviously not up to the increasingly demanding task.
Still, the strange little family live happily enough (minus the occasional murdered mailman) in a decaying rural mansion, kept reasonably by money left by the troubled children’s deceased parents for their care, until some greedy relatives arrive with their lawyer to claim the property for themselves.
Things do not end well.
The film was completed in 1964 but not released for three years due to financial trouble at the studio. It suffered from poor marketing as well as a series of last-minute title changes, and was thus fated to fade quickly into relative obscurity before eventually achieving cult status through sporadic partial showings, bootleg VHS copies and obsessive word-of-mouth.
If ever a film was worthy of cult status, it is surely this one.
“The Manitou” (1978)
American filmmaking machine William Girdler, who, in the span of just six years, directed nine feature films in various genres, always said he didn’t have time for film school.
Turns out, he was right: The Kentucky-born, bargain-bin Orson Welles died at the age of 30 in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for his 10th film project.
It’s especially tragic when you realize that from his early better-than-their-budget efforts he’d progressed miraculously quickly into an auteur with obvious talent. He is most famous for his two “animal attack” movies — “Grizzly” (1976) and “ Day of the Animals” (1977), and one controversial “The Exorcist” ripoff that resulted in an epic lawsuit — but it is the one that turned out to be his last movie, 1978’s “The Manitou,” which I recommend most.
Based on the 1976 novel by Graham Masterton, inspired by an actual American Indian legend, the movies sees a young woman with an impossibly fast-growing tumor on her neck enter a hospital in San Francisco seeking aid.
After a series of X-rays, doctors begin to think the growth is a living creature: a human fetus, in fact. Eerie occurrences ensue and further examination and investigation by her boyfriend (a delightfully charming fake psychic played by Tony Curtis) and doctors reveal the growth is actually an infamous American Indian shaman reincarnating himself so as to exact revenge on the white people who invaded North America and exterminated his people — and then reshape the world in the nightmarish image of his own twisted psyche.
Burgess Meredith makes a fun guest appearance as an anthropology/folklore specialist, and Michael Ansara gives a strong showing as John Singing Rock, a modern medicine man enlisted to help fight the malicious revenant, in this fantastically unique film that manages to be both incredibly of its time and simultaneously shockingly progressive, all while telling a tale that could so easily have slipped into purely stereotypical nonsense.
“Angel Heart” (1987)
Give this freaky flick a shot and recall a time when Mickey Rourke was dreamy, Robert De Niro was threatening, and Lisa Bonet wasn’t just Jason Momoa’s anti-vaxer wife.
Based on William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel “Falling Angel,” this ’50s-set neo-noir sees Rourke playing Harry Angel, a New York City private investigator contracted by a mysterious man named Louis Cyphre (give it a second) to track down a once-famous crooner known as Johnny Favorite, who supposedly suffered severe head trauma resulting from injuries he received during World War II.
Favorite’s alleged incapacity effectively cancelled a contract he’d had with Cyphre, who is most upset about an unspecified outstanding payment for similarly unspecified services rendered. It’s all very mysterious, but Angel reluctantly agrees to look into whether someone at this super exclusive hospital has possibly falsified the singer’s records to get him out of paying up.
The search takes Angel into the world of black magic, voodoo and devil worship — and thus, obviously, to New Orleans — and the truth is revealed to be something more diabolical, and much more personal, than he ever expected.
Christopher Nolan has said the film was a major influence on “Memento,” which absolutely makes sense. It’s a twisty, twisted psychological horror film that is as stylish as it is fun, even if you do see the big reveal coming.
Fun side note: De Niro reportedly based his creepy portrayal of Cyphre on personal pal and regular collaborator Martin Scorsese. See it and decide for yourself whether it’s a compliment, I guess.
“Buffalo Soldiers” (2001)
A cultural casualty of the frothing mindless “patriotism” that ran rampant in the immediate wake of the 9-11 attacks, this satirical dark comedy follows the criminal activities of several U.S. soldiers based in West Germany during 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall is imminent, based on a novel of the same title by Robert O’Connor.
It seems in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 nobody was in the mood to watch uniformed Americans behaving badly. The world premiere was held at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival in early September, but a wider theatrical run was delayed by two years because angry viewers objected to alleged “anti-American” sentiments of the film, deeming it unpatriotic and offensive.
At one press conference, an especially angry woman apparently threw a water bottle at Anna Paquin.
By the time it was eventually released, in 2003, much of its momentum had dissolved and even some pretty positive reviews could not help.
But, with the benefit of time, it’s easy to see this movie had something special going.
It’s almost the end of the Cold War in Europe and U.S. Army Supply Specialist Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is a bored soldier stationed in Stuttgart, West Germany. With little to do, he devotes his time to docotring up supply orders and selling the surplus on the black market, when he isn’t cooking heroin for some sadistic military police and generally being a deplorable person.
His amiable commanding officer (Ed Harris) thinks of Elwood as a confidant and has no idea he’s stealing company supplies or sleeping with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern).
However, Elwood’s life is upended when new First Sergeant Robert E. Lee (Scott Glenn) joins the company, with his attractive daughter (Paquin) in tow. Savvy and obsessive, Lee quickly determines what’s really going on and sets out to prove that Elwood and his buddies are criminals.
A great cast and truly unique story and setting make this one a must-see, at least once, for anyone interested in cult film or depictions of military life outside the usual guns-a-blazing heroics or screaming-at-the-sky PTSD stories.