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Fantastic original movie posters from Art of the Movies

 

 

An A to Z of 1960s Cult Movies - Part One

Easy Rider

 

As discussed in our very first A to Z, the term “cult movie” was first coined in the early ‘70s when hip and open-minded cinema-goers made midnight movies a popular pastime. As a result, peculiar and transgressive films like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show found their audience.

But what of the previous decade? Late night horror shows on TV arrived in the mid-1950s with hosts like Vampira, Morgus the Magnificent, and Tarantula Ghoul, and carried through until the dawn of the internet. Around the same time, sensational and schlocky exploitation pictures aimed at a teen audience seeking cheap thrills became a staple of fleapits and drive-ins. Grindhouse theatres, which got their name in the 1920s, and Sleaze House cinemas became synonymous with late night double or triple-bills screening salacious and violent trash flicks before their demise in the ‘70s.

So cult movies were well-represented in the ‘60s before there was even a catch-all term to describe them, and it was a very colourful period that reflected the societal changes of the decade: women’s lib, drugs, sexual revolution, rock ‘n’ roll, flower power, counterculture and protest movements, and so on. So put on your best tie dye shirt and load up on peyote, because here we go…

A - Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol was one of the great cult figures of the 20th Century, rising from his modest beginnings illustrating ads to become the most iconic and recognisable modern artist of all time. In the mid-60s he started making movies – lots and lots of movies. He churned them out paying little heed to quality or convention, producing over 60 films and almost 500 screen tests of his friends, hangers-on, Factory acolytes, local oddballs, and anyone else he found interesting at that moment.

Warhol’s most famous experimental films are the stuff of legend, even if most people have never actually sat through them: Sleep (1964), five hours of a guy catching some Z’s; Empire (1965), an eight-hour static shot of the Empire State Building; and Blow Job (1964), half an hour of a guy receiving head, although you don’t actually see the act itself. 

 

An original movie poster for the Andy Warhol film Chelsea Girls

 

Warhol made more explicit material later with Blue Movie (1969), the first film showing unsimulated sex to receive a theatrical release in the United States and a landmark film in the so-called Golden Age of Pornography. He also went slightly mainstream (for him) with Chelsea Girls (1968), featuring his favourite Factory superstar, Edie Sedgwick.

B - The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)

There were plenty of mad scientist flicks about in the ‘60s and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is either the pinnacle or the nadir, depending on your point of view. Mystery Science Theater 3000 certainly had their fun with it, but it stands out as a very strong piece of schlock.

 

An original movie poster for the film The Brain That Wouldn't Die

 

The ghoulish and sleazy premise speaks for itself. After Jan (Virginia Leith), the wife of a brilliant surgeon (Jason Evers) is decapitated in a car accident, he keeps her disembodied noggin alive in a tray while he goes out curb crawling and brothel creeping looking for the perfect replacement body. Meanwhile, Jan develops a psychic connection with the monster locked in the closet.

Director Joseph Green commits fully to the outrageous tale, which is surprisingly engrossing for a cheap and badly made movie. He also goes full bore with the sex, glore, violence, and creature effects, all of which were pretty explicit for its time.

C - Carnival of Souls (1962)

Also released in 1962 was Herk Harvey’s astonishing one-and-done feature film, Carnival of Souls. Shot on a shoestring budget in haunting black and white, it was basically an unofficial remake of The Twilight Zone episode The Hitch-hiker (1960). Yet it is now revered as an unconventional arthouse horror that has influenced the likes of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).

 

An original movie poster for the film Carnival Of Souls

 

The eerie story follows Mary Henry (Candance Hilligloss), a young woman who takes a job as an organist in Salt Lake City after she miraculously escapes a car wreck. She can’t remember how she survived, but she is now pursued by a sinister ghost-like figure known as “The Man,” played by the director himself.

The final twist will surprise absolutely nobody these days, but Harvey creates a genuinely unnerving somnambulist atmosphere that still gets deep under the skin.

D - Danger: Diabolik (1968)

In 1968, producer Dino De Laurentiis masterminded two colourful comic book adaptations that fully encapsulated the groovy ‘60s Euro style. The more famous film was his goofy but strangely restrained adaptation of the French comic Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda and John Phillip Law. The Adonis-ike Law then took the lead role in the campy and freewheeling Danger: Diabolik, playing a master criminal who stages a series of elaborate heists to pamper his sultry girlfriend Eva (Marisa Mell).

 

An original movie poster for the film Danger Diabolik

 

Although Diabolik was an anti-heroic character, the film has clear parallels with the James Bond series with its glamorous settings, sexy cars, sleek fashions, copious action, and the criminal’s joyously over-the-top lair. The latter rivals Blofeld’s digs in You Only Live Twice from the year before, and there is a further connection with Adolfo Celi playing the villain after appearing as Largo in Thunderball (1965).

The film may have developed a reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure (again thanks to MST3000) but it has plenty of quality. Adapted from a popular series of Italian comics, De Laurentiis lured veteran horror director Mario Bava (Black Sunday) with a proposed budget of $3 million. Bava said he could do it on just $500,000, employing a wide array of cinematic sleight-of-hand to create a compulsively entertaining pop art action adventure. The producer also secured the services of Ennio Morricone to compose the movie’s psychedelic score.

E - Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider

 

Bob Dylan wasn’t kidding when he sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and that was keenly felt in the American movie industry as the ‘60s barrelled towards the tough and gritty ‘70s. As the old studio system faltered, the tone of cinema began to change with a series of challenging and groundbreaking films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Wild Bunch (1969). These movies upended conventions and paved the way for the American New Wave. One of the key films of this period was Dennis Hopper’s counterculture mission statement, Easy Rider.

 

An original movie poster for the film Easy Rider

 

If modern viewers know Easy Rider at all, it is probably thanks to the use of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” on the soundtrack. Those scenes of Hopper and Peter Fonda riding hogs along the highway summed up the feeling of freedom and rebellion that flowed from the counterculture movement. The rest of the film had plenty to say about how young people itching to kick back against the system saw themselves in an era of nonconformism, psychedelic drugs, and hippie flower power. It may look a little dated today, but that is precisely because it captured a particular attitude and moment in time so vividly.

F - Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Faster Pussycat Kill Kill

 

Russ Meyer’s influential bad-girls-go-wild exploitation flick bursts across the starting line from the ominous opening voice over and keeps the pedal to the metal for the next 80 gloriously seedy, violent, and titillating minutes.

 

An original movie poster for the film Faster Pussycat Kill Kill

 

Three go-go dancers led by the fierce and psychotic Varla (Tura Satana in one of the great cult performances) are out racing their motor cars in the desert looking for kicks. When they encounter a Square couple and challenge them to a drag race, Varla kills the guy and they kidnap the girl. That’s just for starters. Stopping at a gas station, they learn of a disabled old pervert who has a large wedge of cash stashed on his ranch and plan to rob him. Their victim isn’t as harmless as he seems - he delights in watching his hulking simple-minded son sexually assault women. Next on his list is our trio’s hostage.

What sets Meyer’s salacious thriller apart from other cheap exploitation flicks of its ilk are two things: The style, and how Meyer treats his three main characters. Peppered with quotable hard-boiled dialogue, the film is shot at a breakneck pace and with remarkable visual storytelling. Just about every frame looks like a comic book panel.

As for Meyer, he was unapologetically a breast man and he used his role as a director to satisfy his desire to film large-breasted women, and also made a lucrative career on the basis that a certain demographic also liked looking at large-breasted women in his movies, too. What is unusual about Faster, Pussycat is that Meyer puts the objects of his lust in an unusual position of power that is rare for women of ‘60s movies – or any other era, for that matter.

While there is plenty of cleavage on display, he shoots the wicked trio from ultra-low angles, giving them an almost God-like stature. Even nowadays, it’s unusual to see a movie that allows female characters to do what guys normally do with impunity - fight, race cars, chase guys, murder people, etc. As a result, Faster, Pussycat has become an accidental feminist classic and gave us three pulp antiheroes who strongly influenced Tarantino’s Death Proof.

G - Godzilla Movies

Before his more recent guise as a towering CGI creation in the MonsterVerse series, Godzilla was fondly remembered as a man in a rubber monster suit stomping on cardboard cities and wrestling with equally rubbery rival creatures. This cliche stemmed from the ‘60s era of the Godzilla series, the longest-running franchise in movie history. 

Godzilla himself was pretty rubbery from the get-go in Ishiro Honda’s seminal Godzilla (1954), but it was a surprisingly sober film where the iconic Kaiju provided an allegory for the atomic annihilation wrought on Japan at the end of World War II. 

 

An original movie poster for the film Godzilla vs King Kong

 

Things got more light-hearted in the ‘60s when Honda pitted his monster against a series of archenemies, starting with a certain famous giant ape in 1962’s King Kong vs Godzilla. Next, he took on Mothra (another Honda creation) in Mothra vs Godzilla (1964) before gradually becoming a more likeable antihero in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (also 1964), Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) and Son of Godzilla (1967). Director Jun Fukuda stepped in for the last two, but Honda returned to round out the decade with two all-star monster slobberknockers, Destroy All Monsters (1968) and All Monsters Attack (1969).

H - Hollywood Babylon

Kenneth Anger was always a cult figure. The underground artist and director was regarded as one of America’s first openly gay filmmakers, one who often blended homosexuality with occult themes in his movies. In the late ‘50s, however, he launched an astonishing broadside on the Golden Era of Tinseltown: Hollywood Babylon.

 

An original poster for Hollywood Babylon

 

First published in 1959, the gossipy, bitchy, and utterly spurious book was pure tabloid trash. It was also totally unputdownable. It delved into the dirty laundry of the stars of the silver screen and no sordid rumour, scandalous urban legend, or grisly demise was too low for its pages. As a result, Hollywood Babylon caused quite a stir when it finally made it Stateside in 1965, when it was immediately banned. As with any hard-to-obtain controversial material, this censorship only built the mythos of Anger’s tattle-tale work before it was allowed back on bookshelves in 1975.

Peter Andrews of the New York Times summed it up best: “If a book such as this can be said to have charm, it lies in the fact that here is a book without one single redeeming merit.”

I - If… (1968)

Lindsay Anderson’s pointed and acerbic If… was released a year before Ken Loach’s masterpiece Kes, and together they provided a scathing indictment of the British education system in the ‘60s. Yet while Loach’s painfully sad drama was rooted deeply in working-class concerns, Anderson took to task the stiff-necked privilege and rituals of Public School life by throwing a metaphorical hand grenade into the wood-panelled halls of a very posh college.

 

An original movie poster for the film If...

 

If… was Malcolm McDowell’s screen debut. He plays Travis, a young rebel fighting against the smug and rigid authority of his school’s “Whips,” senior students charged with keeping the others in line. As in other aspects of society, the Whips routinely abuse their power, and the clash between Travis, his chums, and their abusers sets the film on course for its final (probably hallucinatory) act of violent and bloody revolution.

McDowell is astonishing in the role, an anti-hero it is hard to like but impossible to tear your eyes from. Travis has the same sneer, scornful eyes, and crooked grin that would make the young actor a shoo-in for the once-in-a-lifetime role of Alex DeLarge a few years later in A Clockwork Orange.

J - Jack Nicholson

With his intense charisma and outsider edge, Jack Nicholson became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the ‘70s with a string of outstanding performances in films like Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974), before Oscar-winning glory playing R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). 

 

Jack Nicholson

 

Before that, however, Nicholson put in the hard work in a series of exploitation flicks from the late ‘50s to the role that made him a star, an Oscar-nominated turn as an alcoholic lawyer in Easy Rider (1969). He was a Roger Corman discovery, making his debut in The Cry Baby Killer (1958) and appearing in several more Corman productions, most notably as a masochistic dental patient in The Little Shop of Horrors (1962) and the psychedelic hit The Trip (1967), was designed to cash in on the LSD craze in the Summer of Love. During this period, Nicholson also built up his clout in Hollywood as a writer and producer.

K - Kiss Me Quick! (1964)

Exploitation movies often attempted to cash in on the popularity of more respectable and mainstream films. This cheap ‘n’ cheerful skin flick was originally titled Dr. Breedlove, or How I Learned to Stop Worry and Love after the success of Stanley Kubrick’s classic doomsday satire, but was changed to Kiss Me Quick! To reference Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid instead.

 

An original movie poster for the film Kiss Me Quick

 

Clocking in at just over an hour, Peter Perry’s movie is an excuse for a string of stripteases and topless go-go dancing as Sterilox (Frank Coe doing a great Stan Laurel impression), a gormless denizen of the Buttless galaxy, is sent to Earth to find the perfect female specimen to help create a class of servants. He arrives in the lab of Dr. Breedlove (Max Gardens), a mad scientist with a Bela Lugosi accent and an unruly Dr. Strangelove arm. Breedlove is developing a sex machine, and his spooky castle is filled with a group of sexy specimens who can’t get enough of trying it out.

Despite all the gratuitous nudity, Kiss Me Quick! Is a nudie cutie that certainly isn’t PC but, now hardcore porn is only a few keystrokes away, all seems rather perky and innocent. The jokes are pretty witless but it also prefigures The Rocky Horror Picture Show with its homages to classic horror and sci-fi movies. There is also fun to be had with the names of the characters, including Gertie Tassle, Boobra, Hotty Totty, Gigi String, and Gina Catchafanni… pretty on-the-nose but no more obvious than Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, released a few months earlier.

L - The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

The increasing demand for B-movies and schedule-fillers in the ‘50s and ‘60s created fertile ground for ambitious producers and directors to get their foot in the Hollywood door. Some tried and failed - Edward D. Wood Jr of Plan 9 From Outer Space ignominy, never found fame or fortune during his lifetime. Others succeeded, and the prime example was Roger Corman – more on his remarkable career later.

Corman made many cheap flicks but The Little Shop of Horrors deserves a separate mention. The goofy comedy horror stars Jonathan Haze as Seymour, a hapless clerk in a florist shop who develops a blood-craving plant that he names Audrey Jr. after his co-worker and sweetheart, played by Jackie Joseph. As the voracious flower grows bigger, Seymour ends up feeding it people to sate its appetite.

 

An original movie poster for the film The Little Shop of Horrors

 

Legend has it that Corman knocked out the movie in three days to win a bet. Whether that is true or not, the thrifty producer and director managed the task, re-using sets from his previous movie A Bucket of Blood (1959) and spending only around $28,000. The movie itself is fun, featuring Corman regular Dick Miller in a small role and young Jack Nicolson as Wilbur Force, a dental junkie who loves pain.

The film had a curious afterlife with a stage musical, a big budget $25 million remake in the ‘80s, and a kids cartoon show. In Czechoslovakia, Dinner for Adele (Adéla ještě nevečeřela) recycled the idea, although it isn’t clear if Oldřich Lipský ripped off Corman’s film or not.

M - Mantango, aka, Attack of the Mushroom People (1963)

Here’s a movie that has criminally suffered from a very silly American title. Attack of the Mushroom People suggests another B-movie creature feature, but what we actually get is a dark and surprisingly disturbing rumination on human nature. 

From Godzilla mastermind Ishiro Honda and written by Honda’s regular monster movie scribe Takeshi Kimura, Mantango tells the story of young daytrippers whose yacht gets badly damaged in a storm. They limp ashore on an unknown island where they discover a shipwreck. Consulting the captain’s log, it seems that the crew succumbed to poisoning by hallucinogenic mushrooms growing in the forest, perhaps mutated by atomic testing.

 

An original movie poster for the film Mantango

 

Needless to say, when hunger takes over the protagonists succumb to the deadly fungi themselves, turning into weird hybrid mushroom-human creatures. The film is a slow-burner, building up suspense and a tangible sense of dread before we finally see the mushroom people. Then things get really wild and trippy.

Mantango was almost banned in Japan due to the mushroom mutants’ resemblance to the victims of the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Steven Soderbergh, who has said that the film “scared the shit” out of him as a kid, wanted to remake it but couldn’t secure the rights. That might have been something!  

 

So we’ve reached the end of Part One of our A-Z guide to 1960s cult movies. What groovy surprises will we have in Part Two? Top up on popcorn and stay tuned to find out!

 

Intermission

 

Fantastic original movie posters from Art of the Movies

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