The risk-averse nature of filmmaking means that the world’s more maverick and outrageous writers and directors have to make do with relatively low budgets. Nicolas Winding Refn drenched the screen in all kinds of sordid, violent and startling imagery in such films as Only God Forgives and this year’s The Neon Demon, but the combined budget of those probably didn’t even match the catering budget for something like Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
Every so often, though, a truly bonkers film slips through the Hollywood studio system – often by accident. From horror sequels to original sci-fi adventures, here are 12 incredibly expensive and gloriously eccentric Hollywood movies from the past 40 years.
The Exorcist II (1977)
Budget: $14 million
Like most films made for purely financial reasons, The Exorcist II was doomed to be a mere shadow of its predecessor from the outset. After William Friedkin’s extreme, uncompromising and controversial original made huge amounts of money in 1973, Warner began plans for a sequel – something neither Friedkin nor writer William Peter Blatty were at all interested in.
Perhaps realising they were never going to replicate the atmosphere and unseemly class of the original, Warner briefly opted for plan B: make a quick, low-budget sequel that rehashed the same story of the first film, and watch the cash roll in. The idea, co-producer Richard Lederer later admitted in the book The Exorcist: Out Of The Shadows, was to “Have the central figure, an investigative priest, interview everyone involved with the exorcism, then fade out to unused footage, unused angles from the first movie.” It was, he added, “a rather cynical approach to movie-making.”
Warner then switched tactics again, getting in a solid writer, William Goodheart, to pen a script which he called The Heretic, and hiring director John Boorman, who’d gained a well-earned reputation with such movies as Point Blank and Deliverance. It’s a wonder, though, whether Warner’s producers had bothered to watch what was Boorman’s most recent movie at that point: his 1974 million-dollar oddity, Zardoz. Had they witnessed first-hand its engrossing flying stone heads, scenes of Sean Connery running around in tiny red pants and firing a gun, and scenes of Sean Connery in a fancy wedding dress, they may have had a better idea of what they were letting themselves in for.
Boorman spent approximately $14 million making The Exorcist II: The Heretic, which doesn’t sound much by modern standards – but to put it in perspective, that’s $3 million more than George Lucas spent on making Star Wars that very same year.
The Exorcist II begins with a possessed girl setting herself on fire and gradually grows more weird from there. A now 16-year-old Linda Blair reprises her role as Regan, the possessed girl from the first film, and Richard Burton plays a rather macho priest called Lamont, who has a particularly lip-smacking way of saying “evil.” There’s a weird sci-fi contraption like the one out of Quatermass And The Pit, which allows scientists to study Regan’s thoughts. There are dreams involving African children and locusts. There’s a demon called Pazuzu, and James Earl Jones in a funny hat.
Exorcist II’s quasi-scientific, unexpectedly funny brand of madness didn’t impress contemporary critics, who all found constructive ways of describing just how much they despised it. And yet, watched as a stand-alone movie instead of a sequel to one of the most respected horror movies of all time, The Exorcist II is supremely entertaining.
Altered States (1980)
Budget: $15 million
Director Ken Russell, already something of an enfant terrible in the UK with movies such as The Devils and Women In Love, went to Hollywood to direct this extremely strange sci-fi outing, which was based on the book of the same name by Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the screenplay himself.
Altered States was initially going to be directed by Arthur Penn, but he fell out with the writer and promptly walked off the production. Ken Russell filled the void, and brought all his British eccentricity with him – not that the premise wasn’t strange in the first place, given that it’s about a scientist (played by William Hurt) who dabbles in drugs and floats around in a sensory deprivation tank.
While experimenting with these altered states of consciousness, the scientist first transforms himself in to a shrieking humanoid ancestral throwback, and later devolves into a wandering blob of sentient carbon – scaring the crap out of his wife in the process. There are also assorted trippy scenes where Hurt’s head appears in front of flying fish, and a crucified Jesus with the head of a seven-eyed goat.
It’s a mad, trippy film, and actually quite good – though how Warner were convinced to hand over the then-princely sum of $15 million to make it is a mystery we’ll probably never discover the answer to. Pub trivia fans may also be interested to know that Altered States marked the screen debut of a very young Drew Barrymore, who appears as the scientist’s daughter.
Budget: $40 million
Although David Lynch was primarily was (and inarguably remains) a director of art movies, the success of his 1980 picture The Elephant Man saw him take a step towards the mainstream. And as the awards and adulation rolled in for that film – which, in retrospect, isn’t particularly mainstream at all – so too did the Hollywood job offers. An impressed George Lucas offered Lynch the opportunity to direct Return Of The Jedi, which he turned down.
Instead, Lynch took on another sci-fi project, Dune, which had been stuck in the production stages since at least 1971. Although such filmmakers as Alexandro Jodorowsky, David Lean and Ridley Scott had all been attached to the project, it took David Lynch – who, incredibly, had never read the book, and wasn’t particularly interested in science fiction – to shepherd the adaptation to the big screen.
On paper, Lynch’s Dune had lots going for it: a big budget (bigger than Return Of The Jedi’s) which should have ensured that production values would be high; a great cast, including Max Von Sydow, Kyle MacLachlan and, erm, Sting; and cinematographer Freddie Francis, who’d made Victorian London look so beautiful in The Elephant Man. Certainly, Dune had all the signs of being a more approachable, mainstream picture than Jodorowsky’s version, which would have starred David Carradine and boasted a script that ran to about 840 pages.
As it turned out, Dune was far from the sci-fi Star Wars beater that producer Dino DeLaurentiis was hoping for. “Some shabby special effects were thrown into the pot,” Roger Ebert wrote in his scathing review, “and the producers crossed their fingers and hoped that everybody who has read the books will want to see the movie. Not if the word gets out, they won’t.”
In retrospect, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a big-budget sci-fi movie from David Lynch would be confusing, dream-like, and occasionally disquieting. In 1984, these aspects were used as a stick to beat the movie with, particularly when it became apparent that nobody was going to go to see it. Viewed today, Dune’s a fascinating, often absorbing movie, in spite of its flaws.
It’s said that Lynch doesn’t like talking about Dune in interviews, which is a pity, because there’s plenty to discuss in this dark, faintly kitsch interpretation of Frank Herbert’s rambling books. But then there’s Sting’s performance – which, really, is probably best forgotten.
The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1989)
Budget: $47 million
One of the most impishly imaginative directors in cinema history, Terry Gilliam appears to have spent much of his feature-making career trying to see just how much eccentricity he can pack into his movies – and yes, this is meant as a compliment.
In his post-Python films, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, and Brazil, Gilliam forged his own brand of filmmaking that was full of vibrancy and surrealism, and in the late 80s, he embarked on his most expensive, ambitious and fanciful picture yet: The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen.
As seems to be a regular occurrence in Terry Gilliam films, there was tension behind the scenes. The young actress Sarah Polley, who played the character Sally Salt, spoke of the stress of having controlled explosions going on around her all the time. As fellow ex-Python once put it, “Up until Munchausen, I’d always been very smart about Terry Gilliam films. You don’t ever be in them. Go and see them by all means – but to be in them, fucking madness.”
The minimal sum of money Munchausen made on release was well reported (estimates put it at about $8 million), which, as ever, only serves to distract from everything that’s good about the film.
Once again, it seemed that Gilliam had been unlucky; a changing of the guard at the head of Columbia Pictures indirectly resulted in limited distribution, and the film’s release was dogged by stories of its troubled production.
Critics, on the other hand, could see the imagination at work in Gilliam’s mad, baroque fantasy, and Munchausen is now commonly regarded as a cult classic. After all, where else can you see the late Robin Williams tossing his own disembodied head about as the King of the Moon? Just be sure not to watch that particular sequence before bedtime – it’ll give you nightmares.
Batman Returns (1992)
Budget: $80 million
What? A Batman movie, widely considered to be among the franchise’s best, eccentric? Well, yes. It is a Tim Burton movie, after all, and it’s Batman Returns’ eccentricity that makes it so great. Although Burton’s Batman was a decent big-screen reintroduction for the hero, Batman Begins is the better-made film, and following the success of the first, Warner really let the director stretch out and experiment, with a vastly higher budget than the original’s $30 million.
As a result, we have a Batman movie in which its villains, Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer), the Penguin (Danny De Vito) and evil millionaire Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) are collectively given far more screen time than the Caped Crusader himself. Then we have the film’s grotesque character designs (the Penguin has a habit of leaking something that looks like chewing tobacco from the corner of his mouth, which still gives us the creeps today) and general chaos, kinkiness and violence, which make for a decidedly unusual superhero movie – albeit a fantastic one.
Warner must have quietly sighed with relief when Burton left the franchise and Joel Schumacher stepped into the breach with a sunnier, campier vision with Batman Forever. And then Batman & Robin happened, and all of a sudden, a murkier Dark Knight didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all…
The Fifth Element (1997)
Budget: $90 million
Luc Besson had already built up a strong reputation as a maker of visually striking films, and The Fifth Element is his most lavish effort so far. It’s a densely designed, wildly paced, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi epic with a great cast, with Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich in the lead roles, and Gary Oldman putting in an extremely odd performance as the flamboyant villain.
In fact, everything about The Fifth Element is flamboyant, from its bizarre fashions courtesy of Jean-Paul Gaultier, to Chris Tucker’s unhinged supporting performance as a screaming radio talk show host, Ruby Rhod.
Not all critics could get their heads around Besson’s wild sci-fi concoction (one US film critic wrote, “It may or may not be the worst movie ever made, but it is one of the most unhinged.”), but the film was a hit, and its effects were even nominated for an Academy Award. Besson returns to sci-fi later next year with Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets. We’ll almost be disappointed if it doesn’t turn out to be spectacularly strange.
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Budget: $161 million
We can see this entry getting some complaints, so we’ll keep it short. Alien Resurrection was, by some distance, the most generously budgeted series entry yet, and remains, in our estimation, the weirdest of the Alien movies – even taking into account Prometheus’ flutes and other head-scratching moments, or Alien 3’s criminal monks in space.
The reason for that is probably because it was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who brought his considerable charm and Gallic sensibilities (as seen in the sublime Delicatessen, City Of Lost Children, and Amelie, to name a few) to the outer-space horror franchise.
Resurrection introduced lots of swimming aliens, a bickering, wise-cracking supporting cast including Ron Perlman, Winona Ryder, and a half-human, half-alien Ripley who’s developed a taste for basketball. And then there’s the weird, pink mutant newborn, an alternate form of xenomorph with sad, sunken eyes, bad posture and a cute little twitchy nose.
Originally, Jeunet was adamant that this new creature should possess large, prominent genitalia protruding from its stomach; when Fox executives balked at the thought of an alien with combination male and female sex organs looming out of darkened cinemas, the director eventually relented. The offending genitals were later removed by computer boffins during post-production.
Battlefield Earth (2000)
Budget: $44 million
Anyone who’s suffered through all 118 minutes of Battlefield Earth will know that it sees John Travolta and Forest Whitaker dressed up in big boots and dreadlock wigs as a pair of giant aliens, and that, for some reason, director Roger Christian famously decided to film almost the entire film at a 45-degree angle. Those viewers will probably also tell you that Battlefield Earth is a quite terrible move, and unlike most of the others mentioned here, probably deserved all the scorn thrown in its direction.
Based on a series of books by author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Battlefield Earth was something of a pet project for Travolta, who sank some of his own cash into its production. The film’s budget was once said to be much higher than the $44 million stated above, but this figure was later revised down after some dodgy fiscal goings on were brought to light.
A tale of downtrodden humans rising up against their giant alien oppressors in the year 3000, Battlefield Earth alternately stunned and infuriated the few who saw it. From its weird costume designs and camera angles mentioned earlier, to its awful script, dismal effects and oppressive overuse of blue filters, Battlefield Earth is best described as a series of unfortunate creative choices stacked one on the other.
Critics rounded on Battlefield Earth with their literary cudgels, and audiences, sensing a stinker in the offing, avoided the film by all means necessary. For the sake of balance, though, we have to say that Battlefield Earth is worth watching once, if only to appreciate just how awkward, bizarre, and downright wrong it is. You could also turn the viewing experience into a drinking game, and knock back a shot of gin every time you spot one of those Dutch tilt shots we keep going on about. We guarantee you’ll be drunk before the end of the first act (if the film is indeed split into acts), which, trust us, is undoubtedly a good thing.
Lady In The Water (2006)
Budget: $75 million
Flushed with the success of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and The Village, writer and director M Night Shyamalan began work on Lady In The Water, a Philadelphia-set fantasy that has the atmosphere of a children’s storybook. What’s most surprising is that, after Disney turned the script down, Warner’s executives nodded at the concept and gave Mr Shyamalan $75 million to make it.
Lady In The Water’s production history was outlined in the book The Man Who Heard Voices by Michael Bamberger, subtitled, ‘Or, How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On A Fairy Tale’, which should give you a fair idea of how tough it was to even get the film made – and also the size of Shyamalan’s ego at the time of its making, if some reviews of the book are to be trusted.
Lest we forget, Lady In The Water is a movie which features an ethereal creature lurking in a swimming pool, a flat, wolf-like monster with grass for fur, and monkeys with Mohawks. It’s a brave attempt at suburban realist myth-making, for sure, but there’s an awkward, stilted air to just about every aspect of the production which constantly undercuts Shyamalan’s personal vision; his decision to cast himself in the role of a mystical writer whose words will some day save mankind, meanwhile, infuriated critics. Shyamalan, apparently mindful of the kind of reaction this would receive, wrote a film critic into the movie, too, who has a comment for just about every strange plot development – including his own death.
Although not derided by all reviewers, movie-goers voted with their purses; making a little less than its cost of production, Lady In The Water was Night’s first true flop. Some might argue that the Shyamalan films which followed, The Happening and The Last Airbender, were equally bizarre (or lacking in merit, or whatever), but they all made money nevertheless.
Lady In The Water began as a rambling tale, it’s said, made up by the auteur to amuse his daughters at bedtime. The film has the same stream-of-consciousness air to it, which makes it an infuriating thing to watch, but also a rather unique entry in the cinema of the expensively eccentric.
Budget: $75-120 million
Based on premise alone, Immortals doesn’t sound like a particularly eccentric film; it’s a 3D fantasy movie loosely based on Greek myth, which, as the Clash Of The Titans remake or 300 proved, can be a lucrative sort of film to make. That it’s a visually striking film isn’t surprising, either, given that it’s from Tarsem Singh, who’s been making pretty-looking features and music videos for years.
What we weren’t prepared for, though, was just how crazy the whole enterprise would prove to be. Every single character gets to wear something strange and elaborate, from the titans stuck for millennia in Mount Tartarus, to the mighty gods themselves – all cloaks and wild, spiky hats.
It’s a CG-drenched, sometimes staggering-looking film, with lots of slow-motion combat, Henry Cavill muscles and Mickey Rourke smashing someone’s genitals with a gigantic hammer. It also makes very little sense.
Incidentally, there’s a great bit in one of the behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube where Tarsem Singh’s direction to a crowd of extras is a hearty, “FIGHT FOR YOUR MORTALITY!”
Critics were largely unkind to Singh’s shouty bag of madness, but one thing we can say in its favor is that it contained the finest selection of hats and helmets in 2011’s crop of films.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Budget: $128 million
A movie so big and bonkers that even its trailer was outsized (it ran for a whopping six minutes), Cloud Atlas is perhaps the Wachowskis’ magnum opus. They even had to get a third director, Tom Tykwer, to help them make their mammoth sci-fi fantasy.
Cross-cutting between multiple epochs, from the 19th century Pacific to the distant future, it’s an adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel that gamely tries to cram its interconnected characters and themes into a duration of just under three hours.
What really pushes Cloud Atlas into the realms of eccentricity isn’t its ambition, however, but the filmmakers’ decision to have the same actors play multiple characters in different eras. Tom Hanks plays an aggressive Irish novelist in the 20th century and 19th century doctor with distractingly huge teeth. Hugo Weaving shows up as a hitman in the 70s before popping up again as a female nurse in the present.
The result is one of the weirdest ensemble movies ever made, where moments of pathos rubbing up against slapstick comedy in an old folks’ home, searing action sequences and flashes of bloodshed, and the sudden appearance of Susan Sarandon as a decrepid man with a robot eye. Not everything in Cloud Atlas works, necessarily, but we’re still glad that it exists.
Jupiter Ascending (2014)
Budget: $176 million
Here come the Wachowskis again with yet more proof that they’re extraordinarily good in pitch meetings. Other than Jedi mind tricks or hypnosis, how else do we account for Warner Bros forking out $176 million on a sci-fi Cinderella tale involving energy-sucking alien dynasties, wolfmen, bees and assorted baroque space craft?
Mila Kunis stars as a lowly toilet cleaner who, having been whisked from danger by Channing Tatum (in jet boots and wolf ears, no less), learn’s that she’s queen of the universe and that Eddie Redmayne wants to kill her. All embellished surfaces and decorative fililgrees, Jupiter Ascending is lavish and ornate in ways that would make even Tarsem Singh blush. But what sets Jupiter Ascending apart as a work of oddness isn’t its special effects, but its plot and dialogue.
A veritable compendium of the Wachowskis’ interests, the movie contains conspiracy theories about grey aliens, reincarnation, space royalty and anime-style characters who look as though they’ve stepped in from an entirely different production.
We’re also treated to such extraordinary pieces of dialogue as:
Sean Bean: “Bees don’t lie.”
Mila Kunis: “I love dogs.”
Tuppence Middleton: “Feel my skin!”
Random lizard-dude: “Sire, something’s gone wrong at the clinic.”
Sean Bean again: “You know, bees are genetically designed to recognise royalty.”
Thanks, Mr Bean – that fact is sure to come in handy at the next pub quiz.