An authentic coastal backdrop can go a long way to set the tone for good quality cult movies. This year I have watched a great deal more movies at home than usual, and I’m a movie lover! That adds up to a lot of movies.
What I have come to realise is just how prevalent a coastal, beach or cliff-side setting is in many modern cult movies.
So here is my list of cult movies with a coastal setting. Narrowed it down from well over 30. So many movies!!!!
Have you seen them all? Have you seen any of them at all? Need something to watch tonight? Hope there’s some inspiration below for you!
Danny Boyle’s The Beach is an adaptation of the Alex Garland best-selling novel of the same name. Much of the movie takes place in Maya Bay – a picturesque beach on the Thai island of Koh Phi Phi Leh.
Koh Phi Phi Island
Despite the obvious natural beauty of the island, Boyle’s movie The Beach really Put Koh Phi Phi Leh on the map. Phi Phi (pronounced ‘pee pee’) is part of a group of islands in the Koh Phi archipelago, about a 45-minute boat ride from Phuket or Krabi.
In the years after the film’s release, the exorbitant number of daily tourist visits to Phi Phi rose to 5000 per day (that’s 10,000 human feet disturbing the fragile coral and sea bed beneath).
Maya Bay was closed to the public in 2018, with a firm goal of restoring the much-decimated ecosystem of the high traffic area.
To this day the bay still remains closed. The closure has allowed Thai National Parks to restore the ecology of the bay. They are planting approximately 10,000 new coral in the area, in a desperate bid to restore the bay to its pre-movie fame levels.
Maya Bay and the crystal clear waters of Koh Phi Phi are as much a character in the movie as Leonardo Di Caprio. It is understandable that the film’s success bought attention and heavy tourism to the island and its neighbours. Thailand is also a very budget-friendly, enticing and idyllic holiday destination for the young traveller. Conversely, local businesses have been taking full advantage of the demand to see the place.
The Princess Bride
Does anyone remember the Cliffs of Insanity? Or should I say Cliffth of Inthanity?
The Cliffs of Moher
The Cliffs of Insanity are in fact the real-life Cliffs of Moher, located in the south of Galway, on Ireland’s Atlantic Coast within the County of Clare.
The close-up footage of the main cast scaling the cliff face were all filmed among the relative safety of a sound stage. However, wide and establishing shots clearly show us the impressive landscapes of the Cliffs of Moher.
The Cliffs are located 165 miles southwest of Dublin. It is about a 3 hr drive from the nation’s capital and makes a great day trip tour.
The on-site tourist centre was opened at the cliffs in 2007. It has twice been awarded Ireland’s favourite visitor attraction in both 2019 and 2020. Cleverly, the tourist center is built into the land and works in total harmony with its surrounds and local ecology.
The Cliffs of Moher span an impressive 700 feet height and stretch over 5 miles along the coastline.
The area is host to over 200 different species of birdlife including the peregrine falcon and the beloved puffins. It is also a member of the Unesco Global Geopark – wherein sites and landscapes are managed with a somewhat holistic approach. All abiding by an aim of protecting, educating and following sustainable development.
The Cliffs of Moher website now has a virtual tour to keep us distant movie lovers and travel-sick tourists alike to ‘virtually’ visit the area.
And whilst the cliffs only make a cameo in The Princess Bride, you can’t deny their impending presence in this 1980’s Rob Reiner cult classic!
The Big Blue
Who remembers The Big Blue? Those beautiful azure blue seas and diving scenes!
The 1988 movie filmed at locations as diverse as Greece, Sicily, France, Peru and the Virgin Islands. I will take focus on the Greek island locations.
Director Luc Besson Spent much time of his childhood in the east coast town of Manganari which certainly must have served as inspiration for the Jean-Marc Barr character of Jacques. The Big Blue also stars Jean Reno. With the opening scenes in black and white flashback format, all filmed in Manganari.
Amorgos is only accessible by boat, and is the eastern most island of the Cyclades.
In the story, Jacques is rewarded $10,000 for rescuing a diver from the real shipwreck of Liverios Bay on Amorgos, where much of the film is shot.
Despite the main characters being based on real-life free divers, much of the movie has taken dramatic liberties for the sake of story-telling.
The cult film certainly brought new attention to the sport of free diving.
The underwater photography took place within the US Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St John. Specifically in a location known as Hurricane Hole. St John is the smallest of the US Virgin Islands. What makes the area unique is that despite being a mangrove environment, coral also grows there. The two tend to be mutually exclusive in nature.
2018 was the film’s 30 year anniversary. This served as the opportune time for the film’s star Jean-Marc Barr to return to Amorgos. There he took part in director Jerome Espla’s documentary “Generation Grand Bleu”.
The iconic Eric Serra soundtrack is also worthy of mention. If you haven’t seen this seldom talked about picturesque cult classic, it is most definitely worthy of a visit. Particularly the Luc Besson fans among us who may not have seen this early work of his.
Alfred Hitchock spent a vast amount of time researching and documenting to great depths to find just the right idyllic setting for his 1963 horror/fantasy The Birds. The Daphne Du Maurier short story on which his movie is based was set in the rural countryside of England’s Cornwall.
Hitchcock was looking for a more picturesque, idyllic coastal setting for his telling of The Birds. And in the Northern California towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay, he found it. The context of the town’s location is vital.
“I chose Bodega Bay because I wanted an isolated group of people who lived near an articulate community. Bodega Bay is a place where sophisticated San Franciscans drive to spend the weekend.” Hitchcock once said of the area and his decision to film there.
Despite film crews appropriating certain physical buildings throughout the films production to serve as set pieces, some of the buildings from the story still stand to this day.
The Potter Schoolhouse which served as the Bodega Bay School House still stands and it has Alfred Hitchcock to thank for this. The building was dilapidated and up for demolition when Hitch discovered it. He acquired it for filming and today it still stands proudly and in great condition.
It is, however a private residence.
St Theresa’s church next door has also stood the test of time; in some small way thanks to Hitchcock and the notoriety it has received for its association with The Birds. It only makes a cameo in the film but is well maintained to this day. It was most recently painted in 2019. We recognise this beautiful church from the acclaimed photographer Ansell Adams’ photograph Church and Road from a decade earlier than The Birds was released.
The film begins in the hustle and bustle of San Francisco and after our lead character, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) heads to Bodega to gift a pair of lovebirds to our hero Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor).
When she first arrives in Bodega Bay we see her pull up outside the Tides Motel. It is believed that Hitchock and the Tides owner struck up a deal whereby he would forgo payment for the production’s use of the Tides Motel in exchange for a small speaking role for its owner. Our film’s protagonist was also named after him accordingly (The Tides’ owner in real life was named Mitch Zankich).
This may not have sounded wise to you and me today, but the movie’s fame bought much attention to the Tides in years to follow and certainly proved a sound deal for him and for the longevity of the Tides.
The rebuilding of the restaurant has occurred twice in the years since filming and today only one of the original buildings still stand.
You can, however, still visit Inn at the Tides restaurant for a bite to eat and stay at the motel. While the location’s movie history is still proudly recognised it has not been overly exploited. Just a handful of photos hang discreetly within the walls of the Inn.
Ironically, the former fishing village of Bodega Bay is in reality a haven and a stopover for thousands of migrating sea-birds! Art imitating life at it’s finest!
As a kid, I was fascinated by the film Popeye. The seaside town had such a unique authenticity that I don’t think I ever questioned whether or not it was ‘real’.
Well, it is, in fact very real. There are about 20 buildings that make up the town of Sweethaven. And they were originally constructed over a 7 month period in late 1979 for the film. All have been kept intact and for the last 40 years.
The town of Anchor Bay is very much still functioning with the apt name of Popeye Village Malta just in case you weren’t sure.
Yes, it’s now a major tourist attraction for Malta. And as their informative website states; “Popeye and friends will greet you as you enter the town of Sweethaven”. You can even get married there!
Sweethaven resides in the Maltese town of Anchor Bay. It’s a 2-mile journey to the nearest town of Mellieha.
Since production on the Robert Altman comic book adaptation ended in 1980, it was left up to local authorities as to what to do with the life-sized town.
Much to Altman’s dismay, the town was kept intact. Opening as a shantytown/coastal mini-Disneyland; this must have rubbed salt in his wounds. From the modest financial success of the film, and the overwhelming lack of positive critical reviews Popeye garnered. The mixed reviews really did nothing for the Hollywood auteur. A man whose career certainly danced on the outskirts of mainstream directing, and who would never fully recover after this period.
Harry Nilsson’s memorable music for the cartoon inspired film is also worthy of mention.
To this day there are plans for an updated documentary of the town. I hope this unfolds in the not too distant future.
Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead was the third in director George Romero’s ‘Dead’ series of films. Whilst a great deal of the setting for this movie takes place underground (filmed in his home state of Pennsylvania), the exteriors were filmed in Florida’s Fort Meyers and nearby Sanibel Island.
To this day tourists and Romero fans, zombie worshippers alike still flock to the town center to visit and reimagine the shots of the iconic apocalyptic landscape so synonymous with the 1985 cult classic.
Standout Fort Myers landmarks such as the Edison Theatre Building which still stands and bears a remarkable resemblance to how it appeared over 30 years ago. It now houses local businesses but still retains its former art-deco charm.
Further up Hendry street fans can view out to the Caloosahatchee River to re envision the beginning of the movie. And the character Miguel yelling “Hellooooo” in a quest to find nearby survivors.
The pillared building we see zombies wandering past has upheld many different roles since its construction in the early 1900’s. Initially, it served as a USPS building before becoming a Federal Courthouse in the 1960’s. After a massive restoration in 2008, it was transformed into an Arts Centre which it still serves as today.
Travelling out to the tourist haven of Sanibel Island we explore some more exterior locations Day of the Dead is known for. The helipad and also the underground bunker entrance which was constructed for the movie and does not stand there today can be viewed from afar for driven visitors. And off in the distance, you can still spot the fence line where the zombies clawed themselves around the chicken wire fence.
The beautiful south-west facing Bowman’s Beach of Sanibel Island provides the backdrop for the ending of the film.
Day of the Dead is still respected as a classic of its genre, some 30 years after it’s conception. That fans still visit these locations to this day proves it really has a timeless quality. The film has also provided a source of much homage and reference in popular culture to this day. I still think of it as a cult classic. Certainly one of these movies with a coastal backdrop that has indeed stood the test of time.
Harold and Maude
Key scenes and a few memorable moments from Hal Ashby’s 1971 massive cult Harold and Maude take place on the striking coastline just near San Francisco at a place called Mori Point. Mori Point lies south of Pacifica and on the west coast of Daly City.
The area has quite an interesting history for those taken with that sort of thing.
Mori Point was mined throughout the 1700’s by the Spanish. In nearby Pacifica was a limestone quarry that was mined to supply the Presidio buildings with the whitewash that they are famous for.
Italian immigrant Stefano Mori bought 19 acres of the farmland there in the late 1880’s. Soon after, his family ran the notorious Mori Point Inn he built on site.
During WW2 gravel and sand was extracted from the area and after decades of deterioration and erosion from various causes, there was much attention given to the area’s need for restoration.
In the year 2000 due to tireless efforts by the Coastal Conservancy and Pacifica Land Trust and impassioned local volunteers, Mori Point was purchased by Trust for Public Land and subsequently added to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
In years since the land has been curated and nurtured Mori Point Loop Trail that features almost 3 miles of hiking trails.
Thanks to the restoration of the area, wildlife populations have been on the increase in recent years. The one time endangered San Francisco Garter Snake has re-established its presence in the area along with such other species as red-legged tree frogs in ponds in the vicinity.
Mori Point now proves to be a highly popular area with both locals and visitors. With year-round access and dogs allowed on leash throughout the trails, there are many reasons aside from visiting the Harold and Maude locations! to walk the trails.
The breath-taking final scenes of the film also showcase Mori Point at it’s finest.
I hope people still remember this under-appreciated chilling cult classic from Australian stalwart director Phillip Noyce.
The film Dead Calm was based on a novel of the same name.
Decades before Noyce directed in the film to springboard Kidman to international fame, Orson Welles had made a film adaptation of the same story.
Welles’ adaptation was simply titled ‘The Deep’ and was all but completed when the lead actor passed away. To this day it has not been released.
Australia’s pristine Whitsunday Islands and surrounding pristine waters are certainly stars of this movie – which saw production based on the idyllic Hamilton Island. Filming took place over 14 weeks through the winter of 1987. A stunning movie amongst cult movies with the Australian coastal backdrop as a picture-perfect setting and stark contrast to the horrors of the storyline.
Play Misty for Me
It must be no coincidence that more than a couple of my picks feature coastal locations of California.
This may be one of my favorite spots as Carmel and Monterey serve as the idyllic backdrop for the chilling pre-bunny boiler tale of Play Misty for Me.
Play Misty For Me was originally scheduled to be filmed in Los Angeles. It was at debut director Clint Eastwood’s behest to relocate to his hood of Carmel. A wise choice as I cannot imagine the film any other way. Eastwood also starred in the film, alongside Jessica Walters and Donna Mills.
The main character’s homes are in fact all real homes with Tobie’s home on the craggy Carmel coastline serving as the backdrop for the dramatic climax. The balcony of the cliffside home was also utilised for exterior view shots for Basic Instinct.
Eastwood would prove his innate ability for directing, coming in under budget and completing the shoot ahead of schedule. And on his first feature film as a director, no less.
Much of the film also takes place in real locations throughout Monterey. The well known Sardine Factory features inside and out and still runs today as the Sandbar and Grill.
In the years since production, the homes featured in the movie have all gone on to be sold for many millions of dollars.
In fact, Tobie’s cliff-side home was owned for over 30 years by the same owners that lived in still resided within during filming. It has recently been sold and undergone a massive refurbishment.
Anyone have a spare $9M???
Long before Midsommar’s director was even born, was this cult folk film, Wicker Man. And no, Nicholas Cage is nowhere in sight.
Wicker Man was made in the early 1970s. And a handful of its key scenes are set among craggy, coastal backdrops. It was directed by Robin Hardy.
The film sees our hero Sargeant Howie (Edward Woodward) posted to Scottish Island Summerisle to investigate the elusive disappearance of young local girl called Rowan.
St Ninian’s Cave
St Ninian’s Cave is located within the Machars Peninsula; about 4 miles from coastal Withorn Abbey in Scotland’s south.
St Ninian himself is believed to have used the cave as a place of contemplation in the 8th century. It is still the site of annual pilgrimages to this day.
The pebbly beach of adjacent Port Castle Bay sees our movie’s Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) head towards the cave not before presenting their booze to the gods of the seas. Down the far end of the beach is the ominous cave.
The cave itself is little more than a chasm due to rock falls over the years. Wicker Man’s cave interiors were filmed elsewhere and at a different time altogether. The location does reveal to us the very hiding place of the young girl Rowan – the very reason for bringing our hero (Edward Woodward) to the town in the first place.
Donned in his ‘borrowed’ Punch costume, he saves the girl and they escape through the cave to the surface above.
At the very southernmost point of the Machars Peninsula is the setting for the film’s fiery conclusion. The grassy cliffside finale takes place in the locale of Burrowhead.
Film buffs who still make their own pilgrimage to this spot may be in for a pleasant surprise. They may well stumble across the remnants of base of the Wickerman effigy from the film! A concrete foundation is still in evidence with the visible two holes where the feet once stood. And a small suggestion of leg stumps still remain. They are to this day almost one with the grassy surrounds.
The craggy cliffs and crashing waves of the Withorn Peninsula provide a beautiful and somewhat picture-perfect, eerie coastal setting for the dramatic final act of this favorite of my list of cult movies.
If you haven’t seen Wicker Man, please bypass Nicholas Cage’s romp remake and head to this far more atmospheric and breathy eery folk tale. Creepy indeed. And more than just a little source of inspiration for the equally creepy 1990’s British black comedy The League of Gentlemen.
And there are my top ten cult movies with a coastal backdrop. I hope you enjoyed it! What are your favorites that I have left out? I’d love to hear and perhaps revisit for another ten sometime!
There is definitely no shortage of cult movies with a coastal setting for sure. In the meantime, I have some movies to watch!
Featured image by Magdalena Smolnicka via Unsplash