A “sleeper” in movie parlance is an unheralded or dismissed film whose success confounds critics when it catches fire with audiences. Through word of mouth and a mysterious penetration of the culture, sleepers become huge commercial successes despite, in many instances, low budgets and no-name casts. Sometimes, mostly in the pre-VHS/DVD era, an underperforming movie might disappear only to resurface to acclaim after the producer or director gains control of the film and makes a deal with exhibitors to bring it back into theaters. Often the return on production is astronomical. Looking back, we see that sleepers are emblematic of independent film production and distribution, in short, the post-studio system era.
Dr. No (1962)
This first feature-length film based on the exploits of Ian Fleming’s MI6 British Agent 007, aka James Bond (Sean Connery), heralded the cinema’s longest-running movie series. Technological gimmicks that came to define the ongoing cycle were held to a minimum in this and the sequel From Russia With Love, both of which relied on fisticuffs, knives and pistols rather than futuristic cars, rocket jet-packs and lethal bowler hats. For Dr. No, critical reaction was all over the map. The Daily Express said it “was fun all the way,…” while the Vatican called it “a dangerous mixture of violence, vulgarity, sadism and sex.” Bond definitely has a hard edge here, depicted most overtly as he feigns indifference when Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) pulls out his Smith & Wesson and fires six shots. But with blanks. Bond smirks as he returns deadly fire with his Walther. Dr. No cost $1.1 million and made $59.5 million.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A farmhouse provides temporary safety for a disparate group of humans beset by shambling, pasty-faced and flesh-devouring “things.” Drive-ins were showing this three years after its premiere. Made on the proverbial shoestring budget, it eventually grossed $30 million. It was a watershed moment for cinematic zombies, an instant cult film for aficionados of the undead. Remakes and sequels followed. Variety was aghast: “Casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distrib Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and exhibs who book the pic.” (Variety, October 16, 1968) The literate horror film-specific fanzine Castle of Frankenstein (July 1970) looked askance: “Putrid, with indistinct, bad acting and needlessly gruesome bloodletting.” In Cult Movies, Danny Peary wrote, “If ever a picture became a hit because of favorable word-of-mouth, this is it. Horror aficionados stumbled upon it in run-down theaters on New York’s Forty-Second Street or in drive-ins in the sticks, and soon spread the word that they had ‘discovered a masterpiece of the genre’.” In Medium Cool: The Movies of the 1960s, Ethan Mordden echoed Peary: “It was, in fact, seen only sporadically at first, not truly enjoyed till its cult status began to gather in the early 1970s, when it became one of the first titles to popularize the ‘midnight screening’.”
Easy Rider (1969)
Dealing cocaine to fund a cross-country road trip from California to New Orleans, two bikers (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) aim not only to participate in Mardi Gras but to discover the authentic America. Along the way they encounter bigoted police, a “free love” commune, and an alcoholic lawyer (Jack Nicholson). Variety said, “Script is literate and incisive and Hopper’s direction is fluid, observant and catches the pictorial poetics with feeling.” It cost $400,000 and took in $60 million. The tagline: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.” In Medium Cool,Ethan Mordden concluded, “Above all, Easy Rider was big because it became prominent. Little films didn’t, as a rule, which obscures the history of the B in its time of highest development.”
Harold and Maude (1971)
A seemingly suicidal young man (Bud Cort) finds a kindred but life-affirming friend and lover in the aging and distinctly eccentric Maude (Ruth Gordon). Cat Stevens provided the evocative score for this black comedy that foundered during its initial release but picked up steam through word of mouth. Roger Ebert gave it one-and-one-half stars, but in 2017 Chicago Tribune critic Mark Caro, responding to a poll, said, “I’m sorry, Harold and Maude, for denying you for so long. You’re my favorite movie once again.” Variety (December 16, 1971) said, “Harold and Maude has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage.” Bud Cort said much later that the film made $350 million. The best analysis of this movie is probably found in Cult Movies: “Harold and Maude is a film about death and resurrection, where death and life continuously overlap.” Ruth Gordon was moved by New York Times critic Vincent Canby’s negative review to write him a letter that offered her opinion that he should have watched the film with a normal audience, not a screening room with a bunch of fellow critics.
Billy Jack (1971)
Tom Laughlin starred, directed and wrote with his wife Delores Taylor this anti-authority action film in which the title character uses martial arts skills to ameliorate the dark cloud under which the Freedom School’s students live, i.e., a corrupt county government and those who would send wild horses to the glue factory. After the American International Pictures deal fell through, 20th Century-Fox picked it up, but that partnership waned, too, and Warner Bros. released the film and it made $10 million. Laughlin then got hold of it and re-released it and the grosses exceeded $32 million. “The industry shook its collective head in disbelief,” wrote Peary in Cult Movies, adding that it was sometimes pretentious but energetic and not badly made. Variety (December 31, 1970) praised Laughlin and Taylor. There is a disturbing (and not in a good way) prequel, The Born Losers, and two sequels.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
In Cult Movies, Danny Peary called this musical comedy horror flick “the ultimate audience participation film.” The story: when their car breaks down, an engaged couple, Janet (Susan Sarandon) and Brad (Barry Bostwick) find themselves near a castle in which a Transylvanian convention is taking place. They encounter various celebrants, including the seductive bisexual mad doctor, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) and his creation, Rocky. The movie cost under $2 million and made over $200 million—and more, counting ongoing revivals. Variety thought the film failed to capture the spirit of the stage play. “The sparkle’s gone.”
Friday the 13th (1980)
On the heels of 1978’s Halloween came this slasher film with another seemingly unstoppable madman. It cost $550,000, made close to $60 million, and spawned a franchise. Said Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Sequels, Series and Remakes (Vol. I, 1997), “The filmmakers, we think, were basically intrigued by the success of Halloween (and that film’s obvious progenitors). The premise of each film bears no closer scrutiny than do the fireside horror stories that are frequently included therein….The plots…are stripped down to the bare essentials of horny teens, stupid adults, isolated boondocks and mad slasher.”
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Critical response was mostly ho-hum other than praise for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures in this movie version of the Perseus myth. Think Medusa! “Release the Kraken!” became a catch-phrase. It cost under $20 million to make but grossed in excess of $70 million.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Dance instructor at a Catskills resort in 1963, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) romances the young guest Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey). “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” became a catch-phrase. Some major critics were unimpressed when it premiered. Variety liked the production values, “some nice dance sequences,” and Jennifer Grey’s performance, but Swayze’s character was unconvincing. Roger Ebert was “Thumbs Down,” citing an “idiot plot.” His partner Gene Siskel gave it a “marginal Thumbs Up.” By contrast, the public went gaga. A budget of $4.5 million produced a film that made $214.6 million.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Presented as a “found footage” documentary about the search for Maryland’s Blair Witch, the film cost no more than $500,000 and ended up making over $248,000,000. The New York Times (July 14, 1999) was impressed that the filmmakers made something out of nothing, and Rolling Stone (July 30, 1999) said it would “creep you out of your skin.”
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Nia Vardalos turned her play about a Greek- American woman (Vardalos) falling in love with an Anglo teacher (John Corbett) into a thunderous movie hit. Each family’s foibles and idiosyncracies produced many laughs. It never took the weekly #1 spot but had “legs.” Audiences would remember and cite various amusing episodes. Production costs were around $6 million and it made over $368 million.
Lost in Translation (2003)
American movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) arrives in Tokyo to film a Suntory whiskey commercial and stumbles on recent Yale graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), whose photographer husband leaves her alone for long stretches of time. Both afflicted with ennui, Charlotte and Bob band together. Nothing much was expected of director Sofia Coppola’s little film but critics were invariably positive. It cost $4 million to make and generated $118 million.
This wild sci-fi actioner (“It’s tough not to be dazzled by this operatic action film’s blend of pop-philosophy, biology and silly delirium,” said USA Today on July 24, 2014.) with Scarlett Johansson as an unwilling drug mule who gains incredible mental powers that translate into physical prowess cost $40 million and made over $400 million in spite of the R rating—beating out the predicted weekend champ, Hercules. Curiously, violence rather than nudity or foul language, prompted that rating.
It cost $11 million and arrived with little fanfare but took in $48 million. As the title character, Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) loses his job at an upscale eatery but finds fulfillment manning a food truck and trekking across the southern tier of the country. It’s summer and his son goes along. Performers John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr. make appearances. Sofia Vergara plays Casper’s estranged wife. It’s a charming, mouth-watering tale. Critics were generally favorable. The Los Angeles Times (May 8, 2014) congratulated Favreau’s decision to avoid “done-to-death family dynamics, forced obstacles and predictable responses for authentic interaction, organic humor and a hopeful vitality.”
The Greatest Showman (2017)
A high-concept musical about the life of P. T. Barnum starred Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson and other “names.” Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it had “legs.” A disappointing first week was compensated for by a final gross of $434 million against production costs of $84 million. Critics were mostly positive with word of mouth at least as responsible for its success. Library DVD rentals were high.
Unless stated otherwise, film grosses are from Wikipedia.
Elley, Derek. Variety Movie Guide. 1991.
Gordon, Ruth. My Side: The Autobiography of Ruth Gordon. 1976.
Mordden, Ethan. Medium Cool: The Movies of the 1960s. 1990.
Peary, Danny. Cult Movies. 1981.