With the end of video stores, the decline of DVD sales and the rise of microtargeted advertising, it’s become nearly impossible to discover the kinds of movies we don’t already love. Once you’ve been through the “Romantic Comedies” carousel on Netflix Instant, you’re left to move into “Horror” or “Independent Films From Europe” or who knows what. You probably won’t, however, suddenly end up in a true niche genre like Hong Kong Cinema or Killer Cars.
Luckily, we’ve rescued some of these underappreciated genres from the dustbin of history – check out what you’ve been missing with our classic examples and other recommended starting points.
Hong Kong Cinema
In the 80s to early 90s, Hong Kong used to have the most talked-about genre in the movie business. Everyone stole from the “triad” gangster movies (which is perhaps a better way to describe this category) and imitated the too-cool-for-school cold-as-ice characters, many of whom let cigarettes dangle from their lips and some of which were hitmen, martial arts experts—or brilliant students falling in love.
After every martial arts movie stole from John Woo or Jet-Li and Scorsese remade Infernal Affairs as The Departed in 2006, Hong Kong’s influence on international cinema vanished. Perhaps, in the past, Hong Kong cinema was so influential that it’s impossible for the art form to top itself. Nowadays, Korean cinema is the biggest import from the Asian region.
Classic Examples: Games Gamblers Play, The Killer, City On Fire, Election 2 (a.k.a. Triad Election), Infernal Affairs.
It’s a damn shame that Netflix and video-on-demand has killed the cult movie. Going to the one-and-only late-night showing of the controversial new underground film – one banned from advertising in the newspaper and thus only known through word-of-mouth or angry critical reviews – was a major rite of passage for people with weird taste, especially in the 1970s. During that era, everything from Eraserhead to El Topo dominated movie theaters after midnight – Rocky Horror played for five months in a row at New York’s Waverly Theater before taking the country by storm… but it only played once a day.
Now, midnight movie screenings are everywhere – although they only serve one of two purposes: replay those same classic cult films like Rocky Horror or cheat release date restrictions for new blockbusters by screening at 12:01 a.m.
Classic Examples: Pink Flamingos, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, El Topo, Holy Mountain, Eraserhead, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Floyd: The Wall.
In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Buñuel’s late-period masterpiece, time is apparently fictitious, dinner parties turn violent without characters acknowledging the horror, an entire country and political movement is roasted over the coals with brutal satiric efficiency and ghosts helping survivors solve murders. It’s crazy as hell – but ultimately sillier than it is confusing. That’s the beauty of absurdist cinema – you give up, let go and get lost, but with the best films in the genre, you enjoy the hell out of the logic-defying experience.
(By the way, there’s a small but discernible difference between satire and absurdism. The line “you can’t fight in here, this is the war room” from Dr. Strangelove is not absurd because, well, there’s no reason fighting should be allowed in a government building. Absurdity would be if the Marx Brothers came pouring through the door and started a pie fight, which is why their humor is absurd – in a good way.)
Classic Examples: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Zelig, Holy Motors, The Exterminating Angel, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Here’s a genre that has not only been around a lot longer than you’d expect but also continues to remain relevant today. However, as many of the films have not been translated into English (or Chinese), there’s not a large international following for many of these movies, which can be just as hokey, creepy, cringeworthy, or outright terrifying as any American-made scary movie.
Some may even be remakes – and improvements – of Hollywood horror films, like Bees Saal Baad, which is based on The Hound of Baskervilles and Raaz, which is either a re-do or knockoff of What Lies Beneath. Many feature possession – usually of a young woman – and other spiritual elements befitting India’s religious backdrop.
Classic Examples: Raat, 13 B, Phir Wahi Raat, Bees Saal Baad, Purana Mandir.
Ah, the sixties. That innocent time where the most terrifying aspect of American culture was a couple of goofy stoners riding loud motorcycles around sleepy California. The Wild Angels, The Wild One, Hells Angels On Wheels (which launched Jack Nicholson’s career), Electra Glide in Blue — all of them inspired or inspired by Easy Rider, which went on to both define hippie culture and kickstart the American independent film movement.
Several terrible movies from the 90s – Cool As Ice and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man included – and a glut of documentaries saturated screens and sank the genre, but plenty of cult favorites remain available on DVD. But watch out – these will totally corrupt you, man.
Classic Examples: Easy Rider, The Road Warrior, Hell’s Belles, Mad Max, The Wild One, The Wild Angels.
This one could just be called “Killer Cars.” Certainly, there is a whole subgenre of movies like Christine, Maximum Overdrive and The Cars That Eat People (a real title*, bizarrely enough, and a film written and directed by Peter Weir, which is even more bizarre) that literally must be seen to believe… that they exist.
Of course, there are the killer robot movie types, too, to which the Terminator series and other exceptional films belong, as well as cult favorites like Chopping Mall, about security robots programmed to deter or disable thieves and delinquent teenagers but instead become killing machines. Many of them are terrible, shlocky wastes of time, like those B-movies made during the Space Race that all have the same awful rear projection and screaming bikini models.
Classic Examples: The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Car, Demon Seed, Hardware, Christine. (*Originally titled The Cars That Ate Paris and not really about actual vehicles consuming humans independently of their operators.)
Mystery (and Murder Mystery)
While certainly not an unfamiliar theme, it’s one that seems to have been sidestepped lately (at least on the silver screen.) A wonderful, innovative example of this genre is the film The Conversation – the very mystery of the film is finding out why the main character has been hired to record a couple talking in a park – in a way, it’s therefore, about what the mystery is. There are much more obvious murder mysteries that have unfortunately seemed to disappear in recent years – can you think of the last time an onscreen detective or civilian paced a room at a film’s climax and delivered a monologue full of facts and theories?
Classic Examples: In mystery, Vertigo, Charade, The Third Man (which could also be considered a murder mystery), The Conversation, Chinatown, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs. In murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, Rear Window, Clue, The Maltese Falcon, Basic Instinct.
Before the X-Men movies came along, the werewolf or wolverine was a sure sign we were watching the bad guy – or the trope served as lazy shorthand for “two-sided personality and raging inner conflict.” But 1941’s The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr., Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, its 1943 semi-sequel, and The Werewolf, a silent film from 1913, used inventive Victorian-era horror plots (Frankenstein, you see, is actually just misunderstood) to make huge stars of Chaney and others like Boris Karloff.
Too bad Hollywood lost its way twice – making the beast the bad guy (always) and, in recent years, abandoning the werewolf character altogether.
Classic Examples: The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Werewolf, The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen.