On the topic of bad movies, I’ve got a few things to say.
Defining What’s Truly “Bad”
I’d say the true worst movies out there are not the “so bad they’re good” variety such as Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room or Sharknado. The reason is because they provide some kind of entertainment, albeit one unintended by the creator(s), and if a movie entertains then surely it has succeeded in some capacity. If we accept that all works of art can have different meanings to every individual member of the audience, we must accept that one person’s drama can be another’s comedy. In the same way that we wouldn’t call a film bad because someone interpreted some symbolic meaning the creator didn’t intend, neither can we call a film bad because someone reacted in a different way than intended. Savvy?
In the same vein, I’m willing to extend flawed personal visions a lot of leeway depending on the circumstances. As described in a previous essay, I have nothing but sympathy for Ed Wood due to his sincere artistic intent as well as the fact that his movies at least had something important and vulnerable to say. This may be an even more controversial opinion, but I have a strange sympathy for Manos: The Hands of Fate. It’s terrible, but the recent HD reconstruction proves the cinematography was surprisingly decent considering the circumstances. Not only that, but a lot of its more offbeat and/or disturbing elements, such as the ill-fitting soundtrack and child-bride reveal serve to make it very creepy. Considering it was billed as a horror film originally, that means these are aspects where the film succeeded in its original purpose. In fact, the reason why I believe Manos is still probably the most popular contender for #1 worst ever is due to the fact that it’s unintentionally silly yet still just disturbing enough in other areas to where it doesn’t fit in neatly as either “so bad it’s good” or “so bad it’s bad.” It’s on the cusp of each, pleasing nobody. (I also strongly recommend checking out Debbie’s blog about the film. Fascinating reading!)
This leaves us with the films that are so bad they’re bad. The ones that are competently made yet have nothing to say: personal, intelligent or otherwise. The stuff that’s lazily and/or cynically constructed to fleece a buck as opposed to earnest yet flawed pet projects. These are the stories which insult an audience’s intelligence while squandering budgets/crews that lesser pictures would kill for. They’re the films which just plain wasted your time, with no joy or redeeming qualities whatsoever. If you’d like to hear yet another controversial opinion from me, I’d say the new sequel trilogy of Star Wars films are a perfect example. When you consider the sheer carelessness, the unabashed contempt for an audience it takes to pay $4 billion for a franchise, (plus another ~$1.5 billion on production and advertising for a trilogy) which they had no plan for, it’s staggering. How do you take on such a massive property, rush it out to theaters in two years and not have sat everyone down to hash out an outline? It’s just the calculated risk that as milked-dry as the franchise gets, it’ll make money. To me, that’s a greater insult than a thousand Manos-quality movies. (But of course, people will go see these things out of brand loyalty if not morbid curiosity alone, so the joke’s on me.)
My Picks for “Worst” Movies
In terms of films I saw in the theater, Hancock (where Will Smith plays a superhero) is the worst movie I’ve ever paid money to see in the cinema. It’s the only movie I ever wanted to walk out of (but I couldn’t because my friend didn’t want to leave.) It was a fascinating premise–a renegade bad boy superhero–but it doesn’t do anything interesting with it. I hated how ~20 minutes in they’re already reforming him, making him wear a cape and act like a normal, stereotyped superhero. But what really destroys it is the twist that his reformer/advocate’s wife is actually his…partner (?)…from another life, also has powers, etc. That twist was so ridiculous that I turned to my friend and said “this sucks, let’s hit the arcade.” And from there, it just got worse and worse. Never have I seen a screenplay with so many terrible, obvious plot holes and continuity flaws. One scene Hancock and the girl are siblings, then the next scene she calls him her husband, then they’re angels… One scene she grabs Hancock and throws him out her own window as a threat to stay away…even though he didn’t even remember her in the first place, nor would he if she hadn’t done something so rash. Then another scene they’re fist-fighting through NYC. But then suddenly in the climax they can’t use their powers near each other anymore because that makes them mortal and vulnerable. As a result Hancock can’t fight the random loser with a gun who serves as our final antagonist. It’s a terrible, terrible movie.
However, the most disappointing movie I ever saw was Pirates of the Caribbean 3. I loved the first two–I thought of them as my generation’s Star Wars. I vividly remember watching the first with my best childhood friend and having a blast. I remember that summer it was the only movie anyone talked about, me and my friends would pretend to be Jack Sparrow and Barbossa sword fighting by the pool… It’s a movie that’s synonymous with my childhood. Pirates 2 I saw with that same best friend, and while obviously not as good, I loved it and the twist at the end left me dying for more. Pirates 3 I didn’t see with my best friend like the first two. I remember something felt off in the first scene and it just kept getting worse: singing, killing the kracken without a fight, a pirate government, making Elizabeth the Pirate King for no reason, all the double-crosses that made everyone feel like a jerk, the stupid telescope gag, a bunch of Jack Sparrows running around, giant Calypso, “it was just good business…” (fuck you.) I hated it, but all my friends loved it because “wowz, so much action!!!1!”/”the cgi was so coolz!!11!” Nobody seemed to realize how badly I wanted to love it, I just couldn’t. It insulted my intelligence while feeling like a cynically thrown together mess–and wouldn’t you know, it was!
Coincidentally, both these films came out in 2007. This was a really big year for me in a lot of ways. I’d started getting interested in classic movies the year before, and made a point to seek out stuff like The Godfather, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With The Wind, etc to watch. So by the time the summer of 2007 came around I could recognize how flawed a lot of these stupid summer blockbusters really were. Sure, the effects were cool and they had action, but the characters weren’t developed and the plots were full of holes. Meanwhile, my friends gobbled these flicks up and treated me like I was a Martian or hipster (trying to be cool by being “above” what’s popular) for pointing out the flaws after the fact. It really drove a wedge between me and my friends at the time, and made it harder to relate to some of their interests. I just liked good movies and wanted to share that interest with my friends but they wouldn’t give them a chance because “it’s old” or “I don’t like black and white.”
(ASIDE: I’m not trying to pat myself on the back with this anecdote, and believe me I don’t want every movie to be a self-important melodrama or 3 hour long period piece either. For whatever it’s worth, I love a lot of movies that aren’t classics–Running Scared, Goodburger, Charlie’s Angels and Freaky Friday among them. The point is, around 2007 I noticed a lot of these newer blockbusters just weren’t for me.)
It was around that same period (late 2006-early 2007) when I started getting active on the IMDb forums. (I’m still bitter about their removal from the site.) Their Top 250 list was a great source for films to check out, and I was morbidly curious about the Bottom 100 entries as well. Browsing some forums on the latter led me to Mystery Science Theater 3000 as well as a love of so-bad-it’s-good cinema. To get to the point, I saw Monster A Go Go on the show, and objectively speaking it’s probably the worst movie ever made. It’s boring, incomprehensible and the final twist is probably the most audience-insulting moment ever in a motion picture. It’s got all the ineptitude of Troll 2, Manos and Glen or Glenda with none of the laughs, mystique or sincerity, respectively. The fact that it was cobbled together from an unfinished film (Terror at Halfday) just to fill a double bill is as cheap and careless as any cash-grab sequel, prequel or reboot today with none of the production values or competence. It’s got everything that sucks from both major categories of bad films; it’s the perfect disaster.