This is the Top 10 list I’ve been waiting to write. If there’s one thing I love more than great movies, it’s movies that are superlatively terrible. I learned about the art of filmmaking by watching the likes of Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Sunset Boulevard and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But just as they say you can never truly love someone until you also love or at least accept their faults, I didn’t truly love movies until I stumbled upon some of the goofiest, corniest, most misguidedly bloated, just plain wrong-est movies of all time. At that point, I realized I was truly through the looking glass.
I’m not alone here. The entire history of midnight movies is founded on the principle that movies can be great in other ways than those that typically attract the attention of the Academy Awards or earn megabucks at the box-office. Movies can attract cults by virtue of their otherworldly indifference to traditions of quality or reflections of recognizable human behavior. One of those movies, a hysterically cheap, unmotivated horror “sequel” called Troll 2, inspired a documentary about the film’s cult reputation called Best Worst Movie. It opens this weekend at the Lagoon, while the rotten film itself will show as the midnight movie at the Uptown over the weekend, as similarly junky entertainments Birdemic and The Room (more below) have in the last few months.
So which movies rise above the fray to stand as the truly “best” “worst movies ever”? Which are the cream of the crap? Here are my ten favorite movies that are truly so bad they’re good. One thing is clear: bad movies reached new heights (or depths) in 1980 and 1981. (Not coincidentally, the Razzie Awards began in — you guessed it — 1980.)
10. Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
Producer Allan Carr got lucky with Grease. He tried to make musical lightning strike twice. It didn’t. Where did he go wrong? Well, for starters, he thought the world was clamoring for a behind-the-music roman à clef about the making of the disco super-group Village People. Strike one. He figured that Nancy Walker (i.e. the “quicker picker upper” lady from those Bounty TV commercials) would make a really sharp, talented movie director. Strike two. He also thought it was appropriate to throw a then-stratospheric $40 million toward production of this mirthless screwball comedy. Strike … wait, we’re playing baseball? Oh, you better believe it. Though the movie never once admits that the Village People are coded gay stereotypes, the jaw-dropping “YMCA” number removes any and all doubt (and may be the only PG-rated sequence in movie history to feature full-frontal male nudity).
09. Glen Or Glenda? (1953)
The name Ed Wood Jr. is synonymous with hopelessly bad moviemaking, a rep sealed by Tim Burton’s 1994 masterpiece bearing the bargain-basement filmmaker’s name. Most of his movies are miracles of initiative. Wood was so enamored with the act of making movies, he never seemed to bother noticing that not everything he filmed was up to snuff. That, in fact, nothing he filmed was acceptable — cardboard sets, zero continuity, storylines that may as well have been plotted backwards. The one exception is the sex change melodrama Glen Or Glenda?, not because the movie is markedly better than, say, Plan 9 from Outer Space, but because at the center of the ineptitude is a undeniably personal self-portrait.
08. Heaven’s Gate (1981)
Not until The Adventures of Pluto Nash would such an overinflated budget again be met with such embarrassing box-office returns. And, of course, by the time the Eddie Murphy flick bombed, the average Hollywood budget had skyrocketed to such an extent that failures of its magnitude were a mathematical probability. Which was not the case when director Michael Cimino (fresh off his Oscar win for The Deer Hunter) drained United Artists’ bank accounts and sent the company spiraling into bankruptcy. The movie cost a scandalous $50 million and made back one or two, thanks to the positively scathing reviews. But if comedy equals tragedy plus time, revisionist history now views Cimino’s stubbornly analog excesses as part of a lost era.
07. Howard the Duck (1986)
Ghostbusters wrought a spate of would-be blockbuster action comedies. Most outside of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? have been totally forgotten. This one, a rotten egg laid by (among other cookie-cutters extraordinaire) George Lucas, was formula filmmaking to its crassest extreme. Every scene tries to land in the nexus between hip and marketable. Every scene is, instead, the cinematic equivalent of this. And yet, it’s a fascinating misfire, unlike some of its contemporary rip-offs like the Happy Meal-shilling tool Mac & Me.
06. Red Zone Cuba (1966)
Most bad movies are, at least, still legible as narrative experiences. If anything, bad filmmakers are guilty of over-explaining their stories, of letting their characters explicitly voice the movie’s themes. And then there’s the cinema of Coleman Francis. All three films in his ersatz Cold War trilogy earned their Mystery Science Theater 3000 slots with room to spare, but it’s Red Zone Cuba that really endures as a monument to his filmic dyslexia. The movie is sort of a recreation of the Bay of Pigs incident in which a galvanizing seven troops attempt to overthrow Cuba, which isn’t all that ridiculous given that Francis’s Cuba has about five people in it. Scenes begin out of nowhere, end in the same spot, and somehow get lost on the way. The more times you see it, the less it makes sense.
05. The Room (2003)
If Coleman Francis has an antecedent, it’s Tommy Wiseau. In just the last few years, The Room has achieved the sort of near-instant cult cachet Francis never really managed. It’s not difficult to see why. Wiseau’s movie is astonishingly out of touch with how human beings interact with each other. A blind alien working from a dog’s crib notes would come up with a more convincing description of how a dinner party evolves than Wiseau. Worse, he wrote his screenplay apparently after having read only the chapter on exposition. Each scene features characters either coming back from or about to head off to do something much more interesting than whatever happens in the movie. Maybe it’s all some sort of avant-garde experiment.
04. Earthquake (1974)
The skuzziest of all ’70s disaster movies that swarmed like, well, the bees in The Swarm, Earthquake was billed as a state-of-the-art Sensurround experience, with the bass in movie theaters boosted to such an extent that it would register to bored audiences as tremors. Which is all fine and dandy, except for that it takes a full hour of contrived character development before those cardboard walls come tumbling down. The tedium is positively resonant. A growly Charlton Heston headlines an all-star cast of Golden Age has-beens and New Hollywood hardly-were’s, all dodging the over-zealous work of the special effects department. At which point, the movie becomes a camp bonanza.
03. Showgirls (1995)
I’d love to go into detail about why I love this movie, but this is a family-friendly site. So use your imagination.
02. Xanadu (1980)
This classic is camp in the truest, Susan Sontagian sense of the word, because Xanadu appears genuinely unaware of just how ridiculous it is, which isn’t an easy feat given all the neon streaks, naïve performances and overly-processed songs by Electric Light Orchestra. A nostalgia-drunk confluence of 1940s swing, 1970s roller disco and misguided notions of what 1980s pop would bring, Xanadu is lovably dumb.
01. Mommie Dearest (1981)
I’ve written up my love for Mommie Dearest before, but it bears repeating. This movie is the Mount Everest of “so bad it’s good.” Or, if you’re John Waters (who recorded a commentary track for the film’s DVD release, despite not actually being connected with its production), it’s “so good it’s bad.” I like that.
Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger for WCCO.COM.