An A to Z of 1970s Cult Movies - Part 2
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 2?
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...
N is for… Night of the Lepus (1972)
If something could crawl, fly, slither, swim, hop, or even roll, there’s a good chance it had its own creature feature in the 70s, wreaking havoc among casts of screaming B-listers and extras.
Some were played for laughs. Piranha was Joe Dante’s big break, mixing gore with sly winks, while Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was a low-grade spoof of the genre. The majority were deadly serious, their po-facedness clashing wildly with their inherently silly nature, which only added to the cult movie potential. Funny or straight-faced, most were trash.
While not the worst of the bunch (that title must go to The Giant Spider Invasion) the dumbest was surely Night of the Lepus. Featuring regular-sized bunnies half-heartedly trampling model houses, Janet Leigh and Spock’s mate DeForest Kelley starred in this goofy horror about giant rabbits terrorising a small town.
O is for… Orson Welles
Although reputed as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Welles’ career as both actor and director was terminally on the slide during the 1970s. He intermittently tinkered with his long term project The Other Side of the Wind, narrated some documentaries and made a few appearances on stage and screen. He was a frequent figure on talk shows, an easy fall back for a natural raconteur like himself. It was all a far cry from his greatest work, yet in between that and doing ill-tempered voice overs for TV commercials, he still found time for one last masterpiece - the cult documentary F for Fake.
A dazzling video essay that playfully contemplates storytelling, showmanship, forgery, misdirection, mortality, authorship and sheer human folly, F for Fake is Welles’ elegy for his own career. Stitching together a bewildering amount of footage, the film’s centrepiece is his Chartres monologue, perhaps the most simultaneously moving and self-aggrandising speech ever committed to film.
P is for… Pink Flamingos (1972)
In his review for the 25th anniversary restoration of Pink Flamingos, Robert Ebert declined to give his customary star rating, saying: “It should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object”.
It’s hard to disagree with his sentiments. Pink Flamingos is simply one of the most crude, vile, disgusting and idiotic films in movie history. Although it is notorious for its conclusion, where its star Divine eats a freshly dropped dog turd, I’m not even sure that is the film’s low point.
Born Harris Glenn Milstead, ferocious drag queen Divine is one of cult cinema’s most iconic pinups, once described as the “Goddess of Gross”. Director John Waters, the self-proclaimed Pope of Trash, went on to become everyone’s worldliest, queerest uncle. For those tempted to explore his oeuvre, something semi-safe like Cry Baby or Serial Mom is a more rewarding introduction.
Q is for… Quadrophenia (1979)
Parkas, scooters and punch-ups on the beach... It can only be Quadrophenia, the movie version of The Who’s rock opera. Phil Daniels stars as an angry young man who is determined to become a “face” among the gang of Mods who descend on Brighton to take on a rival gang of Rockers.
Gritty and rebellious, Quadrophenia is a successor to the kitchen sink dramas of the British New Wave of the late 50s and early 60s, just with a better soundtrack. The film also stars Sting, a very young Ray Winstone, Michael Elphick and a host of well-known British character actors.
R is for… The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
For many people, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the cult movie. Almost fifty years after the big screen adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s saucy rock musical, audiences still queue up to dress in stockings and suspenders, throw props around and belt out the tunes.
A cheeky pastiche of old sci-fi and mad scientist flicks, we follow square couple Brad and Janet as they stumble upon the spooky mansion of Dr Frank N Furter on the night he is unveiling his latest creation to his cohorts. He has created Rocky, a ripped blonde muscleman, for his own pleasure…
The Rocky Horror Picture Show still thrills with its joyous sense of transgressiveness. Tim Curry’s salacious performance as Frank N Furter is cult perfection, the host with the most who is simply the funniest, sexiest party guy, despite being a cannibalistic murderer. There are a few duds on the soundtrack, but otherwise the songs are addictively singalong. It’s hard not to get swept away in the movie’s vibe when Frank struts his stuff to the showstopper “Sweet Transvestite”...
S is for… Sorcerer (1977)
William Friedkin was one of the hottest directors around with the double whammy of The French Connection (Oscar Winner - Best Director) and The Exorcist (Oscar nomination - Best Director). He also won back-to-back Golden Globes for Best Director. If a little something called Star Wars didn’t exist, maybe he would’ve made it a hat-trick with Sorcerer...
It’s a nail-biting thriller about four desperate men, exiled in South America, who take on the deadly task of transporting truckloads of volatile explosives across the jungle. The centrepiece is the incredibly suspenseful scene when the trucks cross a rickety rope bridge during a massive storm.
Sorcerer was swept away in the Star Wars craze and was a big box office flop. Thankfully it built a cult following over the years and is now gradually becoming recognised as a forgotten late-70s classic.
T is for… The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Five young friends are on the road trip from hell when they run out of gas and stumble on a household of cannibalistic murderers. Loosely based on the Ed Gein murders, Tobe Hooper gave us Leatherface, the hulking maniac who was a precursor to Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and a whole host of slasher movie masked killers.
Although the gore in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are relatively tame by today’s standards, there are few films that create such an unrelenting sense of sadistic, inescapable terror. Tobe Hooper shot the movie in Texas during baking hot conditions, with temperatures in the grim farmhouse soaring to over 40 degrees celsius. The gruelling shoot for the cast and crew contributed to the sense of stifling claustrophobia.
Many contemporary critics were turned off by the violence, but it has since become a cult classic that is often ranked as one of the greatest and most influential horrors of all time.
U is for… Up in Smoke (1978)
Straight-edges need not apply as Cheech and Chong’s first movie plays unapologetically to the ganja crowd, following the perpetually stoned duo as they transport a van made entirely of weed from Mexico to Los Angeles. Their loosely plotted misadventures involve a group of nuns and uptight cops on their trail. Much of the humour is likely to be lost on anyone who doesn’t at least have a chemical memory of what it’s like to smoke a spliff.
Despite some rather sniffy reviews, Up in Smoke was a big hit. It is often regarded as the granddaddy of the stoner movie, providing inspiration for the likes of Harold and Kumar and Dude, Where’s My Car? You can also see the template here for Wayne’s World, Dumb and Dumber, and many other buddy road comedies.
V is for… Vanishing Point (1971)
One of the great American car chase movies, Vanishing Point follows a stoic vietnam vet and ex-police officer on a pedal-to-the-metal dash to California in a souped-up muscle car to make a drug drop, with the cops in hot pursuit.
The driver’s hair-raising adventures are followed closely on the radio by a blind DJ, whose coverage casts our protagonist as a counterculture folk hero on the run from The Man. The mysterious, downbeat ending only adds to the film’s cult allure.
W is for.. The Warriors (1979)
The Warriors, a small Coney Island group of leather-waist coated toughs, are framed for the assassination of a messianic gang leader and must make their way home across New York with the city’s other gangs in murderous pursuit.
Walter Hill’s stripped-back style suits this lean and mean odyssey, which struck an immediate cord with disenfranchised youth at the time. It looks amazing, casting the Big Apple as a pre-post-apocalyptic wasteland of gutted neighbourhoods, graffiti-covered subway cars and rain-slicked streets. Hill expanded on the concept of this cult hit with his bizarre neo-noir action musical, Streets of Fire.
X is for… X-rated
The X-rated certificate has had a long and controversial history, not least because it is often confused with the double-X and triple-X ratings that were applied to softcore and hardcore porn.
The certificate’s heyday was during the 1970s when even Kubrick got in on the x-rated action with A Clockwork Orange, and pornography crossed briefly into the mainstream with Deep Throat. The more transgressive, anything-goes attitude to filmmaking in the cult world saw the likes of Vampyros Lesbos, Fritz the Cat and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS also arrive with predictable Xs next to their name.
Y is for… Young Frankenstein (1974)
Paying faithful homage to the Universal horror movies of the 1930s and using props designed for James Whales’ enduring classic Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ riotous Young Frankenstein became an instant cult favourite.
Shot in sumptuous black and white with typical Brooksian scattershot humour, it riffs on old horror tropes while mixing in boob jokes and inspired slapstick. Gene Wilder gives perhaps his greatest performance as the grandson of Victor Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen”) while Marty Feldman mugs wildly as his henchman Igor (pronounced “Eye-Gore”). Peter Boyle brings plenty of heart to the role of the Monster, donning a top hat and tails for the hilarious rendition of “Putting on the Ritz”...
Z is for… Zardoz (1974)
John Boorman, hot off the heels of his Oscar-nominated Deliverance, confounded audiences and critics alike with his esoteric follow up, Zardoz. High-minded and silly, his sombre vision is continually scuppered by its campy elements, such as Sean Connery’s oft-memed attire of red underpants, bandoliers, and thigh-high leather boots.
Gradually receiving reappraisal due to its undoubted ambition, Zardoz is an aloof think-piece rendered cult classic thanks to its many outdated sci-fi choices. Even among the visionary company of other post-apocalyptic epics, it is pretty much unique in its sheer outlandishness.
Thanks for reading our A-Z of 1970s Cult Movies! What are your favourite cult flicks from the era? Would you suggest any alternatives to the picks above? Let us know!