My Personal Top 5 Cult Films

Looking at some of my favourite cult movies…

Since I’ve done quite a few simple film reviews, I thought I’d take a break and have a look at a topic close to my heart, cult films. For those who stick to more mainstream movies and might be unfamiliar with the term, a cult film isn’t a religious fanatic’s ideal watch, it is a slightly nebulous word to describe a film with a relatively small but dedicated fan base. There are many things which can be used to define whether a film is cult, but for the purpose of this post, I’m going to keep to a basic definition. A film can be cult if it has a small possibly obsessive fan base, slight campy elements and possibly a troubled or unsuccessful initial release. With that out of the way, please enjoy my pick of the top five personal favourite cult films. These aren’t going to be ranked in order of best to worst, merely five different genres of cult movies that I really enjoy.

 

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  1. Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

This slot on the list represents my love of films that are so bad they’re good. Birdemic, directed by James Nguyen is a passion project, like most films that are unintentionally hilarious. It’s tough to describe why it’s so much fun to watch a terribly made film, but I think the key point for me is intent. There is a charming quality to a film which tries so hard to be good which can be missing in a lot of mediocre big blockbusters. The lack of budget and inept directing almost serve as a masterclass in how not to make a movie, and especially for a film student, it’s a riot watching all of the failures. My personal highlight is the animation on the CGI birds, which is so bad it almost distracts you from the terrible acting. Birdemic is so much fun, especially with a group of friends.

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  1. Donnie Darko.

As a contrast, lets look at a fantastically made film, which I love completely seriously. Donnie Darko was made in 1999, as a debut for director Richard Kelly. The film didn’t do too well on release, probably because it’s such a surreal and hard to categorise experience that no one could really have marketed it to a wide audience. Since then it has developed a cult following and I am a proud member of that following. The film is probably best defined as a sci-fi but, honestly there are elements of a lot of genres in there. There are aspects of a coming of age narrative, fantasy, superhero themes, and a lot of very lovable characters. The film stars a young Jake Gyllenhaal in a career highlight as troubled teen Donnie Darko, who experiences strange visions and odd powers, being told he must save his world in 28 days. The film is instantly quotable and straddles the line between eerie and depressing, and funny and heart-warming.

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3. Office Space.

I have never worked in an office. And now thanks to Office Space, I pray I never have to. This genius comedy, directed by Mike Judge is a brilliant lampoon of the terrible people we all meet at work. It’s hilarious portrayal of the soul crashing inanity of working in an office environment is endlessly entertaining. The fact that Peter, the main character needs to be hypnotised into a zen state to cope with his job is brilliant, and sets up a lot of great gags, as Peter no longer caring about being fired gets him promoted. His new attitude at work actually improves his standing. There are great characters in this; the boss Lumbergh for one. He is a great example of the faux friendly, chummy boss who still gives you more work and cracks the whip. The lines in this are not just funny, they’re repeatably funny. I’ve watched this film countless times and I still howl with laughter every time Milton threatens to burn the office down.

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4. Army of Darkness.

I’ve always appreciated films that blend different genres. Sam Raimi is a director who seems particularly adept at this, and his horror comedy Army of Darkness is probably on my list of all time favourite films, let alone cult movies. Technically, this is also Evil Dead 3 as the third film about Ash Williams, every-man from Michigan taking on the evil dead with a chainsaw hand and shotgun. I love this film because of the camp factor, the effects are cool and very real but also delightfully rickety. I adore this film because of Bruce Campbell as Ash, a role he finally seems completely comfortable in after two films perfecting it. His one liners are a fantastic blend of stupid and witty. The horror elements are well realised, but the lighter, even more comedic tone, partly brought about by the time travel plot make this film more accessible to a wider audience. In fact, I watched this first when I was younger because it was much easier to cope with. Whereas Evil Dead 1 and 2 were held back by a tiny budget and only took place in a single cabin, this is a sprawling medieval epic horror, taking place in castles and old dark woods. It’s just a really fun ride from start to finish.

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5. Labyrinth.

Finally, a bizarre 80’s fantasy to send things off. This film is a triumph of Jim Henson puppetry. The characters designs are really creative, ranging from downright creepy to incredibly cute. David Bowie lends his star quality to the film, making it impossible to determine if he’s actually a good actor, or if he simply doesn’t need to be. His music in this film is catchy and very evocative, setting the tone of the film. Jennifer Connolly as the lead starts off as a slightly bad actor, but by the end her character has come a long way, and Connolly does manage to convey that and tone down her performance accordingly. This film has a unique tone and atmosphere, set up by an almost ethereal soundtrack and a set which feels somewhere between a real place and a theme park. The characters are slightly cartoonish, but in a kid’s film that can be forgiven, and the urgency of the story is well set up in that Sarah’s baby brother is in very real danger. Overall, this is a unique film that needs to be seen at least once, and I recommend it to any big fantasy fans out there. You won’t be disappointed.

So those were my five favourite cult films. I hope this list has in some way inspired you all to try a few more obscure movies, there are tons out there and they get fan bases for a good reason. From underappreciated classics to hilarious train-wrecks, there is something for everyone out there. Have a look and see for yourself!

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The Thirteenth Warrior: A Forgotten Classic

Another severely underrated classic…

I must once again apologise for my lateness. It’s been a while since I last posted, and I don’t really have a good excuse between laziness and forgetfulness. However, I’m back up to speed now, and to kick off the new year properly, I thought I’d continue in the style of the last review and take a look at a film I loved growing up that has sadly been forgotten over the years, The Thirteenth Warrior. This is a film that I watched quite a lot growing up. My Grandmother had the DVD at her house and one of my favourite things to do whenever I went round, aside from cooking really bad cakes, was to pop it on and spend an enjoyable afternoon watching Antonio Banderas fighting alongside Viking warriors.

It wasn’t until I got a little older and looked up the history behind this film that I discovered how big a flop it had been on release. Arriving in 1999 to a lukewarm critical reaction, The Thirteenth warrior was a gigantic flop, possibly one of the worst flops in cinema history, dwarfing the returns of Waterworld, and making only 61 million of its 160-million-dollar budget back. I’m actually baffled that this film isn’t at all notorious. After all, Waterworld has often been labelled as a mega box office flop and that film almost made its money back. However, the film made a pittance, was largely ignored by critics, except for Roger Ebert who reviewed everything, and was promptly forgotten.

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What amazes me is not the people didn’t like the film, after all taste is subjective, but the fact that this film is not more iconic than it is. It wasn’t marketed that widely at release, and it has never developed a substantial cult following (at least, not that I can find). However, this film apart from being a great watch, has some real talent behind it. For a start it was directed by John McTeirnan, who dominated the late 80’s and early 90’s with some fantastic action films, including Die Hard of all movies. If someone told me the guy who made Die Hard was making a Viking film, I would need no further convincing. On top of this, the story is based on an adaptation of Beowulf written by Michael Crichton. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the same author who wrote Jurassic Park. Already we can see some serious pedigree here, although where the film falls down is in the actors. Don’t get me wrong, the cast are all fantastic, even minor characters are immensely fun, but with the exception of Antonio Banderas, who was already reaching the end of his wave of popularity, the only other big star in the cast to draw people in was Omar Sharif. That isn’t much star power to interest the casual movie-goer, and Omar Sharif, although a brilliant classic actor, hadn’t ever been a huge box office draw.

However, despite the relatively unknown cast, this film has a lot going for it right out of the gate, and it makes me sad that its directing and writing talent haven’t managed to attract a strong cult following, because the film is worth seeing. It is a story loosely based on the historical figure Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who was a famous 10th century traveller from Baghdad. Ahmad is most recognised for his journeys with the Volga Vikings, or Varangians, and his witnessing first hand of their culture, even being present at a ship burial. Crichton used this character as a third party to retell the story of Beowulf, and this historical twist creates a slightly more believable and grounded take on the legend. Apart from a compelling story, watching a pampered Arab ambassador turn slowly into smart and capable warrior, the character arch is a joy too. Ahmad serves as a way for us to slowly become invested in the Varangians struggle to defend a vulnerable village. As he learns their culture and injects some of his own into their lives, we see a bond form between him and several of the key Vikings, as they learn to respect him and even accept him as one of their own. Ahmad is thrust into this situation because their soothsayer foretells that they need 13 men, one of whom must be no north-man. All through the film, Ahmad is forced to adapt to his surroundings, and this struggle is very relatable.

The action is quite visceral in this film to say the least. There are very few obvious special effects, which may be enough to bore some viewers, but there is something very appealing to me in watching regular humans do battle with real-looking weapons. People actually get tired and sloppy in this film, the battles, lit spectacularly by fire much of the time are exhilarating simply because the characters are often barely holding on, hopelessly outnumbered. I’m a sucker for a good sword fight, and this film has tons, including an entertaining duel midway through the film which shows off a nice bit of political intrigue. Visually this film is shot pretty well, although nothing special, and the set design is quite realistic and very creative. Most of the sets are historical, wooden halls and thatched huts, until we reach the layer of the villains, which is a gloriously over the top evil cave full of skulls and animal pelts. The costumes are for the most part pretty nice, although not very historically accurate. Several of the Vikings are wearing full plate armour, which was not widely used until several centuries later.

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However, I don’t watch this film for action or even for the story, I watch it for the characters. To start with Ahmad is a great protagonist. His journey from disinterested ambassador to hardened warrior is engaging and gradual, allowing the viewer to grow with him. We watch this new culture through his eyes, and his willingness to engage with and even adopt aspects of the Vikings life is heart-warming and fun. It’s also interesting to see him add his own twist on their ways, such as when he grinds a heavy sword into a smaller scimitar. Obviously this would really make for a terrible sword in real life, but it serves as a perfect blend of Arabian and Viking fighting styles, the curved blade and Norse hilt working together. Omar Sharif, though he wasn’t a fan of the film, is nonetheless quite enjoyable for the small time he is onscreen, seeming quite dry-witted and sardonic. The villains are quite lacking in charisma, although very intimidating.

The team of 12 Viking warriors are an odd bunch, most of whom for the sake of time receive little screen time and die at various points in order to up the stakes. There are several stand outs who get more development, but the two main Norse characters are the leader Buliwyf played by Vladimir Kulich, and his right-hand man, Herger, played by Dennis Storhøi. Buliwyf as the son of a recently deceased king and leader of the band of warriors is given a backstory and a connection with Ahmad, who teaches him to write a little, and then promises to write his deeds down as a ballad. Vladimir Kulich is stoic and gruff as Buliwyf, mostly quite wooden and gloomy looking, although he has moments where his deadpan lines provide some wry humour. However, for me, the best character, and biggest reason to watch this movie is Herger. Dennis Storhøi injects this character with such pure glee, and completely sells some of the best lines in the film. He is a delight to watch from start to finish, revelling in the battles and genuinely enjoying himself in the midst of life-threatening situations. His smile and manic energy are contrast with occasional moments of deep reflection and sadness, such as when he kills a worthy adversary and regrets his death. Herger is given the closest friendship to Ahmad, even calling him “little brother”, and he teases the Arab with seemingly genuine warmth. It’s always refreshing to see a character that simply enjoys life.

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A true pragmatist.

 

This film is a great time. It has stellar action and characters, and enough unique selling points for me to recommend it to anyone. I have always been confused as to why no-one has ever heard of this film, and why it has never received more attention, given who made it, and hopefully it will one day get a proper chance to shine. If you enjoy historical epics, Antonio Banderas or simply want to try something a bit different, I’d give this one a go!

Why Waterworld is actually quite good…

Why despite it’s reputation, Waterworld is a pretty fun time…

As a bit of change of pace, I thought I’d take a look at an old film I have quite a soft spot for, the 1995 film Waterworld. This is a notorious movie, partly because of its flaws, but probably more because it is remembered as a massive flop, which cost way too much to make. While this is partly true, I think that the reputation of this film has informed many people’s opinions, and I’d like to take some time to explain why I personally think it’s pretty good.

Firstly, lets recap the film. Waterworld is a post-apocalyptic film about a time after the Earth has been covered in water thanks to global warming. Kevin Costner plays the Mariner, a lone wanderer who sails a trimaran across the ocean, taking in resources. Through a series of misadventures, he becomes involved with a woman and her step-daughter, who has a tattoo on her back which is said to lead to the last dry land in the world. Along the way, there are floating cities, a brilliant villain and lots of great action.

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“Can you hold the script a bit higher please?”

So why is this film considered such a failure? There are certainly flaws, for instance, Kevin Costner isn’t very good in it. He is extremely bland; his entire performance gives the impression he doesn’t really care what is going on. Now, I’m not one of the people who think Costner is a bad actor, but his range is quite limited and he needs a good director, or a strong character, and sadly he doesn’t have either in this film. Secondly, the dialogue and plot can be a little awkward at times, particularly with the young kid Enola. The actress Tina Majorino has gone on to do good things, such as Napoleon Dynamite, but this early in her career, she isn’t convincing, and in fact is quite annoying at times.

However, actors and dialogue aside, most people know Waterworld as the Icarus of film, the movie that flew too close to the sun with a massive budget and not enough returns in the box office. While it is true that the film overran its budget thanks to the ambitious scope; everything was filmed on the water, most of the sets were built on the water. In the end the final budget was over 170 million dollars, it was never likely it would be able to make that back, after all it wasn’t a franchise film, and apart from the two leads didn’t star any major stars. In the end it took home just 88 million dollars at home, but 170 worldwide, meaning that the film almost broke even, but thanks to the profit cinemas take in, it took longer. In the end the film became profitable from DVD sales. While it wasn’t that financially successful, it certainly wasn’t the huge flop most people remember.

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Three hulled ship? That’s pretty awesome.

But anyway, what is so good about this film? The film has a surprisingly resonant message about how our world might be changed by global warming. It gets most of the science wrong, but that this film was made over 20 years ago shows an unusual awareness of a subject many still ignore today. The story is engaging and fun, the idea of a completely new world, not just the ruins of the old one is exciting for a film premise, and a lot more original than most modern post-apocalypses. But one of the major reasons I enjoy this film is watching the way things work in this world. There are some really creative machines and boats made out of recognisable present day junk, and watching how they function is really interesting. Add to that some epic water battles, including dogfights above the water and jet skiers leaping over the walls of a floating city, and you have a recipe for good entertainment. The film is like Mad Max with boats, using some really interesting vehicle designs and costumes that reflect the new society, made up of fish nets, discarded plastic and even deep-sea diver boots at one point. The film also takes great pains to show how people survive, using dirt that can grow plants as a new type of currency, and even some humans who have evolved to survive, with gills (although for some reason everybody hates the mutants).

But the best reason to see this film is to behold Dennis Hopper as the head of the smoker gang, Deacon. I have yet to see Hopper in a film where it isn’t clear he is coked to his eyeballs, and this is no exception. The man is just so entertaining, and at times even intimidating in his performance. He has a wicked sense of humour, and a short temper that he takes out on his own men. The intensity of his acting is mesmerising and makes me look forward to each scene he is in. It’s actually hard to tell if he is actually good as his character, because all I can see is Dennis Hopper having the time of his life, tearing the scenery to shreds with his teeth. If nothing else I have said has convinced you, watch this film just to witness Dennis Hopper.

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“I’m… gorgeous.”

So, despite not very compelling heroes, and some questionable dialogue and performances, this film is a fun dose of action through the lens of an interesting and original story premise. The costumes, set design and action scenes are spectacular, as you would hope for such a high budget. Dennis Hopper is gloriously fun as the villain and makes every second with a bland Kevin Costner all the more tolerable. In short, it’s a good time, and as long as you have the right expectations, you can go into this film and expect, at the very least to have fun.

Oh, and Jack Black is in it briefly!