10. The Harder They Come (1972)
Perry Henzell’s crime film The Harder They Come is a gritty, realistic portrayal of life in Kingston, Jamaica. Reggae legend, Jimmy Clifff, starred in the film, and was his first major acting job. Cliff also provided the film’s title track as well as a majority of the soundtrack.
The film is said to have spread reggae across the globe, and made Jimmy Cliff a musical icon outside of his home country. The film is based on real life criminal Vincent “Ivanhoe” Martin, who in the late 40s, went on a murderous spree before eventually being gunned down by police. In the film, Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan Martin, who becomes a murderous criminal and reggae star.
The film begins with Ivan leaving his small home in the Jamaican countryside to move to Kingston in search of work. Ivan has a hard time finding work but eventually begins repairing bicycles. During a dispute with an owner of a bike, Ivan slashes his face with a knife, which is the first time Ivan becomes violent. His dream however, is to becomes a musician and cut a record. Ivan gets his chance and records the song,
“The Harder They Come,” but only earns twenty dollars from the recording. Strapped for cash, Ivan begins dealing marijuana, which leads him to murder three police officers. Ivan, on the run from the police, commits a series of murders. Because of his notoriety in the news, he embraces his new gangster image and becomes somewhat of an icon in Jamaica. After the news breaks, his song becomes the biggest hit in the country and skyrockets up the charts.
As mentioned, the film is very gritty and realistic. The style in which it was shot is very similar to the Italian neo-realism movement of the 40s and 50s. The usage of non-actors and the filming of real locations throughout the city, (where the narrative takes place,) are techniques used in other neo-realism films of that era.
In Jamaica, the film was a triumph and is considered one of, if not the most culturally important film the country has ever produced. When it was released in America, it was met with far less success. New World Pictures, which was founded by legendary independent filmmaker/producer, Roger Corman, picked up the film for release.
After just a few months, the film was pushed to the midnight slot where it gained a major cult following, especially amongst the African-American communities in major metropolitan cities. The Harder They Come is an excellent glimpse of the struggles of being poor in Jamaica in the early 1970s.
At the time, white audience members misunderstood the film, but now consider it a classic. With a fantastic soundtrack and a unique visual style, it’s no wonder the film was destined for midnight audiences. Like almost every film listed, it took time for people to accept it as being socially and culturally significant.
9. The Warriors (1979)
Walter Hill’s controversial gang film was grossly misunderstood upon its initial release. Audiences and critics alike were unsure how to interpret the absurdity and delinquency that The Warriors features. While the film is not strictly realistic in its portrayal, it does offer an entertainingly exaggerated and satirical look at street life in New York City during the late 1970’s.
The film follows a group of young men known on the streets as The Warriors, a well-respected and tough gang from Coney Island. They travel to inner New York City for a peace summit with the major gangs from all five boroughs. Cyrus, who leads the cities most powerful gang, wants to unite the gangs, end the violence, and take over the entire city, making New York a mecca for organized crime.
During the summit, Luther, (the violent and chaotic leader of The Rouges,) shoots and kills Cyrus, then pins the murder on The Warriors. As the night unfolds, The Warriors attempt to make it back to Coney Island before they are caught and killed by Cyrus’s gang, or one of many other New York gangs looking to collect the bounty.
The story is a classic game of cat and mouse, but what separates this film from other films of this vein is that instead of one character chasing another, many different characters with multiple personality types are chasing an entire group. The film opened in less than 700 theaters across the country with almost no marketing to support the film. Despite the lack of money in advertising, the film’s distributor, Paramount Pictures, saw financial success on its opening weekend and for weeks to come.
The film sparked a lot of controversy when it was released because of its subject matter and violent nature. After its release, a series of violent outbreaks and gang beatings occurred in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles including the death of three people either going too or coming from the theater. When the violent crimes and the vandalism stories became national news, Paramount ceased advertising for the film entirely and many theater owners refused to screen the film at all.
What was obviously a tragedy for the families and loved ones of the victims became a gold mine for Paramount Pictures and Walter Hill once the film hit the midnight circuit. The Warriors was banished to late night screenings in a handful of smaller independent theaters and because of this, it’s exclusivity and longevity thrived.
Today, The Warriors is considered to be amongst the greatest cult films of all time as well as one of the most controversial. The film offered a satirical look into New York City street life as opposed to the nihilistic or filthy look other “street films” of the period presented such as Taxi Driver or Chinatown. The Warriors is “New Hollywood” at its finest, and this is a film that is worth your attention regardless of its controversial background.
8. Cannibal Holocaust (1981)
Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most polarizing and controversial films ever made. The legacy of this film is substantial and anyone who has seen it can tell you that it is not for the feint of heart.
It is brutally violent, hyper-realistic, and adapted the cinema vérité style to the “found footage” genre, which is commonplace in today’s Hollywood (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, VHS). At the time however, a found footage film had never been done before, and audiences (the few who actually saw it in its initial run) were shocked and horrified at what the film portrayed.
The film is split into two parts. The first part follows a documentary crew as they explore the Amazon searching for local tribes to film. The crew doesn’t return to the United States so a rescue team is sent to look for the missing film crew. Eventually, they find the footage the crew had filmed and return to the states to view what they had filmed while in the jungle.
What they find is horrific, and the footage shot by the crew is hard to stomach even for the most hardcore gore fans. The film features rape, real animal cruelty, cannibalism, and horrific murder. All shot like a documentary, which gives the film a level of realism never before seen in a narrative feature.
When Cannibal Holocaust was first released in Italy, the Italian government confiscated the film and arrested Deodato for murder. They truly believed he made a snuff film and he had to prove in court that his film was just a movie; that none of it had actually happened (aside from the animal deaths). The film’s notoriety spread across the globe and audiences were curious to see the film that caused such a stir. Eventually, the Italian government banned the film entirely as did about fifty other countries across the globe.
Cannibal Holocaust earned its reputation as being one of the more disgusting and controversial films and, with countries banning it, and the filmmaker going to jail, it legitimized that reputation. Naturally, when a film stirs up this much controversy, people want to see it.
The only way this film could have any sort of life was either on the midnight circuit or through its eventual VHS release. It was difficult to obtain a true, uncut version of the film, and theaters were forced to screen edited versions because the original was initially banned in the Unites states as well.
No film in recent years has gained the level of negative attention Cannibal Holocaust has. It truly shocked and disgusted audiences, and people lined up to see what the fuss was all about. Audiences were not disappointed; Deodato and his team had assembled a landmark film and created a new genre in the process.
Love it or hate it, there is no denying the cultural significance of Cannibal Holocaust. It is readily available today and despite its graphic nature, it is a very well made film and absolutely worth viewing.
7. The Room (2003)
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is a difficult film to describe. It’s considered a romantic drama, but the story doesn’t flow. It’s comprised of a series of unrelated incidents involving the main character, Johnny, played by Wiseau himself. Besides directing and starring in it, Wiseau also produced, wrote, and distributed the film. Wiseau himself has called his film a black comedy but as mentioned before, it’s difficult to label.
The film follows a banker named Johnny and his fiancé Lisa. The two share a place in San Francisco and at first seem happy. Eventually, Lisa admits to her mother that she is bored in her relationship. Lisa’s mother tells her that because Johnny is successful, she should stay with him.
Lisa decides to stay with Johnny because of his money, but sees other people behind his back. She attempts to seduce Johnny’s best friend Mark, who eventually succumbs and they begin having an affair. Johnny discovers the affair and takes his own life.
Wiseau began production on his film after he attempted to release it as a book. He couldn’t generate any interest with publishers and decided if he produced the film himself, he would have total control. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about filmmaking and it was apparent to his cast and crew as production continued.
Wiseau spent unnecessary millions in order to fulfill his vision. He spent money building sets instead of shooting on location, bought two brand new cameras (one digital and one 35mm) and shot the film simultaneously using both formats, and spent days trying to film certain scenes because he couldn’t remember dialogue or his blocking of the scenes. Wiseau also shot a majority of the film on a rented soundstage in Los Angeles. The film took six months to complete.
The film is rife with undeveloped story lines, plot holes, and continuity errors, which the film is well known for. That is, in fact, its appeal with audiences. The film has a reputation for being one of the worst films ever made and was deemed unwatchable by certain critics. It only screened in a select group of theaters in Los Angeles. One theater actually posted a sign stating that no refunds would be issued for The Room.
The reputation this film developed was responsible for its success. Because it was deemed so bad, people were interested in seeing the film and it found its audience on the midnight circuit. After it was pulled during its initial run, fans began e-mailing Wiseau personally, asking him to screen the film. Over the following months, Wiseau rented theaters and screened the film to sell out audiences.
Now, The Room is shown at midnight all over the country and fans have begun participating with the film, reciting lines and dressing up. The Room is too awful to not have gained a cult following. A film like this, which lacks all basic formal film qualities, and makes little sense at all, could have only flourished at midnight. While The Room may be without question the worst film on this list, it is still the last major midnight movie, and brought an entirely new audience to see films after dark.
6. Freaks (1932)
Tod Browning’s Freaks is a true masterpiece of the pre-code Hollywood era. The film was shocking, violent, and down right offensive when it was released (and to an extent still is) and has since become one of the great horror films of the 30’s. Although the Universal Monster films from the era (Dracula, Frankenstein) are held in high regards, it’s hard to argue against this MGM produced film. More than any other horror film from that era, none hold up today like Freaks.
The film follows a traveling circus that specializes in the weird and bizarre. The performers for the most part are physically deformed: some have no limbs, some are mentally handicapped, and others are dwarves, to cite a few examples.
The film is presented through a series of vignettes as the characters interact; eventually the narrative is revealed. The character of Hans (played by real life dwarf Harry Earles) falls in love with the trapeze artist Cleopatra, a vile, lying, and greedy woman. Cleopatra only agrees to marry Hans because he inherited a large fortune from his family. Cleopatra attempts to poison Hans so she can inherit his money.
The film is controversial for several reasons, the main reason being casting. Browning had been a member of a traveling circus before becoming a filmmaker. Freaks was based on his actual experiences with the sideshow attractions at an exploitative circus. The deformed, handicapped, and mentally disabled characters in the film were for the most part actual sideshow performers. This was off-putting for many audience members, and people were both horrified and offended.
The original cut of the film was 90 minutes long. After test screenings however, MGM cut twenty-eight minutes out of the film because it was met with such hostility. Audience members did not like the film, nor were they comfortable watching its content. Unfortunately, the original footage that was cut is considered lost, so the world has never seen the director’s cut of Freaks. One scene that was cut included the castration of the strong man character, Hercules.
The film did not do well for MGM when it was released, nor did it help Tod Browning’s career. He was given the green light for Freaks after the success of Universal Studios Dracula (1931).
The only way the production of Freaks was even possible to be produced was because it was made before the Production Code. In 1932, Freaks was rarely shown in theaters and fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. It eventually gained cult status through midnight screenings in the 60s and 70s.
Today, Freaks is considered a marvel and one of the great horror films of the 30s as well as one of the most important B-films from the early Hollywood era. It is a shame the twenty-eight minutes that were cut will never be seen as Browning had intended. Regardless, for a film running only sixty-two minutes, Freaks stands above every horror film from the era.