By their very nature cult films can be a challenge to come across, and it can often take years for a film to find its niche audience of oddballs and adherents who will give it the appreciation and plaudits it deserves. And so this short list looks to spotlight some sensational films by the likes of Walter Hill, Bob Rafelson, Nicolas Roeg, Seijun Suzuki and others.
What lays ahead are artful, of-the-wall, and “out there” cinematic experiences that will reward viewers who like a strong dose of strange and a potential for danger. Proceed with caution, you might not know what’s going to hit you!
10. Southern Comfort (1981)
Atmospheric, expertly paced, and uncomfortably agitated, Walter Hill (The Warriors ) offers up an edgy action thriller with Southern Comfort, a survival tale with teeth. Co-written by Hill, Michael Kane, and frequent collaborator David Giler, this Louisiana-set exercise in mental anguish and decidedly offbeat action concerns a group of Vietnam vets, now National Guard reservists (including Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Powers Boothe, and Fred Ward) who are participating in a training exercise in the bayou.
Things get nerve-wracking and undeniably alarming when they discover their maps are grossly out of date and inaccurate, and they’re loss. But here their troubles only begin after they rip off some louring Cajun locals itching to fight. I won’t divulge any more plot points here, suffice it to say that critics at the time couldn’t see past a few similarities to John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), with little concern to the evocative and well-informed Vietnam war metaphor, and exquisite action sequences.
Thankfully the passing years have been kind to Southern Comfort, perhaps Hill’s most undervalued and overlooked film, which now has something of a cult following, and has aged rather well––as has Ry Cooder’s chilling score.
Certainly many of Green Room’s adrenaline-surging shocks, super realist violence, and survivalism psychology stems from this ferocious little film.
9. Head (1968)
This plotless cinematic experience in pop art hubris emerged just as the Monkees TV show was cancelled, courtesy of director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces ), who co-wrote this psychedelic speculation along with Jack Nicholson (who also appears in the film).
A series of spirited, strange, and 100% WTF am I watching vivacity, Head finds TV rock group The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) on a series of trippy, blissed-out 1960s Hollywood hijinks with the highlight perhaps being seeing the boys in the band as dandruff on a giant cranium in one of many hypnagogic sequences.
Other high points include cameos from Toni Basil, Annette Funicello, Dennis Hopper, Frank Zappa, and more, with some surprisingly satisfying music from The Monkees––including all of their best work––and dank nuggets from the likes of Carole King and Harry Nilsson, too. Head is a strange, delirious, and ridiculous trip.
8. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Crass humor, gross-out horror and likeable antiheroes jarringly abide to maximize an edgy impact with satisfying results in Dan O’Bannon’s excellent zombie movie pisstake, Return of the Living Dead.
O’Bannon’s film landed at a time when zombie films weren’t on prime time television or as a near ubiquitous box-office presence as they have today, so while not a fresh subgenre by any means, Return of the Living Dead must still be considered one of the most influential films of its ilk, for it was the first to feature the undead as brain eaters and to move at high speeds, what’s now become genre maxims.
Brain eating and quick reflexes aside, O’Bannon’s film also benefits from a game cast including James Karen and Clu Gulager. The punk rock aesthetic is also pretty delectable, and the soundtrack, which includes SSQ, The Cramps, Roky Erickson, and The Damned, further underscores the subversive and sardonic slant that O’Bannon emulates.
Quotable, kitsch, and aberrant, Return of the Living Dead is one of the best films of its morbid milieu. It would spawn four inferior sequels, but don’t let their lacking quality deter you from watching this midnight movie staple.
7. Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988)
Based off of Jack Henry Abbott’s harrowing 1981 true story novel “In the Belly of the Beast”, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead marks the auspicious feature-length directorial debut of Australian-Canadian filmmaker John Hillcoat (The Proposition , The Road ) about the ghastly experiences and living conditions in Central Industrial Prison, a privately run maximum security prison in the middle of the harsh Australian desert.
It also represents one of many collaborations between Hillcoat and polymath musician icon Nick Cave (here he co-writes, co-stars, and provides the score [along with fellow Bad Seeds Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey]), in a film that is fittingly bleak, brutal, and at times, very difficult to watch.
Fans of Cave can’t miss his turn as Maynard, a terrifying criminal who plays a vital role in the Draconian prison’s unsettling revolt. The squeamish viewer will be hiding behind pillows, but for the brave viewer, this is a rewarding, nerve-jangling journey worth witnessing.
6. I Saw the Devil (2010)
South Korean director Kim Jee-woon and writer Park Hoon-jung know a thing or two about crafting an alternately shocking, knee-slapping, and viscerally engaging revenge-addled odyssey, and their audacious 2010 genre mashup, I Saw the Devil illustrates this with ghoulish glee.
After pieces of his missing fiancé, Jang Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) are found strewn near a local river and environs, trained secret agent for the National Intelligence Service Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) becomes obsessed with tracking down her killer. And it’s not long before he does just that, and he lays one hell of a smack down on the sick shit sack (Choi Min-sik), too. But Kim has bigger designs for the killer, and after he brutally beats the snot out of him (complete with some upsetting Achilles tendon slashing action) he maliciously lets him go “free” so that a twisted cat and mouse game will ensue.
You’d think that I Saw the Devil’s cottoning to trendy torture porn, OTT violence (cannibalism features prominently), depraved sexual violence, and extreme gore would render the film unwatchable and yet it’s a shockingly effective, artfully and even gorgeously photographed affair (mad props to cinematographer Lee Mo-gae and editor Nam Na-yeong for their exemplary efforts), complete with characters that are utterly emotionally compelling.
For all its awful, stomach-churning content and nightmare fuel, I Saw the Devil is never less than compelling, and near impossible to look away from. This is an unrelenting genre picture that will have you dazed for days.