Tom Jolliffe offers up essential films that were overlooked at the time, or have been forgotten in the years since release…
Sometimes for whatever reason a film doesn’t strike a wide audience. It may just get released in the wrong era, or take a while to regain a cult following. Some films in retrospect end up looking better than you remember. It’s great being able to rediscover films which don’t have the kind of iconic stature they deserve.
Often too, it also happens that they’re difficult to come by on physical media and streaming. More and more of these are being rescued by cult Blu-ray releases thankfully, though in some cases a multitude of rights issues can slow things down.
Here are ten films you may not have heard of that are worth checking out…
The Legend of the Holy Drinker
The late great Rutger Hauer saw this hit the festival circuit to great reviews in the late 80s. A destitute man (Hauer) is gifted 200 francs. All the man asks is that he returns the money to the local church when he is able to, and so begins a tale of the man rising, falling, rising again as this 200 francs sets off a chain of encounters. Despite his best intentions and will to return that original money to the church, he’s forever hampered by bad luck and bad choices.
Playing out like an old fable, the film is beautifully shot and directed with subtlety and skill by Ermanno Olmi. It also ranks as one of Hauer’s finest, and most insular performances. There are some wonderful moments within the film showing just how masterful Hauer was. Due to unforeseeable issues the film never got the US release it deserved and probably hampered it from some more significant recognition from Awards and audiences (this won the Golden Lion in Venice).
Not to be confused with the more recent Rogen/Franco comedy about Kim Jong Un, this Oz made thriller is a master class in restraint and orchestration. It’s a beautifully weaved thriller that sees Hugo Weaving as an unassuming man dragged in for questioning by the police. The police are being watched over by internal affairs in the process. Initially it seems Fleming (Weaving) is prime suspect for a stolen car, but slowly more is revealed and he’s being quizzed on murder. His nemesis, pushing him for answers and confession is Steele (Tony Martin).
The longer the film goes on, played with all the intimate skill of Bergman (and Hitchcock), the more you wonder who is manipulating who. I managed to catch this on Netflix, a rare unseen gem that had bypassed me completely, but it’s a great find. It’s probably well known in Australia of course, but not everything finds its way over to Europe or the US. Had this been released a year or two later it may have capitalised on Weaving’s imminent Matrix fame.
From Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube, this little sci-fi thriller gem, hugely inspired by Hitchcock, was something of a film buff find back in 2002. Straight to video in most big territories it was thus a little more difficult to find, though did gather a little notoriety in the UK given Jeremy Northam was the lead (around the height of his fame) and it received favourable reviews. Natali arrived with much cinematic promise, and Cube was a great way to announce himself. Cypher came out a fair while after and didn’t get the audience it deserved.
Northam plays a company man who is being used as a pawn by two competing pharmaceutical companies. All the while he learns of a man called Rooks and begins to uncover more relating to him. It’s complex but well weaved and never gets too convoluted. Northam’s personality shift once he takes on his given persona is well played, and Lucy Liu is (As always) brilliant, appearing as a kind of enigmatic femme fatale. It looks great, it holds up to repeat viewings, leaving nuggets to find. If you like a twisty turny thriller, with nods to Hitchcock and Kubrick, you’ll enjoy this.
Coming in the mid 90s, this wasn’t the most iconic era for horror films it must be said. Aside from one or two, the genre was struggling to match the appeal it had in previous decades. As such, even some of the really good ones have been a little lost in time. Mute Witness is one. It’s a shame, it’s a wonderful concept. A mute makeup artists, working on a horror film is locked in the studio after hours. She witnesses a murder and then spends to the film trying to evade the killer. A mute character offers up creative ways of expression without dialogue and Marina Zudina is fantastic.
Written and directed by Anthony Waller, the film is clever and absolutely loaded with style and atmosphere. It looks fantastic. Interestingly, the film will probably forever be more infamous as being Alec Guinness’s last film. Having been through a decade of development, Waller had asked Guinness to appear in the film way back in 1985. Guinness agreed and due to being heavily booked for the foreseeable future shot his cameo (from an earlier draft). It would be a decade later the remainder of the film was shot, but low and behold, Guinness appears from a car window and his part blends into the film. A seriously underrated gem.
This Dutch horror classic from maestro Dick Maas is an old childhood favourite of mine. Yep, I had that sort of childhood. Fervent persuasion that lead my dad into allowing me and my brother to watch his rental purchase with him, with mum away. Vivid memories of being utterly transfixed. In later years I revisited and it still held up and these iconic moments that were burned into my early memories were all still there exactly as recalled.
Amsterdamned has a great concept which sees a serial killer using the Amsterdam canals to get around, whilst Maas stalwart, Huub Stapel is the Detective tracking the killer. Brilliant horror, distinctly Dutch and has a great payoff (which stuck with me since seeing it at 9-10 years old).
Wake In Fright
A teacher at a remote school in rural Australia sets off to travel home for summer. He stops off in Bundanyabba (‘The Yabba’) and gambles all his money away. Stranded, the locals seem to exist to pound booze and go on roo hunts among other things. Grant (Gary Bond) finds himself drawn into the locals activities and falls into a booze fuelled stupor as things get progressively more unsettling, not least his interactions with Doc Tydon another who once was ‘passing through’ but has stayed and gone nuts.
A constant feeling of discomfort, of something impending, of intense, relentless heat fills the runtime in this gripping and tense thriller from Ted Kotcheff (better known for First Blood). The threat of the film lies in Bond succumbing to the ways of ‘the yabba’ and becoming like the locals, losing his civility. Infamous Kangaroo hunting scenes are uncomfortable, but worth turning away from to be enthralled by the rest of this intelligent and essential piece of cinema.
Ewan McGregor stars as a night watchman at a morgue who becomes implicated in a series of murders. I never quite understood why this film didn’t get more love. It’s certainly a bit daft in places, but the concept is enjoyable and the film is filled to the brim with atmosphere and quirky characters.
McGregor, on a fresh run from his Trainspotting fame, and pre-Obi Wan is in fine form, whilst Nick Nolte, Patricia Arquette and Josh Brolin are also on the mark among a stellar cast. I get the impression that a serial killer thriller/horror with a cast like this was perhaps taken more seriously than it should have been, contributing to less than stellar reviews. It’s enjoyable escapism, well crafted and it has aged well.
The City Of Lost Children
This endlessly imaginative and visually resplendent French fantasy film is one that’s kind of become a bit foggy in time and unfairly so. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunut would become more famous a few years after with Amelie. In The City of Lost Children, the towns youngsters continue to go missing, captured by a mad scientist who tries to slow his ageing process by stealing their dreams.
When his little brother is kidnapped, a simple minded strong man (Ron Perlman) joins forces with a rebellious orphan girl to rescue him. Amazing designs and set work create this visually engaging world, and all in that gold old fashioned practical way. Jeunut’s gift for whimsy and quirky humour is front and centre too. It’s a great film which needs to be picked up by modern audiences a bit more.
Director Sidney J. Furie, perhaps most well known for The Ipcress File, closely followed by Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (each film iconic for differing reasons), has had his share of forgotten works. There’s a stylish and beautifully shot Brando Western, The Appoloosa and The Boys from C Company (which was actually the first film to feature R Lee Ermey has an abusive drill instructor). There’s also The Entity a horror film that is an exceptional piece of work, and ‘based on a true story.’
Whether you believe entirely the truth of the situation or not, the film itself sees Barbara Hershey as a woman who believes she has been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a malevolent spirit. The more the incidents happen, the more she questions her sanity, until she has no option but to enlist parapsychologists in to help. Furie keeps his camera consistently a little off, as if we’re less a cinematic gaze and more a supernatural voyeur. It’s gripping, horrifying and effective. Hershey is magnificent too. This should be more iconic than it is.
Coming in a high point in American cinema, with classics being belted out left right and centre from the likes of Pacino and Hackman, it comes as little surprise that a few excellent films of the era have become forgotten in time. Scarecrow, starring Pacino and Hackman together is inherently interesting because it combines both those powerhouses. It’s also get this road movie, odd couple pairing quality that something like Midnight Cowboy had with Hoffman and Voight. This is no Midnight Cowboy, but it’s still a fine example of two actors rising in prominence and two masters of their craft.
Director Jerry Schatzberg who had previously directed Pacino in a breakout film, The Panic In Needle Park, never quite forged himself into a higher placing, but regardless, directed a number of interesting works in the 70’s. There’s an aimless feel to Scarecrow at times which might repel some as much as it charms others, but these are two characters meandering through life, who have met at a point in time and there’s a lot of joy in seeing Pacino opposite Hackman.
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.