While looking through my film collection, I’ve noticed that quite a few of my favorite movies have suffered through the same humble beginnings at the box office, just to eventually achieve some form of cult following later down the road. They’re movies that for one reason of another didn’t hit their marks right away and took time finding their audiences, which I think is a true testament to the staying power of film in general. While big blockbuster films like TRANSFORMERS or similar films based on toys, rides or board games are guaranteed to make hundreds of millions right out of the gate and break records, I feel like the movies that have modest beginnings and take time to really affect a group of people are the ones that are remembered.
So, here are five films that I consider great movies that caught on…after the fact. While a couple of them don’t necessarily fit into the “horror” genre per se’, they are movies that I consider borderline there.
HALLOWEEN 3: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982)
THE NIGHT NO ONE COMES HOME… Such a great tagline in my opinion. Tommy Lee Wallace’s HALLOWEEN 3: SEASON OF THE WITCH is a movie that quite literally suffered due to the first nine letters of its title. If it had been released without being a sequel to not only in my opinion the greatest film ever made, but a film that helped bring an iconic slasher like Michael Myers into the horror hall of fame, then I think it would’ve have been accepted with open arms right away. I could imagine the shock of fans of the first two Halloween films walking into this one wondering what Myers would do next, what twist they would add, and they got… Stonehenge and masks…wtf?
While a lot of people were obviously upset by the lack of Michael and the addition of a completely new storyline, there isn’t a single thing about this movie that I don’t like. Growing up, HALLOWEEN 3 was just as much of a staple to my regular rotation of horror films as any other movie. Great performances, interesting sets, intense death scenes (Little Buddy Kupfer…yikes) this film has it all. Sure there’s a definite absence of the tone of the first two films, but I think that works for it. Plus, anything Tom Atkins does is gold as far as I’m concerned.
The film is about doctor Dan Challis, played by Atkins, who while working late at night, witnesses a man raving about how some people are “going to kill us all!”. The man is murdered shortly after by a guy in a suit who walks outside, gets into a car and sets himself on fire (ouch). Enthralled and curious by what happened, doctor Challis, along with the murdered man’s daughter, sets out to find out what was behind it and gets more than he bargains for when he realizes it all ties into the Silver Shamrock mask company. Without giving away too much to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, what follows is a very fun, sometimes gory and thoroughly enjoyable film. Just walk into it not expecting another Halloween sequel filled with Michael Myers but instead a cleverly woven story that is closer to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS than to a slasher movie. SCREAM FACTORY!, the new horror subsidiary of SHOUT FACTORY! has recently released a great looking Blu-ray of the film, complete with a really enjoyable retrospective documentary, a tour of the locations used in filming and an entertaining commentary as well, I’d recommend picking it up asap.
JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (1982)
During a panel at Weekend of Horrors in 2011, the moderator attempted to sit down with John Carpenter and go over his career, film by film. After the first three or four, Carpenter interjected and said something to the effect of “Most of my films have the same story: they didn’t do well at the box office and eventually people liked them”. The same thing can be said of this great film of Carpenter’s.
A remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks classic film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, Carpenter’s remake is a dark movie about an American research facility in Antarctica that is filled with scientists and helicopter pilots. After an explosion and shooting involving a Norwegian helicopter chasing a dog, Pilot RJ Macready (Kurt Russell) and a doctor fly to the Norwegian site to figure out what happened, and eventually find a mangled corpse with two heads. They bring the corpse back to the research facility where all hell breaks loose and an alien creature able to take any form begins to eventually turn them against themselves, making them think each other is the alien.
1982 was the year where horror films weren’t really concerned with concluding their films on a cheerful note and Carpenter’s THE THING is no exception. It’s a dark film, and I think that’s what initially hurt it when it came out. Spielberg’s E.T. was released about two weeks before THE THING, and while the mass public gravitated towards that movie and its happy ending and tone, it seems like people weren’t interested in a somber, almost nihilistic film about paranoia. THE THING barely made a few million over its budget and it took a while for people to latch onto its genius. It is now hailed as one of the greatest horror films of all time and an American classic, but at the time people felt like chasing Reeses Pieces and riding bikes into the sky, which is unfortunate because I feel like THE THING is the better movie.
BLADE RUNNER (1982)
Another casualty of the year E.T. dominated the box office was Ridley Scott’s epic BLADE RUNNER. While being ahead of its time and a really beautiful movie to watch in my opinion, BLADE RUNNER was overlooked upon its release by many people who were bombarded with tons of sci-fi films including STAR TREK 2, E.T., THE THING and others.
A loose adaption of the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?”, BLADE RUNNER is based in the year 2019 and involves a retired Police man named Deckard played by Harrison Ford who is threatened by a former supervisor into an assignment involving finding and “retiring” replicants (bio-engineered robots disguised as humans). What follows is a series of some of the coolest set pieces, performances that rival most movies (Rutger Hauer as Roy, one of Deckard’s replicant targets is phenomenal, one of my favorite characters of all time), and in my opinion Ridley Scott’s best work aside from 1979’s ALIEN. The world that Scott created visually is beyond words and is always great to experience. It’s a futuristic Noir-tale that definitely gets better with time, and was deserved of the acclaim that it eventually got years later.
BLADE RUNNER made just around 6 million dollars opening weekend which was considered a bomb, though it eventually made back its budget and then some. Years later, most people cite the film as revolutionary and hold it among some of the greatest sci-fi films of all time.
With a stage musical already in the past, an upcoming reboot TV show and multiple double dip releases of this 1988 gem, you’d think it would have been an instant hit a the box office, but HEATHERS was definitely a bomb when it was first released. This is definitely a movie that I hold very high, and though it might not be called a horror film, it displays a pitch black sense of humor and by far one of the coolest characters of all time: Christian Slater’s J.D. (Jason Dean).
HEATHERS revolves around a smart high school student named Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), that for some odd reason that I don’t get to this day, hangs out with the three “Heathers”. The three Heathers (Chandler, Duke and McNamara) are a clique of popular brats who get their kicks playing pranks on the overweight, nerdy and every other cliché’ character films like these portray. All is well until J.D. (Slater) enters the picture and when two jock bullies attempt to make fun of him, pulls out a gun and fires blanks at them. While the three Heathers’ dismiss J.D. as a psycho, Veronica is enthralled by him and eventually is talked into some devilishly good justice on the Heathers’ hierarchy in the form of murder disguised as suicide. As the body count grows, Veronica realizes that J.D. won’t stop and eventually plans on blowing the school up, taking everyone including himself out.
While that might seem pretty serious and these days it’s obvious that HEATHERS wouldn’t be touched on (with the real school violence of the past decade and a half, it’s no wonder the upcoming reboot is supposed to focus on 20 years later rather than the school bombings, shooting, etc), the movie itself is a smart, often satirical look at popularity, high school trends and the teenage angst that goes along with both. Many things make this film work for me, the writing is genius and Slater’s portrayal of J.D. is quite simply: badass. Who DIDN’T want to be J.D. when this movie came out?? I spent my whole grade school years wishing I was Slater after this movie, and HEATHERS has always been a real favorite of mine. Sadly,the film didn’t catch on until it was released on VHS and quickly became a cult hit, deservedly so.
BLUE VELVET (1986)
DAVID LYNCH’s movies have always reminded me of a cross between Dashiell Hammett and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Most of his films with the exception of ERASERHEAD, DUNE and THE STRAIGHT STORY, have been noir-ish stories with definite surrealism to them. There’s always something off kilter about Lynch, and it shows in his films/TV shows/artwork. Whether it’s his colorful characters like LOST HIGHWAY’s Mystery Man or pretty much every character in TWIN PEAKS, Lynch has a way of drawing the viewer into a world and making you want to stay there as long as possible. His 1986 mystery, BLUE VELVET is definitely an example of a cult hit of his, though it wasn’t initially as successful as it should have been.
Made for six million dollars, BLUE VELVET tells the story of Jeffrey Beaumont (a slick Kyle MacLachlan) who leaves college to take care of his father who has recently had a stroke. While walking through a field, Jeffrey finds a severed ear, which leads him to try to solve the mystery surrounding it. It eventually takes him to Dorothy Vallens, a nightclub singer who is mixed up with one of the weirdest, yet interesting characters ever: Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper at his craziest). Booth is a violent criminal who gets off on inhaling gas and S&M type stuff, and is a force to be reckoned with. Slowly, Jeffrey is sucked into this world and to these characters until he uncovers the mystery, which eventually leads to a really great ending involving in my opinion, the best closet scene since HALLOWEEN. Lynch crafted a really great mystery with this one, and like HEATHERS, it’s not a horror film per se’ but exhibits a dark side to it, that I find equally appealing to anything slasher related.
While BLUE VELVET earned David Lynch a BEST DIRECTOR nomination at the Oscars that year, on top of being critically acclaimed, the film itself barely made $800,000 its opening weekend and eventually going on to make a little over eight million all together. Like HEATHERS though, the film became successful with its release onto VHS and it’s lasting power over the years. When someone mentions David Lynch to me, the first film that pops into my head is BLUE VELVET, and while I am a HUGE fan of his work before and after this one, it’s definitely my favorite film of his.
Are there any of your favorite films that might not have been big hits initially, but eventually became cult hits?