Culture

Cult Recognition: 10 Must-See Cult Movie Adaptations

Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch in ‘Ghost World’/Image © United Artists

When you hear the phrase "cult film," what comes to mind? If you Google the phrase, the movies you likely thought of are the first to show up: "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "The Big Lebowski," "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "The Evil Dead," "Pink Flamingos," and "Donnie Darko."

A cult film is, by definition, a film that has acquired a cult following. They can range from box-office bombs (or even successes) to underground art films and B-movies, but how does a cult adaptation happen? Where does the cult following come from - fans of the original source material who are now appreciating it in a secondary medium, or is it simply people who've watched only the film? Or perhaps it's both. Just like original cult films, cult adaptations have a number of reasons why they gain traction in our minds and memories, many of these reasons mirroring the reasons a cult film becomes, well, cult: because it's just so bad it's good, repeated viewings can bring on a sense of nostalgia, because of the camp factor. We can go on. But instead we'll stop there and present our ten favorite cult movie adaptations.

"Re-Animator" (1985)
Stuart Gordon has made a great career for himself out of turning the dark, archaic worlds of H. P. Lovecraft into pitch-black horror-comedies. "Re-Animator" was his first dip in that pool. Loosely based on Lovecraft's episodic novella Herbert West, Reanimator, running from 1921 to 1922, the film's 1980s facelift follows med student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) as he switches to a sleepy New England med school called Miskatonic University. He rents a room from a fellow med student, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and turns the basement of the house into his own laboratory, working on a reanimating serum that Dan later discovers, and becomes part of West's gigantic backfire of a plan. "Re-Animator" is one of the biggest cult films of all time and summoned two sequels and a Broadway musical.

"A Clockwork Orange" (1971)
Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the "ultra-violent" and stylish Anthony Burgess novel is one of the pioneers in punk cinema, most likely influencing the works of Quentin Tarantino, Alex Cox, and Gregg Araki. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of a group of bowler hat-clad thugs (called "droogs") and the story follows his arrest and subsequent "rehabilitation," aided by a certain kind of twisted psychological conditioning. Kubrick's well-known perfectionism didn't deter filming too much -- it's the fastest shoot of his career -- but the film's controversial subject matter landed Kubrick a number of threats as protesters gathered outside his home. The film's release was withdrawn entirely in Britain.

"Fight Club" (1999)
It's hard to imagine anyone else but David Fincher directing "Fight Club." His signature dark and grimy yet sleek visual style blends perfectly into the world that author Chuck Palahniuk created in his 1998 novel, in which an unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) with insomnia begins going to cancer therapy groups when he finds out it's the only thing that gives him a little shuteye. But he's not the only fraud there; a raccoon-eyed, chain-smoking woman named Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) has become hooked on them as well. As a compromise, they divide their meetings so they don't have to see each other, but it all becomes irrelevant when the narrator makes a sudden friend in the vibrant and bizarre Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), with whom he quickly creates Fight Club after an impromptu brawl in a bar parking lot. The club catches on, faster than expected, and leads to Tyler plotting other grandiose deeds of mayhem. The three leads turn in career-making performances in this anarchist joy ride, and are surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast of bizarre characters (Meat Loaf, Jared Leto). "Fight Club" lives on and has led to a graphic novel sequel and talks about a Broadway musical as well.

"The Hunger" (1983)
Tony Scott's feature-length directorial debut is one of the most hushed, visually sumptuous, dreamlike things ever to be put on film, and it's a fascinating debut from a director best known for his work in the action-thriller genre. The story follows ancient vampire Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) and her most recent companion, John (David Bowie), whose immortal clock is rapidly ticking along as he begins to wither away over a period of days. Before he goes, he attempts to seek out the advice of Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a gerontologist, who dismisses him as a delusional old man. Later ashamed about her treatment of the man, Roberts tries to seek him out to apologize and instead finds Miriam, who sets her eyes on Sarah as her latest companion. It's one of the most sleek horror films of the 1980s, relying on atmosphere and the actors' beautiful, unearthly gazes. For fans of "The Hunger," I'd also recommend 2013's similarly quiet-and-beautiful vampire love story "Kiss of the Damned."

"Drugstore Cowboy" (1989)
Gus Van Sant's pastel-hued adaptation of James Fogle's semi-autobiographical novel about a "family" of drug addicts who rob drugstores and hospitals to feed their habits was the director's second film, and quickly launched him as a pioneer in the up-and-coming indie film storm that would take over the 1990s. Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham, and James Le Gros play the aforementioned addicts, who spend their days stealing meds and avoiding all possible arrests. Shot in Portland, Oregon, in the late 1980s, posing as a time in the 1970s, it beautifully captures a pre-"Portlandia" look at life in the sleepy Pacific Northwest.

"Dune" (1984)
The adaptation Frank Herbet's famous sci-fi novel wasn't easy to get off the ground. Originally attempted by Alejandro Jodorowsky in the early 1970s, the project failed due to a lack of funding. Super producer Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights almost immediately after, working on the project for nine years, before bringing on David Lynch as a director, who'd recently made an impact with "Eraserhead" and "The Elephant Man." Lynch adapted a monolithic 135-page script that ended up running over four hours long, before various edits resulted in a few different versions throughout the years. The soap-operatic duel of conflicting planets and their respective ruling families is the subject of a two-and-a-half-hour theatrical cut that Lynch later disowned. Its surreal, sprawling dream narrative, dizzying language, and flashy casting of famous American and European actors has found many fans over the years, even if Lynch himself may not be one.

"Blade Runner" (1982)
There are at least four available versions of Ridley Scott's sci-fi noir adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, the most recent of which was the only one to ever truly fall under Ridley Scott's complete control. Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, a retired police officer whose job as a "Blade Runner" involves tracking down bio-engineered beings known as replicants that have come to earth illegally. Along the way, he becomes romantically involved with Rachael (Sean Young), an experimental replicant unaware of her artificial intelligence, implanted with the memories of her creator's niece. It remains one of Scott's most eye-catching contributions to film, blending together themes from Greek mythology, the bible, film noir, and Frankenstein.

"Mommie Dearest" (1981)
While intended as a straight-faced glimpse at the turbulent temper of one of Hollywood's most famous actresses, "Mommie Dearest" was immediately perceived as a campy, overwrought comedy. Paramount Pictures quickly changed their ad campaign by adding the tagline "Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!" The story is based on Christina Crawford's memoir, which documented her abusive and strained relationship with her adopted mother, slowly aging Hollywood star Joan Crawford. Faye Dunaway's portrayal of Joan Crawford was met with mixed opinions, with reviewers at Variety saying she "does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all." Film critic Dennis Price said she "portrays Joan Crawford in a likeness so chilling it's almost unnatural." However you view it, it's a gutsy and grandiose performance that will forever change your reaction to wire hangers.

"Ghost World" (2001)
I feel it only fair to open with a quote from Roger Ebert's review of "Ghost World": "I wanted to hug this movie. It takes such a risky journey and never steps wrong. It creates specific, original, believable, lovable characters, and meanders with them through their inconsolable days, never losing its sense of humor." It's true. There's really nothing quite like "Ghost World." Adapted from his own graphic novel, Daniel Clowes weaves a simple yarn about two recent high school graduates, Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson), who are at a loss as to what they should do now that they're adults. Their daily activities are simple, usually hanging out at a diner and potentially following around weird people they've encountered, until a prank phone call leads to a sudden fascination with lonely record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi). When Enid strikes up a friendship with him, her relationship with Rebecca slowly fizzles out, despite their plan to be roommates. The film's dry sense of melancholy humor, comic book color palette, and deadpan performances from the leads make it a great, relatable comedy for anyone who's ever had trouble fitting in.

"The Outsiders" (1983)
Jo Ellen Misakian, a school librarian from Fresno, California, is responsible for the adaptation of S.E. Hinton's 1967 novel. She wrote to Francis Ford Coppola on behalf of her seventh and eighth grade students, in an attempt to convince the auteur to adapt the story. Coppola, moved by the letter, immediately read the book and set out to adapt not only that, but Hinton's follow-up novel, Rumble Fish, the following year. Two rival teen gangs, the working class Greasers, and the rich teen Socs gave Coppola a banquet of roles for rising teen heartthrobs, inadvertently creating a who's-who of 1980s teen stars with C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, and Diane Lane (the last two of whom reunited for "Rumble Fish"). In 2005, Coppola released a special edition DVD called "The Outsiders: The Complete Novel" in which he added 22 minutes of additional scenes, and new music.