What makes a film so appalling that it transitions from ordinary ineptitude into the sublime; beyond cult status (and all reason) and into that surreal place where you really can’t believe what you’re watching? RT’s regular contributor Michael Adams has a pretty good idea: as part of his new bookShowgirls, Teen Wolves and Astro Zombies, he spent an entire year seeking out the greatest atrocities cinema has ever unleashed, watching more than 400 bad movies in a quest to to find the worst film ever made. Along the way, he spoke with such bad movie aficionados as John Landis, Joe Dante, Eli Roth, John Waters and the Mystery Science crew, while himself appearing in George Romero’s Survival of the Dead. Here then are 25 of his picks for those films that, awful as they may be, you simply cannot turn away from…
Following their smash-hit Basic Instinct, director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas tried to shock cinemagoers with this sensational look at the sleazy world of Las Vegas strips clubs and showgirl casino spectaculars. Audiences and critics were shocked all right. They were shocked at Eszterhas’ ludicrously “hard-hitting” dialogue about who has nice breasts, who is a whore, who finds it hard to adjust to no longer being ejaculated on. They were shocked at Verhoeven thinking we’d be turned on by Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan making love in a neon-lit pool like they’d been set on the spin cycle. Most of all they were shocked that this supposedly erotic drama generated nothing but guffaws.
After his post-Pulp Fiction comeback, John Travolta made himself a laughing stock in this partial adaptation of his guru L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi novel. Set in the year 3000, a millennium after the Psychlo master race invades Earth and enslaves humanity, this has Travolta as a 10-foot-tall alien who gets around in dreadlocks, nose plugs and KISS boots. Even more over-the-top is his performance, which is all mwu-ha-ha-ing and an almost Shakespearean declamation of eeeeeeevil! Barry Pepper’s terrible, too, bringing Christian Bale levels of intensity to his cave warrior. What also makes this badly watchable is that director Roger Christian shoots every scene on a weird askew angle.
Ed Wood Jr.’s feature debut is a favorite of David Lynch, who actually sampled some of its sound effects in his 1977 debut Eraserhead. You can see the similarities; the two movies inhabit a shared surreal space. With Wood indulging his transvestite leanings in the lead role(s) and battling his literal devils, Bela Lugosi as a God-like puppetmaster, and acres of stock footage with dissonant Rumsfeld-esque narration, this cross-dressing, sex-changing melo-docu-drama is brain-scramblingly weird.
Crowned as the “worst movie ever made” back in the 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, this is the movies’ most famous Z-grade clunker. Despite a discernible lack of talent and resources, auteur Ed Wood Jr. staged an alien invasion epic. It’s impossible not to be amazed and somehow charmed that he tried to fulfill this ambition with an amateur cast, unrelated footage of his now-dead friend Bela Lugosi, an unconvincing stand-in for the former Dracula star, model-kit flying saucers, a cardboard cemetery, and an airplane cockpit comprised of a couple chairs and a shower curtain… among other celebrated inadequacies.
While Ed Wood’s aliens looked suspiciously like fey middle-aged men in silver jumpsuits, Phil Tucker’s ET invaders were even less likely, unless, that is, NASA’s suppressing knowledge that our cosmic neighbors are gorilla-robots who wear diving helmets and wield genocidal bubble machines. Originally released in 3-D, Robot Monsteractually made a small fortune relative to its paltry budget. Viewed today, it’s hilarious, but, like Plan 9, compelling for its bizarre plotting and dialogue so dreadful it actually becomes like poetry.
Forget the scares and deliberate laughs of Joe Dante’s 1981 original. This sequel, from Aussie director Philippe Mora, was shot in Soviet-controlled Prague and is a hilariously bad confection of erotic horror and New Wave “style.” Christopher Lee, years off his blockbuster comeback, stars as an occult investigator who has to take on Sybil Danning’s werewolf Queen Stirba and her minions. What’s worse? The cotton-candy special make-up effects, the “acting” of co-stars Reb Brown and Annie McEnroe, or the seemingly endlessly repeated electro-bleating of the theme song by Babel? It’s a big call. Whichever way you go, don’t switch off before the very “special” end credits featuring Sybil Danning’s assets — on repeat loop.
You don’t need a PhD in History to instantly realize that there are two words in the title that just don’t belong together. Blaxploitation offered up some crazy stuff (a bloodsucking brother in Blacula, a huge killer penis in Welcome Home, Brother Charles) but having African-American militants style themselves into urban Nazis is just beyond the, er, pale. The story of Colonel Kojah and his stormtroopers avenging the ‘hood against The Man and then succumbing to corruption suffers the usual exploitation-movie problems in the pacing and production departments, but it’s just too bizarre to ignore.
Jerry Warren made some dreadfully boring movies, often by taking foreign genre flicks and cutting in a few scenes of bad actors talking about the plot against bare walls. No one need suffer through The Incredible Petrified World or The Wild World of Batwoman. But Frankenstein Island, Warren’s last film, is a different matter altogether. Here are a few of the elements: mind-controlled zombie guards who dress like the Unabomber, vampires created via magical pitchfork, hybrid-alien cave girls who smoke skull bongs, giant vegetables and man wrestling, John Carradine appearing as a superimposed Godhead, and Katherine Victor, who introduces herself with, “I’m Sheila Frankenstein… Actually, it’s Van Helsing, I prefer my married name.”
You can keep Ghost and Dirty Dancing. After Point Break, this is the late Patrick Swayze’s best movie, even though it’s not, at least by the usual standards, a “good” film. Who in their right mind could possibly believe a story about a world-famous bouncer who’s also a pacifist philosopher? Who cares! Swayze as high-kicking, throat-tearing Dalton is cheer-along fantastic. He’s given awesome support from Sam Elliott and Ben Gazzara.
Made by pioneering exploitation huckster Dwain Esper, this is a crazy movie about going crazy. It features a ham actor assisting a mad scientist involved in the typical revival experiments before he kills the boffin and impersonates him with his “superior” acting skills and a glued-on beard. Complete with eyeball-eating moments, a girlfight with syringes, and a walled-up cat, this also boasts dialogue like, “Oh! Stealing through my body! Creeping though my veins! Pouring in my blood! Oh, DARTS OF FIRE IN MY BRAIN! STABBING ME! I CAN’T STAND IT! I WON’T!” Even better? It tries to pass itself off as a documentary about the real problems of mental illness.
From director Fred F. Sears, who made Rock Around the Clock andEarth vs. the Flying Saucers, this epic about a giant bird from a parallel dimension attacking Earth might have passed muster if producer Sam Katzman had followed the plan for Ray Harryhausen to do the effects. Instead, the cheapo mogul opted for a puppet on strings, so it appears as if mid-1950s jet pilots and hot rodders are being attacked by a mutated Gonzo from The Muppet Show. The dialogue is also brilliantly cheesy, making this one of the funniest Z-grade flicks of the 1950s.
This all-midget western was homaged by punk band The Dead Kennedys and in the M*A*S*H television series. A Poverty Row production from director Sam Newfield — who made 14 other movies that year — it’s like a pint-sized version of Deadwood as evil little bastard Bat Haines tries to steal love interest Nancy from heroic Buck Lawson by stirring up a clan war. Midgets walk into full-sized saloons and ride ponies and sing songs and do derring but the weirdest thing is how, given the conventional story and lack of normal-sized actors, you quickly adjust to the tiny cast.
Aided and abetted by producer Sam Sherman, Al Adamson carved out an incredibly prolific career as an exploitation filmmaker from 1969 to 1978. Unfortunately, many of Al’s movies were mash-ups comprising footage from unrelated films, and as such, they’re crunchingly dull, despite awesome titles like Horror of the Blood Monsters and Blood of Ghastly Horror. But this biker flick, about the title gang in pursuit of a Vietnam veteran and a waitress across the desert, lives up to its brilliantly sleazy title and trailer. A lot of credit has to go to lead villain Russ Tamblyn. Here he’s a long way from the Oscar nomination he once enjoyed, but still hugely watchable as a badass.
Begun in 1971 by Detroit would-be filmmaker George Barry, this oddball horror flick was finished in 1977 but then failed to land any sort of distribution. Three decades after he started it, Barry discovered by accident that someone had pirated a print of Death Bed and that it had been given an illegal video release in the UK that had resulted in a cult audience. An official 2003 release ensued and now we can all be feasted upon by the four-poster from Hades. The title says it all, and we get to see the chuckling boudoir centerpiece suck assorted hippies into its golden gastric juices, where they’re efficiently skeletonized.
If Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is the over-wrought, melodramatic and self-pitying heterosexual camp classic of choice, then Sam Mraovich’sBen & Arthur is its gay equivalent. Where Wiseau used 35mm and spent millions to achieve at least some production value, writer-director-producer-star Mraovich might as well have shot his story of homosexual persecution and fightback on a cell phone with a budget of about $5.67. Every scene, every line, every hissy fit is simultaneously hilariously amateur and hysterically fever-pitched. This is a cult sensation waiting to be born.
While Jaws: The Revenge, Tentacles and Aquanoids are all worthy so-bad-they’re-amusing schlockers, this tale of a giant prehistoric shark chowing down on the citizenry takes the piscatorial prize for laugh-out-loud inanity. Forget the dodgy CGI of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopusbecause you won’t believe what the makers of this Israeli-South African co-production try to get away with, especially when their oversized mama megalodon swallows jetskiers and life-rafts of survivors whole. Torchwood star John Barrowman looks like he’s having a great time, not least when he ad-libs “the line” at 66 minutes in.
The late acid casualty Donald G. Jackson and his protégé, the self-styled martial arts Zen master Scott Shaw, crafted this Z-grade rarity out of a passionate belief that there was an audience for surrealist, soft-core sci-fi rollerskating movies co-starring the likes of Frank Stallone, Karen Black and Joe Estevez. An inexplicable montage of kung-faux, topless bondage, horned demons, skating punks and swordplay carried out across parallel time zones, The Roller Blade Seven makes Eraserhead look positively straight-forward. It might just be art.
By the standards of later mega-flops, like Cut-throat Island, The Adventures of Pluto Nash or Warren Beatty’s own Town and Country,Ishtar‘s box office wasn’t that shameful. But at the time this overblown comedy became synonymous with financial failure, and was thus also universally perceived as a dud movie to boot. Thing is, it’s actually not that bad, and pretty funny in parts, not least for Dustin Hoffman playing stud while Beatty takes the role of an insecure schmo. The brain-dead songs conjured by the duo and some of the schtick in their desert adventure sticks, even if this uneven comic adventure eventually unravels into a bit of a mess.
This in-name only sequel to the 1986 horror has a family moving into the town of Nilbog (say it backwards, people, to discover this movie’s original title) and encountering a tribe of little monsters in fright masks and potato sacks who do the radical-vegetarian bidding of a hag whose modus operandi is liquefying her victims into plant goo. Or something. Cheerfully idiotic, with universally terrible performances,Troll 2 was recently celebrated in an entertaining documentary calledBest Worst Movie.
A serious contender for the “worst-worst” movie ever made, Manos is also in the running for “best-worst” because it’s defiantly odd and amateur and it achieves a strange, dream-like quality. A lost family is trapped in the realm of the Master, who has a harem of kinda-sorta-vampire wives and a satyr-like minion named Torgo. The production history — it was made by Harold P. Warren, a Texas fertilizer salesman, as a result of a bet with Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant — is almost as weirdly fascinating as the movie itself.
Made in the Philippines, this spy parody stars Weng Weng, a 2’9? midget, as the kick-ass — or make that, kick-balls — agent Double O. A bizarre James Bond riff, over-dubbed by expatriates, the film has him facing off against his nemesis, Mr. Giant, who plans to rule the world with his, er, “N-bomb”. Weng Weng followed up with The Impossible Kid, in which he works for Interpol, and made numerous other films, some of which are still being uncovered by cult-movie investigatorAndrew Leavold.
You’ve got to see this one to see what $125m being spent at the rate of a million-a-minute looks like as it’s flushed down the can. The confluence of talent, where they’d been and where they’d go, from Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Clooney to director Joel Schumacher and writer Akiva Goldsman, makes this fascinatingly awful. The production values, like some neon-lit theme park, are astoundingly gauche, but that’s nothing compared to that script, whose clunky chorus comprises Arnie’s clunking out “comically” cold puns as Mr. Freeze.
Faye Dunaway does Joan Crawford, with the volume (and eyebrows) turned up to 11. This outrageously campy biopic, based on the best-selling biography by Crawford’s daughter Christina, is justifiably famous for its excesses, particularly the “No wire hangers!” scene. But it’s also genuinely compelling, and Dunaway’s performance is gripping and not a little terrifying.
This attempt at showing up the seamy underside of the film industry is in itself testament to the overblown excesses of Hollywood before theEasy Riders and Raging Bulls shook things up. But that doesn’t mean the story of Frankie Fane, amoral gigolo who claws his way to the top of the A-list, isn’t enormously entertaining. Seething, sleazy and sensational, it’s consistently guffaw-worthy, not least for Tony Bennett’s disastrous performance as Hymie, Fane’s version ofEntourage‘s Turtle, and a glittering parade of stars doing cameos as themselves.
What more besides the title do you need to know? How about that the spiders are actually from another dimension? How about that a goodly percentage of their victims are sleazy brain-dead rednecks? How about that the “hero” spider was created by draping a huge arachnid suit over a VW and driving it around while people inside the vehicle waved the beast’s big “legs” for added “realism”? And on it goes. Great fun, even if it can’t quite match the incredible poster.