cult classic movies

Cinematic Underdogs: Cult Hits That Didn’t Cash In

In the long record of cinema, we frequently take for granted the success of several movies that are currently regarded as cult classics

However, behind their celebrity occasionally lurks a welcome of terrible and awful box office results, which have threatened to derail the careers of directors, performers, and entire production companies. 

Fortunately, despite the initial skepticism of producers and distributors whose primary goal is obviously to make as much money as possible, the stuff of movie dreams eventually triumphed and captured the hearts of audiences, and these films, which were once ignored or even ridiculed, have since become landmarks in their respective genres. 

Perhaps it was just the wrong time, or perhaps some of these stories were so far ahead of their time that they needed to settle into the public imagination before they shone. 

Alfred Hitchcock famously stated, “In movies, the director is God.” Still, he’s not the same outside of the set since he can’t impose his vision on an audience that, for whatever reason, is hostile to his work at the time. 

Nevertheless, as evidenced by the outstanding list of upcoming titles, it is not money that drives the story but talent.  

So, rather than make these films wait any longer, as they have already waited long enough, let’s have a look at my humble collection of disastrous but unforgettable masterpieces.

The Thing (1982)

The Thing 1982 movie
Amazon Prime Video

Beginning with a rare instance where a remake surpasses its original, 1982’s The Thing pays homage to Howard Hawks‘ classic “The Thing from Another World.”

This time, John Carpenter, the mastermind behind numerous action/horror gems, takes the reins. Instead of merely rehashing the ’50s movie, Carpenter infuses it with his distinct style—transforming the plot, directing, and the dynamics among characters.

Moreover, Carpenter’s signature touch even extends to the film’s music. Although the official credit goes to the legendary Ennio Morricone, Carpenter’s influence is unmistakable.

But what’s The Thing about? At its core, the film centers on an evil space creature carelessly awakened by humans. This alien has the terrifying ability to adapt to any DNA, seamlessly imitating both animals and humans.

The creature wreaks havoc on a Norwegian research team, leaving no survivors. Soon after, disguised as a dog, the alien infiltrates an American base where our protagonist, the ever-vigilant MacReady, and his team reside.

Reuniting with Kurt Russell, Carpenter presents a different side of the actor, far from the brash Snake Plissken, with a more silent figure nevertheless central to the unfolding drama.

The heart of the story lies in the palpable fear and escalating tension. As the alien morphs and imitates those around it, suspicion among the team grows, and the stunning special effects showcase the creature’s myriad transformations, a testament to the era’s cinematic advancements.

Yet, despite its brilliance, The Thing marked a low in Carpenter’s illustrious career. It stands as his most expensive production and, regrettably, its worst commercial performer. The film grossed a mere 20 million dollars worldwide, barely covering the production costs.

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner 1982 movie
Amazon Prime Video

Staying in 1982, we transition from a horror masterpiece to a cornerstone of modern science fiction: Blade Runner. Stemming from the brilliant mind of Philip K. Dick, this film solidified Ridley Scott‘s status in cinema following his sensational debut with the stunning “The Duellists” and “Alien.”

However, producing “Blade Runner” wasn’t smooth sailing. Notably, a screenwriters’ strike delayed the filming by almost a year.

But during this waiting period, Scott and his team weren’t idle. They dived deep into the most exhaustive pre-production work ever seen in cinematic history. Every set piece, costume, and backdrop of this dystopian 2019 Los Angeles was obsessively detailed and crafted.

The result? A cinematic landscape that blends futuristic and retro aesthetics, noir with sci-fi. Within this environment, our detective hero, Deckard, embarks on a mission: hunt down six replicants.

Having escaped from space colonies where they were mere slaves, these artificial beings are desperate for survival. Yet, time isn’t on their side. Designed by their creator with a cruel twist, each replicant has a lifespan of only four years.

Every moment of this film is etched into cinematic history, including the epic clash between characters like Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, not to mention the enigmatic and beautiful replicants Sean Young and Daryl Hannah.

Financially, “Blade Runner” fared better than Carpenter’s “The Thing,” raking in nearly 40 million dollars. But considering its higher production costs, it still faced a financial setback, falling short of box office expectations.

Brazil (1985)

Brazil 1985 movie
Amazon Prime Video

Just a few years after Blade Runner, another sci-fi gem emerged, presenting a dystopian future into an arguably even bleaker cult movie.

This cinematic experience thrusts viewers into an ambiguous timeline, only hinting at its setting with the caption “Somewhere in the 20th Century.”

In this oppressive world, society is choked by unbearable bureaucracy. Sam Lowry, our protagonist, embodies this struggle as a low-level employee, merely a cog in the vast, heartless machine.

But Sam’s predictable life spirals into chaos when a simple clerical error causes the wrongful death of an innocent man, mistaking him for a known terrorist.

As fate would have it, Sam falls deeply in love with the neighbor of the widow, and later, he also comes to know the actual terrorist. Horrified by the soulless cruelty of the state, Sam has no choice but to fight for freedom and his life.

This is a testament to Terry Gilliam‘s prowess as a director, representing the pinnacle of his career, a bold statement given the brilliance of his other works.

Every element shines, from biting dark humor to the sleek and grimy environments or the melancholic tunes, especially the iconic “Aquarela do Brasil” by Francisco Alves, with the film even drawing its title from this piece.

Central to the narrative is the unexpected love story of the rebel duo Jonathan Pryce and Kim Greist, seemingly ordinary citizens who almost unwittingly become brave resistance fighters.

Complementing this ensemble is the incomparable Robert De Niro, adding another memorable character to his impressive filmography as the renegade repairman Harry Tuttle.

At its core, “Brazil” paints a vivid tapestry of a timeless story reminding us of the enduring power of love and freedom, hoping they can always rise above violent oppression; again, unfortunately, not even grossing enough to cover production costs.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption 1994 movie
Amazon Prime Video

The Shawshank Redemption, released in 1994, may not need much introduction, being one of the most beloved adaptations of Stephen Kings novels.

Moreover, it holds a special place as one of the highest-rated movies on IMDB.COM. But did you know, despite its acclaim, it was initially a box-office flop, earning less than $30 million against a $25 million budget?

In this cult movie, we follow the journey of Andy Dufresne, a distinguished banker who finds himself in the maximum-security confines of Shawshank Prison.

Adapting to life behind bars, among some of the most violent criminals, isn’t easy for him. However, as the years go by, Andy’s courage and intelligence help him endure and earn him friends like the wise and seasoned Red.

Nevertheless, the evil greed of the warden plunges Andy back into despair, forcing him to make a pivotal choice between living at all costs and embracing the possibility of death.

The movie showcases the friendship between Tim Robbins, who plays Andy, and Morgan Freeman and stands as the pinnacle of Frank Darabont‘s career.

Darabont, renowned for adapting several of King’s works, is also one of the creators of the hit series The Walking Dead, although it will never again reach the level of perfection of this masterpiece.

It is a dark and hard-edged tale of an enduring friendship and the dream of freedom, not only from prison but also from the hatred and ignorance that permeates the world beyond the empty words of justice and redemption.

Ultimately, The Wings of Freedom is a flashlight in the dark, witnessing the resilience of the human spirit and the hope that freedom and love can triumph over adversity.

How can one not love and applaud such a story?

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski 1998 movie
Amazon Prime Video

After a series of critically acclaimed films that won the hearts of moviegoers, Joel and Ethan Coen first encountered an unexpected obstacle with The Big Lebowski.

Initially, the film was a flop in the United States, grossing less than $20 million. However, it then had its revenge worldwide, raking in nearly $50 million and becoming one of the most universally recognized classics of American humor.

Consider that every year in Kentucky, thousands of fans pay tribute to the film’s protagonist, Jeffrey Lebowski, during the legendary Lebowski Fest.

This hapless loser best embodies the essence of all the Coen brothers’ characters. After being mistreated by thugs looking for a millionaire with the same name as him, our guy finds himself in even bigger trouble when the rich Lebowski’s beautiful wife disappears, resulting in a ransom demand.

In an unexpected twist, the rich Lebowski entrusts the money to the poor Lebowski, setting off a series of hilarious and unexpected problems and incidents.

This movie is a true cult classic, full of memorable scenes and quotable jokes that could fill an encyclopedia of comedy.

The performances are simply irresistible, with Jeff Bridges flawless and sassy as the lead and the gigantic John Goodman as his trusty and unpredictable sidekick in a comic caricature of the iconic and irascible director John Milius.

Equally perfect is the two friends’ eccentric rival bowling wizard, Jesus, played by the extraordinary John Turturro, who would later return in the crazy spinoff “The Jesus Rolls,” directed by the same actor and continuing the adventures of this criminal philosopher.

The Big Lebowski hits every pin in a perfect strike and solidifies his place among movie icons as an unerring bowling strike.

Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie Darko 2001 movie
Amazon Prime Video

We now turn to a different genre with a cult movie that combines elements of horror and science fiction, where it is clear from the title that we follow the strange days of a teenager named Donnie Darko.

As days pass in the usual American tradition, amidst the usual prejudice and harassment from bullies and extremists of all faiths, one night, his routine life is disrupted when a jet engine falls from the sky into his bedroom after a disastrous plane crash.

Fortunately, he was not at home, exiting as a sleepwalker and waking up on a golf course, and, from that moment on, he feared the end of the world because of some messages written on his body.

His family and friends, however, attribute his fears to his psychotic mind and do not believe him, while Donnie begins to wonder if this is real or if he is falling permanently into madness.

This film, directed by Richard Kelly and considered by many to be his masterpiece, represents the peak of his filmmaking career, now halted by the intriguing “The Box” of 2009, where again Kelly’s screenplay weaves tension and mystery beautifully with a nonlinear narrative that heightens the sense of disorientation.

The young Jake Gyllenhaal plays the role that marks the turning point in his career, catapulting him into the spotlight and leading him to more and more major productions; just like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake’s sister in real life as well as in the film, who instead achieved notoriety the following year in the romantic and perverse “Secretary.”

Unfortunately, “Donnie Darko” was not as successful as the two actors, earning only $5 million at the box office, despite the fact that its fame transcended the boundaries of time and space, captivating viewers in an eternal loop.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World 2010 movie
Amazon Prime Video

We conclude with today’s latest cult hit, perhaps the most successful combination of movies and video games, a combination that has been tried before but usually failed. Interestingly, although the story is based on a comic book rather than a video game, the influence of the gaming world is unmistakable.

We follow the strange life of Scott Pilgrim, a carefree young man and wanna-be guitarist who dreams of becoming famous with his band and one night meets the charming and mysterious Ramona, with whom he immediately falls in love. But this is where things get complicated.

Ramona has seven ex-boyfriends unwilling to let her find new love, at least not without a fight. As a result, Scott must face each ex-boyfriend, facing them in a series of increasingly bizarre confrontations, each time ending with the opponent exploding in a cascade of scoring coins.

Edgar Wright, director veteran of the well-received Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, embarks on his craziest cinematic endeavor yet, replete with quotations, over-the-top action scenes, and kick-ass rock/pop music; without, however, unfortunately failing to repay the heavy $60 million budget at the box office.

Like this fascinating blend of whimsy and romance, equally strange then was the career of leading man Michael Cera, later seen only in minor roles, such as in the gripping biopic Molly’s Game.

On the other hand, his excellent co-star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, skyrocketed in the industry, participating in increasingly wealthy and prestigious productions.

Like a few others, this memorable movie highlights the fickle nature of global audiences and critics; initially ignored and poorly distributed but then unanimously loved by so many fans that it became a PlayStation video game.

And we, too, can basically take it as a game since it’s not our money at stake after all; although for all those working behind the scenes, one more or less person sitting in the movie theater can make all the difference between success or disappearing into oblivion.

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