Cliffs Notes to Cult Movies for Cool People

Bluff your way into sounding like a film buff with these easy shortcuts (and Cliffs Notes means spoilers, duh)

1. Tron

60-Second Plot Summary: Computer programmer Flynn (Jeff Bridges) goes snooping through his former employer’s computer to find evidence that the nefarious Dillinger (David Warner) stole Flynn’s ideas for several new video games. The sentient Master Control Program (or MCP), to protect Dillinger, zaps Flynn inside the computer where he must rely on TRON (Bruce Boxleitner) and other programs (who are represented as people inside the computer) to escape.

What to Quote: “If I didn’t have a User, then who wrote me?” asks Crom (Peter Jurasik). The movie attempts to tackle theology, of sorts, by giving us programs with differing opinions about their “creators.”

Scene to Reenact: The cool light-cycle battle, which was also one of the best parts of the Tron arcade game.

Fascinating Tidbit: While Tron wasn’t a huge hit upon its original release, it has developed an enthusiastic cult over the years for its pioneering use of computer-generated imagery and immersion in the world of computers and video games. A sequel has been announced, and French techno duo Daft Punk has signed on to provide the soundtrack. (The legendary Wendy Carlos scored the first film.)

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” Electric Dreams, a sweet, Cyrano de Bergerac–esque romantic comedy about a shy architect (Lenny von Dohlen) who finds himself competing with his home computer (voiced by Bud Cort) for the affections of the sexy cellist (Virginia Madsen) who lives upstairs.

2. Donnie Darko

60-Second Plot Summary: It’s hard to sum up its labyrinthine plot, but the basics go something like this: Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teenager who has stopped taking his meds. While out sleepwalking, a jet engine crashes into his room; had Donnie been home, it would have killed him. A giant bunny — or a man (James Duval) in a giant bunny costume — keeps appearing to Donnie and encouraging him to commit acts of vandalism. Time travel is discussed. A local self-help guru (Patrick Swayze) winds up having a sex dungeon. Donnie realizes that he has to let the engine kill him or the world will end.

What to Quote: “Sometimes, I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!” — what the obnoxious health teacher (Beth Grant) tells Donnie’s mother (Mary McDonnell), regarding the kiddie dance troupe of which Donnie’s little sister (Daveigh Chase) is a member — is the overused fave. Instead, try this one: “You can go s—k a f—k.” That’s what Maggie Gyllenhaal shouts at Donnie (who is played by her real-life brother).

Scene to Reenact: It’s the moment in the principal’s office when the health teacher informs Donnie’s father (Holmes Osborne), who is choking back his amusement, “I’ll tell you what he said! He asked me to forcibly insert the lifeline exercise card into my anus!”

Fascinating Tidbit: After a much-talked-about premiere at Sundance in 2001, Donnie Darko had a hard time finding a distributor and almost wound up premiering on the Starz cable channel. Once it opened in theaters, it became a cult smash, spawning a “Director’s Cut” DVD.

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” Writer-director Richard Kelly‘s follow-up feature Southland Tales opened and closed with a meager box-office take of about $375,000. It’s one of those movies that’s so aggressively odd and eccentric that you just have to see it. It involves a nuclear incident, the Patriot Act, a porn queen (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) and a blimp — and that’s just for starters.

KEEP READING: ” … breathless with anticip ………….. PATION.”


3. The Rocky Horror Picture Show

60-Second Plot Summary: Caught in a rainstorm, naïve innocents Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) pull up to the old Frankenstein place, where some very debauched events are taking place. “Sweet transvestite” Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) is about to unveil Rocky (Peter Hinwood), the muscular blond stud he created in the lab. Seduced by the sexual anarchy of the household — which also includes Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien), Magenta (Patricia Quinn) and Columbia (Little Nell) — Brad and Janet submit to “absolute pleasure” before things start getting really out of control.

What to Quote: Frank talks about Brad and Janet being “breathless with antici ………… PATION.” Or be Magenta and say: “I ask for nothing!” then reply back as Frank: “And you shall receive it — in abundance!”

Scene to Reenact: Do “The Time Warp.” Let the lyrics of the song explain it to you. (“It’s just a jump to the left / And take a step to the right / You put your hands on your hips / And bring your knees in tight … “)

Fascinating Tidbit: Rocky Horror was originally released to mainstream theaters and died a quick death. But as a midnight movie, it has become legendary — screening regularly since 1975, it boasts what is arguably the longest release in Hollywood history.

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” Clue, an ensemble comedy that also features Tim Curry in a big spooky house on a dark and stormy night. In L.A., where the Sins o’ the Flesh troupe acts out Rocky Horror in front of the screen every Saturday night at the NuArt Theatre, those same performers occasionally do likewise for midnight shows of Clue.

4. Office Space

60-Second Plot Summary: Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a nine-to-five drone stuck working in cubicle hell, filing endless reports and hating his life. When his unfaithful girlfriend (Alexandra Wentworth) takes him to a hypnotherapist for relaxation treatment, the therapist dies of a heart attack before being able to pull Peter out of his laid-back state of mind. The new Peter shuns work, asks dream-girl waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) out on a date, and speaks frankly to the efficiency experts who are restructuring the company. They wind up being so impressed by Peter’s candor that they give him a promotion. Craziness ensues when two of Peter’s friends, laid-off in the reorganizing, launch a scheme to bilk money from the company, while the mumbly and off-kilter Milton (Stephen Root) just wants a little respect and continued quality time with his red Swingline stapler.

What to Quote: “flair.” Yep, we thank Office Space for bringing the term to the public — that’s the official term for the buttons and badges that waiters and waitresses wear at all of those P.J. McPootertoot’s–style chain restaurants. (Joanna’s boss, played by writer-director Mike Judge, scolds her for wearing only 15 pieces of flair, the bare minimum.)

Scene to Reenact: Peter’s nightmare where he imagines his obnoxious boss Lumbergh (Gary Cole) oiled up and having sex with Joanna.

Fascinating Tidbit: At the time the film came out, Swingline didn’t make a red stapler, but the company got so many requests for them from Office Space fans that they began selling them again.

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” Idiocracy, Judge’s second feature film, which Fox barely released in a handful of cities despite the cult following of Office Space. This satirical comedy stars Luke Wilson as an Army slacker who spends several centuries in suspended animation only to wake up and find out that he’s the smartest man in a world that’s gotten progressively stupider with each passing generation. It’s funny while also being a blistering look at Western society’s increasingly anti-intellectual bent.

KEEP READING: “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!”


5. Eraserhead

60-Second Plot Summary: Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) lives in a bleak, grey industrial wasteland surrounded by strange noises and general misery. He impregnates his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart), who gives birth to a hideous, squalling creature whom she abandons in Henry’s care. As Henry loses his grip on reality, his only solace comes from the mump-faced Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), who sings about how everything in Heaven is fine.

What to Quote: “Strangest damn things. They’re man-made. Little damn things. Smaller than my fist. But they’re NEW!” It’s when Henry goes to dinner at Mary’s parents’ house, and her father (Allen Joseph) serves up bizarre, mutated chickens.

Scene to Reenact: Ain’t a lot of action … but if you can puff out your cheeks and sing “In Heaven/everything is fine” while stepping on what look like giant sperms, then sweet, you’ve pretty much got your Lady in the Radiator impersonation down.

Fascinating Tidbit: Eraserhead began its life as David Lynch‘s MFA thesis movie; he raised the money to flesh it out to a feature version by borrowing money from friends — including childhood pal Jack Fisk (who would go on to be a major production designer and director) and Fisk’s wife, actress Sissy Spacek — and even working a paper route to raise funds.

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” Zelly and Me, a little-seen 1988 movie that’s one of the few films Lynch acted in without directing himself. His then-girlfriend Isabella Rossellini stars as a nanny who tries to rescue a troubled, Joan of Arc–obsessed girl from the child’s cruel grandmother (Glynis Johns).

6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail

60-Second Plot Summary: King Arthur (Graham Chapman) travels the dank and miserable country side to assemble his Knights of the Round Table. When they arrive at Camelot, a musical number convinces Arthur that “it is a silly place.” God appears to them and charges them with finding the Holy Grail. Arthur and his knights don’t have much luck finding it, although they do find one castle being guarded by a rather obnoxious Frenchman (John Cleese), another filled with beautiful ladies ready to do naughty things, and another where a forced wedding is about to take place. After battling a vicious killer bunny and crossing over the Gorge of Eternal Peril, they all get arrested by policemen who stop the movie.

What to Quote: “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!” Worst. Insult. (Delivered by a Frenchman.) Ever.

Scene to Reenact: The knights go through the movie galloping on imaginary horses, pretending to hold the reins in one hand while someone walks behind them banging coconut halves together. You can do it.

Fascinating Tidbit: The thing about the horses? Not in the script. A few weeks before shooting, the Pythons realized they wouldn’t be able to afford actual horses, so they made a joke out of it instead. Generally speaking, shooting on this low-budget film was apparently miserable for all involved, but it wound up being more than worth it; not only was Holy Grail a massive hit, but the obnoxious innkeeper at the hotel where the Pythons stayed during shooting inspired Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth (who plays the accused witch) to create the TV smash Fawlty Towers.

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” The Wind in the Willows, Terry Jones‘ hilarious and sweet adaptation of the classic children’s book. He reunited all the Pythons except Terry Gilliam and the late Graham Chapman for this terrific family film that barely got released in the U.S. Willows also features a pre–24 Hour Party People Steve Coogan.

KEEP READING: “Come and get one in the yarbles!”


7. A Clockwork Orange

60-Second Plot Summary: Alex is a teen delinquent who loves violence, rape, drug-infused milk and Beethoven. One of his “droogs” (or “friends” — the restless youth in this dystopian Britain of the future use lots of Russian-based slang) betrays Alex to the police, but in prison, Alex opts to participate in an experimental treatment. He’s brainwashed into become nauseous at the thought of sex or violence. When he gets out of prison, his previous victims torture him, knowing he can’t fight back. Eventually, an embarrassed government undoes the procedure, restoring Alex to his violent old self. Is it a triumph of humanity over technology, or the return of a blight to society?

What to Quote: “the old in-out” (when describing sex) and “ultra-violence” (when referring to his proclivities). Before a rumble, Alex taunts a rival with, “Come and get one in the yarbles, if ya have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou!”

Scene to Reenact: Do force your eyes open, the way they do to Alex during the brainwashing process. Don’t simulate the explicit rape carried out to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Fascinating Tidbit: A Clockwork Orange was unavailable for viewing in the U.K. for 27 years. Director Stanley Kubrick had the film pulled from theaters in 1973 due to (depending on who’s telling the story) threats he had received from the police or because young violent criminals were saying in court that they had been influenced by the film. In 2000, after Kubrick’s death, it returned to screens there.

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” Kubrick’s The Killing, a taut heist film whose splintered narrative — the script jumps back and forth in time to show us how a racetrack robbery went terribly wrong — was a strong influence on Quentin Tarantino‘s use of time in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

8. Repo Man

60-Second Plot Summary: After getting duped into helping Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) repossess a car, punk Otto (Emilio Estevez) gets into the repo business himself. Little do Bud and Otto know that the elusive Chevy Malibu that they and all the other L.A. repo men are trying to find is carrying aliens in the trunk.

What to Quote: “I blame society. Society made me what I am,” which is what Otto’s old friend mutters after getting shot, to which Otto witheringly replies, “That’s bulls—t. You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” Or: “I don’t want no Commies in my car. No Christians either” — what Bud says while driving. And! The spacey Miller’s (Tracey Walter) great speech about what he calls the “lattice of coincidence”: “Suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate of shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”

Scene to Reenact: A drunken Estevez walks down the street, shouting the lyrics to the Black Flag song “TV Party.”

Fascinating Tidbit: In Estevez’s directorial debut Wisdom, the phrase “plate of shrimp” appears as graffiti on a bus.

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” After his success with Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, director Alex Cox went off to Spain to shoot the silly and indulgent (but still sort of entertaining on its own terms) Straight to Hell, shot on sets that had been used for many a low-budget spaghetti Western. The eclectic cast includes Joe Strummer, Courtney LoveElvis Costello and the Pogues‘ Shane MacGowan and Cait O’Riordan.

KEEP READING: “The Dude abides.”


9. The Big Lebowski

60-Second Plot Summary: Laid-back Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges), gets caught up in a kidnapping plot because he shares the same name as a creepy millionaire (David Huddleston). A briefcase of ransom money makes its way through various hands, including those of the Dude, his friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and the kidnap victim herself, the “big” Lebowski’s porn-star wife Bunny (Tara Reid). Also, there’s bowling.

What to Quote: “The Dude abides.” That’s, of course, the philosophy of the Dude’s. Or “Shut the f—k up, Donny!” if a Steve Buscemi-type gets in your way.

Scene to Reenact: OK, there’s this dream sequence where a drugged Dude imagines a Busby Berkeley–esque fantasia of bowling pins and Julianne Moore dressed as a Viking queen with bowling balls on her breastplate. On the jukebox: Kenny Rogers and the First Edition‘s “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Insert impersonation of Latino pederast bowler Jesus. That’s John Turturro.

Fascinating Tidbit: “The Dude” is based on a real guy — Jeff Dowd, a well-known jack of all trades in the indie-film world. Dowd recently made headlines when he got into a fight with a film critic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye, a film the Coen brothers have often cited as a direct antecedent. It too deals with a laid-back guy (Elliott Gould as gumshoe Philip Marlowe) who gets embroiled in dirty doings that take him to Malibu and involve him with seedy figures from every socio-economic level.

10. Scarface

60-Second Plot Summary: Cuban refugee Tony Montana (Al Pacino) works his way up the criminal ladder to become a drug kingpin in 1980s Miami, only to commit the cardinal sin of getting high on his own supply. The coked-up and paranoid Tony winds up alone — estranged from his trampy wife Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) and best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), the latter having fallen in love with Tony’s sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) — and cut down in hail of bullets.

What to Quote: “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women” — Tony’s dictum. Or when he whips out an M16 with grenade launcher, shouting: “Say hello to my little friend.” (How above-it-all you’ll seem not to quote one of its 226 F-bombs.)

Scene to Reenact: Perhaps the horrifyingly violent scene where Tony carves up a guy with a chainsaw? Or the horrifyingly violent scene where Tony gets shot at by half a dozen guys carring automatic weapons?

Fascinating Tidbit: The city of Miami wasn’t crazy about the fact that the film depicts violent, drug-dealing Cubans, and so they didn’t allow Brian DePalma and company to shoot there. Most of the film was shot in L.A., with many locations dressed to look like South Florida.

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” 1932’s Scarface, the old-school gangster film of which this is a remake. Paul Muni stars as Tony Camonte, a gangster who is eventually done in by his ruthless ambition. Tony winds up dying in front of a billboard that reads, “The world is yours,” which is Tony Montana’s motto in the remake.

KEEP READING: “Someone has sent me a BOWEL MOVEMENT!”


11. Pink Flamingos

60-Second Plot Summary: Divine (played by Divine) competes with Raymond Marble (David Lochary) and his wife Connie (Mink Stole) for the title of Filthiest Person Alive. The Marbles kidnap young women so their butler Channing (Channing Wilroy) can impregnate them and then give their babies to lesbians. Divine has a semi-incestuous relationship with her son Crackers (Danny Mills). Cookie (Cookie Mueller) has a date with Crackers so she can spy on Divine for the Marbles. The Marbles send Divine a box of excrement, a birthday party is thrown for Divine’s egg-obsessed mother Edie (Edith Massey) and Divine executes the Marbles in front of the tabloid press. Then, to confirm her status as Filthiest Person Alive, she eats fresh poodle droppings.

What to Quote: “Someone has sent me a BOWEL MOVEMENT!” — what Divine says when she opens a package from the Marbles. Or Connie Marbles’ motto, which should be immortalized in needlepoint: “I guess there’s just two kinds of people … MY kind of people, and assholes.”

Scene to Reenact: Do your best haughty Baltimore voice and reenact Divine delivering her manifesto to the tabloid press: “Kill everyone now! Condone first-degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat s—t! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!”

Fascinating Tidbit: Writer-director John Waters shot the film with his close friends, who were the repertory company behind his early work. The resulting movie was a huge hit on the midnight-movie circuit but was constantly the subject of battles with local censors. And yes, Divine really does eat dog poop in the film’s final moments. As Waters later noted, “Even if I discover a cure for cancer, the first line of my obituary is bound to mention that I once made a film where Divine eats dog s—t. Which would be OK with me.”

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” Divine Trash, Steve Yeager‘s documentary about Waters’ early collaboration with Divine, featuring lots of behind-the-scenes footage from the making of not only Flamingos but also Multiple Maniacs and Mondo Trasho.

12. Fight Club

60-Second Plot Summary: A nameless corporate drone (Edward Norton) gets sick of the artificiality of his life and, with the help of the anarchic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), starts Fight Club, which allows men to strip away the pretense of their lives by violently battling one another. What starts out as an exercise in masculine bonding leads to organized vandalism and, eventually, terrorism. Norton’s character tries to stop Durden’s plans only to realize: He is Tyler Durden, and Pitt was just a manifestation of his personality disorder.

What to Quote: “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time” — that’s what everyone quotes. Offer this (from Tyler): “Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” Or “I haven’t been f—ked like that since grade school” — what Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) spits out post-lovemaking.

Scene to Reenact: It’s when the Fight Club members, who have graduated to the building-bombing Project Mayhem, stand around one of their fallen comrades and chant, “His name was Robert Paulson.” Or! Do Tyler challenging Norton’s character with, “I want you … to hit me … as hard as you can.”

Fascinating Tidbit: Legend has it that Twentieth Century Fox wanted director David Fincher to cast Reese Witherspoon as Marla because she was a bigger name than Bonham-Carter. Their disagreement was settled when Witherspoon turned down the role, calling it “too dark.”

Now, Transition to “Well, Have You Seen …” Marco Ferreri‘s La Grande Bouffe, another movie about a group of men rebelling against society. In this one, however, the men resolve to do so by ensconcing themselves in a villa, throwing orgies and planning to eat themselves to death.