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

An A to Z of 1960s Cult Movies Part 2


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…

N - Night of the Living Dead (1968)

We all know the drill by now. A group of bickering survivors hole up in a confined place, barricading doors and boarding up windows. Outside, something has caused the recently deceased to rise from their graves and feast on the flesh of the living. As hordes of the undead reach critical mass, it is only a matter of time before cooperation breaks down and the defences are breached.

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was another ‘60s low-budget success story that became one of the most influential horror movies ever made. Zombies had appeared in movies before Romero’s seminal chiller, but they tended to be the voodoo variety in films like White Zombie (1932) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Romero’s idea wasn’t totally without precedent, however – Terence Fisher’s brief and suspenseful The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) featured corpses resurrected by strange potato-headed aliens in silvery spacesuits.


An original movie poster for the film Night of the Living Dead


Yet it was Night of the Living Dead that burned the modern-day concept of cannibalistic zombies into popular culture, spawning several sequels in Romero’s own Living Dead series, remakes, and inspiring countless other horror movies. Not bad for a film that only cost $6000 initially (eventually rising to around $114,000). 

Over the decades, the premise has evolved with talking zombies, fast zombies, clever zombies, gun-wielding zombies, brain-eating zombies (an innovation of Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead), fungal zombies, indestructible zombies, and many other iterations. Yet it is Romero’s originals that still linger most in the imagination - slow, vacant, implacable, and hungry, shuffling in wave after wave in search of their next meal.

O - Outdoor Cinema

The phenomenon of outdoor screenings dates back as far as the 1920s when theatre owners figured it would be fun to watch movies outside at night when the weather was warm. The innovation took the film-going experience out of grand old urban cinemas and made it more accessible in rural communities across the United States, throwing images up on a makeshift screen or the wall of a building. Outdoor screenings were often accompanied by audiences bringing their own snacks and drinks, creating a convivial atmosphere.

The first drive-in theatre opened in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933. The format proved popular, allowing visitors to pull up their car in front of a giant screen and enjoy the movie in their own private space. The boom continued after the war as the drive-ins became a popular destination for family outings and date nights, and by 1958 there were over 4,000 open-air venues operating across the country. Around the same time, backyard screenings were becoming increasingly common as people had greater access to the equipment needed to throw their own movie night.


Drive In Movies in the 1960s


During their heyday in the late ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s, drive-ins became the domain of B-movies and exploitation flicks. Indoor theatres were able to show multiple screenings of a movie per day and still got first dibs on new releases, so drive-ins with their young and lively crowds became the place to go for cheap thrills. The more sensational and lurid the picture, the more people came, and drive-in owners gradually ended up showing X-rated movies to retain a foothold in the market.

The drive-ins waned in the ‘70s and ‘80s as land prices increased, people started driving smaller cars to save money as the price of gasoline soared, and the rise of home video entertainment. Still, the era of drive-in theatres hold a fond place in the memory of those who experienced the good times, and they also have an enduring place in popular culture thanks to their regular nostalgic appearance in movies like Grease (1978), Christine (1983), Twister (1996), and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019).

P - Point Blank (1967)

As a WWII veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart, Lee Marvin hated his most famous film, The Dirty Dozen (1967), calling it a “dumb moneymaker” that had nothing to do with real war. It had its benefits, though – while shooting the movie, Marvin met filmmaker John Boorman, who had a new project for him.

Based on Donald Westlake’s novel The Hunter, Point Blank offered Marvin one of his steeliest and most iconic roles. He plays Walker, a stony-faced criminal who is double-crossed and left for dead over $93,000. Unfortunately for his enemies, Walker recovers and sets out on a ruthless rampage to recover the loot.


An original movie poster for the film Point Blank


It’s pulp fiction heightened by Boorman’s unconventional style, a sleek fusion of film noir tropes and European nouvelle vague style. Stripping the plot back to its barest elements, the fractured narrative skips around a non-linear timeline that creates a disconcerting atmosphere as Walker relentlessly tracks down his foes. In the film’s most famous scene he marches down an endless corridor, his footsteps resounding like a ticking time bomb. This guy means business and Marvin portrays him as an unstoppable force of retribution.

Point Blank proved influential, inspiring both Brian Helgeland’s semi-remake Payback starring Mel Gibson and Steven Soderbergh’s similarly dream-like The Limey with Terence Stamp, both released in 1999.

Q- Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

In 2015, writer Adam Scovell coined the term “Urban Wyrd” to describe films and TV shows set in towns and cities that displayed many of the same themes as its rural cousin, folk horror. One of the first movies he discussed in relation to this new term was Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass and the Pit, one of the strongest and most chilling films to come out of the Hammer Horror stable.


An original movie poster for Quatermass and the Pit


The taut sci-fi horror is a sequel to Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2, and all three were based on earlier BBC serials featuring Nigel Kneale’s indomitable rocket scientist, Professor Bernard Quatermass. In this instance, Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is called in when an unusual metallic object is found during the extension of a London Underground station. At first, the authorities think it is a UXB, but it gradually becomes clear that it predates World War II – and, indeed, the human race – by about 5 million years. Furthermore, it contains the corpses of locust-like aliens, who may be long dead but still exert a sinister psychic hold on our monkey brains.

The special effects may be primitive but Quatermass and the Pit holds up superbly well thanks to Kneale’s robustly intelligent writing and solid performances from Keir as the gruff professor and familiar faces like James Donald and Julian Glover. The movie rattles along, too, building inexorably towards an apocalyptic telekinetic finale.

R - Roger Corman

We’ve mentioned Corman a few times on this list but it’s hard to get around it: The thrifty producer and director was simply one of the most prolific and influential figures of the time, a canny independent filmmaker who saw a gap in the market and filled it. And then some. During his lengthy career, Corman produced over 300 movies and directed around 50.

Rising from the mailroom at 20th Century Fox in the early ‘50s to become a trailblazing influence on popular culture, he certainly earned the nickname “The King of Cult.” Corman’s genius was that he identified an audience before the suits in Hollywood really knew it existed, a cohort of teens looking for excitement. Corman gave it to them in abundance, churning out dozens of low-budget and quickly-shot B-movies featuring hot rods, delinquents, rebel gangs, cowboys, alien invaders, gangsters, and killers.


Film maker Roger Corman


In doing so, he was extraordinarily successful. His memoir was boastfully titled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, but he also shared the love by giving many future stars their big break.

Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme and James Cameron all made their start on Corman pictures. In front of the camera, Charles Bronson, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Pam Grier, Sandra Bullock, and William Shatner made early appearances for the “Pope of Pop Cinema.”

While Corman often worked quickly and on the cheap, he also had taste. His production and distribution company New World Pictures released three Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winners – Amarcord (1973), Dersu Uzala (1975) and The Tin Drum (1979) - and also brought the works of world cinema heavyweights like Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and Werner Herzog to a wider audience in the United States. 

S - Swinging Sixties

The mid-to-late ‘60s was a glorious time for London. The Big Smoke emerged from the gloom and privation of the post-war years to become the fashion and cultural capital of the world for a few short years. A social revolution was underway, propelled by enthusiastic young people who embraced liberated attitudes towards sex, music, and drugs. British musicians embraced rock ‘n’ roll and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were at the spearhead of the London sound, while Jimi Hendrix was also in town developing his psychedelic image as the hippie craze caught on.

British film also changed, moving away from the “Grim up North” social realism of the British New Wave towards London-centric movies that reflected the fun, rebellious, and energetic spirit of the time. Many films of this period became cult classics.

As with their music, the Beatles were at the forefront of Swinging Sixties cinema. The energy and cheekiness of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) encapsulated the youthful swagger of the era, and the band made a handful of other films that cemented their status as cultural icons. Lester followed up with The Knack… And How to Get It (1965), another movie that summed up the aspiration and the sexual politics, not to mention the confident and jazzy film-making style that became a hallmark.

Two of the biggest film stars of the Swinging Sixties were Julie Christie and Michael Caine. The former starred in Darling (1965) and Caine’s cocksure attitude was perfectly suited to his roles in The Ipcress File (1965), Alfie (1966), and The Italian Job (1969). The latter made great use of three Mini Coopers, another icon of the bold and modern era, decked out in the colours of the Union Jack.


An original movie poster for the film Blow Up


Swinging Sixties cinema wasn’t just the domain of British filmmakers. Arguably the best film from the period, Blow-Up (1966), came from Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni, whose enigmatic mystery skewered the shallowness of a conceited fashion photographer (David Hemmings) and the beautiful young things that waft through his modish London flat.

T - Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

Preceding Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by a good few years, Two Thousand Maniacs! Is a backwoods horror from notorious schlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, the man who brought you Blood Feast, Monsters a Go-Go, This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! and The Gore Gore Girls, among others. An early pioneer in splatter, Lewis was a low-rent combo of Russ Meyer and Roger Corman, spewing out a string of cheap exploitation flicks stacked with nudity and ahead-of-its-time gore.


An original movie poster for the film Two Thousand Maniacs


Two Thousand Maniacs! Lewis cheerfully exploits north-south tensions in the United States as the redneck inhabitants of Pleasant Valley, Georgia, waylay unsuspecting young folk from the North to take part in their town’s centennial celebrations. And by celebrations, we mean slaughter, dismember, and eat them in a variety of carnivalesque ways to jaunty banjo music while cheering and waving Confederate flags.

The film was shot in two weeks in a small Florida burg and reportedly the whole town appeared as extras. They sure look like they’re having a high old time, but the movie grinds to a halt between the kills thanks to the terrible dialogue and stilted acting. But it’s the kills we’re here to see, and they’re pretty sadistic and gruesome for their time despite the strangely jovial tone of the movie. Lux Interior, outrageous front man of The Cramps, was apparently a fan, and John Waters named Multiple Maniacs in homage to Lewis’s hicksploitation classic.

U - The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Lavish Technicolor musicals were at their pomp in Hollywood in the ‘50s and 60s, reaching their peak when two 1964 releases, My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins both challenged for Best Picture at the following year’s Academy Awards. Famously, George Cukor’s version of Pygmalion starring Audrey Hepburn beat Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove to Best Picture and Best Director, while Julie Andrews scooped her only Oscar for playing the practically perfect nanny.

The same year as that glossy double-whammy, French director Jacques Demy brought us a musical of a vastly different tone and style: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Unlike traditional musicals where people talk normally for a few scenes before bursting into song and dance, Demy’s film takes an entirely different approach. Rather than musical numbers, the screenplay is entirely sung throughout with a jazzy score as an accompaniment.


An original movie poster for the film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg


It’s a little off-putting at first, but once you get into the swing of it, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg sweeps you away with its poignant romance and gorgeous use of colour. Vibrant hues are matched and contrasted, often with the background in dialogue with the costumes. Yet the shades are also beautifully muted, much like the bittersweet story.

Playing the vivacious and lovelorn Genevieve, the film was also a striking early role for Catherine Deneuve.

V - Vincent Price

It’s fair to say that Vincent Price had a pretty decent ‘60s. He had established himself as a horror star in the previous decade starring in movies like House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958) and House on Haunted Hill (1959), but it was during this period he really stamped his devilish charisma on films, bringing a blend of authority and dark humour to his roles.

Indeed, his performances offered B-movie directors gravitas they simply wouldn’t have found in a more generic lead, and Roger Corman capitalised on this with a string of garish but effective Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, most notably House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Towards the end of the decade, he was also cast in Witchfinder General (1968). He gave one of his most impressive performances in the film, portraying the nefarious Matthew Hopkins without a trace of his customary ham.


Vincent Price in The Witchfinder General


In between, he also starred in an influential B-movie horror called The Last Man on Earth (1964). Based on Richard Matheson’s seminal novel I am Legend, it was a cheapo production filmed in Italy to save money. Producer Robert L. Lippert even got the author onside by telling him he had Fritz Lang lined up to direct – Matheson’s response when Sidney Salkow took over was: “Well, there’s a bit of a drop.”

Price was somewhat miscast in a rare good guy role, but the film’s slow-moving vampires anticipated George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The movie inspired two remakes: The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston, and the blockbuster I am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith.

W - Woodstock (1970)

I’m cheating a little bit here because the movie wasn’t released until 1970, but is there anything that is more synonymous with the peace and love of the hippie movement in the ‘60s than Woodstock?


An original movie poster for the film Woodstock


Over three days in August 1969, almost half a million people gathered a dairy farm in Upstate New York for a music festival featuring an amazing line-up including Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Joe Cocker, The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Only 50,000 tickets were sold and the weather was poor, but the event attracted a vast crowd and became synonymous as the high-water mark of the counterculture movement of the ‘60s, billed as an “Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.”

Luckily, a film crew was there to capture the moment. The resulting documentary, directed by Michael Wadleigh and edited by Martin Scorsese’s legendary collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, was released to great acclaim in March of 1970.

X - X: The Man with The X-Ray Eyes (1963)

Ray Milland’s career spanned over 50 years, in which time he went from suave leading man to ageing guest star in TV shows like Columbo, Battlestar Galactica, and Hart to Hart. His crowning glory came in 1946 when he won his only Oscar for his riveting portrayal of alcoholic writer Don Birnham in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). He never quite managed to match that performance, and in the ‘60s and ‘70s he moved into sci-fi and horror movies. During this period, he had one truly outstanding role: Dr. James Xavier in Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.


An original movie poster for X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes


The movie, shot over three weeks with a relatively handsome budget of $300,000, is also one of Corman’s most compelling productions. It’s another mad scientist tale that spirals into cosmic horror. Dr. Xavier develops eye drops to improve human vision well beyond its normal scope and, naturally for the genre, tests them out on himself. At first, he is amused by the results - a dinner party where he can see through the clothes of other guests is a humorous early highlight - but is gradually driven mad as the effects grow stronger, to the point where he is able to see a monstrous cosmic entity at the centre of the universe.

Y - Yellow Submarine (1968)

It’s incredible to think of what the Fab Four achieved in just 10 years from their formation in 1960 to their bitter breakup in 1970, going from cheeky pop upstarts to world-conquering superstars and one of the most influential rock bands ever recorded. Over the course of the decade, they also found time to get into movies, beginning with Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964).

As their career went from live tours to studio-based recording and their interest in mind-altering drugs and Eastern philosophies grew, their films got trippier with The Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and the animated Yellow Submarine (1968). They didn’t actually appear in the latter other than a small cameo and were played by voice actors instead, but the wildly imaginative feature is steeped in flower power imagery and psychedelic colours that typified the band’s look at the time, most notably on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.


An original movie poster for The Beatles' film Yellow Submarine


Taking us from the sub-aquatic fantasy world of Pepperland to grey old Liverpool and back again, the story strings a bunch of Beatles songs together as the boys are recruited to defeat the music-hating Blue Meanies. Everyone has their favourites but for me, the rendition of “All You Need Is Love” is a joyous and surprisingly moving highlight.

Z - Zatoichi

The adventures of Zatoichi have a mythic and almost superhero-like quality to them: A blind former masseur and lightning-fast swordsman roams the land, righting wrongs and facing off against a series of powerful and increasingly outlandish foes. Portrayed as a humble yet wily and steel-willed character by the inimitable Shintaro Katsu, he’s a captivating figure, and his first screen outing as the Blind Swordsman made him a star in his home country.


An original movie poster for the 1962 film Zatoichi


Adapted from the writings of 19th-Century novelist Kan Shimozawa, The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) was a huge hit in Japan and 24 more films were released between the same year and 1973, all with Katsu embodying the beloved character. It became Japan’s longest-running action series and a TV show with over 100 episodes, also starring Katsu, followed in the ‘70s. 

He returned once more for Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally (1989), his last time playing the role, the same year that Hollywood also got in on the action. Rutger Hauer was Nick Parker, a modernised version of the classic character, in Blind Fury, loosely based on Zatoichi Challenged from 1967.


So there you have it, our A-Z guide to cult cinema of the 1960s. What are your favourite cult films of the era? Let us know!



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