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20 Great Movies That Were Considered Flops Upon Their Releases

13 February 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Paul Jensen

7. Vertigo (1958)

vertigo-scottie-and-madeline

Upon its initial release it was easily the most misunderstood Hitchcock film. The traditional murder mystery thriller he was famous for (and essentially pioneered) would take an unexpected detour during this film’s second act turning point. Hitchcock reveals the mystery of the film well before it is over.

Traditionally in thrillers, the audience would find out who the killer is during the final moments of the film (the butler did it!) Instead, Hitchcock divulges the secret with 45 minutes still left! Back in 1958, audiences were disappointed with this unexpected change in direction. By knowing the mystery it is no longer escapism. However it is precisely at this moment where Hitchcock re-invents the thriller genre.

Much like what he would do two years later with Psycho, he reverses our expectations and takes us down a different path. You thought it was going to be about Madeline being possessed by Carlotta the ghost? Think again! No, instead we get a psycho-drama that examines an unhealthy and paranoid male obsession. Vertigo may very well be the greatest psychologically perverse love story in film history.

Given that Hitchcock suffered from similar obsessions as the character Scotty (James Stewart) in the film, it is easily his most personal and boldly artistic film. It is ultimately a cautionary tale: do not fall in love with a romanticized image. After all, we all have a tendency to form an idealized image of those we become infatuated with, which easily comes crashing down once the initial infatuation is over.

In many respects, it is a powerful feminist statement – don’t think of women as one-dimensional, or categorize them. “Dress like this, act like this, say exactly this.” Is it any wonder our heroine kills herself in the end? Ironically, Scotty overcomes his fear during the final moments, but by vanquishing any possibility for love. It is both a victory and a tragedy.

Vertigo is not just about the fear of heights, it’s about the fear of falling in love. The dizzying heights that love can elevate us to and then traumatically drop us. Characters continue to fall throughout the story. Four falls, four deaths. It’s the ultimate tragic love story. It also contains one of the greatest film scores in history, with Bernard Herrmann referencing Tristan & Isolde, one of opera’s most tragic love stories.

In the end, Vertigo was too much for audiences of the time to handle. James Stewart’s performance alone was hard enough to take; the ultimate every-man was playing a obsessive and unappealing character that shocked many fans. Yet, time has been kind to Vertigo. There is more interest in the film now than ever before. As a result, it has been the only film in the past 50 years to knock Citizen Kane off the top film spot in Sight & Sound’s prestigious poll. Hitchcock’s daring honesty has made it a timeless and compulsively watchable film.

 

8. Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom (1960)

Legendary British director Michael Powell would make many classics during the 40‘s with his producing partner Emeric Pressburger. They had already made film history as The Archers. Powell was also married to three-time Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker who happens to be Martin Scorsese’s award-winning editor. However, Peeping Tom destroyed Powell’s career.

Banned in England for 35 years, it is a psychologically disturbing character study that was far ahead of its time. Ironically, it makes a great companion piece to Hitchcock’s Psycho, released the same year. But where Hollywood embraced Hitchcock’s horror classic, Britain felt Powell’s film was too perverse and ugly. Despite its thematic “sleaziness, cinematically speaking, it is extremely sophisticated. Powell knew what he was doing and the film clearly took some big risks.

The movie opens with a POV shot that would be imitated in countless horror films like Black Christmas and Halloween. Both the male lead and female actor are riveting. It’s extremely hard to take your eyes off them (no pun intended). Also, the musical score, although startling, fits the scatterbrained quality of the protagonist.

The nature of the film revolves around an empathetic and damaged psychopath who is obsessed with filming his victims. During a time in the UK where most audiences did not know what snuff movies were, Michael Powell fearlessly explored this fascination with voyeurism, paranoia and even perhaps the dangers of film obsession. In the end, this forgotten gem is one of the first true cult classics.

 

9. L’Avventura (1960)

lavventura

When released in the pivotal year of cinema’s transition, 1960, this Italian film was screened at Cannes and was instantly met with booing, yelling and anger. Audiences and critics found it pretentious, slow and boring. Completely incomprehensible. Two years later, Sight and Sound did their poll of the greatest films of all time, and many of those exact same critics suddenly voted it the second greatest film ever made, right behind Citizen Kane.

Simply put: we the audience needed to catch up with this challenging and profound film that clearly revolutionized cinema. Antonioni created his own film language with this masterpiece and many regard it as the first “modern” movie. L’Avventura teaches us an important lesson; be careful not to dismiss something so quickly on first viewing, like learning any new language, it takes practice to understand, but once you know what to look for, every frame is loaded with intense meaning. Eros is sick indeed.

The film is an extreme example of visual storytelling, where the mis-en-scene holds far more meaning than any of the dialogue. How are the characters standing? Are they facing each other? What’s in the background? What does the landscape look like? Every shot speaks volumes like a famous painting might. Antonioni was truly the poet of images.

To boot, Monica Vitti’s controlled performance of “interior neo-realism” was as groundbreaking in its own way as Marlon Brando’s Method Approach a few years earlier. At the time of its release, L’Avventura was simply fresher than anything else around.

 

10. Wake in Fright (1971)

Wake In Fright (1971)

This highly unusual Australian film from the 70’s didn’t get much recognition at the time but recently, due to a stunning restoration, it is finally getting the attention it deserves. This surreal character study follows a school teacher protagonist on an existential odyssey through the nightmarish landscape of small towns in the Australian outback.

Upon initial release many audiences found it baffling and frankly upsetting. After all, animals are killed and the characters divulge in atrocious debauchery. However, upon closer inspection, our hero’s journey is one of self-discovery and the trials of overcoming the fear of death. From Denial, Hope, Anger, Despair and Acceptance, he conquers each stage of death.

Not surprisingly, Martin Scorsese champions the film. He even pays homage to it in Casino with the bird’s-eye view of Sharon Stone throwing the dice in the air, which is a reflection of a gambling scene in Wake in Fright where the hero tosses gambling pieces in the air. There is also a subtle homosexual subtext that dances just under the surface, bringing into question whether or not our hero even has a sweetheart waiting for him back home. Is she a figment of past memories? Is she simply an excuse for a vacation when in reality he wishes to indulge in these debaucheries and very testosterone-driven activities.

Wake in Fright is a frightening film that disturbs, provokes and leaves plenty for the viewer to reflect upon. A lost 70’s classic that is only now finally getting its unique reputation and analysis that it deserves.

 

11. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now

Technically speaking, has there ever been a more accomplished film? From the cinematography to the editing and its incredible sound design, it is truly a cinematic experience that astonishes both sight and sound. Amidst war there is a thin line between sanity and insanity, like a snail balancing a thin razor.

As our main character journeys up the river, each stop explores a different aspect of the human soul. From traveling across Man’s tortured psyche, confronting both animal instincts and carnal desires, trying to come to terms with history and confronting denial, teetering on the thin line between the rational and the horrific, until ultimately reaching the final resting place – the heart of darkness.

Apocalypse Now was at first far too much for audiences to digest. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it would take a few years of simmering, reflection and catching up to. Nowadays, it’s an undisputed masterpiece. The Redux version, although controversial, enriches an already hugely complex story. It remains the finest war film ever made and has improved greatly with age. One doesn’t just watch the film, one experiences it.

 

12. Blade Runner (1982)

blade runner roy batty

Ridley Scott’s European sensibilities are showcased in this enthrallingly atmospheric, moody and speculative science-fiction masterpiece. Back in 1982, however, audiences’ pallets were more suited to feel-good movies like E.T., so this bleak, ambiguous and slow-paced dystopian tale was difficult for some to swallow.

However, as is the nature of all things great, Blade Runner gained a cult following which would ultimately grow exponentially with each passing year, thanks in part to pay TV and home video which helped it reach an ever-expanding audience (what cinephile can forget the glorious widescreen laserdisc release on Criterion?).

By its tenth anniversary, there was immense demand for a “director’s cut” and, most recently, Ridley Scott made fans go wild with the release of his definitive “final cut” which is indisputably the best version out there. Many call Blade Runner the most influential sci-fi film of the 80’s… arguably, even of all time. (Star Wars is its toughest competition).

The film is compulsively watchable as a cinematic experience. Its look, style and pace has since been imitated countless times in film, video games, music videos and even television commercials! Scott has proven that he clearly knows how to build worlds and environments that seep into our common unconsciousness. Be it Alien, Legend or Prometheus, many of his films capture atmosphere and ambiance better than most.

It is difficult to come up with another film that matches the sheer beauty of Blade Runner’s haunting images. The script is intelligent, affecting and fascinating in the philosophical debate that it offers – a debate more relevant today than ever before. At a time where A.I. has become cutting edge, the question of what does it mean to be human, couldn’t be more prescient. As Tyrell states, “More human than human is our motto.”

Part and parcel of what elevates Blade Runner is its hypnotizing score and terrific sound design. Both aid in enveloping the viewer and osmosing them into the visuals. Finally, replicant Roy Batty’s death soliloquy ranks as one of the most tender death scenes on screen. As if all that wasn’t enough, Scott ends the film with a hook – a question: is Rick Deckard a man or a replicant? A question passionately argued over by fans to this day.

So, it is all these aspects – atmosphere, style, score, philosophy, mystery and subtext – that pushes Blade Runner into being a film ahead of its time. So far ahead, in fact, that we are still catching up to it.

 

13. The Thing (1982)

the-thing-image

After the phenomenal success of Halloween, director John Carpenter wanted to pay tribute (yet again) to his long-time idol Howard Hawks. Remaking Hawks’ production of The Thing From Another World was already a risk, but imbuing it with the goriest effects the world had ever seen was something else! The film’s bleak ending, horrific killings and all-around gloomy atmosphere didn’t gauge well at the box office, audiences wanted to see more aliens like E.T. and not something a character in the film describes as, “You’ve got to be fuckin’ kidding.”

Today, however, The Thing is widely regarded as the ultimate monster movie. Despite pioneering ground-breaking visual effects in prosthetics, Carpenter also borrows classic suspense elements that are reminiscent of Hitchcock, while its archetypal open-ending has left fans locked in debating for decades whether our hero did in fact kill the alien (or perhaps the character Chiles hiding something?).

One of the film’s big draws is the incredible visual effects created by prosthetic artist Rob Bottin. It took Bottin over a year to complete his incredible work on every creature effect, though Stan Winston assisted on transforming the Husky. Speaking of the Husky – it was the real deal. The same animal was used throughout the movie and – as the story goes – it was half wild and had an unreliable trainer who famously preferred to spend his time drinking in the corner rather than keeping an eye on it. The hound would growl and snarl at the cast and crew during filming and everyone was genuinely terrified of it.

The shoot itself was an extremely difficult one. In addition to the dangerous dog, it was freezing and it wasn’t only the husky’s trainer who was drinking – everyone was. Carpenter and Co. needed so desperately to keep warm during the filming that alcohol turned out to be the simplest solution which resulted in the all-male team quickly deteriorating to debauchery and recklessness.

Finally, the big explosion in the finale was reportedly ill-planned. The stunt crew had over-calculated the amount of dynamite needed, making the explosion much larger and far more dangerous than they had anticipated. Unable to put out the fire, it raged on and on for much too long. It is a bit of a miracle that more people were not hurt. Despite all the pitfalls and near disasters, Carpenter triumphed and managed to make one of the all-time greatest sci-fi horror films which can proudly be ranked alongside Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, “Alien”.

 

 

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  • Ted Wolf

    Nice list and it could have gone on and on! A great companion list would be tremendous box office successes that sucked (like Porky’s or Dirty Dancing).

    • Brian Lussier

      Or Avatar and the Transformer films.

    • Problem with that sort of list is that it is highly subjective. If a movie makes a lot of money then as far as entertainment goes that means it is good.

      Every movie. Even the very, very best has haters. Nothing works for everyone.

      • Bryton Cherrier

        Say that to Deep Throat.

        • Lord Darque

          I will say it about everything because it is the truth.Deep Throat was amazingly successful.

          You can make an objectively true list about financial success. Any other measurement is pure subjective and is just your personal point of view. Some might share it to some degree but chances are no one will share it completely.

          For example from the above comments I think Porky’s is one of the greatest comedies ever made. Why? Because it has one scene that made me laugh longer and harder than anything before or since.

  • Cinema270

    Absolutely fantastic list and write up.

  • Bryton Cherrier

    What about The Shining?
    I personally dislike that movie, but it’s considered a textbook example of a film that from the time it was released was given negative reviews but now seen as a great film.

    • Wolfstarking

      Yes good example. The Shining is a great film even if you don’t like it which the reason why i guess you don’t like it is because you are a purist of the King Novel, or am i wrong?

      • Bryton Cherrier

        Actually no.
        The soundtrack is bullshit and brings down the whole film.

        • Wolfstarking

          the soundtrack? well ok whatever. I personally love it.

          • Bryton Cherrier

            So random fucking soundloops over and over is your idea for a soundtrack? Lmao
            Honestly I would give it multiple watches and I bet I would enjoy it more, but if there comes a day where I can watch it with a different or no soundtrack I won’t watch it again.

          • Wolfstarking

            A score doesn’t have to be a John Williams type of symphony all the time.

          • Bryton Cherrier

            I never said I wanted it to be one?

    • Dave Anderson

      “The Shining” may have gotten negative reviews, but it was a box office success.

      • Bryton Cherrier

        I think moderate success is a better term if I can recall it’s results.

  • Brian Lussier

    Great analysis of Eyes Wide Shut, one that goes completely hand in hand with my own opinion of it! However, you did steal your comment about him remaining “silent whether his films were being applauded or damned” from Tom Cruise’s voice-over narration in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures.

  • Matt

    Your interpretation of fight club is a bit weird, don’t think they were aiming for a religious film, agree with the male identity though

  • tknagano

    I believe Kevin Spacey’s bio pic about Bobby Darin “Beyond the Sea” is one of those under rated movies. After all Kevin Spacey sang the title song “Beyond the Sea” in Abby Roads Studio, with John Wilson’s 72 piece orchestra, produced by Phil Ramon. Killer arrangement with strings. – TK

    • Brian Lussier

      Yeah, but the film was flawed in many ways too. In particular by the fact that Spacey was WAY older than Darin ever was. It didn’t work for me. And it was just another conventional biopic of a celebrity, the way they release heaps of them. It brought nothing new or fresh to the genre.

  • Richard McLin

    Great list. I do believe Michael Cimino’s “Heavens Gate” should be on there. Maybe even “Cleopatra”.

  • BK207

    The Night of the Hunter is awesome. By far the best film watched last year, wished I would have seen it sooner

    • I Am Tyler Durden

      Have you seen the terrible remake with Richard Chamberlain? I used to think it was one classic that would make a great modern thriller but not that low budget TV movie they made. Ugh!

  • Dave

    Apocalypse Now wasn’t a flop. The Wizard of Oz was a flop when it was released. I think TV rights allowed it to finally make it’s money back

  • Allister Cooper

    Interesting list! I couldn’t care less about Crash and The Assassination of the Jesse James… but I was surprised True Romance and Raging Bully [I know, haha] weren’t on this list. Both were powerhouse films, esp True Romance. ‘Do you know who I am, Mr Worley?’

    • I Am Tyler Durden

      Crash was the only one I would never watch again, I will probably watch Jesse James once more at some point but that’s it. All the others, classics, could watch again at any time.

  • eagleye

    Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977). A great film which was understandably overshadowed by Star Wars’ success.

    • I Am Tyler Durden

      The restoration of Sorcerer is stunning. Actually that’s a great idea for a list; Great films restored for today’s audience. Starting with Sorcerer, Wake In Fright (again), House Of Wax 3D. There’s probably a few Giallo and the odd Yuzna/Gordon production that could go on too.

  • FredLaMotte

    Eyes Wide Shut? Fight Club? Assassination of Jesse James? ‘Great’ Movies? Sheeesh.

    • Bryton Cherrier

      … What’s wrong with Fight Club

  • I Am Tyler Durden

    Hands down the most pleasurable list I’ve ever read on this site. Every time I thought “I bet he won’t have ….. on this list” up it came and not a single one of my choices was missing. Not only that, it has 4 of my favourite films of all time including my number 1 (but I do not talk about that). Loved it, thanks Dude.

  • Michael D. Okum

    Great List!

  • Paul Morrissey

    Apocalypse Now made $150 mill – big hit world wide at the time, especially for an ‘R” rated pic

  • JohnDoe5

    The author Paul Jensen didn’t elaborate why Shawshank Redemption flopped like how he described some others. The main reason is because it premiered the exact same day as Forrest Gump, and also Forrest Gump took all the Oscars away from Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank Redemption only made 2 million in theaters but for those who watched it (including me), we spread the words around and just Blockbuster Video alone, the rental was 200 times more than the theater audience. Frank Darabont became my idol after that. Just want people to know. 🙂

    • Kaitain

      Its other major problem was that the title put off audiences; they couldn’t get any grasp of what the film was about.

  • John W. Thackery

    Apocalypse Now wasn’t a flop, it was the 4th highest grossing film of 1979.

    • Kaitain

      It’s a flop if it doesn’t recoup its budget, certainly not within a reasonable period of its initial release. Being the fourth highest grossing film of 1979 does not entail that it made its money back.

  • Deanna

    Still can’t stand Fantasia or Its A Wonderful Life (I know I will get hate for this).

  • zachlen

    I would definitely have to add,THE MUSIC LOVERS and THE DEVILS.

  • Dave

    You say that Gilliam hasn’t made a film with such an uncompromising vision since Brazil. You should check out Baron Munchausen – another Gilliam “flop” which I’d undergoing a reappraisal

  • Allister Cooper

    Crash was… Give me Manhunter any day.

  • Alexthekay

    You guys have a funny definition of “flop.” Some of these were hit films.

    • John W. Thackery

      Aside from Apocalypse Now, all of these films underperformed or tanked at the box office and/or disavowed by audiences in their initial releases. Plus, critical reception for nearly all the films listed were mixed or negative.

  • Brandon Thompson

    I don’t see how many of these are flops? Several were nominated or even won Oscars or major prizes at film festivals like Cannes.

    • John W. Thackery

      These were all financial flops. Plus, critical reception for nearly all the films listed were mixed or negative.

  • Frankie

    Excuse me but “Eyes Wide Shut (1999)”, “Crash (1996)” are great movies? Not for me, sorry.

  • Dave

    I’m not sure the consensus is there for Jesse James being a great film. I know it has it”s fans, but I still think they’re a small, but vocal group.