Our greatest cult film directors often don’t get the recognition they deserve. Most top director lists contain only a few directors who could legitimately be described as “cult.”
With the assistance of Judy Berman over at Flavourwire we are making 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.
1. Gregg Araki
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
*Screened at Raindance
2. Doris Wishman
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. Sadly the only woman on this list.
Suggested viewing: Nude on the Moon, Bad Girls Go to Hell, The Sex Perils of Paulette (trailer above), Let Me Die a Woman
3. Russ Meyer
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
4. John Waters
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, Desperate Living, Pecker (trailer above)
5. Roger Corman
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 92, 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
*Screened at Raindance
6. Alejandro Jodorowsky
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
7. Ate de Jong
Of all the cult film directors few have directed more features (21) than the cult director Ate de Jong. He has worked in the UK, in Europe and America. His film’s budgets range from micro to multi-millions. He’s worked with some of the world’s top actors as well as talented newcomers.
Ate de Jong studied at the Filmacademy of Amsterdam, and directed 6 feature films in The Netherlands, including A Flight of Rainbirds, Burning Love and Shadow of Victory.
In 1986 he moved to Hollywood with two small suitcases not knowing anyone in the US film industry. His first directing gig was an episode of Miami Vice (starring Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, James Brown and Chris Rock) He subsequently directed two US feature films: Highway to Hell (starring Chad Lowe, Kristy Swanson, Gilbert Gotfried and Ben Stiller) and Drop Dead Fred (starring Rik Mayall, Phoebe Cates, Carrie Fisher, Marsha Mason and Bridget Fonda), which have now become recognized cult classics around the world.
National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast nation wide his comedic take on Hollywood in the esteemed political program The Sunday Morning Edition which gathered a huge following.
Since 1994 Ate has been working out of London. Most notably he directed the European co-production All Men Are Mortal (starring Stephen Rea, Irene Jacob, Chiara Mastroianni and Marianne Saegebrecht) based on the book of Simone de Beauvoir and the sexy thriller Fogbound (starring Luke Perry and Ben Daniels). He produced international pictures Left Luggage (Isabella Rossellini and Maximilian Schell) and The Discovery Of Heaven (Stephen Fry). His films were shown and laurelled at a variety of festivals, such as Cannes, Berlin, Moscou, LA, Seattle, Chicago, Tokyo, Oporto and he was a sought-after member of international panels and film juries.
More recently, Ate has produced and directed several UK features, Deadly Virtues (2013) and Love is Thicker than Water (2016). He is a member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Directors UK. Ate’s IMDB here.
Suggested viewing: Highway to Hell, Fogbound, *Drop Dead Fred, *Deadly Virtues, Love Is Thicker Than Water
*Screened at Raindance
Don’t miss Ate de Jong’s weekend Directing Masterclass at Raindance.
8. 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
9. Sean Baker
Sean Baker is a writer/director known for the Spirit Award nominated films Take Out (2004), Prince of Broadway (2008) and Starlet (2012) (winner of the Robert Altman Spirit Award). His film Tangerine (2015) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released by Magnolia Pictures in the United States. His latest film, The Florida Project was a hit at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
Suggested viewing: Tangerine (2015), The Florida Project (2017).
10. Todd Solondz
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
*Screened at Raindance