An A to Z of 1970s Cult Movies - Part 1
From lost films to midnight movies, pagan cults to vengeful assassins, sweet transvestites to lesbian vampires... can you dig our A to Z of 1970's cult movies - Part 1?
People get themselves tied up in knots trying to define what a cult movie actually is. It’s pretty difficult because almost anything has the potential to gather a cult following, given time and a different perspective. Just take Reefer Madness. It was a pious piece of anti-ganja propaganda funded by a church group in the 30s, which eventually developed a fanbase among the stoners it sought to demonise.
It may sound obvious, but the key word here is “cult”. A cult film is something that deviates from the mainstream - either intentionally or accidentally - and attracts a certain type of movie buff who is bored with standard multiplex fodder that is forgotten by the time you get across the foyer. They are films that feel like a secret club, and once you’re “in”, they make you feel special for loving a movie that the square audience simply doesn’t get, or outright can’t tolerate. These movies lure you in with promises of the strange, lurid and transgressive. Like a cult, once they have their hooks into you, they simply won’t let go.
The term “cult film” was only coined in the 1970s, and that is where we will begin our journey through the weird, wonderful and sometimes disturbing world of cult movies...
A is for… Aussie Rules, OK?
The ‘70s was a great decade for Australian cinema and Ted Kotcheff’s parched Wake in Fright is credited with kicking off the Australian New Wave. Telling the story of a teacher’s alcoholic weekend in a brawny outback mining town, it developed a cult reputation as the era’s “lost film” before it was rescued and restored to put the sweats on a new generation of movie buffs.
Other key cult movies of the era include Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, Bruce Beresford’s tough heist flick Money Movers, and early films from Peter Weir including Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Cars That Ate Paris.
Then towards the end of the decade came a lean, mean post-apocalyptic action movie called Mad Max…
B is for… Blaxploitation
Born out of the civil rights and Black Power movements was Blaxploitation, a vivid burst of American cinema that was made principally by, for and about people of colour. Often made on a shoestring and set in tough urban environments, these films put a new spin on common American genre flicks, featuring lashings of sex, violence, and attitude along the way. Gritty, stylish and in-your-face, Blaxploitation made cult icons out of actors like Pam Grier, Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree.
Shaft and Across 110th Street are great entry points to the genre, but there is far more to it than just crime dramas. Also check out the provocative animated satire Coonskin, the vampire hybrid Ganja & Hess, and the sexually explicit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.
C is for… Chopsocky
The early ‘70s saw an explosion of martial arts movies from Hong Kong, which for a brief time dominated the US box office. In May 1973, three foreign films held the top three spots for the first time - Fists of Fury, Lady Whirlwind and Five Fingers of Death. Without a hint of condescension, Variety even coined a term for the genre - “chopsocky”, combining “chop” as in karate chop, and “sock”, as in punch.
The biggest star to come out of these movies was Bruce Lee. Having made a name for himself stateside in The Green Hornet TV show, he really hit the bigtime with his string of martial arts movies in the early 70s. He had become a global superstar and cultural icon before his untimely death at the age of 32, during the filming of his most famous movie, Enter the Dragon.
D is for… The Day the Clown Cried (1972)
Jerry Lewis’s infamous holocaust drama about a clown imprisoned in a concentration camp has developed mysterious reputation and a cult following online precisely because almost no-one has seen it. Shrouded with controversy and legal issues, Lewis has repeatedly vowed that it would never be released.
Content-wise it sounds a lot like Roberto Benigni’s maudlin Oscar winner, Life is Beautiful, and we might still get the chance to see if it’s as awful as it sounds in 2024, the latest date stipulated for its earliest release.
E is for… Eraserhead
Way back before “Lynchian” became a catch-all word to describe movies that are off-kilter and surreal, an unheard of filmmaker named David Lynch was doing a paper round to make a bit of extra cash during the production of his first feature film, Eraserhead. Lynch had been making short films since the late 60s, but this disturbing body horror really put him on the map.
Jack Nance’s towering haircut and the film’s deformed baby became iconic cult images, and some critics simply didn’t know what to do with it. They were equally surprised when he followed up this low budget nightmare with the polished, incredibly humane The Elephant Man a few years later.
F is for… Folk Horror
Folk horror, originally a uniquely British offshoot of the horror genre, had its finest hour in the early 70s. Becoming increasingly difficult to define as the canon expanded, the founding films often featured urban types coming a cropper in rural settings, usually at the hands of locals and / or a supernatural force.
Three films form folk horror’s revered “Unholy Trinity”. It began with Witchfinder General in 1968, and was completed by The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and the subgenre’s crown jewel, The Wicker Man (1973).
The latter, Robin Hardy’s uniquely strange horror musical, has had a massive influence on the recent resurgence of folk horror, including movies like Ritual, Midsommar and Apostle.
While the Unholy Trinity were theatrical releases, many other notable examples of the era were TV-based, such as Robin Redbreast and Penda’s Fen. Then there were the BBC’s excellent Ghost Stories for Christmas, which featured brilliantly eerie adaptations of several M.R. James tales, including Lost Hearts, A Warning to the Curious and The Ash Tree.
G is for… Giallo
Although lurid, paint-like red is the defining colour of the movie genre, the name Giallo (“yellow”) originally referred to the covers of cheap pulp fiction novels in Italy that became synonymous with the sensational stories contained within.
Translated to film, the term Giallo is known for a string of Italian horror-mysteries containing explicit violence, bad dubbing, overwrought sex scenes, killers wearing leather gloves, and beautiful women wearing big hats and even bigger bell bottoms.
Beginning in the 60s, giallo reached its peak in the 70s with films like Deep Red, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, and All the Colours of the Dark. Italian horror masters Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento all made key contributions to the genre in their distinct styles.
H is for… Harold and Maude
Perhaps one of the darkest romances ever released by a major Hollywood studio, Hal Ashby’s deadpan Harold and Maude tells the story of a suicidal young man who falls for a 79-year-old concentration camp survivor with a lust for life.
The film’s black humour often proves too difficult for some (myself included), yet there is no denying that the magnificent Ruth Gordon, playing Maude, is one of the greatest and most unlikely Manic Pixie Dream Girls in cinema history.
I is for… It’s Alive
This killer baby flick isn’t the best movie on maverick director Larry Cohen’s CV, but it does mark his transition into sci-fi and horror, after cutting his teeth in Blaxploitation. His low budget oeuvre had idiosyncratic characters and a satirical bite, plus plenty of monsters, violence and gloop.
He followed up his horror debut with a string of cult classics like the strange sci-fi crime thriller God Told Me To (1976) and It Lives Again (1978), before carrying on with more of the same in the 80s with Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff. Cohen eventually moved into the mainstream, most notably with the Colin Farrell-starring thriller Phone Booth. Yet blessed with a big budget, he never achieved the charm, wit and edge of his earlier movies.
J is for… Jodorowsky
Novelist, sculptor, playwright, actor, guru, filmmaker… visionary Chilean madman Alejandro Jodorowsky is a key figure in cult cinema. His feature film debut, El Topo, was a surreal acid western that started the “midnight movie” phenomenon of the 1970s. He followed it with his masterpiece, the unclassifiable head trip The Holy Mountain, which generated enough buzz for Jodorowsky to get chosen to direct an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s venerated sci-fi novel, Dune.
The pre-production of the tragically aborted project has cult status in its own right. Jodorowsky put together a cast including Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger, as well as getting artists like H.R. Geiger, Moebius and Pink Floyd involved before the plug was pulled. There is even a film about it, Jodorowsky’s Dune.
K is for… Ken Russell
The 1970s was a big decade for the flamboyant British director. His flashy stories of composers Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Liszt (The Music Lovers, Mahler and Lisztomania respectively) put to rest the notion of the stuffy historical biopic. Critics weren’t always on board, with Pauline Kael once stating of The Music Lovers: “You really feel you should drive a stake through the heart of the man who made it.”
Other films of the decade include his spectacular rock opera Tommy, starring everyone from Roger Daltry and Elton John to Jack Nicholson and Oliver Reed. The rambunctious, heavy-drinking Reed also starred in Russell’s 1971 masterpiece, The Devils. Based on the Aldous Huxley novel, he played a ladies man priest who falls foul when a lustful nun accuses him of witchcraft. Vanessa Redgrave is stunning as the deformed Sister Jeanne, a woman whose spine is as crooked as her soul.
L is for… Lady Snowblood (1973)
Snow and blood are the two visual motifs repeated so gloriously throughout Toshiya Fujita’s stunningly beautiful revenge thriller. Crisp white snow on a fairytale set and fountains of blood unleashed by our protagonist’s sword are images that live long in the mind.
Tarantino borrowed heavily from Lady Snowblood for his Kill Bill saga, and it’s not hard to see why -it’s a film that hits home viscerally, artistically and emotionally. Meiko Kaji is impossible to look away from as the young woman born for vengeance, abhorring her own violent actions but having nothing else to live for.
M is for… Monty Python
The surreal comedy troupe of Oxbridge alumni upended the norms of staid British TV with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, building a devoted following before moving to the big screen.
Their first effort was And Now For Something Completely Different, recreating skits from the show in a 90 minute package designed to crack America. Then came Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which really was something completely different. It was an irreverent take on Arthurian legend including killer rabbits, abusive French soldiers and the Old Bill.
They followed the success of Holy Grail with the far more polished Life of Brian which, perhaps predictably, kicked up massive controversy and accusations of blasphemy. Some countries banned it, and the outrage from conservative figures like Mary Whitehouse provided extra publicity, ensuring that the film was a box office hit!
That’s the end of Part One of our A-Z of 1970's Cult Movies. Grab yourself some refreshments during the intermission because we’ll return with Part Two next week!
In the meantime, what are your favourite cult movies of the era? It’s a huge subject - would you suggest any alternatives to the entries above? Let us know!