Top 10 cult films: weird, cheap and out of control

by Hank Leukart | 2/18/98 6:00am

Creating a list of "cult movies" is a difficult problem due to the lack of a specific definition for the film category. The two obvious qualities of a cult movie -- unique, unconventional subject matter and a considerable and vigorous following -- present an apparent contradiction. How can a movie that appeals to only a small audience have a large following?

The conclusion to which I have come, although not completely comprehensive, is simple. Cult movies do not comply with society's ordinary interests. Generally, people enjoy hearing about the love between two people, so "My Best Friend's Wedding" is not a cult movie. However, society as a whole does not practice or endorse cannibalism, therefore taking into account its ample following, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" can be considered a cult movie.

Due to an inability to include every cult movie, I have constructed a list of films that I feel touch upon every cult movie sub-genre and warrant praise. Also, cult movie devotees will notice an obvious absence of John Waters's "Pink Flamingos." Although this movie meets my definition by having a following and covering the topics of chicken bestiality and feces fetishes, I cannot recommend the movie to anyone. It is thoroughly repulsive.

1. 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'

As a cult movie, 1975's "Rocky Horror" is an undisputed classic. In this unusual musical, Tim Curry plays a transsexual character named Dr. Frank-N-Furter who owns an enormous Transylvania castle. A young Susan Sarandon gets caught up in all the craziness and eventually learns the "Time Warp," a dance often performed by its adamant fans.

This movie attains midnight movie cult status easily through its audience participation. Wherever it is shown, the theater attracts followers who are dressed as Frank-N-Furter or any of the other players and who act out the entire story directly in front of the screen. They sings the songs, recite the dialogue, pour water on the audience when it rains on screen and do the "Time Warp."

2. 'Eraserhead'

David Lynch's ("Twin Peaks") insanely bizarre black-and-white film is, without a doubt, the strangest and most incomprehensible movie anyone will ever see. In a post-apocalyptic world -- the subject of numerous cult movies -- Jack Nance plays Henry Spencer, a guy with Kramer-type hair and a lack of things to say.

If a cooked chicken that dances sounds interesting, just wait for the catatonic grandmother who makes salad, the eerie dancer who proclaims that "In heaven, everything is fine" and Spencer's infant who looks more like something out of "The X-File" than "Miracle of Life."

3. 'Harold and Maude'

Hal Ashby's wonderfully touching masterpiece begins with the abrupt suicide-by-noose of Bud Cort's 16-year-old character Harold. Not to fear -- the suicide is a fake, and Harold has time to light himself on fire, drown, cut off his hand, slit his throat and drive off a cliff before the end of the movie.

He also makes time to meet Ruth Gordon's (the demonic neighbor in "Rosemary's Baby") Maude at numerous funerals of strangers he attends. A 79 year-old woman who has a carpe diem attitude toward life, Maude becomes Harold's best friend, and in a strange twist of events, Harold proposes. The surprise ending is a beautiful finale to the film, and Cat Stevens's soundtrack perfectly complements the story.

4. 'Brazil'

Described by fans as "Monty Python visits Big Brother," the futuristic and British "Brazil" is hilarious, complex and poignant. Jonathan Pryce ("Evita") stars as Sam Lowry, a blue-collar worker who has surreal dreams about escaping his government-controlled life.

When Robert DeNiro shows up as a renegade air-conditioner repair man and Lowry finally encounters the woman of his dreams in his office, everything moves so quickly that numerous viewings are necessary just to figure the exact plot. When you realize that the key to understanding the movie is watching plot cues on posters and billboards in the background, you know you have been sucked into Terry Gilliam's meticulous and amazing "Brazil."

5. 'A Clockwork Orange'

Based on Anthony Burgess's novel, Stanley Kubrick's classic cult film is simply twisted. If you can stomach the first half hour of the movie in which numerous people are raped and beaten in an attempt to enjoy the old "ultra-violence," you will discover a powerful gem that denounces violence and government in the way that "Trainspotting" condemned heroin -- by shocking the viewer.

When Alex DeLarge is put in prison, he is released quickly after undergoing antiviolence therapy, where he watches extremely violent films which he originally enjoys, but then learns to hate.

Supposedly cured, Alex is released back into the world, only to find that he's now on the other end of the violence.

6. 'Akira'

The followers of anime -- Japanese animation -- have become a cult in themselves, but "Akira" has become a cult film in its own right. Although animated, the film is confusingly elaborate and, like "Brazil," is anti-government and anti-technology. After bike gang member Tetsuo discovers his supernatural powers and psychic abilities, his friends Kaneda and Kai try to stop him from destroying Tokyo. Finally, the exhilarating action becomes overwhelming and results in an ambiguous ending.

7. 'Shaft'

According to internet ultra-fan Kelly McCollum, the film "pretends to present a positive image of blacks in film, but in reality only recycles a form long overused and discarded by white Hollywood." Although racist at times, the movie is funny in spite of itself and is immensely entertaining.

The soundtrack's singer, Isaac Hayes -- Chef in Comedy Central's "South Park" -- states that John Shaft is a "black private dick that's a sex machine with all the chicks." The plot develops quickly when Shaft quickly finds himself working against the white Mafia and black nationals to uncover a kidnap victim. And of course, he gets plenty of women.

8. 'Taxi Driver'

Robert DeNiro stars in Martin Scorsese's film about a cab driver trapped in a neon-lit wasteland of pimps and criminals. After being denied by the beautiful Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), DeNiro's mentally-unhinged Travis Bickle decides to assassinate a presidential candidate and save a prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her abusive pimp (Harvey Keitel).

Scorsese captures the seedy underworld of New York City, and DeNiro gives one of his best performances as a man who can only find contact with the outside world through violence. He is tortured and frightening, but somehow you understand what he is trying to do. The ending is shockingly violent when Bickle decides to take the law into his own confused hands.

The film is especially interesting when seen in light of John Hinckley's "Taxi Driver"-inspired attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan in order to attract Jodie Foster's attention.

9. 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension'

Dartmouth graduate W.D. Richter '68 made a movie that can only be described as wacky. The film pits Banzai, played by Peter Weller, against evil aliens that look like unironed rubber with the help of good aliens that look and speak like native-Jamaicans.

"Star Trek" fans are sure to love this one for the way it spoofs sci-fi conventions, and everyone else will love the all-star cast of John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Lloyd.

10. 'Star Wars'

Although seemingly mainstream, George Lucas's trilogy has spawned some of the most fanatical movie fans ever. For the film's re-release, fans showed up dressed like the characters and recited every line of the script.

Everyone may love "Star Wars," but real fans of the multi-genre trilogy take it one step further, and they are the ones who contribute to the film's cult status.

The web is swarming with "Star Wars" websites. There are industries built entirely around "Star Wars" conventions, which draw out all the fans. The actors who played Chewbacca and C-3P0 have managed to maintain careers by appearing at such conventions.