Hollywood has what we like to call dump months. These are the couple of times a year where studios toss the movies they don’t think are going to do well at the box office. January is the biggest one, since no one can afford to do jack after the holidays, but August is the summer dump. Still, we’ve seen some great (and greatly terrible) movies come out of this ghost town of a month, like the upcoming film The Darkest Minds. Here are our picks for August films that clawed their way out of the garbage.
To make this list, I went back through 50 years of August box office numbers, prioritizing movies that got major studio releases but weren’t exactly positioned for greatness. With a couple of exceptions, I avoided movies that came out during the first few days of August, since those can feel like late-July releases. So, I didn’t put Guardians of the Galaxy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or Matilda on this list, even though those are excellent films. Nor did I include Howard the Duck, although that one will always live in infamy. There are definitely others I left out (the original list was twice as long!), so feel free to add some of your favorites in the comments.
Genuinely Great Movies
Paranorman (Aug. 17, 2012)
Two of Laika’s films have gotten the August release treatment: ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings. They’re both excellent, but I want to highlight ParaNorman for taking the zombie genre and doing something beautiful with it. What could’ve been a simple kids story about a boy who fights the undead turned into a powerful examination of love, abandonment, and forgiveness. Also, it featured the first openly gay character in an animated film, a feat Disney still has yet to match.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Aug. 13, 2010)
Scott Pilgrim may have failed to save the box office, but this film’s legacy as one of the coolest comic book movies continues to this day. Its unique visual style and narrative structure stand out amid an overstuffed pantheon of graphic novel adaptations. Plus, it features a solid deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope through the character of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
District 9 (Aug. 14, 2009)
This surprise sci-fi hit managed to wow critics and audiences with its impressive digital effects and social commentary. District 9 was a “subversive meditation” on the effects of apartheid in South Africa, using aliens to explore institutional racism in a post-colonial environment. This isn’t exactly a new trend, but it was one that was well explored in this film. Director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-ups, like Elysium and Chappie, didn’t hit the bar that this movie set, but we’ll see what he does with the next RoboCop adaptation.
The Sixth Sense (Aug. 6, 1999)
The weekend of August 6-8, 1999 is kind of fascinating. It was a major turning point in cinema as we know it, but in a way that no one could have expected or predicted. The box office was still running on the success of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, as well as Wild Wild West (a prime example of the bottom-barrel blockbuster). August was shaping to be a total dump month. But earlier that summer, something surprising happened: A little movie called The Blair Witch Project came out. Suddenly, cerebral horror was a hot commodity.
Along came The Sixth Sense, a small-time horror film from then-unknown director M. Night Shyamalan. A smart, sophisticated, and age-appropriate supernatural thriller that didn’t talk down to its audience, and came with a twist ending that was so monumental it changed moviemaking forever. Whether we like it or not, The Sixth Sense is a movie that’s defined a generation of horror films, and its effects will never fully go away.
The Iron Giant (Aug. 6, 1999)
Another movie that came out that weekend didn’t make nearly as big a splash in the theaters, but it’s still a game-changing piece of cinema. The Iron Giant was an animated film that saw potential in the kinds of stories that could be told through the medium. It wasn’t just for Disney and fairy tales. Animation could delve into the realm of science fiction. It could deal with complex adult themes, like existentialism and the definition of humanity. And most of all, it could break your heart. This was also the directorial debut of Brad Bird, a filmmaker who went on to create some of Disney Pixar’s greatest computer animated films.
The Witches (Aug. 24, 1990)
This movie terrified the shit out of me when I was a kid. And I know I’m not alone. This adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel was gruesome, intimidating, and unrepentant. It wasn’t afraid to use some of the coolest practical effects to make those witches seem like the worst people to be around. Which they were. Dahl may have hated the movie for changing his book’s ending, but many of us will never forget this adaptation. A Guillermo del Toro-led remake is in the works, and I’m curious to see how they follow up this gorgeous abomination.
The Monster Squad (Aug. 14, 1987)
The crossover you never knew you needed. The Dark Universe may have failed spectacularly, but The Monster Squad (much like The Goonies) will never say die. This sleeper hit has gained a solid following over the past few decades for being a fun and silly kids team-up movie that personifies everything we love about the 1980s. Grab some of your best friends, throw on the “Monster Mash,” and get ready for transcendence after hearing one kid utter the greatest line in cinema: “Wolfman’s got nards!”
The Fly (Aug. 15, 1986)
Nowadays, creatures like Venom, Pennywise, and the Babadook are praised as sex symbols—and why not? Live and let live I say. But, I think this trend really started with Jeff Goldblum’s turn in The Fly, a story about what happens when a science experiment gone wrong turns into a human-fly hybrid that loves going shirtless. Beyond the sexy monster thing, there’s also the film’s fantastic practical effects, which are still enviable works of body horror art to this day.
An American Werewolf in London (Aug. 21, 1981)
Before The Fly, the film that was the one to beat for practical effects was the Academy Award-winning flick An American Werewolf in London. This movie came out at a time when werewolf monster films were all the rage, but it stood out from the crowd for blending horror with comedy in a way that inspired several other groundbreaking films, including Beetlejuice and Gremlins. It also has what’s considered the pinnacle werewolf transformation scene, a masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed.
Suspiria (Aug. 10, 1977, U.S.)
There’s a reason this cult-beloved Italian horror film is getting a remake this year. It’s simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Suspiria is the story of a woman who is brought into a dance academy only to learn it’s a front for a supernatural conspiracy. It’s weird, confusing, and engrossing. Not for delicate stomachs, but a must-see for everyone else. Expect some special screenings leading up to the upcoming remake, which you should definitely try to attend.
Worth a Second Look
The World’s End (Aug. 23, 2013)
The World’s End is the final movie in Simon Pegg’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy and is considered to be the least-memorable one. And even though it’s not the greatest sci-fi movie, I still remember it to this day. It explores themes of adulthood that I’m still dealing with now. What do you do when your past is truly in the past? Does it mean you’ve surrendered to the robotic existence of normalcy? And is there a way to reclaim your youth without foregoing your adult responsibilities? Plus, as someone with vasovagal syncope, having all the robots spilling blue blood (instead of red) made it okay for me to enjoy something violent, which I don’t often get to do.
Ponyo (Aug. 14, 2009)
Studio Ghibli is an absolute marvel in animation, telling some of the greatest stories of the past 30 years. But man, people really hate Ponyo. Story-wise, I don’t blame them. When compared to artisan creations like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, Ponyo is really silly. It’s a light-hearted adaptation of The Little Mermaid story that isn’t even a particularly good one. But the animation. My god, the animation! Ponyo is a visual feast. For example, the scenes where Ponyo is running on the waves after Sosuke are dynamic and massive, using every inch of the frame to make you feel the water’s power in ways that I still don’t think have been matched. It may not be the smartest film, but it’s one of the prettiest.
The Descent (Aug. 4, 2006, U.S.)
Upon first glance, this seemed like just another monster movie. But The Descent managed to break through the noise and emerge as a truly interesting flick that used its environment to the fullest potential. It’s dark, it’s tense, and makes you feel everything the characters are feeling. Plus, it broke ground by featuring an all-female cast, which wasn’t the original plan but was changed specifically to give audiences a new perspective and experience.
The Others (Aug. 2, 2001)
The Sixth Sense was followed by a number of copycats, but I like to pull out The Others as being one that stands out from the crowd. The Gothic environment in the film was suitably claustrophobic, making you feel just as trapped as the lead characters. And I still think the “What a twist!” ending was solid, even if it didn’t have the same impact as what The Sixth Sense brought to the table.
Blade (Aug. 21, 1998)
Blade isn’t just a cool action-horror movie, it was a harbinger of things to come in adult comic book films. And Wesley Snipes personified the vampire-human comic book character. It’s a cool watch if you want to check out the cutting edge of what later became the definitive movie genre of our lifetime. Just avoid the third movie, folks. Trust me on that one.
Snow White: A Tale of Terror (Aug. 24, 1997)
This is the only TV movie I’ve put on this list because it’s definitely something worth checking out. In the vein of 1980s fantasy movies like Tom Cruise’s Legend, Snow White: A Tale of Terror was a fairy tale that wasn’t afraid to get to the horrific roots of its source material. Cheesy-ass movie title aside, this one will give you nightmares, mostly thanks to Sigourney Weaver’s Emmy-winning portrayal of a downright terrifying Evil Queen.
Flatliners (Aug. 10, 1990)
I can’t explain what makes this movie work, but it does. Flatliners has grown from a critically panned sleeper hit (partially thanks to the celebrity status of its stars, Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts) into a genuinely enjoyable cult classic. The horror film about a bunch of medical students who intentionally stop their hearts to see what happens after they die was beloved enough to warrant a kinda-sorta-maybe sequel decades later, though I doubt it will have the same legacy that its predecessor does.
The Abyss (Aug. 9, 1989)
This one is an interesting case. This James Cameron flick about a search and rescue team that encounters something supernatural deep underwater boasted major advancements in CGI effects, but also suffered in the theatrical cut. Several pieces of the puzzle seemed to be missing. Cameron himself said it originally had at least four endings, which kind of explains a lot. The studio released a special edition in 1993 that fixed a lot of the issues, and showed the strength in Cameron’s original vision. That’s the version I recommend watching, although sadly it hasn’t come to Blu-ray yet.
Transformers: The Movie (Aug. 8, 1986)
Robots in disguise! This one is a modern classic for Transformers fans. Long before Michael Bay, well, Michael Bay-ed up the franchise, this animated film charmed audiences with its surprisingly humanistic story about a group of aliens that disguise themselves as cars. And if you’re looking to get a second look at this one, you’re just in time: Fathom Entertainment and Hasbro Studios are hosting special screenings across the country on September 27 in celebration of the upcoming film Bumblebee.
Futureworld (Aug. 13, 1976, U.S.)
Want to know where the second season of Westworld got some of its best ideas? Check out the theatrical sequel to Michael Crichton’s original film. Let’s be honest—this movie isn’t stellar. But it is cool if you’re a fan of the HBO series and want to learn more about the world that inspired it.
So Bad It’s Beautiful
The Brothers Grimm (Aug. 25, 2005)
When I was coming up with the outline for this piece, I told my editor Jill Pantozzi that I had to include 2005's fairy tale flick The Brothers Grimm somewhere, assuming she’d say “No way.” Her response: “I...didn’t hate it.” That’s the general vibe I get from people about this movie. It’s not good, like at all, but it’s Matt Damon and Heath Ledger pretending to be fairy tale monster hunters and making out with Monica Bellucci. What’s not to love about that?
Event Horizon (Aug. 15, 1997)
I can’t believe I’ve actually seen this movie, given how adverse I am to blood and violence. But when I heard that Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne starred in a Paul W.S. Anderson movie about a spaceship that’s connected to a hell dimension, I had no choice but to dive in with my eyes half-closed. The parts I saw were delicious and icky-sticky gory, with some admittedly damn cool set design. It’s gained a cult status over the years, and for good reason.
The Island of Dr. Moreau (Aug. 23, 1996)
This is not a movie. It’s an experience. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi odyssey somehow transformed into Marlon Brando wearing white face paint and mosquito nets, Val Kilmer becoming some sort of animal god, and Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter films (David Thewlis) running around frantically trying to find a plot. This movie is so infamous it warranted an entire documentary about one of the biggest bafflements in cinematic history.
A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (Aug. 11, 1995)
Did you ever want to see James Bond and Rose from Titanic make out while some kid invents rollerblades several hundred years before cars existed? Then, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court is the cinematic disaster for you. I remember seeing this movie in the theaters and thinking it was the coolest thing ever, not realizing that it’s actually a living abomination that (surprisingly!) features both Kate Winslet and Daniel Craig. Still, it’s fucking hilarious to watch that kid from The Rookie take King Arthur’s teenage daughter out on a “fancy date” that involves bestowing the Almighty Big Mac upon humanity. Praise to the McDonald.
Mac and Me (Aug. 12, 1988)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was a cute family story about a boy and his alien (unless you ask former io9 editor and noted E.T. hater Rob Bricken). Mac and Me is the stuff of nightmares. This glorified ripoff of Steven Spielberg’s 1980s classic has become legendary for being so bad it’s almost incomprehensible.
Teen Wolf (Aug. 23, 1985)
An American Werewolf in London...this is not. Michael J. Fox’s Teen Wolf is a silly horror comedy where a teenager learns he’s a werewolf and uses his ability to become a basketball star and bang hot chicks. It might be a hell of a lot worse than Fox’s other classic 1985 flick, Back to the Future, but Marty McFly never surfed on top of a van while covered in animal fur. Sucks to be you, Marty. Oh and by the way, this movie inspired the creation of another fantabulous cult classic: Teen Witch. So yeah, we owe this movie way more than we could ever repay.
Heavy Metal (Aug. 7, 1981)
Funky animation, total balls-to-the-walls energy, and a killer soundtrack. What could go wrong? Well, just about everything. Heavy Metal is incredibly immature and sexist, and it doesn’t hold up over time. But it’s a fun knockback to the 1980s that is cool to get high with and stare at for a while. Plus, it was parodied on South Park. That’s enough to get you on the list.
Xanadu (Aug. 8, 1980)
Ever wonder why we don’t get nearly enough sci-fi musicals? Blame Xanadu. This long and ill-suffered musical turned what seemed to be a cool set-up about the Greek gods and Muses into a hilarious mockery of itself. Why the hell would the gods care about roller disco and terrible album art? The only reason it’s worth watching at all is for that part when Gene Kelly danced with Olivia Newton-John. Holy damn, that guy had it until the very end. Or you can take a drink every time someone skates. That’d help it be fun too.
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed the quote “Fuck you, Lucky Charms” to The Monster Squad, when it’s actually from Leprechaun. We deeply regret this error, as there’s no way a vampire would ever team up with a leprechaun.