“Ladies and gentleman, start your engines,” because this gumball rally of 1970s cult classic flicks is about to commence. We’ll be starting in 1971 with a rat-tastic film called Willard and finishing in 1977 with a killer of a film (as in killer whale) called Orca. What feisty bookends! But first, let’s set parameters. What makes a cult classic film anyway? Maybe it’s a movie that didn’t do well in the theaters, but years later it rocked that old-fashioned VCR at home, when audiences just couldn’t get enough of one scene, one character, or even one line. Or maybe it’s the opposite. The film was hugely popular in the theaters, but it was then somehow forgotten, maybe being deemed too outlandish, silly, or a victim of its cinematic era. Hello, 1958’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. You’re a wondrously kooky, beloved 1950s treasure.
Above all, a ‘cult classic’ film, as the term implies, inspires a devoted following. Whether the flick has A-list actors and B-quality production, these spirited tales are downright adored by their fans. So, for all those vintage sci-fi lovers who subscribe to the 1970s’ forecasting of our future (hint: it ain’t pretty!), or for those who can’t get enough of Jaws, and so you’re yearning for a new aquatic species to terrorise you, these movies are definitely worth a couch-date. Presenting 7 cult classics of the 70s:
1. Willard (1971)
Let’s face it. If you were alive back in 1971, you might’ve been all respectable, heading into this film wanting to see former Oscar darlings Ernest Borgnine and Sondra Locke. But today? The word is out. This movie is about a man who loves rats — like a lot of them. And like that fabled fly on the wall, struck by an overwhelming sense of morbid curiosity, you’d like to see this man with his rats. Willard is quite possibly the best rodent horror film to grace humanity. All the creepier, its main character, Willard, gives off major Norman Bates of 1960’s Psycho vibes, given Willard is a shy man who lives with his mom who unfortunately dies. This movie actually received positive reviews and was one of the top grossing films of 1971. Go figure. It even spawned an equally terrifying 2003 remake. But let’s give props to the 1971 original, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Happy Cringe-worthy 50th, dear Willard.
2. Soylent Green (1973)
“Soylent green is…” Now raise that blood-stained hand! Kudos to legendary Charlton Heston for delivering one of the best cult classic lines ever (which includes the final word of the above sentence, “Soylent green is…,” as no movie spoilers here!). The iconic Edward G. Robinson of 1948’s Key Largo acclaim is also luminous, in what was his final film before passing. Soylent Green is one of those fascinating films from our past that depicts our culture’s perception of the future. In this case, it’s a 1970s’ forecasting of dystopian New York City circa 2022, ruined by overpopulation, global warming, a lack of fresh food, adequate housing, and more. Wait, that year again? 2022. Yes, one year from now. Watch this movie and be thoroughly entertained, meanwhile be prepared for some quiet contemplation. Can we as a 2021 audience relate to the gruesome plight portrayed?
3. Westworld (1973)
Segue to another 1970s film that depicts an unsavory view of our future. Starring the one and only Yul Brynner of The King and I (1956), for which he won an Oscar, and Richard Benjamin and James Brolin as on-screen prey of Brynner’s exquisite gunslinging character, Westworld is a provocative Western-sci-fi-suspense mash-up. Also noteworthy, it boasts the first digital/pixel effects ever used in cinema, and only for a mere two minutes. Who knew this was invented way back in 1973? But back to the story. Westworld tackles the still-relevant topic of ethics as it pertains to artificial intelligence. What happens when a lavish amusement park in the future populated by androids starts to malfunction, causing the androids to attack its wealthy patrons? Take a ride on that fabled crazy train to the great American West of our future. Then tune in to HBO’s series of the same name, which aired back in 2016-2019. Fall under the spell of that spooky amusement park yet again.
4. Rollerball (1975)
Produced in England and Germany, but branded as an American film given its predominantly American cast, there’s something eerily quiet about Rollerball, which makes this movie all the more successfully unsettling. It’s not a typical loud American sci-fi blockbuster. Instead, Rollerball is almost Kubrick-esque (as in the megalithic director Stanley Kubrick of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut fame). The futuristic 2018 world portrayed here is chilling. We’re in a world of blood-sport rollerball. Then watch what happens when the star athlete is urged to retire. The action scenes are riveting. That’s where the ‘cult classic’ status of Rollerball lies. This movie has since inspired a few video games and a 2002 film remake. Fans can’t get enough of that iconic steel ball and revving motorcycles. Uh-oh. We all know what that spells – DANGER.
5. The Gumball Rally (1976)
Turning from the deadly steel ball of Rollerball to a sweet colorful gumball, The Gumball Rally is a sugary antidote to all that dystopian doom and gloom. If you like the humor of 1965’s The Great Race, and the car chase scenes of 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, then you’ll enjoy this. Chronicling a group of fun-loving adventurists who car-race from New York City to Los Angeles, this flick is part of a hip 1970s ‘road trip’ film genre that includes the mentioned Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball (1976) and Convoy (1978). These movies hit the open road, and had fun. Is The Gumball Rally Oscar-worthy? No. A tad too silly? Maybe. But it’s a great emblem of 1970s filmmaking. It also stars Michael Sarrazin, one of those breezy 1970s Hollywood stars who, like Steve McQueen, had that much sought-after ‘coolness’ factor. “Ladies and gentleman, start your engines!”
6. Logan’s Run (1976)
Straight off, it must be said that the amazing 1970s pop culture queen Farrah Fawcett, of TV’s Charlie’s Angels, gives a cameo. Blink and you might miss her, but rest assured, she appears. And she’s great. Recent Dystopia sci-fi films put Logan’s Run to shame particularly with their use of advanced CGI special effects, but for 1976, Logan’s Run was actually quite good. So was the plot. The story, based on the 1967 novel of the same name, is essentially about futuristic people getting old (aged 30) and being exterminated to prevent overpopulation. But, of course, these blissful inhabitants of our futuristic Utopia don’t realize that they’re actually in a Dystopia (similar to 2005’s The Island). They don’t know the dirty underbelly of what’s really going on. Enter Logan and his infamous ‘run.’ Can he flee, and find life outside his dome? Like other cult classics on this list, Logan’s Run inspired other creative endeavors like a 1977-1978 TV series. But the original film, celebrating its 45th anniversary here in 2021, reigns supreme.
7. Orca (1977)
If you love aquatic horror movies like Jaws, Orca carries on that terrifying, blood-stained, menacing-dorsal-fin tradition. But in Orca, it’s a family affair. This is a revenge tale involving a small orca family of mom, dad, and unborn baby. Lambasted by critics (oh no – it only received 9% approval on Rotten Tomatoes!), Orca might not be on par with the iconic Jaws (1975). But will any aquatic horror movie ever be? Steven Spielberg’s box office shattering classic will forever reign supreme, but Orca is certainly worth a watch. After all, even today, aquatic horror movies aren’t a huge subgenre. Watch and appreciate Orca for all its vengeful saltwater hooliganism. And beware of that ear-piercing orca screech. It’s nightmarish!
I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.