What makes some films blockbusters and others flops? It’s a good question, and the answers aren’t always so clear. Sometimes it’s bad marketing. Sometimes it’s a bad title. Maybe it’s a trailer that doesn’t reflect the finished product. And sometimes, it’s just pure random misfortune.
The truth is that you can have a critically acclaimed film that bombs, and a critically loathed film that rakes in the bucks. There is no exact science–each film is a gamble, with its fate resting in the hands of potential audiences. And sometimes, the moviegoing public just doesn’t get it right.
We’ve covered films that bombed upon their release (like The Wizard of Oz, Blade Runner and It’s a Wonderful Life), only to become cult classics, but what about some genuinely great movies that flopped that are still underappreciated? Rather than wait for movie critics and audiences to come around, we’re here to champion releases that deserve a second look.
While each film on our list may have sunk like a stone upon their original release, they’ve all aged like a fine wine, and you need to check them out. Without further ado, here are 15 Box Office Bombs That Are Secretly Awesome (and be sure to check out part 2 afterwards).
15. The Guest (2014)
When you talk about modern ’80s homages, you’d be remiss to pass over 2014’s The Guest, starring Legion‘s Dan Stevens as David, a military veteran from Afghanistan paying his respects to his fallen comrade by visiting their family. But something just doesn’t check out with David’s story, and he becomes more unhinged as the movie progresses, becoming oddly possessive of his army buddy’s family while pursuing some murky, black ops agenda spun out of control.
Blending elements of The Terminator and Halloween with subversive humor, The Guest is an absolute riot, but it didn’t even make back its $5 million dollar budget. Here’s hoping the film will find a larger audience now that director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) is attached to Netflix’s upcoming horror film Death Note as well as the long-awaited Godzilla vs. Kong.
14. Reign of Fire (2002)
In a future dystopia ruled by fire scorching dragons, fire chief Quinn (Christian Bale), does his best to keep his struggling British community alive. But desperate times call for desperate measures–when mysterious drifter Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) arrives with a group of Americans, and a seemingly crazy plan to stop the beasts, Quinn teams up with them to try to end the threat once and for all.
Reign of Fire combines a variety of sub-genres (post-apocalyptic, fantasy, disaster movie) into an odd but winning mix, ably directed by Rob Bowman (The X-Files Movie), but the film only grossed $20 million above its budget, which, when factoring in marketing an advertising costs, led to a substantial financial loss.
13. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
With a 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a gross of just $27.4 million on a $34 million budget, you’d think The Incredible World of Burt Wonderstone was a miserable excuse for a comedy. And while it won’t be remembered as an outright classic, it’s far better than its reviews and box office haul suggests.
Taking a swipe at the Las Vegas magician industry, Wonderstone is full of great gags. Watching a past his prime magician (the title character, played by Steve Carell) having a meltdown is entertaining enough, but the real star of the show (and what makes the film worth the price of admission) is Jim Carrey as Steve Gray, who hosts the show Brain Rapist, a hilarious mockery of Criss Angel’s Mindfreak.
Toss in a stellar supporting cats including Olivia Wilde, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin, and James Gandolfini (in one of his last roles), and Burt Wonderstone is totally worth catching late night on cable.
12. Sunshine (2007)
28 Days Later director Danny Boyle re-teamed with writer Alex Garland for Sunshine, a sumptuous sci-fi thriller about a crew of astronauts tapped with saving the sun from burning out and dooming the Earth to an icy death.
The dangerous task of the crew (composed of surprisingly big name stars like including Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, and Michelle Yeoh) is further hampered by structural damage to their ship and a dangerous stowaway with a serious axe to grind. Will their mission be in vain?
Sunshine’s storyline is hampered by a pseudo-supernatural villain–the story of a space crew tasked with saving the sun is all the story the film needed to work, and as a result, it never becomes the pure classic sci-fi film that it should have been. Perhaps that’s the reason it only made $32 million on a $40 million budget. That being said, its one of the most gorgeous sci-fi films ever made, and it has a unique tone and structure that makes it fascinating despite its flaws.
11. Slither (2006)
Before director James Gunn hit the big time with Guardians of the Galaxy, he helmed this delightfully disgusting B-movie, a sci-fi horror comedy taking place in the sleepy burgh of Wheelsy, where the townsfolk keep to themselves.
This becomes problematic when extraterrestrial parasites invade the town, infecting the local used car dealer, and turning him into a murderous, grotesque monster. Soon, he begins slaughtering livestock and infecting the town’s populace. It’s up to the hyper-likable Police Chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillon) to combat the alien menace and save his town from becoming hell on earth.
Slither is a loving tribute to the monster movies of the 1950s, but with gruesome modern effects (much of which were practical). A film that balances scares and laughs, it proved too quirky for audiences in 2006, but now that Gunn has become an A-list director, its time for it get a new lease on life.
10. Miracle Mile (1988)
Perhaps Miracle Mile’s legacy is less about how bad it bombed (pun intended), and more that it was ever greenlit in the first place. A truly unsettling film, this ’80s downer only made $1,145,404, which couldn’t even cover its meager budget of $3,700,000. But don’t get hung up by the box office receipts: Miracle Mile is a thriller of the first order.
It’s also groundbreaking–presenting the “real-time” concept long before it was popularized by 24. The plot revolves around Harry (Anthony Edwards), smitten with his new girlfriend Julie (Mare Winningham). But their fledgling romance is threatened when Harry overhears that a nuclear war is imminent, and the U.S. will be hit in 70 minutes.
It’s then a race against time as Harry and Julie try to escape before their hometown L.A. is atomized. It’s easier said than done. Miracle Mile is a bleak, unnerving tale that any fan of uncompromising cinema should check out.
9. The House of the Devil (2009)
Retro ’80s horror movies and TV shows like It Follows and Stranger Things are currently all the rage. But that whole trend of filmmaking kicked off back in 2009 with director Ti West’s occult horror flick The House of The Devil.
Devil was inspired by the “Satanic Panic” urban myths of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when every parent feared that evil Satanists wanted to sacrifice their children (no case was ever proven). The film stars Jocelyn Donahue as Samantha, a broke college student who takes a babysitting job to pay her rent. But the babysitting gig is anything but ordinary, leaving Samantha in grave danger as she tries to survive an evil presence let loose by a lunar eclipse.
House of the Devil is a blast of a film, with B-movie royalty (Dee Wallace Stone, Tom Noonan) a John Carpenter-esque synth score (and visual style), and the requisite goofy dance sequence to a New Wave classic. It deserves a much better fate than that of a sizable flop (making only $101,215 against its already slim $900,000 budget).
8. Sorcerer (1977)
The cards were stacked against Sorcerer from the beginning it seems. The name is a complete misnomer that explains nothing about its plot. And the film (directed by The Exorcist’s William Friedkin) had the misfortune of opening against Star Wars: A New Hope. As a result, it made about $9 million off a $22 million budget.
Which is a shame, because the movie (a remake of the 1953 film The Wages of Fear) is one of the most intense thrillers ever released. The story documents a group of fugitives (led by Roy Scheider) holed up in the South American jungle, who take on a seemingly impossible task: transporting a batch of extremely unstable nitroglycerin 200 miles, made even more treacherous by the bumpy, mountainous terrain they must cross.
7. A Simple Plan (1998)
The late Bill Paxton is best remembered for Aliens and Weird Science, but he had a large body of work, including several under-the-radar movies that deserved better than their box office haul. Frailty and One False Move are certainly notable examples, but A Simple Plan is particularly noteworthy, because it’s also the most underrated film in director Sam Raimi’s filmography.
Paxton stars as Bill Mitchell, a local boy done good in a small town. When he, his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) discover a crashed plane with a dead pilot and a bag full of cash, they debate over telling the authorities or keeping the money to themselves. Greed wins in the end, leading to deadly and heartbreaking consequences.
6. Grindhouse (2007)
On paper, the concept of Grindhouse seemed like a home run: take two popular filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez) and have them direct an old-school double feature, with two films that were a throwback to the exploitation cinema of the ’60s and ’70s. The reviews were great. Surely fans of both directors would show up in droves and a new classic would be born? Sadly, it didn’t happen.
Grindhouse only made $25.4 million of its $53.4 million budget. The reasons that it bombed remain nebulous, but the film is an absolute blast. Rodriguez’s zombie flick Planet Terror is a love letter to George Romero and John Carpenter and Death Proof is Tarantino’s tribute to every great ’70s car chase film, with Kurt Russell getting a long overdue chance to play a bad guy. Plus, the fake trailers were amazing (even setting up the Machete film series).
5. The King of Comedy (1982)
Despite widespread critical acclaim, The King of Comedy is one of Martin Scorsese’s biggest commercial flops, grossing only $2.5 million off a $19 million budget.
King of Comedy is a perverse delight, starring Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, a failed comedian with delusions of grandeur. An unstable man who dreams of becoming the next big stand-up comedian becomes obsessed with appearing on The Jerry Langford Show (with host Langford played by comedy legend Jerry Lewis).
When Langford repeatedly rebuffs his advances, Pupkin kidnaps him, demanding a spot on his show before he’ll be released. It soon appears that his demands will be met–but is this real life, or are we living in Pupkin’s deluded mind?
The King of Comedy perhaps proved too weird and unsettling for audiences of the era, but in our modern world, where desperate, attention-starved souls vie for appearances on reality shows or have their own YouTube channel, it feels more timely than ever.
4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 1990 TV series Twin Peaks changed the television landscape–infusing a cinematic sensibility and art-house imagery into the classic murder mystery/soap opera format. But while it drew critical raves and high ratings in the beginning, the show would get cancelled in 1991, ending with one of the most maddening cliffhangers in TV history.
Fan hopes were raised when Lynch adapted the series for film in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. But it proved a massive misfire–critics and audiences hated it, and it only made $4.2 million on a $10 million dollar budget.
So why did it tank? It was less about the film itself and more about fans’ expectations: they wanted answers to the season 2 finale, but Lynch instead gave them a prequel chronicling the days leading to Laura Palmer’s murder.
No other film on this list has benefitted more from the passage of time than Fire Walk With Me. Now that we have Twin Peaks: The Return set to provide answers to that eerie cliffhanger (At least we hope it will. Right?), Lynch’s movie can be appreciated for the terrifying and surreal horror film that it is.
3. Seconds (1966)
Rock Hudson had made his career on romantic comedies, and his decision to star in a bleak, horrifying sci-fi thriller left critics and audiences cold in 1966. Seconds, directed by lauded filmmaker John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday) featured Hudson as Tony Wilson, a man with a secret: he was formerly a much older, unhappy man who underwent a body transplant from a shadowy medical company.
Now with a new identity free from his past life and loveless marriage, Wilson tries to enjoy his newfound freedom, but the process proves destructive, as his loss of identity threatens to expose his sordid past and the secretive organization that gave him his new life.
Seconds plays like a more gruesome and heartless Twilight Zone episode–with nightmarish imagery and a story that feels like a Greek tragedy.
2. Batman Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is perhaps the best Batman movie ever. Sure, the Nolan trilogy is now the gold standard of live action superhero movies, and the Burton films are certainly remembered fondly. But Mask of the Phantasm does one thing better than any live action film: it makes Batman (and Bruce Wayne) the primary character–not overshadowed by a villain. And it’s a mystery, relying on the Dark Knight detective skills that just don’t get explored enough in other films (although that may be changing with director Matt Reeves upcoming film The Batman).
Coming on the heels of the successful Batman The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm seemed like a sure thing, yet it tanked at the box office, not even making back its budget, which is absolutely criminal (poor marketing has taken the primary blame). Luckily, and FINALLY, Warner Bros is getting ready to release a long-awaited remastered Blu-ray, so perhaps Mask of the Phantasm will finally earn its just due.
1. Manhunter (1986)
Before The Silence of the Lambs popularized movies about FBI serial killer profilers and featured Anthony Hopkins as the iconic villain Dr. Hannibal Lecter, there was only Manhunter—director Michael Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon, the book that first introduced Hannibal the Cannibal the world.
Manhunter is infused with Mann’s Miami Vice pastel and neon soaked visuals, but it’s the story that counts, with CSI’s William Peterson playing Will Graham, hot in pursuit of serial killer Francis Dolarhyde.
Manhunter is a riveting psychological thriller, showing the dangerous depths that Graham must sink to in order to enter the mind-frame of the killer he’s hunting, including a session with Lecter himself (spelled Lecktor in the film, and played by veteran British actor Brian Cox).
Without Manhunter, there would be no Lambs, no Se7en, no Red Dragon remake and no Hannibal TV series, because while it flopped at the box office (making only $8.6 million on a $15 million budget), it inspired countless filmmakers to explore its grisly subject matter. But it also needs to have a wider appreciation by the mainstream at large, because seriously, it’s amazing.
That wraps our list of 15 box office bombs that deserved a far better fate. Be sure and check out part 2, where we cover even more underrated gems. What box office flops do you feel are misunderstood classics? Tell us in the comments.
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