Total Recall

Total Recall: It's a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad World

Celebrating the best of so-bad-it's-good cinema: Plan 9 From Outer Space, Manos, the Hands of Fate, Alone in the Dark.

by | January 9, 2008 | Comments

It’s January, Hollywood’s annual dumping ground for the
most mediocre titles on the studios’ shelves. Thus, we at RT thought it was a
good time to get into the spirit of things by taking a closer look at some of
the most misbegotten, perversely wonderful films of all time.

The appreciation of so-bad-it’s-good cinema is not new. As
Village Voice critic J. Hoberman noted in his seminal essay “Bad Movies,”
“The Surrealists loved bad movies, seeing them as subversive attacks on the
tyranny of narrative form.” And as the great critic Pauline Kael wrote in
“Trash, Art, and the Movies” in 1969, “Movies are so rarely great art that if we
cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in
them.” However, it was the publication of Michael and Harry Medved’s book The
Fifty Worst Movies of All Time
that helped to usher in a new, codified
fondness for cinematic ineptitude; a few years later, the institution of the
annual Golden Raspberry Awards and the popularity of
Mystery Science Theater
brought ironic movie appreciation to the mainstream.

However, in the ensuing years, it’s become increasingly
difficult to determine that certain je ne sais quoi that distinguishes a
merely mediocre film from a sublimely bad one. Hollywood churns out plenty of
laugh-free comedies and unexciting action flicks each year, but many are made
with at least a semblance of proficiency and feature competent actors. Lapses in
craft don’t necessarily make for bad movies, either; the many supporters of the
film noir classic Detour (100 percent) will concede that it is riddled
with technical imperfections. Intentions are important, too: films with camp
followings, like
Road House
(30 percent) and R. Kelly’s Trapped in the
may be loaded with absurd dialogue and overheated plotting, but it’s
pretty clear that’s what their makers were going for. And for every perversely
hilarious folly like
Valley of the Dolls (36 percent), there are
theoretical so-bad-they’re-good entries (From Justin to Kelly, nine
percent, or Myra Breckinridge, 26 percent) that are, in reality, pretty
much unwatchable. (Frankly, I’d be surprised if RT’s worst-reviewed film of all
time, Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever, has any ironic defenders.)

What makes for a truly stellar so-bad-it’s-good movie is a
gulf between conception and execution so wide it helps audiences to reconsider
the notions of what constitutes good filmmaking. No essay on bad movies
is complete without mention of
Edward D. Wood, Jr., the master of delirious
cinematic wrong-headedness. So enamored was Wood with the process of directing
(and so tight were his budgets), that he would rarely, if ever, reshoot a scene.
Utilizing every cut-rate trick in the book (hubcaps stood in for flying saucers,
stock footage abounds), Wood crafted a series of anti-masterworks that brought
to light his obsessions;
Glen or Glenda?
(33 percent) was a plea for the
tolerance of transvestites (of which Wood was an enthusiast), and
Bride of
the Monster
(29 percent), the last speaking role of
, whom the director considered to be a great star, even years after his
prime. Wood’s films were so weird and so seemingly incompetent they stayed well
below Hollywood’s radar during his lifetime.

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity and
posthumous derision. Slowly but surely, Wood’s films were absorbed into the
cinematic cannon, not because of their quality but because of their singularity:
nobody made bad movies like these. Hoberman has called Wood an unconscious
avant-gardist, and he’s something of a patron saint for against-all-odds indie
filmmakers. (Tim Burton‘s brilliant, Oscar-winning
biopic didn’t hurt matters,
either.) Wood’s most famous work,
Plan Nine From Outer Space
percent!), was long considered the worst movie ever made. But how bad is it,
really, more people today have seen it than, say,
How Green Was My Valley
Featuring an all-star ensemble of Wood regulars (including former wrestler
Tor Johnson,
ghoul girl Vampira,
and charisma-free narrator Criswell), Plan 9 tells the story
of aliens who want to reanimate the dead into an army that will conquer the
world. After shooting only three minutes with Lugosi before his death, Wood
hired a chiropractor friend to flesh out the role (which he did — by covering his face
with his cape). The mistakes are too numerous to count: characters call each
other by their real names, daytime and nighttime scenes butt
against each other (sometimes in alternating shots), cardboard tombstones shake
in the graveyard scenes, and the fight sequences are some of the stiffest ever
captured on film. But Plan 9‘s badness is so pervasive and so original
that contemporary critics find it — gasp! — pretty impressive. “Like
the greatest cinema poets, [Wood] always managed to work in his own particular
pet pleasures or concerns, and that odd, ear-bending dialogue is almost like a
bizarre kind of open-verse poetry,” wrote Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustable

Plan 9 from Outer Space: The best lines.

With the throne vacant, bad movie aficionados needed a new
champion in the “Worst Movie Ever Made” sweepstakes. They found it in
Manos, The
Hands of Fate
(eight percent). The lone directorial effort of fertilizer
salesman (how a propos!) Hal Warren, Manos would have been a quickly
forgotten oddity had it not been for the critical reassessment provided by the
bad movie connoisseurs from Mystery Science Theater 3000. After betting a
screenwriter he could make a successful horror film, Warren scraped together
some money, hired actors and models in the El Paso area, and began work on his
anti-masterpiece: the story of a family that takes a wrong turn and ends up in
the clutches of a demonic cult.

Manos is a stunningly bad film, filled with
endless driving sequences, insipid music, awkward pauses before and after cuts,
disjointed dubbing, and ludicrously wooden acting. Some scenes (like an
extended, graceless catfighting sequence) seem included only to increase the
film’s length, while the dialogue (“There is no way out of here. It’ll be dark
soon. There is no way out of here,” ominously declares the iconic Torgo, a satyr
who helps run the house on the verge of hell) is incredibly stiff and not at all
spine-chilling. What makes watching Manos a sublime experience is the
same thing that made MST3K a hit: the fact that certain bad movies are
tailor-made for vulgar, smart-alecky audiences, who can collectively delight at
the sheer awfulness onscreen. (Naturally,
Quentin Tarantino owns a copy of one
of the few surviving original prints of Manos.) When it first screened
in El Paso in 1966, Manos drew howls of disapproval and disbelief; now,
there’s really no other way to view it. As Eric D. Snider put it, “Manos
is virtually unwatchable without the aid of Joel and the ‘bots and their
merciless mocking.”

Manos, the Hands of Fate: I be Torgo.

Since we’ve covered movies so bad that they aren’t bad at
all, and movies that are bad but become good with incredulous guffaws, it’s time
to explore the rarified realm of a third kind of bad movie: one so off-kilter so
as to be entertaining, but still pretty far from good. I’m speaking, of course,
of Uwe Boll‘s
Alone in the Dark
(one percent). Mr. Boll (whose latest,
In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale
, hits theaters this week) has become
something of a critical punching bag in recent years (going so far as to turn
the tables and pummel one such unlucky critic). But I’ll be darned if I don’t
find his movies blissfully entertaining; unlike many of the big-budget
mediocrities that litter the multiplex each summer, Boll is fairly upfront about
his intentions. He’s not making filet mignon, he’s making cheeseburgers.

Unlike the schlockmeisters of old, it cannot be said that
Boll is completely devoid of cinematic craft; if you caught patches of Alone
in the Dark
on late-night cable, you could be fooled into thinking it’s
better than it is. And the actors in Alone (Christian Slater,
Tara Reid,
Stephen Dorff), despite their tabloid misadventures, have all been involved in
worthy entertainments. What makes Boll’s films so perversely entertaining is
their distillation of time-tested commercial elements in jarringly askew ways.
For example, Alone features ludicrously world-weary dialogue (“I learned
the truth a long time ago. Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it
can’t kill you,” Slater portentously intones), pointless stylistic tricks (do we
really need a zoom into the barrel of Slater’s gun before he pulls the
trigger?), incomprehensible action (there are two shootouts that are so darkly
lit and discordantly edited it’s literally impossible to know what’s going on),
hilarious miscasting (Reid as an archaeologist?!), and a pretentious scrolling
prologue that makes Star Wars‘ look like a monument to brevity. Alone
also shamelessly cribs elements from such classics as
and the
movies, and features one of the most out-of-nowhere romantic interludes
in recent cinema. But it is never, ever boring; as MaryAnn Johnson of Flick
raved, Alone is “an instant classic of cheeseball cinema,
an orgy of overblown dialogue and hammy overacting, 90-some-odd minutes of
cheap-looking, jaw-dropping incoherence.”

Alone in the Dark: Trailer.

Entertaining badness comes in many other shapes and sizes.
From misbegotten vanity projects like the
Vanilla Ice vehicle
Cool as Ice

(eight percent) to the un-erotic, un-thrilling erotic thriller

(four percent); from the knuckleheaded geopolitics of
percent) to the goblin-infested cheesiness of
Troll 2
(zero percent),
badness can be goodness. Sometimes.