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The 20 greatest camp movie classics

From Death Becomes Her to Showgirls, these films are camp canon - regardless of what the critics said.

By Laura McGale

Words: Attitude staff; Image: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Camp is everywhere, but nowhere has it made such an impact as in cinema; the palette on which the flamboyance of life has been plastered since the fruity frolics of Carmen Miranda and the smouldering stares of Mae West.

Camp turns order on its head – finding humour in tragedy, femininity in masculinity, and value in trash. We’ve compiled a list of our favourity camp movies that showcase a most complicated cinematic style, which is oh-so-easy to enjoy…

20. Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Australia was on a roll with camp in the early ’90s, and after the very obvious flamboyance of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Muriel’s Wedding offered something of a Down Under answer to the Brit hit Four Weddings and a Funeral while simultaneously reviving an interest in the music of ABBA – who were never the most butch to begin with.

It’s the age old story: leopard print-loving ugly duckling Muriel (played wonderfully by then-newcomer Toni Colette) escaped the clutches of the Australian Mean Girls, runs off to start a new animal print life, finds a nice boy, dumps him for a hot South African swimmer in a Speedo who needs a visa.

Ultimately our duckling became a swan and sassed off to rescue her best friend (the brilliant Rachel Griffiths) from the ‘cock suckers’ – not our words, but Rhonda’s. There’s big hair, shoulder pads, and plenty of camp cocktail innuendo: “at least let her finish her orgasm first!” 

Campest line: “You’re terrible Muriel!” 

19. Carrie (1976)

A social outcast whose powers manifest as she reaches sexual maturity; an abusive evangelical mother who frequently locks said girl in a closet; a school full of bitches and bullies who fall victim to a bloody revenge – the gay subtext of 1976 horror classic Carrie doesn’t so much pepper the narrative as slap you round the face with a bucket of pig’s blood. And while the adaption of Stephen King’s novel was originally received as a straight-up horror, age has not exactly been kind to it, with its series of flaming one-liners and schlocky effects elevating its OTT camp status.

The swishy highlight is undoubtedly Carrie White’s religious zealot mother Margaret – played to frenzied perfection by an Oscar-nominated Piper Laurie – who shrieks her way through scenes as she struggles to cope with Carrie’s ‘sinful’ sexual awakening.

It all ends in tears, explosions, electrocution and crucifixion by kitchen utensils of course – but as the original high school-meets-horror flick, Sissy Spacek’s Carrie is surely the true scream queen.

Campest line: “Take off that dress! We’ll burn it together and pray for forgiveness!”

18. The Towering Inferno (1974)

Imagine in 2022, the world’s biggest stars unite for a blustery, overwrought three-hour disaster epic where no one is safe as they attempt to escape the world’s tallest building. That was the premise of The Towering Inferno, where the cream of Hollywood – including Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, William Holden, Robert Vaughan and OJ Simpson – were picked off one-by-one in a variety of thouroughly insalubrious endings. Best of all, top billing belonged to the two handsomest men of their day, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, sweatily battling the flames.

Campest line: “High-rise roulette!” 

17. Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Baz Lurhmann’s directorial debut is a colourful romp about a ballroom dancing society in Australia, which hints predictably at the dazzling masterpieces he had up his sleeve. It’s considered the first of his Red Curtain Trilogy, which also includes Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. 

The film tells the story of Scott Hastings, a ballroom dancer whose flashy solo moves loses him his partner, and leads him to take up with an unlikely second-rate accomplice Fran.

Ten years before the Lurhmann style was known, this is a great example of a beginner’s stab at it; incorporating grand scenes with curreal humour and a mix of tape style soundtrack, coming together to make a camp-as-tits comedy somewhere between Saturday Night Fever and Summer Heights High. Oh, and it concludes with an epic dance scene, would you believe. 

Campest line: “A beginner has no right to approach an open amateur!” 

16. Death Becomes Her (1992)

Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, a bitter rivalry and the acquisition of eternal youth make for a lethally camp combo. Bitterly jealous of Madeline Ashton (Streep) having stolen her former fiancé Dr Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), Helen Sharp (Hawn) undergoes a procedure to obtain unnatural good looks and everlasting youth; revisiting the not-so-happy couple years later for revenge.

When Madeline just-so happens to undertake the same procedure, bitchy one-liners and slapstick fights ensue which results in a perfectly circular hole blasted through Hawn’s stomach and Streep’s head pounded into her torso with a shovel. When Ernest escaped the two, they realise they must rely on each other for companionship hereon in; their attempts at youthfulness botched, living together as fabulously unfabulous parodies of their former selves for eternity. 

Campest line: [Madeline peering through the gaping gun wound in Helen] “You’re a fraud Helen, a walking lie, and I can see right through you!”

15. Spice World (1997)

Climb aboard this double-decker cheese fest! The Spice Girls were everywhere in 1997, and the big screen was no exception. They were joined in their cinematic debut by Meatloaf, Richard E Grant, and Stephen Fry to name a few; yes, never before has a musical adventure had so many cameos and so little plot.

Each of the girls played themselves (naturally), and quite like The Beatles in their 1960s screen capers, they romped their way through the light-hearted comedy in an exaggerated performance of the contemporary Spicemania.

This was a classic serving of camp, made up of funny flashbacks, dream sequences and surreal moments like talking extra-terrestrials, Tower Bridge jumping double-deckers, and Victoria singing lead vocals. The whole film leads up to the girls performing live at the Royal Albert Hall, and perfectly captures that moment – however brief – when their brand of girl power ruled the world. 

Campest line: “And I’m Victoria, Malcolm!”

14. Rocky III (1982)

While the second Rocky movie might have stepped away from the grim reality of the Oscar-winning first film (YES! That one won the Oscar in 1976 for Best Picture penned by Sylvester Stallone himself!) Rocky III sees the series become super glamorous and ’80s-fied, as the previous human drama is replaced by more wealth, cartoony fight scenes, outrageous sound effects and a strange boxing-wrestling crossover match with Hulk Hogan plonked at the beginning of the movie, which – looking back – was probably just another excuse to have two oiled-up blokes showing off a more full-on contact sport.

Yes, Rocky III has it all. We’re talking Clubber Lang (Mr-T), arguably rocky’s greatest boxing nemesis ever; we’re talking the death of Rocky’s 500 year old trainer Micky (get those hankies at the ready); and we’re talking about the campest movie montage ever. Subtley was well and truly out of the ring.

The Italian Stallion gets the stuffing pummelled out of him by Mr T, Micky dies, Rocky quits. Re-enter Apollo Creed, and cue music and a classic race on the beach between Rocky and Apollo, with every muscle tensing between the two boxers – both dressed in crop-tops and ball-hugging short shorts. Stallone, who directed this one, shot it in super slow motion so that we can catch every rippling, glistening muscle.

When Rocky pulls away at the end and wins the race, both Apollo and Ricky are so elated that they run wildly into the ocean, start splashing each other with water and proceed to wrestle and hug each other for what seems like an eternity. And yes, it’s still in slow-mo.

Campest line: “Boy, you move real good for an older guy” 

13. Batman Returns (1992)

What’s camp about Batman Returns? Well, how about with BASICALLY EVERY SINGLE THING MICHELLE PFIEFFER SAYS? “Saved by kitty litter” she purrs. And if it’s camp youre after, there’s plenty more. “Honey I’m home,” says Selina Kyle, returning home after, erm, nearly being murdered, “Oh I forgot. I’m not married.” Then, in a rage that all of us will be familair with, she transforms into Catwoman, and proudly informs the universe, “I dont know about you Miss Kitty, but I feel so much…yummier.”

Batman Returns made up a defining moment of the ’90s – along with Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’ – when S&M went mainstream. In a ‘family’ film there’s Catwoman, a feline dominatrix in everything but name. Never before has black looked so shiny, so glossy, so mysterious and sexy – it’s almost an extra character, in an already star-studded cast. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman may be the most outlandishly erotic thing ever seen on screen. Tim Burton, you dark devil.

Campest line: “Life’s a bitch, now so am I!”

12. Barbarella (1968)

Perhaps it’s the mere notion that Jane Fonda – intellectual political activist – should be running around wearing next to nothing that makes Barbarella seem so instantly ridiculous: she’s practically got her tongue in her cheek for the entire film, in which she plays a futuristic sex siren on an inter-galactic mission, with a screenplay that Katie Price could have written (well, ghost-written). Released to little reception in 1968, a more family friendly 1977 version made it a cult classic, and inaugerated Jane Fonda as a pin-up of the decade for confused gay teenage boys, as well as their straight brothers.

Much of the camp in this film comes from near clapstick comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in a Carry On film; like the scene where they lose an invisible key, or when Babs is attacked by vicious living dolls. With countless greased up shirtless men, an opening sequence since paid homage to by Kylie and Ariana Grande, plus the character Durand Durand giving his name to one of the most flamboyant pop bands of the 80s, this is the camp film that just keeps on giving. 

Campest line: “Decrucify my angel or I’ll melt your face!” 

11. Glitter (2001)

Only Mariah Carey would have the inspired notion to make a semi-autobiographical film about her own life, in which she is played by herself. Oh alright, there’s 8 Mile, but this is like the cheaper, delusional Disney version. God bless Mariah, we adore her, but this film is generally considered one of the worst ever made; which in turn makes it camp gold.

Given up by her mother and raised in an orphanage, she discovers she has a multi-octave range at Studio 54, and fame and fortune beckon. Max Beesley makes for an unlikey Mariah boyfriend, but reacts well on the recieving end of her attempted ‘Cher in Moonstruck‘ face slap.

It’s then all high-pitched ballads and onion tears when he gets shot dead just as she takes the stage at Madison Square Garden, where Mariah the philosopher gets an outing: “Everybody out there don’t take anybody for granted” she sobs. Don’t give up the day job, they cried back. 

Campest line: “We ask ourselves ‘Is she white? Is she Black?’ We don’t know. She’s exotic. I want to see more of her breasts!”

10. 54 (1998)

Muscle boys in gold hotpants, disco-dancing and a nightclub owner who ogles his sexy male staff. Sounds familiar? Not likely. This is the male version of Showgirls in which Ryan Phillipe is New Jersey meathead pec-flasher Shane O’Shea who lands himself a job as a bus boy at the infamous Studio 54. Sex and debauchery ensues! Sadly, the final cut of the flick left out a gay kiss between Ryan and his costar Brecklin Meyer. 

Campest line: “You have the body of David and the face of a Botticelli.” “Bottle of what?” “Just say thanks, darling…”

9. Theatre of Blood (1973)

Vincent Price is Edward Lionheart, a washed-up Shakespearean actor who is savaged by the critics circle. Crazed with fury, he wreakes his revence on them by killing them one by one, inspired by scenes from Shakespeare plays. 

Campest line: [After sealing a body in a wine barrel] “I wonder if he’ll travel well!” 

8. Grease 2 (1982)

John Travolta and Olivia Newton John foolishly gave this critically derided yet delicious sequel a wide berth. Instead fledgling thesps Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield replaced them as feisty Pink Lady Stephanie Zanoni and prim Brit Michael Carrington in this rather jolly sex-switch retread of the classic 1978 musical.

The songs are all great and the cast are a lot more fun, especially Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft who deliciously plays empty-headed Paulette in the impossibly tight gold PVC leggings. Gayest moment has to be Maxwell’s shaky performance of his tender ballad Charades, which is a soundtrack for anyone in the closet: “Why can’t I be, just what I am/And speak my love without any shame/Why can’t she see what I am/Is a costumed fool trapped in a tragic game?” 

Campest line: “It’s better to play with a group than with yourself.” 

7. All About Eve (1950)

Possibly the grad deame of all camp movies, this six-time Oscar winner stars the ultimate drama queen Bette Davis as ageing Broadway actress Margo Channing, who unwittingly assists the ascent of Eve Harrington – a backstabbing young actress disguised as a devoted fan. The story had become a recurring theme in popular culture, popping up as a reference in any scenario with a scheming career climber.

The film has numerous gay readings, particularly around the snooping, theatrical critic Addison DeWitt, and the occasionally lesbian approach of Eve towards Margo. But far less subtle is the legendary performance of Davis – the unapologetic bitch – who delivers her fiercest performance, amidst a career catalogue of non-conformist women. Her withering put-downs snarl from her rouge lips, and in one scene – as her famous bulbous eyes travel across the room to meet those of her young usurper – she looks as though a mere glance could cut stone. 

Campest line: “Fasten your seatbelts…it’s going to be a bumpy night” 

6. Body of Evidence (1993)

A year after Sharon Stone steamed up screens in Basic Instinct, Madonna decided to try her luck too. In this absurd whodunnit, Madge plays Rebecca Carlsson, an eyebrowless woman who’s accused of sexing her elderly boyfriend to death.

A courtcase ensues, and Madge spends the next 100 minutes woodenly relaying her lines in between endless scenes of her shagging her lawyer Frank Dulaney (Willem Dafoe). The most ridiculous scene is the one where Rebecca and Frank have a fight and she starts to pleasure herself to woo him back.

Campest line: “Don’t look so hurt. I fucked you, I fucked Andrew, I fucked Frank. That’s what I do; I fuck. And it made me eight million dollars!” 

5. Mommie Dearest (1981)

It goes without saying that child abuse is not funny, ever, n-ever. Mommie Dearest, perhaps one of the most twisted camp hits of all time, ticks buttons because of the sheer scale of the melodrama: its soapy, total, slap-your-sides, slapstick, absolutely joyful inappropriateness in telling the story of how Joan Crawford made the life of her stepdaughter Christina hell.

Faye Dunaway’s ridiculously OTT performance and mad direction by Frank Perry put it on a level with other hits of that era – Single White Female and Fatal Attraction. The difference is, this was an apparently true story. Gulp. Enjoy at your own risk. 

Campest line: “No wire hangers, ever!” 

4. Flash Gordon (1980)

Blonde beefcake Sam Jones plays tight t-shirt wearing Flash who takes on the evil Ming the Merciless and his lycra-clad cohorts to save the earth from total destruction.

Set against a technicolour alien landscape, the blonde hunk flexes his manly muscles and saves the day by squeesing into his tightest vest – all musically backed by the campy rock of Queen! CG

Campest line: “Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!”

3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

The perfect recipe was dreamt up in this psychological thriller, as real life Hollywood rivals and arch nemeses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford went head-to-head as disturbed former child star Baby Jane and her more successful – but now wheelchair-bound – sister Blanche.

With tension and suspense that Hitchcock would be proud of, Baby Jane gets more drunk and crazy, and slowly cuts her dependent sister off from the outside world in the mansion they share, depriving her of assistance and food; famously serving her up both her own pet parrot and a rat on a silver platter to taunt her. The added knowledge that the pair loathed each other off camera – a predicament which even disrupted filming and marred publicity efforts – makes it all the more juicy.

You’ll be on the edge of your seat for Crawford’s attempted escapes, and gripping the sofa with glee at every glimmer of hope for the cessation of Davis’ mad creation. Highly praised and much parodied, this standoff will only be topped if there’s an Aniston-Jolie remake. 

Campest line: “Blanche, you aren’t ever gonna sell this house… and you aren’t ever gonna leave it either.”

2. Sunset Boulevard (1950) 

Gloria Swanson stars here as Norma Desmond, the faded silent film actress who hires a young writer to orchestrate her return to cinema. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” she barks at Joe, when the young man accidentally comes across her run down mansion in the Hollywood Hills. They soon begin a marriage of convenience which eventually turns sour and tragic.

Wide eyes, dramatic statements and swishy costumes aside, it’s Desmond’s attachment to the glory-days of her stardom, and the decline in her ability to cope with reality that makes this a juicy watch.

Sunset only increased its camp appeal when it was made into a 1993 musical, starring Patti LuPone, Glenn Close and Elaine Paige, not to mention John Barrowman. Its triumph added a dose of extra flamboyance to the legacy of one of Hollywood’s greatest films. 

Campest quote: “Alright Mr Demille, I’m ready for my close-up…”

1. Showgirls (1995)

On paper this neon-lit movie about Las Vegas lap dancers could be viewed as a biting commentary on the tawdry, superficial cut-throat world of strippers. But thanks to Paul Verhoeven (the outrageous Dutch director who allegedly tricked Sharon Stone into showing her woo-woo in Basic Instinct), the grubby and yet tantalising tale of a young ingénue whose dream is ‘to dance’ is delivered in a shiny package that’s hard to resist.

Elizabeth Berkeley, former star of teen sitcom Saved By The Bell, is wide-eyed, open-thighed Nomi Malone, who claws her way into the chorus of naked burlesque show Goddess, taking on its star Crystal Conners (Gina Gershon) in the process. 

The plot is reminiscent of All About Eve, but the dialogue – courtesy of Hollywood hacksmith Joe Esterhaus – is simply magic. Modern Shakespeare if you will. What other film can boast the gems: “You’re the only one who can get my tits a-popping” and “She looks better than a ten-inch dick!” 

The film was universally slammed, won a slew of Razzies and bombed at the box office. However, it enjoyed a renaissance when it became a smash hit on DVD. Now it’s a cult classic and a massive gay hit. 

Campest line: “It must be weird not to have anyone come on ya!”