Among movies that are bad, there are some that are fun-bad, the unintentional comedies that keep Rifftrax and MST3K in business. And then there are the ones that are just plain bad. Some are so bad that sitting through them becomes an endurance contest, the cinematic equivalent of a dare. I’ve seen plenty of each, and as much as I enjoy trash-watching trainwrecks like Galaxina, Battle Beyond the Stars, Robot Monster, and the works of Ed Wood, I think it’s time to look at some real stinkers.
Bear in mind, nobody ever sets out to deliberately make a bad movie (okay, maybe the guys who made The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, but we know they were just screwing with us the way Tommy Wiseau now pretends he was), but sometimes incompetence, ego, budget constraints, studio interference, or any number of other factors have their way with the project, and the result is not bad enough to be good. I’m going to include Amazon links to whatever I can, but I take no responsibility; if you do buy them, you’ve been warned. I appreciate the commission I get if you do, but not enough to lie to you and say you ought to buy any of these disasters.
I own a bootleg DVD of Klinton Spilsbury’s abomination, and it is terrible. Spilsbury was a model with no acting experience, and was so bad in the role that they had to hire James Keach (Stacy’s brother) to dub all his dialogue. The plodding and tedious script had some unintentionally hilarious moments (the explanation for the silver bullets is a hoot: “they’re more pure, so they fly straighter”), but mostly it’s just painful. Jason Robards’ Ulysses Grant looks like he was not sober for a single second of the filming.
The only person in the whole cast who actually earned their paycheck was Christopher Lloyd as bad guy Butch Cavendish; he chews the scenery and brings some real menace, but mostly seems to be appearing in a different movie than the mob of sleepwalkers that are supposed to be the heroes.
Cannery Row (1982)
Pro tip: Certain authors do not need rewriting. There’s an urban legend that asserts that the 1929 film adaptation of Taming of the Shrew included a credit line reading “by William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor”; in most cases, having multiple people credited for the script is worthy of a shrug, but when the primary author is Shakespeare, or, as in this case, John Steinbeck, it’s a pretty good bet he didn’t need the help. Unlike Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and others of his time, Steinbeck was also a playwright. He knew how to tell a story.
Another pro tip: If you’re adapting a classic work of American literature, adapt that book. Don’t grab a different book by the same author and mash the two together. In this case, the producers decided that there was more action going on in the sequel book, Sweet Thursday, so they used most of that plot and attached the more famous title to it. Debra Winger’s character, Suzy, does not appear at all in Cannery Row. A whole lot of high school students who watched the movie instead of doing their reading homework surely earned an F on that assignment.
A third pro tip: If you do decide to combine two related books into a single narrative, you might want to take note of what point the author is making in each one. Cannery Row is set during the Great Depression, just before WWII, and Sweet Thursday revisits the same location nine years later, after the war, to find some people gone, some newly arrived, and others older and changed by the years between. The two stories simply do not meld together into a single story that’s worthy of Steinbeck.
A fourth pro tip: Not everything needs to be explained. Doc did not need a back-story, and he certainly didn’t need one as trite and contrived as what they foisted on him here.
Cannery Row is the only movie that made me scream and swear at the screen. My bride finally turned it off and told me to go to bed, so I’m not sure how much worse it got by the end. Maybe there were car crashes or a building blew up. I couldn’t watch any more.
Night Patrol (1984)
I only saw this piece of dreck because I knew the poor SOB who sang the title song, which is played relentlessly throughout until you want to scream. Night Patrol is a perfect storm of bad ideas executed terribly. Ostensibly an attempt to cash in on the popular Police Academy franchise via a low-budget quicky knockoff, it’s also an attempt to exploit the Unknown Comic (Murray Langston) beyond the confines of the Gong Show, revive Pat Paulsen’s then-atrophied career, and give Linda Blair something to do. I realize I may have to explain some of those things to the youngsters.
In March of 1984, Steve Guttenberg had an unexpected hit with a wacky ensemble film called Police Academy about a bunch of bumbling rookie cops. It eventually spawned at least a half-dozen sequels of steadily decreasing quality, but it also spawned knock-offs. The first to hit the screen was Night Patrol, which opened almost exactly eight months later.
The Unknown Comic was a recurring gag on a satirical talent show called The Gong Show, which ran on NBC from 1976 to 1978, then shifted to syndication for a couple more years. It’s been revived a few times since then, but in the original run, a comedian by the name of Murray Langston filled time on 150 episodes by playing a comedian so bad he hides his identity under a paper bag because his jokes are so old and awful. It was such a clever and elegantly simple gimmick that Langston was able to parlay it into nightclub gigs and appearances on other shows, but it pretty much ran its course by the time the first run of the Gong Show ended in 1980. Or so one would think. But no, Langston was able to milk it one more time, co-writing this flick about a cop named Melvin who moonlights as, yes, you guessed it, a comedian with a bag on his head. The hook here is that there’s also a criminal running around robbing people while wearing a bag, so Melvin has to catch the imposter and clear his name. Pat Paulsen, the master of low-key deadpan comedy, best known for his political shenanigans on the Smothers Brothers show in the 1960s, phones in a lackluster performance as Melvin’s sex-obsessed partner.
Throw in Linda (The Exorcist) Blair as a co-worker/love interest named Sue Perman (and yes, there is an insanely long and tedious sequence of “jokes” riffing on her name), along with appearances by the likes of Andrew Dice Clay, Billy Barty (as a walking fart joke), and Russ Meyers vixen Kitten Natividad, and you’ve got the makings of a filthy juvenile gross-out movie that’s about as entertaining as doing your own dental work. As my friend Bob warned me, “you’d have a better time pounding your head against the floor for two hours.”
A Change of Seasons (1980)
Anthony Hopkins is on record as despising Shirley Maclaine, the two of them regularly showing up in those “co-stars who hate each other in real life” listicles that Gawker and Buzzfeed used to do. The one film in which they appeared together was this tiresome entry. I was working at a newspaper when it came out, and somebody passed the press screening invite to me, so I went and saw it. I saw it for free and still wanted a refund.
The premise: Hopkins is a pompous ass of a college professor who is banging one of his students (a vacuous Bo Derek); when his long-suffering wife (Maclaine) finds out, she decides to retaliate by seducing the dimbulb campus carpenter (Michael Brandon). After confronting each other about their respective infidelities, they decide to conduct themselves as mature adults, be very cosmopolitan and modern and urbane, which results in the four of them sharing a cabin in the woods for a skiing vacation, every bit as awkward and awful as you’d think. Eventually this exercise is mercifully concluded when their teenage daughter (Marybeth Hurt) shows up to tear them a new one for their childish behavior. Hurt is about the only person in this movie who emerges unscathed by it.
Several years back, my former acting teacher, Donegan Smith, landed a role playing the back of Anthony Hopkins’ head. It was a TV movie called Guilty Conscience, in which Hopkins is a lawyer who is planning to murder his wife, but before he does, he puts himself on trial in his imagination, where he is the defendant, judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and jury. In those pre-cgi days, they had to do a lot of split-screen and body-double effects to pull it off. The upshot was that Donegan had to spend several weeks hanging around with Anthony Hopkins. Don said that Hopkins was an exceedingly gracious and polite man, but there was one person he unleashed a stream of scorching invective about: Shirley Maclaine. He referred to her as “the dragon.” Their mutual animosity permeates every scene of this humorless ordeal of a film.
Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
Here’s the movie that got me removed from Warner Bros’ press list. I was scheduled to attend the studio’s 100th anniversary party and an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of Casablanca, and then they sent me a Blu-Ray of Jack the Giant Slayer to review. About a week later, the PR person followed up to ask when my review would run. My response ensured that I wouldn’t be attending any more events at WB. Now that five years have passed, I might as well share it here….
I haven’t written a review, because I haven’t been able to sit through the movie. It’s kind of terrible, but not awful enough to be fun. I love a good bad movie, but this thing looks like a video game and feels like waiting at the DMV for your number to be called. Even Stanley Tucci couldn’t elevate it. It’s kind of a chore to watch, even for my kids.
I thought silence was a better choice than negativity, but if you don’t mind me slagging the movie, I’ll write it up.
Sorry about that.
Aside from having that greasy look that plagues CGI action movies, Jack the Giant Slayer is the most predictable film I’ve ever seen. Each time a character is introduced, you know exactly who they are, what their schtick is, where they fit in the clockwork plot, if and exactly how they will die. All that’s left is to plod through the endless scenes of photorealistic monsters moving with cartoon physics until the credits roll and you’re two hours closer to death with nothing to show for it.
Lord Love a Duck! (1966)
In theory, Lord Love a Duck! should be right up my alley. “What if somebody retold Faust as a ’60s beach party movie with Roddy McDowall as a teenage Mephistopheles?” Come on, you’d say that was something I’d have to love, right? Throw in Tuesday Weld and we’re off to the movies, right? Welllllll….
See, I fell asleep in front of the TV once, and when I woke up, this very weird black & white movie was on, with Roddy McDowall flapping his arms and squawking like a bird and a lot of baffling business going on, including a sequence in which a man in a wheelchair is chased by a guy driving a bulldozer in the middle of a high school graduation. It was almost hallucinatory, as strange as that time I woke up to identical twin little people selling a real estate investment scheme. Lord Love a Duck! became my go-to WTF movie when the topic came up. Finally, some 20-odd years later, I found it on Amazon and bought it.
It’s ghastly. My kids immediately declared that I am never again allowed to choose a film for family movie night, and they are completely right. The movie really only holds any charm if you stumble upon it unexpectedly and have that “what the everlasting chrome-plated fuck is THIS?” experience.
George Axelrod, the writer/producer, is a ham-fisted hack with no taste and less skill. He wrote the abysmal script for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I’m sorry, but every single good thing in that movie is Audrey Hepburn’s supernova charisma. If that’s your favorite Hepburn movie, I have to wonder if you’ve seen any others, because Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and Funny Face are all vastly superior, and I for sure know you’ve never read Truman Capote’s novel. The problem is that Axelrod just didn’t know how to cleverly write his way around the censors of his day, and his story fixes to avoid forbidden plot points are clumsy and awkward, as is amply illustrated in this film. The scene where Tuesday Weld manipulates her father into buying her a dozen cashmere sweaters is cringy and creepy in an awkward way, as if you know what the director is trying to imply, but it doesn’t work. The oedipal undertones are overtones, and it makes everyone involved seem icky.
Lord Love a Duck! can’t decide if it wants to be a goofy teen comedy, a sharp satire, or a dark psychological thriller, and so it becomes none of them, and it commits the most heinous of cinematic crimes: It’s boring. McDowall should start out harmless, charming and funny and gradually reveal himself as the manipulative Svengali monster that he is. A remake of this film could be amazing, touching as it does on the themes of toxic “nice guys” and the ways they insinuate themselves into someone’s life and take over. But that film doesn’t exist, and this one stinks.
Author! Author! (1982)
I threw this post open to the other Junk Shop writers, and Greg Hatcher immediately offered up this Al Pacino gem. I’ll let him tell you about it…
Greg H: Okay, here’s the thing about me and this movie, Author! Author! that you need to know up front. I have a love of bad movies that might well eclipse Jim’s– I own Road House – The Special Edition, on purpose, and its little-known sequel, Road House 2: Last Call. Not to mention Star Crash, No Contest, Spacehunter In The Forbidden Zone… dozens of others. I love them all. Un-ironically. If you offered me a chance to watch a fine film like Citizen Kane or something gleefully awful like Scream, Blacula Scream! …well, I’d go with the junk entry every time.
It’s not that I think these are good films. I know they are not. But there is something lovable about each of them, in their sheer awfulness.
All this is by way of preamble to explain how BAD a movie has to be to offend me. My tastes are utterly un-refined. So if I think it sucks, you may rely on it.
And Author! Author! sucks. It fails on every level, most especially at the one thing it desperately wants to be– a lovable family comedy. It’s not funny, this family is horrible, and it is the least lovable film ever in the history of ever.
Look, you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out this trailer.
But here is the thing that makes it a movie I despise. Its badness is insidious and hypnotic somehow. Because when it’s on TV, it’s never QUITE bad enough to change the channel. You just sort of stare at it, waiting for it to get good, then for it just to get somewhere and resolve something, then you idly wonder what in the living FUCK everyone involved with this turd was thinking. Well, we know what the writer Israel Horowitz, was thinking– he was thinking “I’m AWESOME!”
He is not. Nor is his avatar, Al Pacino as playwright Ivan Travalian, though everyone in the film keeps telling us he is. This is basically Horovitz’s Mary Sue fantasy, disguised as what some delusional studio head thought would be the next Kramer Vs. Kramer. (“That was Dustin Hoffman with one kid. Imagine– PACINO– with FIVE kids! Adorable! Can’t miss! We’ll be fuckin’ printing money off this thing!”)
But it reeks with the stench of its Mary-Sue-ness. Horovitz coyly told everyone the script was based on his own life, except that he didn’t REALLY have an affair with his lead actress or adopt five children, but he COULD have. All the women characters are evil bitches because they can’t recognize the awesomeness of Ivan Trevalian. The happy ending is when the author gets a rave review.
And somehow, when it shows up on basic cable, it stuns you into a sort of bored motionlessness. I’ve seen this goddamn thing eight or ten times. Mostly in the eighties, sitting stunned on the couch, when I was hung over. I hate myself for it.
The other one I thought of is Circle of Two.
This is one of the last films Richard Burton made and it shows. The premise is that an artist in his sixties, Burton, falls for an amazingly prescient and gifted teenager, Tatum O’Neal. Sort of Humbert Humbert’s rebuttal to Lolita. The idea is that sometimes a tragic forbidden love can be a saving inspiration and…. whatever.
It is relentlessly dull and slow with a lot of tormented dialogue about whether or not it’s okay for a sixty-year-old man to love a teenage girl, you know, THAT way, if maybe she’s really special. (Short answer: NO. Also ewww. That should have settled it the first time it came up, but characters keep finding new ways to wonder about it.) But it’s not salacious because NOTHING HAPPENS. Mostly it’s god-awfulness like this.
I will bet you didn’t even watch that clip to the end. It’s THAT BAD.
Another basic cable staple of the early 1980s, it’s mostly famous for Tatum baring her teenage breasts in an effort to prove to Burton that she really IS an adult, in possibly the skeeviest seduction scene ever. But I assure you, having sat through this horror, there’s nothing sexy about it. It’s awkward and stupid. Burton refuses her, there is more tormented dialogue, and honestly? By the time we get to that point in the film you’re so busy muttering Kill me now that naked breasts, even Miss O’Neal’s perky teen ones, will do nothing for you.
Somehow everyone involved seemed to think they were Making A Statement, that this film was Art. Trust me on this: It’s not. And once more– Ewww.