Weird, bizarre, or just plain odd: many films have been made in history that push the boundaries of normalcy and present an utterly unique vision to audiences seeking outre cinema. But for every acclaimed Eraserhead or El Topo, there are dozens of films that slip through the cracks and fall into the often difficult-to-find realm of “cult.”
These are films that, for one reason or another–be it limited release, dodgy distribution, or disinterest in the film market at the time of their release–never quite gained the acclaim that some of the stranger fiction in the cinema landscape has garnered. They are certainly worth a watch for cinephiles and art lovers alike–if you can track down a copy or buy into the premise.
Many of the films in this list have longer articles in the Cult Classics section of Me Like Movies, but for those looking for a quick recommendation, this list provides a short overview for the reader so they can determine whether or not these films are what they’re looking for in a cult film.
1. Liquid Sky
Alien visitors to Earth are one of the most common tropes in sci-fi, but none of these are set in the funky downtown New York City club scene of 1982 except for Liquid Sky.
Among the dark misadventures of drug-addicted artists as they seek their next high (the eponymous “liquid sky” was a code name for heroin in NYC at the time), an alien lands on the rooftop of our heroine Margaret (played by Anne Carslile, who also plays the male antagonist Jimmy in the film) while a foreign man observes said alien from an apartment across the street while avoiding the advances of his lascivious border.
Fashion photo shoots and performance art pieces populate the plot as the obtuse alien presence preys upon men that engage in sex (much of it disturbingly forced) in Margaret’s apartment below, feeding upon these lecherous creeps at their point of orgasm.
With its transgressive feminist protagonist, avant garde performances, elliptical storyline, and authentic look at a highly influential subculture in early 80’s NYC, Liquid Sky is a one-of-a-kind film that could only be made independently and on the fringe.
It’s also notoriously difficult to find a copy of said film: with only a small release on VHS in the 1980’s, it quickly became a cult classic…when it could be found. Besides a handful of DVD releases in the mid-2000s that immediately doubled in value soon after their release, this strange, underseen sci-fi flick is still stuck in obscurity. Readers can find a more in-depth article about Liquid Sky on this site here.
Like many films in this list, Xtro benefited from a reappraisal of its merits long after its original release. When it first hit theaters in 1982, this science-fiction film garnered mostly negative reviews, with Roger Ebert going as far to suggest that the filmmakers were incompetent and that “it’s movies like this that give movies a bad name.” However, this film found an audience in the video market, earning a solid cult status since.
An alien abduction movie by way of Freud, the movie centers around a broken home of a family of three. The father is abducted in the opening scene and reappears three years later by being birthed–fully-formed–from a woman impregnated by the same strange force that had abducted him.
Meanwhile, his son has a nightmare and wakes up covered in blood that’s not his. After finding his way home, the father ingratiates himself back into his family’s lives (against the mother’s new boyfriend’s wishes), and he bites his son and drinks sblood. The son soon finds that he has strange powers and can bring his toys to life.
What follows is a hallucinatory sequence of events where a little boy sends his toys out to kill people who have wronged him and impregnates his babysitter with alien eggs. The movie continues towards a dark end, but also a strangely warm reunion between father and son.
Xtro is an odd, dark sci-fi film, which accounts for its initial negative reception; considering that one of the main characters is a child who is turned into an evil vessel for alien forces, and that it has a rather bleak ending, audiences in 1982 did not respond positively to this sci-fi flick.
However, this didn’t stop the director from making two sequels (which are unrelated to the original other than in title). Xtro slowly built a cult audience in the intervening years, but its lack of availability has prohibited a wider appreciation: although the 2000s saw several DVD releases of this sci-fi film, it has since gone out of print, with copies now starting at $50.
When you see the name Steven Soderbergh, you probably associate it with the director of such popular and acclaimed films like Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, and the Oceans Eleven series. But before he became widely considered both a mainstream and independent film mainstay, Soderbergh made an odd film that could only be described as a look into a man’s mental breakdown, appropriately titled Schizopolis.
More of an audio-visual experience than a proper movie, Schizopolis (somewhat) follows the lives of Fletcher Munson (played by Soderbergh), an employee of a Scientology-like stand-in organization known as Eventualism, and Dr, Jeffrey Korchek, a dentist, who are doppelgangers; Fletcher’s wife (only known as Mrs. Munson) is having an affair with Dr. Korchek, and eventually Fletcher falls in love with a woman only known as Attractive Woman #2, who is played by the same actress as Mrs. Munson’s character–who was also Soderbergh’s real-life wife at the time.
This sort of meta layer only hints at the internal, self-referential hall of mirrors that Schizopolis inhabits as the film unfolds as a rabbit hole inside of Soderbergh’s mind. Characters speak to each other in generic descriptive terms in place of actual conversation (sample dialogue: “Generic greeting.” “Generic greeting returned.” “Imminent sustenance.” “Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.”) or else through nonsense dialogue that relays its intent through delivery.
The plot is like a puzzle-box, jumping back and forth between time and perspective, and it remains unclear by the film’s conclusion what any of it actually meant. Soderbergh wrote the film as he shot it over a nine-month period, and it tends to unfold like a disjointed collection of thoughts instead of a straightforward narrative.
It’s a challenging film to watch, like you’re viewing somebody’s migraine headache being projected onto a screen, but it’s also a singular film with ambitious–if not fully realized–ideas.
While Soderbergh was a well-regarded independent filmmaker at the time of its production in the mid-90’s, Schizopolis was poorly received upon its release in 1996, and although it eventually garnered a Criterion release, it’s often regarded as too strange a film for most filmgoers to bear.
Soderbergh returned to more traditional filmmaking soon after this film’s release, going on to make some of the most popular commercial films of the late 1990’s and 2000’s. However, if one is in the mood for an ironic, meta, and mostly forgotten film from one of America’s most well-regarded directors, Schizopolis can be found on some streaming platforms for those whose interest is piqued by this oddity.
There are horror films, and then there are films that are horrifying. Society is the latter: while a satire on the mores of high society and the cabals that ostensibly run the country clubs and esoteric white collar professions of the world, this 1989 film makes this concept explicit by positing that the group that holds these rarefied positions are a race of eldritch abominations that collude (and physically collide) with each other to maintain their dominant position in human society.
The plot unfolds as we follow our protagonist Bill, the son of a couple of high society members, who explains to his psychiatrist that he feels like there is something hidden and not quite right with the members of his family.
Upon accidentally walking in on his sister in the shower, he sees that the top half of her body is on backwards. This fuels his suspicions, and he later receives a recorded conversation that includes his sister talking to their parents about looking forward to having sex with both her mother and father, along with everybody else in their society. Disgusted, Bill tries to figure out what secret is being kept from him.
At the end of his investigation into this disturbing concept of “society,” he walks in on a literal flesh-fused orgy in his parents’ house, which features some of the more horrifying and effective practical effects work ever created in cinema.
To summarize any further would spoil both the visceral shocks and sharp commentary on high society this film provides–although Rules of the Game this isn’t. Suffice to say, any horror fan should seek out this film, which is not common on DVD (it is available, but the price for a copy starts at $30 and goes up from there).
As previously mentioned, the practical effects in this film are both impressive and deeply disturbing, and–as far as horror B-movies go–this alone makes it worth seeking out. A full humor recap of the film is available on this site here.
5. Eating Raoul
As a writer, director, and actor, Paul Bartel would appear in over 90 films and TV programs over his career and directed such cult classics as Death Race 2000 (1975) and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). While his body of work was marked by his ironic performance style and satirical edge, he was never considered a mainstream actor or filmmaker. Often paired with former Andy Warhol model Mary Woronov, Bartel usually played obtuse authority figures and dad characters.
Released in 1982, his black comedy Eating Raoul follows the ambitions of Paul and Mary Bland (Bartel and Woronov), a prudish and poor married couple who dream of opening their own restaurant. Disapproving of the swingers that live in their building and the overly sexual society at large they live in, the Blands come up with a scheme to improve their lot in life: Mary poses as a swinger to seduce men into the apartment, where Paul kills and robs them.
Complications arise when a burglar (the titular Raoul) comes across their latest victim in the apartment but strikes a deal with them wherein he disposes of their victims’ bodies by selling them to a dog food company. Raoul and Mary begin an affair and he plots to kill –but the movie’s called Eating Raoul for a reason, after all.
A satire that mixes underground film edginess with mainstream comedic sensibilities, Eating Raoul is a weird, funny film with great performances that inhabits a gray area of morality. Exceedingly difficult to find for over 20 years after its release, it garnered a Criterion edition in 2012 but remains an obscure comedy due to its outre nature (and, of course, that its protagonists are unaffected murderers). A more in-depth article about the movie is available on this site here.
William Shakespeare, The Bard Of Avon, wrote some of the finest plays in history, ones that poetically expound upon the nature of love, life, and mortality. But early in his career, the eventual author of such immortal classics like Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet was trying to make a name for himself and emulated the popular tragedies of the late 16th century, which were filled with bloody revenge and bizarre acts of violence.
First performed in 1592, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus details the escalating cycle of revenge between the titular character, a Roman general, and the defeated Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Featuring rape, dismemberment, scores of murders, and matriarchal cannibalism, it was wildly popular in its time, but its reputation–and later critical reevaluations of Shakespeare’s oeuvre–now place this play as one of The Bard’s lesser works.
This didn’t deter director Julie Taymor–fresh off her success of directing Broadway’s innovative The Lion King–from adapting the play as her directorial debut. Released in 1999, Titus–starring Anthony Hopkins as the titular character and Jessica Lange as Tamora–was a box office bomb, recovering only 10% of its $25 million budget.
However, it is a fascinating movie filled with striking visuals that show off Taymor’s flair for choreography and eye for dynamic costume and set design. It is also notable for reproducing one of Shakespeare’s least-popular plays (to contemporary audiences, at least), providing students and scholars an accessible adaptation of one of his earliest–and oddest–works.
And, of course, its plot follows the bloody, violent, and amoral revenge tale originally written over 400 years earlier. More obscure than hard-to-find, it is still a relatively unknown and very strange film.
7. Meet The Hollowheads
Think of a post-apocalyptic Father Knows Best and you’re almost there. Add an underground society dependent on a system of tubes that provide everything from food to sex jelly (don’t ask; you won’t be provided an answer, anyway) and mutant creatures that are kept in kitchen cabinets and are used for both their healing properties and as a source of food, and it’s still not quite everything that encompasses the bizarre world of Meet The Hollowheads.
In its simplest form, the plot is as follows: a happy homemaker and her devoted, hardworking husband prepare for dinner with his boss while trying to manage their three children–two teenagers preparing to go to a party that evening and an irascible young son who gets into all sorts of hijinks around the house. It could be a description of any typical 1950’s sitcom–but that’s where the similarities end.
As a satire, it’s difficult to discern what’s being satirized in the film, as every identifiable touchstone of what we consider normal–family, home life, society, reality itself–is twisted and subverted in the highly stylized (and often left unexplained) world of Meet The Hollowheads.
Think Brazil by way of Leave It to Beaver that inhabits the weird world of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. The only film directed by Thomas R. Burman (a make-up artist who had worked on dozens of well-known sci-fi films, including Planet of the Apes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers), his eye-popping stylized visual effects are on full display in this film.
It’s a one-of-a-kind movie that teeters between being a Cronenberg horror film and pitch-black comedy. While it tanked upon release in 1989, today it enjoys an appreciative (if small) cult following. A more in-depth article about is available on this site here.
David Cronenberg is known for being one of the godfathers of weird cinema: having perfected the genre of body horror with such works as Scanners, The Fly, and Videodrome. eXistenZ–released in 1999–was a spiritual sequel to the latter, which details the efforts of video game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose virtual reality game (the titular eXistenZ) is being subject to a hostile corporate takeover.
While this seems straightforward enough, the methods by which one plays the game is pure Cronenberg: an open “bio port” is drilled into the base of a player’s spine, into which a “game pod”–a biological creature whose tentacle is inserted into said bio port–transports the player into the game. Joining her is an agent from the corporation named Pikel (Jude Law), who is a novice to the gaming system.
As much a statement on the effect of technology on human psychology, the depiction of this–where living organisms act as biotechnology and all-encompassing virtual reality systems blur the line between the real world and an artificial one–is filled with grotesque depictions of intrusive body manipulation and mutant creatures affecting both the real world and the virtual one.
Heady topics such as free will and the nature of reality are explored throughout a film that begins to make the viewer question whether what they are watching is “real” or just part of the game.
Upon release, eXistenZ was well-received but performed poorly at the box office. Its growing cult status in the intervening years suggests that it was perhaps ahead of its time; gaming and virtual reality technologies have progressed significantly since the late 1990’s, and the elements of the film that once seemed far-fetched then have become increasingly more plausible with each passing year.
Although not difficult to find, it’s not often highlighted when Cronenberg’s body of work is written about, even though (aside from Videodrome) it’s possibly his weirdest film, remaining a relatively obscure entry from an acclaimed director.
9. The Saddest Music In The World
Guy Maddin is perhaps the contemporary cultist’s cult director: this Canadian filmmaker makes anti-modern films that share the aesthetic of expressionist films and the sensibilities of The Elephant Man-era David Lynch. Although his films are obscure to most audiences outside of Canada, The Saddest Music In The World is both his most bizarre and accessible to a novice of his work.
To wit: the plot involves a legless beer baroness, a dysfunctional family of men whose sons form a love triangle with an amnesiac nymphomaniac, and a pair of glass legs fashioned by the father filled with beer for said legless baroness, who is his long-lost love.
The beer baroness (played by Isabella Rossellini) is holding a contest in Depression-era Winnepeg for “The Saddest Music In The World.” All three men from this family enter the contest, and although they are all Canadian, the sons represent foreign countries (one for America, and the other for Serbia).
Also, one of the sons was previously married to the amnesiac, who lost her memory after their child died and is now with the other son; in contrast, the bereaved son carries his boy’s heart around in a glass jar.
It’s a weird setup to a highly stylized film that looks like a film that was made 60 years before its actual production. Strange and artful, bizarre yet sentimental, this film only received limited release in theaters outside of Canada before being released on the home market.
After The Saddest Music In The World, Maddin has continued to make his distinct brand of weird cinema by making smaller films, producing installation pieces for art galleries, and publishing a handful of books, but has yet to create another film as ambitious and complex as this one. Although not well-known, it is readily available on DVD, waiting to be uncovered by any cinephile looking for a diamond in the Canadian rough.
10. O Lucky Man!
Lindsay Anderson is a highly regarded director even though he only made 9 feature films in his lifetime. While some are regarded as classics, such as This Sporting Life (1963) and If… (1968), much of his work has fallen into obscurity. Perhaps his masterpiece, the 3-hour-long epic O Lucky Man! (1973) follows the adventures of coffee salesman Mick Travis (played by Malcolm McDowell, who was reprising his role from If…) and his adventures in capitalist society.
The film plays like a dream, with Travis traveling from one surreal episode to the next: at one moment, he’s being seduced by a lonely border and is presented a golden suit to wear during his sales calls; the next, he’s abducted for experimentation by a mad scientist; and then, thanks to a man who somewhat randomly falls out of a window, he’s immediately promoted to being the assistant to a prominent businessman; and before the film is through, he’s cast as the star of the very movie that you’re watching.
All of this is accompanied by a soundtrack by The Animals’ Alan Price, whose sardonic lyrics act as a greek chorus to the action (at one point Mick Travis hitches a ride with Price and his band because it’s that kind of movie).
While the length of the film may deter some from watching it, there has simply been no other film made like this that works as an allegory for life in capitalist society. In equal parts a comedy, drama, fantasy, musical, and adventure film, the sheer scope of Anderson’s cinematic vision is impressive.
As mentioned, the soundtrack is unique and provides catchy, ironic pop songs on esoteric concepts such as justice, how to succeed in business, and why people are poor. The film received middling reviews upon release and performed poorly at the box office (its prohibitive running time being a factor in this), but general consensus now views the film favorably, regarding it as an odd, one-of-a-kind cult film.
This film and its follow-up (1982’s equally satirical but even more obscure Britannia Hospital) completes the “Mick Travis trilogy” that started in If… that Anderson envisioned for the character. A two-disc DVD was released in 2007 and is available for rental and purchase on some streaming services, but O Lucky Man! is rarely (if ever) shown on television due to its considerably length.