Certain directors are famous for working within very specific genres. The name “Alfred Hitchcock” is synonymous with thrillers and suspense. The words “Charlie Chaplin” immediately bring to mind visions of silent comedies. Ingmar Bergman has become a code-word for bleak, existential Eastern European art films. And yet, every now and then, a director will make a film that stands completely apart from their other work. These films aren’t necessarily bad. In fact, some of these rank among their respective directors’ best films. They just stand out as oddities, when compared to the rest of their creators’ work. I have collected ten such examples. These films, arranged chronologically by their release date, represent some of the strangest and most unusual outings by beloved directors.
10. The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967)
Throughout the sixties and seventies, Roman Polanski was famous for creating films that featured bleak outlooks on life and tragic endings. Early art house flicks like Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), and Cul-de-sac (1966) established his reputation as an uncompromising master. He would then rock the world with two of the most tragic and infamous films ever to come from Hollywood: Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974).
But in between all of these dark masterpieces Polanski released The Fearless Vampire Killers, a film which can best be described as a combination of a Hammer horror film and slapstick humor. It follows two “vampire killers,” Professor Abronsius and his apprentice Alfred, as they stumble around a Transylvania town infested with things that go bump in the night. Unusual for Polanski at this stage in his career, the film has a rich color palette and a humorous tone.
9. American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973)
Love him or hate him, perhaps no single director has had as large an impact on sci-fi cinema as George Lucas. His Star Wars franchise is one of the most famous film series ever made, and a bona fide cultural phenomenon. So it may come as a surprise to some that one of his best films has absolutely nothing to do with sci-fi. The film, American Graffiti, is a coming-of-age film set in the early 1960s. It follows a group of high school graduates spending one last night together before they go their separate ways. One of the main characters, Curt Henderson (played by a young Richard Dreyfuss) is unsure whether he wants to go to college, despite being awarded a $2,000 scholarship. But on that last night, he sees a mysterious blonde girl in a white 1956 Ford Thunderbird. He tries to find her as his final night ticks away. There are also numerous sub-plots, with a large number of supporting characters and classic muscle cars. The film has become an endearing reminder of an age in American history long gone.
8. Elvis (John Carpenter, 1979)
In the 80s, director John Carpenter and actor Kurt Russell made a string of beloved sci-fi classics. These included the low-budget masterpiece Escape from New York (1981), the special effects extravaganza The Thing (1982), and the endearing fan favorite Big Trouble in Little China (1986). But the first time that Carpenter and Russell worked together was in the television film biography of Elvis Presley. The film, appropriately titled Elvis, was one of Carpenter’s only films not even tangentially related to sci-fi or horror. Largely concerned with his early years, Elvis boasted a massive 25-song soundtrack. Russell is particularly convincing as the King of Rock ‘n Roll. His performance was so praised that he would be hired to provide the dubbing voice for Elvis in Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994). Elvis was very successful, and even earned Russell an Emmy Award nomination.
7. Fast Company (David Cronenberg, 1979)
David Cronenberg is one of the supreme auteurs of horror cinema and psychologically-driven thrillers. Near the end of his formative years in the 70s, when he mostly made ultra-low-budget art-house horror films, Cronenberg directed Fast Company, a film which to this day remains the single most anachronistic entry in his oeuvre. Fast Company is a drag-racing film, plain and simple. There isn’t much to the plot. There are a group of “good” racers, led by an experienced patriarch, who must struggle against their corrupt sponsor and a group of “evil” racers. This is definitely more of a niche film than regular racing movies; there is a lot of technical jargon thrown around, and contains a major emphasis on company politics. But there is some nice racing footage, and an admittedly kick-ass soundtrack. Of particular note is the movie’s theme, which could have honestly been a hit single. You might have to be a gearhead to really enjoy Fast Company, but that doesn’t make it a bad film.
6. Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)
While Robert Altman has always been praised for his versatility, and willingness to dive into different genres, his 1980 musical Popeye may have been just a little too much for the iconoclastic director. The film follows the beloved sailor as he arrives in the port town of Sweethaven, where he falls in love with Olive Oyl and finds himself at odds with the mighty Captain Bluto. The plot doesn’t really get any more complicated than the original Popeye animated shorts. But the film is helped by a charming number of custom-made sets, and some spot-on performances. I don’t care what anyone says, Robin Williams was perfect as Popeye, and Shelley Devall was an inspired Olive Oyl.
Regardless, what damns the film is the horrible soundtrack of repetitive, boring songs that pull the drag shoot on the story. The film probably could have been improved if Altman had cut all of the songs. Altman would make other bad films (which director hasn’t?), but none would stand out as much as Popeye.
5. Dune (David Lynch, 1984)
One of the more legendary blockbuster disasters of the 80s, David Lynch’s Dune remains completely different from any other film made by the bizarre director. Though Lynch had experimented with more “palatable” fare with The Elephant Man (1980), Dune would be the director’s most mainstream effort. An adaption of the ground-breaking novel by Frank Herbert, it made the mistake of trying to cram too much backstory, and too many characters, into a single film. Universally panned by critics and fans, the film was such a mess that, in many cuts, Lynch had his name replaced in the credits by the ever-popular pseudonym “Alan Smithee”. Thankfully, Lynch would follow the film with Blue Velvet (1986) and get back on track as one of America’s premiere midnight theater masters.
4. Kundun (Martin Scorsese, 1997)
After a string of hits including Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), Martin Scorsese made Kundun, a film about the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, from his childhood to his escape from Lhasa into India. One of the film’s main focuses involves the Dalai Lama’s struggle against the Communist Chinese and Mao Zedong. Despite some lukewarm reviews, Kundun was well-received. However, it just seems out of place in a career dominated by character studies of psychopaths and criminals. It is only one of three feature films by Scorsese that was set outside of the United States, the other two being The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Hugo (2011). For a director whose work has been dominated by themes like Catholic guilt and redemption, it is fascinating to see Scorsese immerse himself into such a different theology and system of beliefs. Sadly, the film resulted in Scorsese being banned from China.
3. Music of the Heart (Wes Craven, 1999)
Director Wes Craven is remembered for many different things. He made several infamous cult classics like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). He created Freddy Krueger, one of the most recognizable figures in the slasher genre. And he also started the beloved Scream franchise. And yet, nestled somewhere deep within this distinguished horror career, is the film Music of the Heart. The film is based on the true story of the Opus 118 Harlem School of Music, and their teacher Roberta Guaspari’s struggle to maintain their music program. It definitely follows the formula of the “determined teacher who reaches a group of disadvantaged kids” popularized by such films as Stand and Deliver (1988) The words “heart-warming” and “inspirational” aren’t usually associated with Craven, but they properly describe Music of the Heart. In fact, it almost makes one wish that Craven would make more serious dramas.
2. Swept Away (Guy Ritchie, 2002)
Guy Ritchie’s films have always fluctuated in quality over the years, but none were as terrible as Swept Away. The film is a “romantic comedy,” starring his then-wife Madonna as a stuck-up rich woman who gets stranded during a cruise on a deserted island, with the ship’s first mate. Ritchie, who had previously only made films involving gambling and criminals, was not suited for the genre. The film is a remake of the Italian movie Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (1974), which was lauded for its political subtext. Ritchie did away with this, and instead focused on the central love story. The result was so bad that Ritchie’s career almost never recovered. It took two Sherlock Holmes films to restore the director’s reputation. Here’s hoping that Ritchie never tries to make a “romantic comedy” again.
1. Red State (Kevin Smith, 2011)
When Red State was first released, few knew how to react. It’s director, Kevin Smith, had spent almost his entire career making quirky comedies, with varying levels of success. But Red State was a straight-up horror film, about a cult of crazy evangelicals who believe that their calling is to rid the world of homosexuals. It begins when three teenage boys are captured by the church in order to be executed, as part of their “worship services.” However, they draw the attention of the police, who call in the ATF to rescue the captives and bring the evangelicals to justice. Red State is completely different than anything else Smith ever directed. It is violent, disturbing, and boldly experimental in the way that it shifts protagonists halfway through.