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 3000 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 Closet 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 ofBela Lugosi, 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 (60 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 wrestlerTor 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 Celluloid.

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.”

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 Alien and the Indiana Jones 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 Philospher 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.”

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 Fascination (four percent); from the knuckleheaded geopolitics of Navy SEALS (21 percent) to the goblin-infested cheesiness of Troll 2 (zero percent), badness can be goodness. Sometimes.

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