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An A to Z of 1990's Cult Movies - Part 1

1990s Cult Movies

And so, after the wild and trashy ‘70s and the horror-inflected ‘80s we reach the ‘90s, the last truly great decade for cult movies. But what about Tommy Wisseau and The Room, I hear some of you cry? Or Napoleon Dynamite, or Wet Hot American Summer, or Donnie Darko? It’s true that there will always be great cult flicks to enjoy, but the ‘90s was when our viewing habits began to irreversibly alter. And with it, the way cult movies were discovered, cherished, and talked about also morphed into something very different.

Back in the mid-’90s when I was first getting into cult movies, my favourite book was VideoHound’s Complete Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics. It was pretty comprehensive, checking off everything from the usual suspects like The Rocky Horror Picture Show to more obscure stuff like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS. Even at the time, I wondered how films so bizarre and off the mainstream radar ever found enough of an audience to become recognised cult flicks in the first place. Indeed, some of them like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Reefer Madness took decades to build up a fanbase.

Three things occurred in the ‘90s that would merge and contribute to a major change in the way we find and consume media. In 1993, the world wide web was launched in the public domain; in 1997, Netflix was founded; and in 1999, George Lucas released Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. 30 years later, the internet and streaming services ensures that pretty much everything is available for anyone to watch all of the time. Meanwhile in theatres, mega-franchises with their endless cinematic universes, sequels, remakes, and prequels have decreased the variety of films to choose from at the multiplex.

This simultaneous atomisation and homogenisation has changed the way cult followings form. On one hand, the big franchises dominate the attention of many geeks, making it harder for original and truly peculiar films to cut through the noise. On the other, just about every movie gets a fan group on Facebook or Reddit thread from day one. In that sense, all films instantaneously have their own cult following now. But if everything is cult, then nothing is cult. It just becomes regular old fandom, right?

I’m sure right now a few readers will be rolling their eyes and giving me a Cher Horowitz-inspired “As If!” So before I dig my hole any deeper, let's leave the theorising behind and get into it…

A - Aussie Rules Again, OK?

Following on from the ground-breaking movies of the Australian New Wave in the ‘70s, we got another Aussie explosion in the ‘90s. Some broke internationally and introduced us to a dazzling array of new talent while also becoming firm cult favourites.


An original movie poster for the film Priscilla Queen of the Desert


Baz Luhrman announced himself to the world with his eye-catching debut Strictly Ballroom and many of us got our first look at Guy Pearce in the pithy camp extravaganza The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. At the opposite end of the scale in subject matter and tone, Russell Crowe’s talent was clear for all to see in the neo-Nazi drama Romper Stomper. Continuing on the star-making theme, Toni Collette created an indelible impression in the bittersweet Muriel’s Wedding; forget Mamma Mia, It is still the best ABBA movie on the planet!


An original movie poster for the film The Castle


The movie from this period with the biggest cult following didn’t make much of an impression abroad at first. At home, however, The Castle is legendary. The unassuming low-budget crowd pleaser about a working-class family fighting to save their home from the expansion of the neighbouring airport was voted as the nation’s favourite movie. It has even been quoted in Australian courts because, like, it’s the vibe of the thing.

B - The Big Lebowski (1998)

I was considering picking something else for my “B” because it feels like I talk about The Big Lebowski all the time. But then I came to my senses - the Coen Brothers’ stoner classic is maybe the defining cult movie of the ‘90s.

Like many cult favourites, The Big Lebowski got off to a bad start. Suffering from comparison to the Oscar-nominated Fargo and released in the all-conquering wake of Titanic, it was considered a box office flop. Perhaps it was just a bit too weird and ambling for some. Despite a familiar plot riffing on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the film’s laidback, episodic nature was more in common with Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke. Which is totally appropriate, because our hero Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski does like the occasional spliff.


An original movie poster for the film The Big Lebowski


It didn’t take long for The Big Lebowski to find its true audience. In 2002, the first Lebowski Fest took place in Louisville, Kentucky, billed as a place to "drink White Russians, throw some rocks, and party with an array of Dudes, Walters, and Maudes (not to mention a nihilist or two)." Three years later, it even had its own religion. Dudeism, aka, The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, blends elements of Taoism and Buddhism with quotes from the movie for a surprisingly coherent philosophy that encourages people to “Just take it easy, Mankind.”

The movie also gets extra points for having its own cult cocktail: The White Russian, originally invented back in 1949, was on the verge of extinction before the movie popularised it as the Dude’s favourite beverage. Far out!

C - Clueless (1995)

The ‘90s saw a real boom in teen comedies and some have aged better than others. She’s All That (1999) gets plenty of flak for the old trope of sticking a pair of glasses on a very attractive person to make her an “ugly duckling" while American Pie (1999) has been lambasted by Gen-Z viewers as “deeply problematic” and “bordering on incel attitudes.”

One that has stood the test of time is Amy Heckerling’s Clueless. A loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, Alicia Silverstone gave the performance of her career as Cher Horowitz, a sunny Beverly Hills teen who gets hooked on doing good deeds at her high school. 


An original movie poster for the film Clueless


Silverstone made her debut a few years earlier in The Crush, but it was her eye-catching performances in three Aerosmith promos, Cryin’, Amazing, and Crazy, that really put her on the map. Those videos were on heavy rotation on MTV, and that is where Heckering spotted her for the lead role.

Clueless perfectly captures a certain kind of breezy mid-90s vibe and it has become a cult favourite thanks to its catchy dialogue and sharp fashion sense, not least Cher’s famous yellow plaid-on-plaid combo. Lifestyle writers are still raving about her wardrobe almost 30 years later.

D - Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ)

Aditya Chopra’s effervescent Bollywood rom-com has become known as India’s equivalent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Not in terms of content, of course, but in the way it has become the kind of cult favourite where people go again and again to sing along to the tunes and interact with the movie. From its release in 1995, the film went on a record-breaking 1009-week run at the Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai. When it was pulled in 2015, fan power got it reinstated again. The poor old projectionist is said to have seen the movie over 9000 times.


An original movie poster for the film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge


Why is the film so popular? The plot is fairly routine as boy and girl meet, bicker, and eventually fall in love, but the chemistry between Bollywood megastars Shah Khan and Kajol is so fresh and irresistible that the three hour run time just zips by. The film is so unabashedly joyful and romantic that it’s impossible not to get swept away by it, as promised by the tagline: “Come… Fall in Love.” 

E - El Mariachi (1992)

You’ve probably heard the story already: A young Mexican filmmaker named Robert Rodriguez wanted to make an action flick so he raised funds by taking part in medical trials. El Mariachi went into production with a tiny budget of $7000 and became an unexpected breakthrough success across the border, kickstarting Rodriguez’s Hollywood career. 


An original movie poster for the film El Mariachi


It’s a great tale of gumption and can-do spirit, although the romanticised version of the story doesn’t provide the full picture. While Rodriguez got the film in the can with his initial budget, it took another $200,000 from Columbia to tidy it up in post-production and make it watchable, plus however many millions spent on marketing.

Still, Rodriguez’s story goes to show that with a little talent, determination, and luck, just about anybody can break into movies. The film itself is fine, a lively action caper about a young musician who gets mistaken for a ruthless villain by a drug kingpin’s goons.

Rodriguez went on to make two sequels, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, with far larger budgets and glitzier stars. He also became fast friends with Quentin Tarantino, and the pair teamed up for the cult vampire western From Dusk Till Dawn.

F - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

After the travails of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam worked his way to the height of his commercial and critical success in the ‘90s with The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, two films that proved that the maverick director could match his distinctive vision with a coherent and satisfying story. He went and undid all that with his next project, tackling Hunter S. Thompson’s infamously unfilmable novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.


An original movie poster for the film Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas


Rumours of an adaptation were around back in the ‘70s, with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando in the frame to take the strange torpedo ride at one point. When Gilliam finally took over the project in 1997, he and co-writer did a fair job of streamlining Thompson’s freewheeling book into some kind of narrative, borrowing huge chunks of prose for star Johnny Depp to mumble almost verbatim.

The casting of Depp was a major success. The actor befriended the crotchety author to capture Thompson’s mannerisms and inhabit his personality; one might argue he never fully left. Benicio del Toro also made an incredible transformation, piling on the pounds to play the narrator’s monstrous attorney.

Then came the insane visuals. There is arguably no other director more capable of putting a head trip like Thompson’s book so vividly on screen, and Gilliam goes all out to turn Las Vegas into a warped and hallucinatory nightmare. 

Predictably, the film flopped at the box office, released in the same year as that other great drug-addled bomb, The Big Lebowski. If ever there was a film clearly destined to become a cult favourite, it was Fear and Loathing. Little did we know back then that it would be Gilliam’s last great movie.

G - Goths

The ‘90s were a great time for film-loving goths with several high-profile movies really leaning into the whole style and mood of the fashion craze. Tim Burton was a big factor thanks to films like Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, and the aesthetic found its way into family movies with The Addams Family and Addams Family Values

On top of that, you also had a resurgence in classic gothic horror: Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish Dracula, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, and Stephen Frears’ forgotten take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Julia Roberts' Oirish accent, Mary Reilly. Even science fiction was influenced with the heavy goth stylings of The Matrix.


An original movie poster for the film The Crow


The title of the ultimate goth movie must go to Alex Proyas’s cult gem, The Crow. Set in a perpetually dark and rain-lashed city, the undead figure of Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) is a tragic and romanticised avenger, seeking violent retribution against the scumbags who murdered him and his newlywed wife. Added to this the real-life tragedy of Lee’s death on set and the movie chimed with a whole generation of gloomy teens, influencing how a subsection chose to present themselves to the world

H - Happy Gilmore (1996)

Adam Sandler is an enigma, an actor capable of very fine straight performances (Punch-Drunk Love, Uncut Gems, Hustle) who nevertheless continues to make a lucrative living making mediocre-to-moronic comedies (Murder Mystery, Hubie Halloween). That isn’t to say he doesn’t have substantial comic chops if you get on his wavelength and there is a lot of nostalgia for his string of comedy hits from the ‘90s and ‘00s.

Happy Gilmore is among the best, a spiritual successor to Caddyshack where Sandler plays a wannabe ice hockey player with an inability to skate, which understandably limits his potential in the sport. His dynamite slap shot catches the eye of Derek “Chubbs” Peterson (Carl Weathers), a former golf pro who lost his hand to an alligator.


An original movie poster for the film Happy Gilmore


Weathers’ character is one of several similarities with the Farrelly Brothers’ Kingpin, released the same year. Another is Christopher McDonald as Happy’s nemesis, who almost rivals Bill Murray’s turn as “Big Ern” McCracken in terms of hilarious loathsomeness.

The plot is the standard “let’s raise money to save the house” affair, but it works so well because Happy’s uncouth and violent behaviour ruffles feathers in the snooty world of professional golf. The film’s cult status was sealed by our hero getting beaten up by The Price Is Right host Bob Baker, playing himself - “The price is wrong, bitch!”

I - Indie

Two very different movies released in 1989 would help shape cinema for the next decade: Steve Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy. The former provided a taste of the indie studio revolution that was to come while Daisy, perhaps the most maligned Best Picture winner in Oscar history, was the benchmark of how safe and uninspired Hollywood movies had become.

With the clout of Miramax and the increasing sway of the Sundance Film Festival, a new generation of indie filmmakers found their voice - Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, and many others all got their big break. As a consequence, many of the American entries on this list are a direct result of the ‘90s boom in indie film.


The Miramax films logo


But wasn’t indie filmmaking always the domain of cult movies, I hear you ask? Yes, that is often the case, but this changed the face of cinema. By the mid-’90s, you had a movie like Pulp Fiction up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Unfortunately, the long shadow of middle-ground mediocrity represented by Driving Miss Daisy still won out as the saccharine Forrest Gump took home the big prize. 

It wouldn’t be long before Miramax and other independent studios began to triumph over the more established big boys. The English Patient was an example of the kind of ultra-successful “indie blockbuster” that could also hoover up awards. The success of the indie movement in the ‘90s also had another major repercussion as cult movies and directors were gradually drawn towards the mainstream.

J - Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch, the king of hip drollery, broke onto the scene in the ‘80s with his raw examination of dead end lives in Stranger than Paradise, an offbeat look at what people do when they’ve got no money and what they say when they’ve got nothing to talk about. Rarely concerning himself with traditional narrative arcs and totally refusing to play to the gallery, Jarmusch began flirting with the mainstream in the ‘90s with two of his most stylish and well-known movies, which were still leftfield enough to become cult favourites in their own right.

Johnny Depp was at the peak of his ‘90s hot streak when he starred in Dead Man (1995), an obtuse and enigmatic acid western about a mortally wounded accountant on a journey to the spirit world. As usual with Jarmusch, the cast was packed with quirky cameos including Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Lance Henriksen and, of course, Jarmusch’s favourite bit-part performer, Iggy Pop.


An original movie poster for the film Ghost Dog


Four years later, Forest Whitaker gave an excellent soulful performance in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, playing a pigeon-fancying hitman who lives by an ancient samurai code. Both films came in a period when Jarmusch was experimenting with mashing together genres and cultures: the poetry of William Blake and indigenous American philosophy in Dead Man; gangster movies and Japanese samurai culture in Ghost Dog.

K - Kevin Smith

Famously, Kevin Smith sold his prized comic book collection, maxed out his credit cards, and wrangled just about any other source of cash available to fund his magnum opus, Clerks. In doing so, he made one of the defining debuts of the ‘90s, a crude and often hilarious look at the lives of two store clerks trapped in a state of perpetual arrested development, whiling away their shifts arguing about movies and verbally abusing their customers.


An original movie poster for the film Clerks


Shot in grainy black and white, the low-grade footage looked as if the shenanigans of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) were caught on CCTV cameras. The film has dated and its potency has been diluted by sequels and other movies in Smith’s View Askewniverse, but at the time it felt like an honest portrait of what it was like to be young, aimless, and stuck in a dead-end job.

Arguably, Clerks wouldn’t have achieved such a huge cult status if it wasn’t for two side characters who became fan favourites: Jay and Silent Bob. Smith’s friend Jason Mewes played Jay largely as himself while the director took on the (mostly) wordless role of Bob. Together, they created a classic fat guy/skinny guy comedy duo that was so successful that the characters even got two spinoff movies of their own.

L - Linklater, Richard

Before Kevin Smith arrived on the scene, Richard Linklater was indie cinema’s premiere chronicler of slackerdom. After making his breakthrough with Slacker, the writer and director refined his laidback style with Dazed and Confused, one of the all-time great hangout movies.

Set over one long summer’s evening in the mid ‘70s, the film follows a group of teens as school breaks for the year and the older ones contemplate what to do with their lives. Not too hard, though, because there is plenty of driving around to be done, beers to chug, spliffs to smoke, and parties to drift in and out of over the course of the night.


An original movie poster for the film Dazed and Confused


Linklater strikes an atmospheric note that is so authentic, capturing one of those great nights that feel like they could never possibly come to an end but are still over too soon. To complete the vibe, he secured the rights to an awesome array of classic rock tracks from Alice Cooper, ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, Kiss, Foghat and many more.

Dazed and Confused also has a cracking cast of future stars with Ben Affleck, Mila Jovovich, Parker Posey, Renee Zellwegger and, best of all, Matthew McConaughey. The latter’s character, an older stoner who still hangs out with the kids, is most famous for establishing McConaughey’s catchphrase, “Alright, alright, alright.” Another quote sums up the movie’s ethos far better: “Keep livin’, man. L.I.V.I.N.”

M - Man Bites Dog (1992)

We had mockumentaries before (This is Spinal Tap is the most obvious pick) but none implicated the audience in the subject’s day-to-day life quite as shockingly as Man Bites Dog. Of course, it doesn’t help that the subject is a cheerful and charismatic Belgian serial killer, followed around by a documentary crew who increasingly overstep the line from objectivity to active participation in his crimes.


An original movie poster for the film Man Bites Dog


The low budget feature by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde was shot in grainy 16mm black-and-white to heighten the realism. The film was extremely controversial when it was first released, with calls for a ban in the UK due to one particularly troubling scene. Its provocations have since been eclipsed by the careers of Gaspar Noe, Takashi Miike, and the rise of extreme cinema and torture porn (Martyrs, The Human Centipede, etc.) but remains influential. The whole concept of a documentary crew filming a group of vampires in What We Do In The Shadows stems from Man Bites Dog, acknowledged by its co-creator Taika Waititi.


That brings us to the end of part one of our A to Z guide to ‘90s cult movies. Maybe dust off the Super Nintendo, Sega Mega Drive, or even challenge a friend to a game of Pogs until the second instalment arrives. While you’re waiting, why not share with us some of your favourite ‘90s cult flicks?


The Intermission Screen at the Cinema




Fantastic original movie posters from Art of the Movies

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