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An A to Z of 1990's Cult Movies - Part 2

1990s cult movies


If you missed part one of our look at '90s Cult Movies, you can find it here.

And so, after the wild and trashy ‘70s and the horror-inflected ‘80s we reach the ‘90s, arguably the last truly great decade for cult movies. But what about Tommy Wisseau and The Room, I hear a few 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 would also morph 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 the works of Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space) and Reefer Madness took decades to finally 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 mean that pretty much everything is available for anyone to watch all of the time. In theatres, huge 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 on with the second half of our list…

N - Nightbreed (1990)

In the ‘80s, Clive Barker made an eye-catching move into directing with Hellraiser, his sick and kinky adaptation of his own novella, The Hell-Bound Heart. Although its most recognisable character, Douglas Bradley’s trans-dimensional pervert Pinhead, got lumped in with slasher icons like Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees, the movie couldn’t have been more different from the ghoulish antics of the decade’s serial killers. Here was an extremely transgressive tale that explored the depths of human depravity and the dark side of sexual desires, a proper horror for grown ups rather than cheap thrills for teens.

Hellraiser was a box office success and Barker was given a much larger budget for his follow-up, an ambitious take on his fantasy-horror Cabal. The story follows Boone (Craig Sheffer) a disturbed young man who is convinced by his serial killer psychiatrist Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg) to confess to Decker’s murders. Before he can do so, Boone hears about a mythical underground city called Midian, populated by a menagerie of humanoid monsters known as the Nightbreed.


An original movie poster for the film Nightbreed


While fans of the film have celebrated Nightbreed’s queerness as a potent allegory for the marginalisation of gay culture, the studio executives couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept that the monsters were the goodies and humans like Decker, abusing his position of authority, were the baddies. Studio-enforced changes left the theatrical cut a rather disjointed and watered-down take on Barker’s original vision.

As a result, Nightbreed has become a cult movie more because of the film it might have been rather than the truncated version we received. There were still some good things about it; the creature makeup is terrific and Cronenberg is chilling as Decker. In more recent years, two new cuts have gone some way to restoring Barker’s original intentions, much to the general jubilation of fans.

O - Office Space (1999)

Not everyone gets their dream career and quite a few of us end up grinding things out in a shitty job to make ends meet. Mike Judge beat Ricky Gervais and The Office to the punch by a few years with Office Space, an astute satire that nailed the absurdity of spending a third of your life cooped up in a cubicle just to earn a pay check.


An original movie poster for the film Office Space


The movie was Judge’s first foray into directing a live-action feature after taking his MTV morons Beavis and Butthead to the big screen a few years earlier. As always, he displays a knack for mining the lives of mundane Ordinary Joes for comedy gold. 

Ron Livingston is on fine form as Peter Gibbons, an office drone who hates his jobat a faceless IT company. After visiting a hypnotist, he takes a different approach - suddenly blissed out, he simply stops caring and decides he isn’t going to turn up anymore. This doesn’t go down well at all with his slimy boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), but makes him a straight-shooting prospect for higher management with two consultants brought in to downsize the business.

Office Space works best in the first half as it lays out the details of Peter’s frustrations and the disruption caused by his new-found ability to no longer give a hoot about his work. It loses its way in the second half when it should be kicking into a higher gear as one of his buddies, Michael Bolton (David Herman) programs a virus that can skim off fractions of a cent from every transaction and make them millions. 

This heist aspect of the film is entertaining enough but lacks the satirical bite of the first half. Even so, Peter remains one of the great slacker protagonists of the ‘90s, with his grand ambition of having the freedom to do absolutely nothing.

P - Point Break (1991)

The world of action cinema has always been a pretty macho affair, but it took a woman to give us one of the genre’s most iconic bromances in Point Break. Kathryn Bigelow had already displayed her flair for striking visuals in Near Dark and Blue Steel before taking to the waves of California for one of the most outlandish set-ups in ‘90s action.


An original movie poster for the film Point Break


Keanu Reeves, making his transition from Bill & Ted airhead to Hollywood superstar, plays the improbably named Johnny Utah, a former football player who is now a hotshot FBI agent on the trail of surfing, sky-diving bank robbers who wear masks of former presidents while pulling off their heists. Going undercover in the totally tubular world of the gang, he becomes close friends with their leader/guru Bodhi, played with charismatic intensity by Patrick Swayze.

Point Break is a movie that wears its goofy elements on its sleeve and it is all the more loveable for that. Its place in the pantheon of great ‘90s action flicks was cemented by its homage in Hot Fuzz, a movie that wouldn’t exist without the likes of Bigelow’s outrageously daft classic.

Q - Quentin Tarantino

While Steven Spielberg may have dominated box office receipts in the ‘90s, it was unquestionably Quentin Tarantino’s decade. A true movie geek’s movie geek, the former video store clerk energised the American film industry with some of the most influential movies of the past three decades.

At heart, all Tarantino’s films are pure cult items. Obsessed with old crime movies, spaghetti westerns, ‘70s exploitation flicks, samurai thrillers, and just about everything in between, Tarantino creates a nostalgic alternative noirish universe populated by besuited hitmen, robbers, beach bums, gangsters, molls, bikers, stoners, over-the-hill boxers, drug dealers, psychos, and gimps. 


An original movie poster for the film Pulp Fiction


His movies are cinema about cinema, and Tarantinites (I think that’s probably the word) obsess over the snappy dialogue, homages, and virtuoso filmmaking. Tarantino was brazen from the start, casting himself in his debut Reservoir Dogs and hogging the opening monologue about the true meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” while his seasoned cast sat and listened. 

He has been similarly bold throughout his career, peppering his movies with lashings of profanity, ultra-violence, and controversial use of the N-word. Now the world awaits his 10th and final film, The Movie Critic. But surely that won’t be the last we hear from the motor-mouthed QT?

R - Ringu (Ring)

What’s so scary about a young girl with long black hair hanging in front of her face? Those who cottoned on to the strong word-of-mouth about Hideo Nakata’s slow-burning supernatural horror soon found out. Emerging from a well and advancing towards the camera with a freaky broken gait, the vengeful spirit just kept on coming and gave a new terrifying meaning to the term “breaking the fourth wall.” 

I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in all my life, watching Ringu in the early hours of the morning with my flatmate. He was even more disturbed than I was, offering to knock off a month’s rent if I let him sleep on my bedroom floor that night.


An original movie poster for the film Ringu


The shocking finale hits so hard because the rest of the film is just mildly creepy, centred on a neat plot hook that updates Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon: There is a cursed video tape that will kill anyone who dares watch it unless they can pass it onto someone else.

For many like myself, Ringu was a first exposure to J-horror and started a craze of similar films and a string of Hollywood remakes. Subsequent movies like Pulse and The Grudge had their moments and the malevolent Sadako returned in several sequels, but nothing matched that horrifying first introduction to her method of claiming victims.

S - Swingers (1996)

Gentler and wiser than the spate of copycat indie movies ushered in by the success of Tarantino and Smith, Jon Favreau’s Swingers mirrored his own struggles as an actor trying to catch a break in Los Angeles.


An original movie poster for the film Swingers


Once his screenplay got the greenlight, he took the lead role as a sad sack stand-up comedian recovering from a painful split with his girlfriend while his pal Vince Vaughn was perfectly cast as a smooth-talking lounge lothario.

With Doug Liman at the helm, the low-budget buddy movie took the guy on a jaunt to Vegas then back to LA for a buzzy trip through the bar scene. It was also a surprisingly touching and authentic look at male friendships as the guys bonded over video games, cocktails, and the constant pursuit of “beautiful babies.”

Filmed on a modest budget in just 18 days, Swingers was a financial success and established Liman, Favreau, and Vaughan as stars to watch. With its quotable dialogue (“Vegas baby!”), authentic vibe, and loveable performances, it was a wonderful snapshot of mid-90s nightlife.

T - Trainspotting (1996)

Trying to film supposedly unfilmable novels was a bit of a thing in the ‘90s, with David Cronenberg trying his hand at William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch and Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Across the pond, Danny Boyle tackled another book in this category: Irvine Welsh’s scathing literary sensation, Trainspotting.

Anticipation was high after the sleeper success of Boyle’s debut, Shallow Grave. In a sense, Trainspotting was a cult classic before it was even released: The poster introducing the characters was instantly iconic, as was the soundtrack album. I definitely wasn’t the only one who bought both before I’d even seen the movie!


An original movie poster for the film Trainspotting


The film itself was about as good as it could possibly be from the source material, although it runs out of puff a little after the first breathless 30 minutes or so. It still gets by thanks to Boyle’s energetic direction and the star-making turns from the central cast: Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kelly McDonald, and Ewan Bremner. None of them have bettered those performances.

Trainspotting was a huge success at the box office and regularly ranks as one of the best British films ever made. Its cult credentials stem from the fact that it was much more than a movie - it captured the laddish ‘90s zeitgeist and became the flagship film of Cool Britannia.

U - Universal Soldier (1992)

Take a dash of Platoon, add a whole bunch of The Terminator, subtract the superstar power of Arnold Schwarzenegger and substitute Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. Half-bake for 100 minutes and you’ve got Universal Soldier, Roland Emmerich’s bonkers Hollywood directorial debut.


An original movie poster for the film Universal Soldier


The set-up is preposterous. A 1969 prologue set in Vietnam introduces conscientious grunt Luc Devereau (Van Damme), who discovers that his sergeant Andrew Scott (Lundgren) has gone nuts and is about to execute an innocent young couple. The adversaries end up wasting each other and, skip forward 20-odd years, they have been resurrected as cyborg-like Universal Soldiers. After a hostage situation at Hoover Dam, Devereaux starts having flashbacks and goes on the run with chain-smoking reporter Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) after she tries to break the story. Needless to say, Scott has gone psycho again and is hot on their heels.

Universal Soldier cheerfully takes every significant action beat from the previous decade and mashes them together in an entertaining package that is at once cheesy, exciting, funny, campy, and gory. Van Damme’s performance is slyly knowing (check out those buns of steel) while Lundgren gets the second-best role of his career after Ivan Drago, playing a menacing maniac who just loves blowing people up with hand grenades. The movie is like a big overenthusiastic puppy that just wants to be loved - albeit a big puppy who likes wearing necklaces made from severed human ears.

V - The Virgin Suicides (1999)

For most of the ‘90s, Sofia Coppola was best known as the young actor who couldn’t cut the mustard in her dad’s belated conclusion to The Godfather trilogy. It was perhaps a little unfair that she took the flak because the movie would still be a shadow of the first two parts even with a more talented performer in her role. Nevertheless, she found her true calling at the end of the decade when she made her full directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides


An original movie posters for the film The Virgin Suicides


Coppola has said that Jeffrey Eugenides’ source novel was the reason she wanted to become a director in the first place and it was an extremely accomplished debut. Set in the mid ‘70s, the story takes the perspective of a group of adolescent boys (now grown up) who reminisce about five teenage sisters who took their own lives.

Coppola managed to navigate the potentially troubling and depressing material with an assured lightness of touch. Her signature style was evident from the beginning with the film’s dappled dream-like visuals and fuzzy electronic soundtrack from French duo Air.

Young Kirsten Dunst (aged 16 at the time) was the face of the movie in her first collaboration with Coppola, who also assembled a fantastic adult cast including James Woods, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. Roger Ebert likened the film to Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is a great comparison. Like the girls who mysteriously vanish in Peter Weir’s enigmatic classic, the memory of the Lisbon sisters haunts the movie and they have an ethereal quality to them, as if their time on Earth was only ever intended as a fleeting grace note.

W - Waters, John

‘90s John Waters may have mellowed considerably from his ‘70s heyday peddling the scandalous likes of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing - it just meant that more people were exposed to the “Pope of Trash” and his transgressive worldview.

Waters had gradually moved towards the mainstream in the ‘80s with Hairspray, and continued into the ‘90s with two mid-career classics, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom. Casting for both was perfect. After several of his regular Dreamlander troupe had passed away, including Edith Massey and the irreplaceable Divine, it was time to move on.


An original movie poster for the film Serial Mom


For his rock ‘n’ roll musical Cry-Baby, he secured the services of a beautiful up-and-comer named Johnny Depp. The young actor was surprisingly unhinged and hilarious as the eponymous rebel leader of the Drapes, a delinquent gang fighting against his town’s obnoxious Squares. He was joined by former underage porn star Traci Lords, Ricki Lake, Iggy Pop and, best of all, Kim Maguire as Hatchet-Face, an appropriately named female member of the gang. With her elastic features and outrageous gurning, she was the natural successor to Divine.

Although she wanted to avoid typecasting in femme fatale roles after her breakthrough success in Body Heat, Kathleen Turner ended up playing plenty anyway, sending up the caricature in The Man With Two Brains and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? She was superbly cast as another deadly woman in Serial Mom, playing a sunny all-American housewife who has a tendency to slay anyone who doesn’t measure up to her high standards. Once she is busted, her trial-by-media turns her into a star.

The film was released the same year as Oliver Stone’s similarly-themed Natural Born Killers and a few months before O.J. Simpson’s televised flight from an alleged murder scene, and Waters delights in mocking America’s obsession with sensationalised true crime. Indeed, he had anticipated the state of play with Pink Flamingos 20 years earlier.

Waters rounded out the decade with Pecker, starring Edward Furlong as a teenage  photographer who becomes a darling of the New York art scene. It was very much second-tier Waters, but hey, you have to take whatever Waters you can get. All three films flopped at the box office, further cementing their status as cult items.

X - Generation X

While The Breakfast Club (1985) is often regarded as the first mainstream Hollywood movie to fully embrace the angst of Gen X’ers, the ongoing concerns of Generation X were all over ‘90s cinema. That’s probably because it was the decade when so many of us came of age, started moving out into the world, and tried to figure it out for ourselves.

Commonly defined as people born between 1965 and 1980, the so-called “latchkey generation” grew up as the world was dramatically changing with the birth of the personal computer and the fall of the Berlin Wall. So there was a lot on the minds of a cohort often defined by its independence and tendency toward critical thinking about life, love, work, and just about everything else.


An original movie poster for the film Before Sunrise


As a result, you could hardly turn around without another movie about flannel-shirted twenty-somethings working through their angst, from the insufferable navel-gazing of Reality Bites to the winsome walk-and-talk of Before Sunrise. Many of the films on this list brush with Gen-X concerns, which is why so many of them struck a chord and became cult favourites with people of a certain age. 

By the end of the decade, that angst also combined with the doom-laden predictions about the turn of the millennium. That gave us Chuck Paluhniuk and David Fincher signing off the 20th Century with the edgelord classic Fight Club, a grungy laundry list of Gen-X first world problems.

Y - Yo Mama…

The history of the “Yo mama” joke dates back to ancient Babylon around 3,500 B.C. and the Python boys had a notable example in Holy Grail (“Your mother was a hamster…”) but it wasn’t until the ‘90s that it became a cultural force all of its own. The trash-talking basketball players in White Men Can’t Jump (1992) had a nice line in mama-related insults, but it was The Dirty Dozens skit on the TV show In Living Color that really raised the bar. 


An original poster for the series In Living Color


Featuring a Jeopardy! Or Wheel of Fortune-style game show with a cheesy host, the sketch was solely based on contestants reeling out Yo Mama jokes in a quiz where “talkin’ trash can get you cash.” Jamie Foxx was a notable contestant before he made his big breakthrough into movies, and a major highlight was the actor corpsing with Ed O’Neill, making a cameo as Al Bundy from Married With Children.

Z - Zero Effect

Every era has its Sherlock Holmes. In the ‘70s, there were a whole bunch of movies putting a different spin on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective, including They Might Be Giants, The Seven Per-Cent Solution, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. The ‘80s had Jeremy Brett in ITV's faithful adaptations, providing what many consider the definitive version of the mercurial sleuth. More recently, the BBC’s Sherlock successfully brought Doyle’s tales to modern day London before Guy Ritchie gave the material the Hollywood action treatment.


An original movie poster for the film Zero Effect


In between, you had Zero Effect, Jake Kasdan’s little-seen comedy-mystery based on one of Doyle’s most famous stories, A Scandal in Bohemia. The usually straight-laced Bill Pullman, who was having a great ‘90s to that point (While You Were Sleeping, Independence Day), is cast against type as Daryl Zero, an eccentric private eye who is so reclusive that he only does business through his long-suffering middle man, Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller). When Zero takes a lucrative blackmail case from oily millionaire Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal), he finds himself drawn into the open by the chief suspect, Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens). Even his penchant for wacky disguises can’t shield him from becoming romantically involved.

What sounds like a straight-up comedy on paper turns into something far more heartfelt as the movie goes along, largely thanks to the sincere performances from Pullman and Dickens. I’ve always thought Pullman is a bit of an odd actor, but he makes sense here as the socially awkward and self-aggrandising detective. Unfortunately, Zero Effect sank without trace in the wake of Titanic before developing a small but devoted cult following on home video.


So there you have it, the final entries in our A to Z guide of ‘90s cult movies. There were many great movies that we had to leave out, so why not let us know your picks?


Fantastic original movie posters from Art of the Movies

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