When the news broke earlier this week that l0w-budget film legend George Kuchar had died, we were surprised at how many people we knew hadn’t heard of him. In case you’re not familiar, Kuchar and his twin brother Mike are known for campy, so-bad-they’re-good flicks with names like Hold Me While I’m Naked and I Was a Teenage Rumpot that have gained a vocal following among trash-cinema fans. Of course, it isn’t often that our greatest cult filmmakers get the recognition they deserve. Take, for instance, PopMatters’ recent list of “The 100 Essential Directors” — the staff’s picks are mostly solid, but they only deign to include a few directors who could legitimately be described as “cult.” In an attempt to remedy the oversight, we’ve compiled a list of 10 cult filmmakers everyone should know. They may not be the “best” (and that isn’t even a useful benchmark for a genre where the term would be so hard to define), but they’re among the most influential, and each serves as a great gateway to legions of lesser-known directors.
If you know only one cult filmmaker, it should be John Waters — and if you don’t know him, we don’t want to know you. For over 40 years, the Pope of Trash has been making films that combine gross-out humor, camp, sexual deviance, and mid-century nostalgia. Although some of his movies (Hairspray, Serial Mom) have ventured into the mainstream, we prefer Waters at his most twisted. NB: If you saw Pink Flamingos and didn’t like it, we beg you to give some of his other films a try. We’ve seen all of them and find that one kind of boring and scattered compared to the rest.
Suggested viewing: Female Trouble (trailer above), Desperate Living, Pecker
Wildly prolific and stunningly diverse, Roger Corman has been a B-movie legend for over half a century. He directed everything from the original Little Shop of Horrors to the Jack Nicholson-penned, Peter Fonda- and Dennis Hopper-starring LSD epic The Trip to a series of eight film adaptations of works by Edgar Allen Poe. Since the early ’70s, Corman, who’s now 85, has mostly worked as a producer. In that role, he’s been responsible for launching the careers of Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, and many others.
Suggested viewing: A Bucket of Blood, Little Shop of Horrors, The Trip, The Pit and the Pendulum
The sexploitation genre as we know it wouldn’t exist without Russ Meyer, a filmmaker who kicked off the sexual revolution a decade early. Beginning in the late ’50s, the breast-obsessed Meyer made movies that functioned simultaneously as titillating softcore and surprisingly astute satire of mid-century social conservatism. Although his films showed a lot of skin, most also featured powerful female heroines kicking ass.
Suggested viewing: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Mudhoney
On cult cinema’s trashy-to-artsy continuum, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky falls solidly at the artsy end. Also a comics artist, composer, playwright, and practitioner of pyschomagic, Jodorowsky is best known for his psychedelic early-’70s movies, which tread the line between narrative and experimental film in their search for spiritual truths. Although his most recent film was 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, the now-82-year-old Jodorowsky is about to begin shooting a movie based on his autobiography, The Dance of Reality.
Suggested viewing: El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre
George A. Romero
It’s possible you don’t know George A. Romero by name, but if you’ve ever seen a zombie movie (or AMC’s The Walking Dead), you’ve felt his influence. His micro-budget 1968 thriller Night of the Living Dead elevated zombie flicks beyond the realm of schlock and gore, incorporating pointed commentary on racism in the United States. Future films in the Dead series — which is still going strong over four decades later — have taken on everything from mindless consumerism to poverty and corporate greed.
Suggested viewing: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead (trailer above), Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead
Paul Morrissey was the director who worked on some of Andy Warhol’s most famous films of the late ’60s and early ’70s. His lo-fi aesthetic and depiction of hustlers, artists, and — gasp! — deranged feminists are among the weirdest and most wonderful products to come out of the Factory. Fun fact: Despite the wild themes and uncensored sex and hard-drug use in his movies, Morrissey, who’s now 73, is a devout Catholic who has described himself as a “right-winger.” (The clip above, an excerpt from Trash, is especially interesting when you know the director’s back story.)
Suggested viewing: Trash, Women in Revolt, Flesh for Frankenstein
Sometimes called “the female Ed Wood,” Doris Wishman was more like a combination of Wood and Russ Meyer. A sexploitation legend and one of very few women cult filmmakers, she’s best known for her cheap, absurd, and often laugh-out-loud funny early-’60s “nudist” movies. And Wishman only became more interesting as her career progressed — in the ’70s, she found a muse in Chesty Morgan (who earned her name with a 73-inch bust), and made Let Me Die a Woman, a documentary on transsexualism, in 1978. Although she retired a few years later, a revival of interest in her work led Wishman to return to filmmaking before she died, at 90, in 2002. Her final movie, bless her soul, was called Dildo Heaven.
Suggested viewing: Nude on the Moon, Bad Girls Go to Hell, The Sex Perils of Paulette (trailer above), Let Me Die a Woman
Melvin van Peebles
It’s safe to say that only one of Melvin van Peebles’ films is responsible for his status as a cult legend — but it’s also impossible to underestimate the impact of that movie. Released in 1971, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the story of Sweetback (played by van Peebles), an African-American man who works in the whorehouse where he was raised as an orphan, and who must go on the run after the Los Angeles police try to frame him for murder. The story of a powerful and radicalized (not to mention sexually potent) black man escaping injustice struck a cord with audiences and almost singlehandedly created the blaxploitation genre.
Suggested viewing: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, BAADASSSSS! (Melvin’s son Mario’s documentary about the making of Sweetback)
One of the strangest filmmakers to come out of the 1990s’ indie-cinema boom, Todd Solondz makes dark comedies that combine the surreal with the hyperreal, resulting in some of film’s most unsettling portraits of Middle America. Solondz’s characters range from awkward to grotesque — a 7th-grade outcast who befriends the bully who says he’s going to rape her, a psychiatrist-dad who’s also a child molester. Although he’s been accused of ridiculing his pathetic protagonists and creating menageries of freaks, Solondz has recently taken a turn for the empathetic, in the genuinely moving (but also satisfyingly sharp-edged) Life During Wartime.
Suggested viewing: Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Life During Wartime
For those who like their teen movies dark, we suggest skipping that 87th viewing of Heathers and digging into the decadent world of Gregg Araki. Araki got his start making tiny-budget movies about the young, beautiful, and fucked up in the late ’80s. By the mid-’90s, he was a full-fledged cult figure, drawing such famous young actors as Rose McGowan, Ryan Phillippe, Shannen Doherty, and Parker Posey into his “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” — three candy-colored films about nihilistic, debauched teenagers at the end of the world. In 2004, Araki dipped his toes into the world of respectable indie filmmaking with Mysterious Skin, an excellent, psychologically realistic movie about two young men who were sexually abused by a coach as children. This year found Araki returning to form with Kaboom, his best teen-apocalypse movie (that doubles as a horror flick) yet.
Suggested viewing: Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere, Mysterious Skin, Smiley Face, Kaboom