Recently, we put together a collection of 15 Box Office Bombs That Are Secretly Awesome–documenting some of the greatest movies that suffered an unjust and cruel box office fate. And judging by the popular response from readers, we realized that 15 entries simply wouldn’t suffice, because there are so many other movies that, despite being expertly made and achieving critical acclaim, never found their audience.
Trying to decipher why certain great films didn’t get a fair shake is an often maddening exercise, but it’s usually for one of the following reasons: poor promotion, being released in a crowded slate of other releases, or simply being too ahead of its time for audiences to connect with. Sometimes they were indie films that fell through the cracks. Other times they were big budget productions with all the signs of a box office smash, but success never materialized. It can be disheartening for those who champion films that never got fair shake, but it also provides an opportunity for cult movie lovers to share these gems with others. That’s our goal here.
So let’s right some more cinematic wrongs, shall we? Here are 15 films from a variety of genres that deserve a wider audience.
15. Green Room (2016)
With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 90% and a top notch cast, how did Green Room only manage to make $3.8 million on a $5 million budget? It’s frustrating, but odds are that the subject matter proved too difficult to market to mass audiences. And that’s a damn shame.
Green Room, directed by Blue Ruin‘s Matt Saulnier, is one of the most suspenseful movies in ages, detailing a punk band who fight for their lives after witnessing a murder in a skinhead music club. Trapped in the green room (hence the title), they must face off against a horde of armed white supremacists lead by the villainous Darcy Banker (played by Patrick Stewart in one of his most unforgettable performances), who will stop at nothing to keep them from alerting the authorities.
Combining horror film, siege thriller, and subculture study, Green Room is like American History X meets Straw Dogs, and it features one of the late actor Anton Yelchin‘s most riveting roles to cap it all off.
14. The Rocketeer (1991)
Disney’s adaptation of the late Dave Steven’s beloved comic character would be a slam dunk in 2017, given that their relationship with Marvel Comics has paved the way for some of the biggest blockbusters of all time.
But 1991 was a different era–The House of Mouse was uniformly associated with children’s entertainment, and The Rocketeer was an indie comic creation lacking the brand identification of a Marvel or DC property. As a result, it grossed just $46.7 million on a $40 million budget.
While The Rocketeer misfired at the box office, it’s a stellar superhero film, blending elements of James Bond intrigue and WWII period atmosphere that recalled the Indiana Jones film series. Billy Campbell plays the title character, who uses a jetpack to fight Nazis and save girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) from the evil clutches of the lead villain (Timothy Dalton).
13. Autofocus (2002)
The murder of Hogan’s Hero star Bob Crane is one of the most famous unsolved murderers of the 20th century. His death exposed the actor’s double-life–the seemingly wholesome celebrity had a compulsion for filming sexual escapades with female fans. And this out-of-control obsession sealed his fate.
Autofocus is more concerned with Crane’s psychology, and what drove a performer with a successful career and loving family to wreck it all for a pathological need to document his erotic encounters–many of which were filmed by his friend John Carpenter (no, not that John Carpenter) portrayed by Willem Dafoe.
Greg Kinnear is a marvel as Crane, perfectly encapsulating his split-personality–veering from warm and fatherly to crass and sleazy, while Dafoe is utterly creepy as the fair-weather (and possibly murderous) friend.
It’s not too surprising that Autofocus made only $2.7 million on an $8 million budget given its unsettling subject matter. It’ll make your skin crawl and you’ll need a shower afterwards, but its an absolutely fascinating character study of one of the most sordid tales in Hollywood history.
12. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005)
Written and directed by Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang was a critically acclaimed neo-noir comedy starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. But it only made $15.8 million on a $15 million budget, falling well short financially once marketing and advertising costs are factored in.
That’s too bad, because Downey Jr. and Kilmer give wonderful performances, lending the proper snap and crackle needed for Black’s witty wordplay to give a semblance of grounding to the otherwise crazy quilt plot.
Downey, Jr. plays a bumbling crook who lands a part in a movie while on the run from the law–which leads into a run-in with snide private investigator Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer). In typical Black fashion, their odd couple dynamic starts them off as adversaries before having them join forces to save the day.
While Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang was a dud at the box office, it so impressed Jon Favreau that it helped Downey, Jr. land the part of Iron Man, while Black would go on to direct Iron Man 3.
11. The Nice Guys (2016)
The second Shane Black film on our list is 2016’s The Nice Guys. Like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, it’s another well-reviewed (a staggering 92% on Rotten Tomatoes) neo-noir action comedy that fell short at the box office, making just $57.3 million on a $50 million budget. It’s underperformance seems even more unlikely given that it starred Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, and that the trailers were fantastic.
Many moviegoers missed out on a hilarious retro-’70s flick featuring Gosling as a failed Private Eye and Crowe playing an overzealous freelancer providing hired muscle at a fair price. Together, they unravel a murder case that puts them at odds with both the adult film industry and the department of justice, leading into a tangled web of corruption and hijinks.
The Nice Guys suffered from being released in an overcrowded summer film schedule, which is frustrating given its strengths. It’s easily one of the best action buddy comedies of the past decade or two.
10. The Hidden (1987)
A fusion of buddy cop film and sci-fi thriller, The Hidden is one of the most delightfully bonkers movies of the 1980s. Los Angeles is under siege from an alien threat: a slug-like parasite able to turn any human into its host that it orally infiltrates.
Hot on its trail is Special Agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), a law enforcement agent with a flair for tracking down the paranormal. He’s partnered with Thomas Beck (Michael Nouri), a no-nonsense LAPD detective out of his element.
The film’s relentless pace never gives the viewer a chance to get bored. It also eerily predates MacLachlan’s turn as another otherworldly special agent: Twin Peaks‘ Agent Cooper. Despite all these strengths, The Hidden bombed at the box office. MacLachlan commented on its unfortunate fate to The Onion’s AV club, saying “we took a B-movie and kind of turned it into an A-minus action movie…but it was mis-marketed by New Line…they just didn’t know what to do with it.”
9. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Jim Jarmusch’s rock and roll vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive proved a little too quirky for audiences in 2013, barely making back its $7 million budget. Maybe it was too comedic to appeal to bloodthirsty horror fans and too creepy to appeal to Jarmusch’s indie fan base. Either way, folks missed out on a supremely entertaining oddball film.
Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as Adam and Eve, two immortal vampires (and centuries long lovers) pondering their place in the 21st century, but things are upturned when Swinton’s sister (Mia Wasikowska) turns up to wreak havoc.
Filmed largely in dilapidated Detroit, and full of sumptuous visuals, a cracking rock soundtrack, and another winning performance from the late Anton Yelchin, Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the most unusual vampire films of all time.
8. The Road (2009)
Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road was always going to be a hard sell for moviegoers, and it took some time for a cinematic adaptation to fall into place, with the job eventually going to filmmaker John Hillcoat (based on the strengths of his Aussie Western The Proposition).
Hillcoat delivered a largely faithful vision of McCarthy’s bleak book, augmented by excellent performances from Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, and (at-the-time) newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, all of whom gave their characters the appropriate tragic weight for the source material of a father and son trying to survive as they navigate a world gone mad in the aftermath of global catastrophe.
The Road was an intense and grueling picture, and the decision to release the film around Thanksgiving (in order to prod for Oscar contention) proved disastrous timing, grossing just $27.6 million on a $25 million budget. That being said, it’s an artistic triumph, splitting the difference between a vision of humanity at both its most depraved and benevolent.
7. The Insider (1999)
Our previous list of underrated box office bombs featured director Michael Mann’s 1987 Manhunter, a chilling adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon. But that’s not the only Mann film that suffered an unjust commercial reception, as The Insider is one of the most unappreciated films of the 1990s.
Mann’s tense film (based on true events) is a fascinating depiction of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a whistleblower who exposed the corruption and deception of the Tobacco industry in a famous 60 Minutes interview. Proving no good deed goes unpunished, he receives death threats and lawsuits, all while 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) contends with his own hurdles, as network and corporate influences try to stop Wigand’s story from being told.
6. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Easily the most controversial addition to this list, Heaven’s Gate is quite possibly the most notorious box office flop in film history, making a measly $3.5 million on an $40 million budget. The film was such a toxic topic in Hollywood that it systematically destroyed the auteur-led movement that begin in the mid-’70s, when the filmmaking industry was driven more by personal stories than major blockbusters. It marked the end of an era (and ruined director Michael Cimino‘s career in the process).
That being said, the movie’s issues are more of a cautionary tale of Hollywood egomania (Cimino certainly deserved a comeuppance) and less of a slight on the film itself, which has garnered a slow but steady reappraisal over the years for the story of class warfare in 1890s Wyoming, while stars like Jeff Bridges have come to its defense and defended its merits and technical achievements. It’s a flawed but fascinating film.
5. Strange Days (1994)
Before Katherine Bigelow became the award-winning director known for films like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty (and most recently, Detroit), she was a genre filmmaker with bad luck at the box office. Her biggest flop was Strange Days, a futuristic thriller that made a paltry $8 million on a $42 million budget, and almost ended her career.
The movie, however (based off a screenplay co-written by James Cameron), is fascinating; detailing a dystopia where people pay big money for virtual reality experiences recorded from actual memories of anonymous contributors. And the best VR dealer in the biz is Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), an ex-cop who discovers a bootleg of an actual murder. He must team up with his ex-flame (Angela Bassett) and cop buddy (Tom Sizemore) to discover the murderer and bring them to justice.
A taut thriller exploring VR technology that is only just now beginning to capitalize on its potential, Strange Days is a cautionary tale that was too ahead of its time for mass audiences, but ripe for rediscovering now.
4. Near Dark (1987)
Our second Katherine Bigelow flop might just be the best vampire movie of the 1980s, but it certainly isn’t the most well-known, only making $3.4 million on a $5 million budget. Near Dark is an eerie, fever dream of a film, telling the story of Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a cowboy who falls in love with the mysterious May (Jenny Wright), who he finds out all too late is a vampire.
Soon, Caleb is fighting bloodsucking urges while traveling the Texas countryside with May’s bloodthirsty adoptive family in their blacked-out RV, (with characters played by Aliens alums Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jeanette Goldstein). Can he escape his undead fate, and survive the murderous clan he’s trapped with? That’s the intriguing question raised by the plot, and the film has a suitably satisfying conclusion.
Featuring one of Paxton’s most electric performances, an evocative score by Tangerine Dream, and Bigelow’s painterly visuals, Near Dark is the vampire western love story that all horror fans should experience.
3. Angel Heart (1987)
Our third entry from 1987 is a film best known for a notorious nude scene from The Cosby Show’s Lisa Bonet. It’s a shame that Angel Heart has become more of a tawdry footnote of ’80s prudishness than for the suspenseful, supernatural neo-noir triumph that it is.
Mickey Rourke stars as Harry Angel, a private detective hired by the mysterious Louis Cypher (Robert De Niro) to investigate the disappearance of popular singer Johnny Favorite. Angel’s investigation takes him all the way from New York City to New Orléans, with a trail of dead bodies in his wake. What dark secret does Favorite hold, and why do all his acquaintances turn up dead? Those questions are all answered, leading up to a killer twist ending.
Angel Heart only made $17 million on its $18 million budget, which is criminal given Alan Parker’s mesmerizing direction and Rourke’s powerful performance. It’s also one of director Christopher Nolan’s favorite films, having inspired his non-linear thriller Memento.
2. Blow Out (1981)
Brian De Palma is a polarizing filmmaker, full of cinematic highs (Carrie, The Untouchables) and lows (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Snake Eyes), but one movie in his filmography that deserves wider acclaim is Blow Out. The thriller stars John Travolta as a sound effects artist who accidentally records a car wreck which results in the death of a politician. This unravels a web of lies and murder that places his own life (and a rescued escort played by Nancy Allen) in jeopardy.
Despite a suspenseful plot befitting the Hitchcock disciple, Travolta’s best performance, and John Lithgow portraying an absolutely terrifying psychopath, Blow Out didn’t exactly blow up at the box office. It made just $12 million on an $18 million budget, despite mostly glowing reviews.
That can largely be chalked up to the film’s bleak, unforgiving ending, which led to poor word of mouth. But for those who like dark, uncompromising films like Se7en, Blow Out will linger in your memory long after the credits roll.
1. Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton’s career has had major commercial successes and sleeper cult hits. Even when he makes films that are critically reviled (see Planet of the Apes), he cleans up. He’s one of the most bankable filmmakers in Hollywood.
This makes it all the more painful that Ed Wood, quite possibly his best film, made only $6 million on an $18 million budget. It seemed that by making a biopic of the most unsuccessful director in cinema, his film suffered a similar fate.
It’s certainly not the movies fault: boasting a cast including Johnny Deep, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray, and the late Martin Landau (who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Dracula star Bela Lugosi), Burton crafted a loving, intimate account of Wood, an inept filmmaker who mistook optimism for craft, resulting in so-bad-they’re-great movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton’s film is the ultimate celebration of creative misfits and a fascinating glimpse into the less glamorous side of Hollywood.
That wraps up our list of 15 more box office bombs that are secretly awesome! Have any other films you’d add to the list? Tell us in the comments!
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