Think about a film that has affected you deeply, it may well be seen as a classic in its genre, but doesn’t always mean it was a hit when initially released. Many of our beloved celluloid experiences were not just box office failures or lacked being smash hits, but many were dammed by critics. A cult flop is our peek into a few unexpected flops that went on to be utter classics. Because, as they say, the cream always rises to the top.
Some of these, at the time of release, were deemed too ‘bizarre’, ‘violent’ or ‘dramatic’ but as history and taste moved on many developed hero statuses. For example, Wes Anderson’s first film Bottle Rocket, Si-Fi celluloid cult Blade Runner and the one and only Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life, were all certainly not box office hits but over time have grown very close to our hearts.
There are many to mention, but the films listed below include directors from around the world who pushed the barriers and boundaries. Some may even surprise you to know they were not a hit first time around.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) directed by Jim Sharman (Australian)
The film: Musical comedy horror where an all American couple find themselves at a castle after their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Only to meet its bizarre resident comically named Dr Frank-n-Furter.
Why it failed: Diving into a time where many people had still hidden away their true gender identity, transvestism and cross-dressing had not been in the public eye. To have this on the big screen for some was shocking and many disapproved. It left one option, to show the film only late at night.
Why it became a cult classic: The film gained popularity with its midnight screenings. People were beginning to show up in fishnet tights and many took it further by dressing like the extravagant characters. The film has paved its way to being a musical hit on stage and has been the longest-running theatrical show in history. A film that now has audiences sing-along and applauding at every live showing in the West End.
Barbarella (1968) directed by Roger Vadim (French)
The film: Set in the space age era, Barbarella is set out on a quest to find Dr Durand, the inventor with a ray powerful enough to destroy planet earth. She lands on a mystical planet where intriguing men assist her.
Why it failed: At the time the film was released, many of audience had still been used to modest wear. Barbarella, on the other hand, took modesty out of the equation. Jane Fonda who plays Barbarella had been put into skin-tight, peekaboo clothes and in some scenes nothing at all. The sexualisation of women in films was seen as highly offensive. With no choice, Vadim had decided to stop it from showing in theatres.
Why it became a cult classic: A decade later, fashion had begun to change. Think colourful, imaginative and futuristic fashion all readily available. With a lot more exposure and the back up of fashion designers such as Paco Rabanne (who dressed Jane Fonda in the film Barbarella), many people were exposed to the shift in fashion. The experimental dressing was now at the forefront of catwalk trends so Vadim decided to re-release the film.
Barbarella received a much more positive response from the audience and motioned an iconography that influenced fashion and music-making. This camp classic had the 80s synth-pop band Duran Duran gain inspiration for their band name.
Monty Python: Life of Brian (1979) directed by Terry Jones (British-Welsh)
The film: Born on the same day as Jesus of Nazareth, Brian finds himself misjudged as being the Messiah, a typical tale of mistaken identity. He joins an anti-roman group but finds himself taking on the stories of Jesus Christ in the bible.
Why it failed: Prior to the film release, it a negative gained traction through many religious groups. However, taking stories from the Bible and turning them into a comical act was seen as sacrilege. Protests began calling out the film to be ‘Not family-friendly’ and ‘blasphemous’. The uproar meant the film was banned from showing in countries like Norway, Ireland and parts of Britain. For its initial release in 1979 many viewers had to travel to the nearest town or city that had permission to show the film in order to watch it.
Why it became a cult classic: Through the bravery and courage of many Britains, rebels as some may say, reviews began to spread rapidly. Many trusted the word of mouth, that Life of Brian views picked up. Take note Monty Python was a comedy group that had been around through television and book from the mid-60s to present day. Today people have become far more relaxed with films, books and art that take on a form of humour within the bible.
This is Spinal Tap (1984) directed by Rob Reiner (American)
The film: A British heavy metal band set out to make a comeback with their American tour. A journey of rehearsals, performances and fan interaction. The Spinal Tap gives us exclusivity on their lives as they shift back into the music industry.
Why it failed: Director Rob Reiner created a change from the common documentary style that people were used to by turning it on its head and making this a spoof comedy and people just did not get it at the time.
Why it became a cult classic: Later in the 80s when released on VHS it became one of the first films to become a big hit. Since the growing attention of mockumentary style films, The Spinal Tap was shown in theatre again, this time with a positive response from critics and the audience. Many love it and consider it one of the greatest funniest films ever made.
Shivers (1981) directed by Wojciech Szczęsny Marczewski (Polish)
The film: A film set in the 80s during communist Poland, extends its hands into the lives of selected teenagers who are sent to spend three months at an indoctrination camp. Their only way out is to abide by the rules and become a trained anti-capitalist leader for future Poland.
Why it failed: The Polish communist government was not convinced the public would take to the film well. Many scenes in Shivers show teenagers being conditioned. The thought of going against parents’ wishes and developing their own way of thinking was therefore not a way in which would be best suited the communist country. The anti-capitalist government decided to ban the film.
Why it became a cult classic: The film was released three years later and picking up recognition through ‘The Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize’ at the International’s Film Festival in Berlin. Since the award, many people have watched the film making its one of Marczewski’s best films ever directed.
Journey to Italy (1954) directed by Roberto Rossellini (Italian)
The film: A British couple find their marriage crippling into pieces. Taking on a road trip from the UK to France, they travel to Naples where their main project is to sell their inherited villa.
Why it failed: The film took on a number of reasons why it failed during the time of release. On top of taking 18 months to release it, it had been filmed in English not the director’s native Italian. The film was dubbed in Italian, alas received a bad reception from the Italian viewers.
On top of this during the time of its release, most Italian theatres in August were closed. No time to watch a film in a boxed dark room. Instead, summertime was the ultimate excuse for a family getaway.
Rossellini took on ‘realism’ when directing his films. Journey to Italy is an example of portraying a realistic lifestyle for families and couples. He wanted to show not everything is perfect. Behind closed doors, there’s a world of hidden secrets which at the time of the film release. Films screenings were supposedly meant to be a break away from their ‘real’ daily lives. Entertainment at that point was no realism.
Why it became a cult classic: Rosellini sparked the start of the ‘New Wave’ where films challenged mainstream cinema. Many French directors used this film as an example of how they would create their version of arthouse cinema and realism within their films. When released on DVD it was also widely praised and featured as by Glenn Erickson as one of the 50 greatest films made.
Los Olvidados: The Young and the Damned (1950) directed by Luis Bunuel (Spanish/Mexican)
The film: A group of Mexican young boys growing up in the cities slums find themselves with a young boy named Pedro. Their plan is simple, corrupt him so that he too joins their lives of hardship.
Why it failed: This film had flopped right from its production. Many staff members had quit during the process of filming Los Olvidados. A makeup artist and camera operator left because they said the portrayal of the Mexican life of a child was morally wrong. They anticipated the film would not work well for Bunuel who was not even from Mexico. Audiences were not prepared for the harsh reality of violence, poverty and injustice of children shown especially in their own country.
Why it became a cult classic: The film slowly began to be watched and stuck a chord when numbers of viewers when it won awards. One notable award was the ‘Ariel Award’ for best direction. Had Bunuel not stuck with the way he filmed Los Olvidados, things may have turned out differently.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) directed by Stanley Kubrick (American)
The film: Set in Britain a gang member Alex DeLarge is sentenced to prison for murder and rape. He volunteers for a program that eventually would lessen his time in prison if he chooses to participate. For Alex, things go differently during the program.
Why it failed: The director banned it from showing in theatres because of its realistic intake in violence that would influence a ‘copycat’ habit. The Scala cinema (London) was the only theatre that showed A Clockwork Orange. Although to their dismay they were fined. Also, in court cases around the UK involving acts of violent defence lawyers declared the film had influenced their client’s bad behaviour.
Why it became a cult classic: 20 years later, the same theatre, The Scala, wanted to be the first theatre to re-screen it. Tolerance to violence in films slowly grew. Many parts of the world had always screened the film including the U.S (it was only banned in the UK) so why not Britain itself now?
It was going to be released again, but Kubrick’s death 1999 brought a standstill to the release date. Many people regarded that it should have a delicate interval before putting out a film that was once condemned. When it finally was allowed to be seen, it was regarded as acceptable for adult audiences only. The time period had changed and what was viewed as sensitive at the time had been surpassed by far more violent films.
Imprint ( 2006) directed by Takashi Miike (Japanese)
The film: An American journalist searches for his missing love Komomo. He travels to Japan where he last experienced memories with her. Landed on an Island, he finds a mysterious woman who tells the unfortunate story of his beloved lady.
Why it failed: This was the 13th film in a sequence of films called ‘Master of Horror’ Every film had been recorded in the Japanese language, except for ‘Imprint’ ( the spoken language of the film was English) which caught the audience by surprise as well as the actors. Many of the actors could not speak English resulting in poor acting. For Miike, English was also not his first language leaving the film to feel disjointed at times and for his audience, rather confused. On release, many of the producers had deemed this film as a step too far in horror as well. Miike had been known already for his seat jumping films but this time he pushed his boundaries just that bit too far. Imprint lost its appeal when the majority of the gory scenes had to be cut out.
Why it became a cult classic: Even though this was one of Miike’s most graphical films, he still had the backing of his fans. Many recognised his talent for horror. The film was released five months later on DVD and many people decided to test their level of toleration with an uncut version of the film.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) directed by Mel Stuart (American)
The film: A musical film following a young boy named Charlie who wants to win one of the very few golden tickets doted around the world, that would lead him to win a trip to the glorious Chocolate factory of the title.
Why it failed: The original story written by Roald Dahl was turned into a musical film. Dahl had disapproved of his book being changed so he decided not to work with the Mel Stuart. With critics mentioning the songs in the film were easily forgettable, it resulted in a low turn out when shown in cinemas.
Why it became a cult classic: The production company Warner Bros had decided to pick up the film and re-release it on television around the world. Interest began to pick up and many took note of the musical pieces that cover-versions of the original songs began to sprout up. Famously, one to remember is ‘The Candy Man’ that Sammy Davis Jones sang and went on to be a global hit.
Fight Club (1999) directed by David Fincher (American)
The film: An insomniac office worker and a soap maker, form an underground fight club. As interest picked up, members of the club begin to live two lives, completely taking a change in their daily roles. What happens underground remains underground.
Why it failed: Though the film had growing household names such as award-winning Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, they predicted the film would be a flop. In the height of the film premiering a popular tv show decided to mention the film. The Rosie O’Donnell Show on US channel NBC shared spoilers to the millions of citizens who switch onto the program. Rosie O’Donnell had spoiler alert on high but also spoke negatively about the film saying how graphic the fight scenes were. During the premier people walked out and booed the film that the box office ticket sales went down.
Why it became a cult classic: Fincher, the director fought for the film to be seen back in a theatre but months later, the film picked up in sales with the teenage audience. Fight Club became a big hit on DVD and today still surprises many with its reason of flopping at the box office.
Dazed and Confused (1993) directed by Richard Linklater (American)
The film: A group of eager American teenagers had finally reached their last day of high school. As they eagerly look forward to the next stage of teenage life, they celebrate with the ambitious motto go hard or go home.
Why it failed: The Indie film did not feature well-known actors at the time, for example, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg and Milla Jovovich. This meant audiences did not pay too much attention to the film when it was released in theatre. Sadly, the film did not make much of a profit during its box office release.
Why it became a cult classic: With the soundtrack of the film becoming a double-platinum hit, the film picked-up popularity through its home video sales. Notable director Quentin Tarantino included this film in the Sound Magazine Poll as his 10th greatest films of all time. And of course, the soundtrack became double platinum making Dazed and Confused a big hit in Richard Linklater directing career.
A few honourable mentions:
Though this film may or may not have made millions, it’s certainly one to take note of. The director brings the style of ‘slow cinema’ in Baa Baa Land to the viewer. A film about sheep in a field, no action or narrative for eight straight hours. With its niche audience, this is the only film to date by Garth Thomas.
If the idea of sitting for eight continuous hours in a cinema then maybe this the 60s release will interest? Empire directed by Andy Warhol is what it says it is, a film all about the Empire State Building in New York. Again no audio at all and it received a bad reception. People walked out and many demanded their money back. Baa Baa Land may well be a tribute for Warhols classic film.
Even BBC are doing a Springwatch Live watch through with their version of slow cinema. Set around Britain, their webcams follow the lives of different animals. For example, a birds nest with newly hatched Eurasian blue tits squeaking away in a cosy bed. Or if you fancy going on the other side of the world in China’s Wolong Valley a fury panda family might leave you feeling all warm inside thank to Explore.org. So you could watch this in the comforts of your own home.
With directors finding interesting ways to create a film, why not read the art of making short films written by Sera Mathews here.