Heists, Hillbillies, Horror and Hell’s Angels: 7 Vegas Cult FIlms

Some types of films lend themselves better to cult status than others. A movie advertised as “a triumph of the human spirit” is unlikely to wind up with a bunch of folks reciting dialogue and buying action figures. But if that flick involves mobsters, monsters or musical numbers? Well, the odds just got a whole lot better. Here’s a look at some of Las Vegas’ best versions of cult film’s favored genres.

Noir

The Las Vegas Story (1952)

The shady characters and neon-lit nights made noir a natural fit for Las Vegas. Before Howard Hughes bought half the town, he made a film here: The Las Vegas Story—or, at least, his RKO Pictures did. The movie concerns newlyweds Jane Russell and Vincent Price on a vacation at the Flamingo, here referred to as “the Fabulous,” and there is some great footage of the spot’s original Bugsy Siegel-era design. Price is a degenerate gambler, Russell runs into her cop ex-boyfriend, Victor Mature, and there are some shenanigans with mobsters and a diamond necklace. The wry, bemused attitude that led to Russell being underrated in her time reads as modern now; Price is younger and more dashing than we remember and gives an ambiguous charm to his conniving husband role, while the thick-haired, big-shouldered Mature reminds us of what mid-century beefcake looked like.

Sci-Fi

The Amazing Colossal Man (1957)

Part of the popular “___ gets huge and wrecks shit” genre popular from the ’50s through the ’70s, The Amazing Colossal Man uses Southern Nevada’s appetite for nuclear testing as an excuse for bigness. Here, an army colonel gets caught out during an atomic detonation and begins growing … and growing … and growing until he is a 50-foot angry bald dude in a diaper stomping down the Strip. Our hero peeks into bathrooms on the upper floor of the Riviera towers, gives respect to the sultan of the Dunes and kicks Vegas Vic’s cowboy ass. The Amazing Colossal Man has also achieved that ne plus ultra of good-bad moviedom: being snarked upon in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Musical

Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966)

Light on the Vegas, heavy on hillbillies, Las Vegas Hillbillys is basically a lot of static shots of anonymous country singers earnestly crooning songs you’ve never heard of. What gives this flick its cult clout is the presence of platinum-haired bombshells Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren. The ostensible plot is singer Ferlin Husky inheriting a Las Vegas casino, which turns out to be a dive run by a cranky Van Doren. Jayne wanders through, the celebrated Mansfield pulchritude almost fully obscured by vast swaths of pink marabou and lace. Future James Bond menace Richard Kiel also turns up, as does an inexplicable pie fight. There are some great shots of the Strip, with the Aku Aku and the Thunderbird signage especially luminous. But, beyond that, the sets are laughably just that: crudely painted flats that tremble when someone bumps into them.

Eurotrash

They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968)

Even if it wasn’t billed as a “Spanish Franco Italian German Co-Production,” the fact that everyone has great haircuts and cool sunglasses would give it away. They Came to Rob Las Vegas is definitely a Euro-vision of America: Freeway overpasses are decorated with posters of old Hollywood westerns (the better to stage a shootout in front of) and the casino interiors look like the pink-black-nouveau sets from Suspiria, but with showgirls cavorting in the background. But it’s still an interestingly plotted, sharp heist flick, with a hip group of thieves going from brilliantly executed plan to boneheaded move and back again. They Came to Rob Las Vegas also offers some of the most glorious prime-era Strip footage on film, as well as some sweet cars and Elke Sommer in fabulous mod outfits.

Biker

Hell’s Angels ’69 (1969)

A pair of rich Beverly Hills brothers ingratiate themselves with the Hell’s Angels as part of a plan to knock over Caesars Palace. There are plenty of “hogs rolling down the Strip” scenes, as well as good desert footage; Caesars is at its porte-cochere-and-fountains peak and the authenticity goes even further with the Hell’s Angels played by the Oakland chapter of the Angels, including Maximum Leader Sonny Barger. The avaricious playboys take advantage of how easy it is to switch from Angel to solid citizen and the fact that the cops will always go after the longhairs. Issues of cultural appropriation and police profiling in a piece of drive-in schlock? Who knew?

Comedy

History of the World, Part I (1981)

Mel Brooks’ gloriously silly survey of human folly naturally has a Vegas moment. In the Ancient Rome segment, Brooks is “stand-up philosopher” Comicus, who gets a gig where else but “in the big room” at Caesars Palace. Dom DeLuise plays an endlessly Bacchanal-ing Nero and Madeline Kahn is hilarious as his lascivious empress. (Why has her “no, no, yes” harem selection scene not been turned into a Magic Mike routine?) Not only were parts of this sequence shot at the real Caesars, but bits by longtime Strip headliners Shecky Greene and Henny Youngman and references to “Sammus Davius Jr.” add to the Vegas vibe.

Horror

Leprechaun 3 (1995)

With a ré sumé full of Ewoks and assorted endearing characters from Willow to the Harry Potter films, it must be a relief for Warwick Davis to play the nasty-ass protagonist of the Leprechaun horror series. Frankly, it’s a little surprising that it took a franchise based on greedheads and pots of gold until the third installment to get to Sin City. Among the dirty deeds: Egotistical magicians’ tricks blow up in their faces, as does the plastic surgery of vain women (literally, in the latter case). As the psychotic Leprechaun says after encountering an Elvis impersonator—the only person he doesn’t fuck with—”Vegas! It’s my kind of town!”

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