In the past, I've written pieces that asked what were the worst political gaffes and mistakes. I usually find the horribly run campaigns more fascinating to read about. It's either a rich millionaire with more money than smarts, who decides in an act of public masturbation to get into politics. Or it's a group of supposedly smart people with millions of dollars in contributions, who fail spectacularly. Usually at the heart of every political mistake is someone or a group of someones that got their heads together and came up with a policy proposal, campaign move, statement of reaction or other cunning plan that wasn't thought all the way through, and it fails to live up in execution to how well it read on paper.
Most bad movies are concocted in a similar manner, except instead of a group of political aides sitting around a table trying to fashion a poll-tested message, it's a group of producers and film executives sitting around a table trying to create a film around marketing research. But there are many ways to fail and screw up horrendously. There are many different levels of bad, with some films that are just plain bad, some that are godawful bad and still others that are so bad they become an enjoyable experience.
So a simple question for the evening: Which bad film experiences stand out? And why?
Right now at some bar, there's a band that should probably burn their instruments because they're so bad. Yeah they're horrible, but you don't go into the experience expecting much. I think what makes a bad movie particularly memorable is when it was made by someone who had all the resources they needed and should have known better.
As this xkcd graph illustrates, there are some films that are so bad they defy the very fabric of the universe and become watchable in spite of themselves. It could be just the "car wreck" factor or somehow, some way, all of the negatives come together and become positives.
Usually a good script can rise above bad acting, but a bad script will drag down good actors. There are some exceptions to this. For example, there's the interesting career of Patrick Swayze, who had a way of making lemonade out of lemons and arguably one of the greatest ranges of any actor in his particular era of films (e.g. any guy that can be believable in Red Dawn and Road House, and also Ghost and Dirty Dancing has range). Road House is a movie that on paper should not work, and probably only works because of Swayze's performance. If you plugged almost any other actor into that role, the movie wouldn't be the cult film it is today. Arguably, the same thing is true for Point Break.
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has been called a "true successor" to the Rocky Horror throne. It's a horribly acted, written and directed film that has the production values of a late-night soft-core porn film, from a guy who looks like he escaped from the set of a Geico cavemen commercial.
Thanks mainly to an excellent Entertainment Weekly piece by Clark Collis, what was once a well-kept L.A.-only secret—or as secret as anything promoted by a bizarre billboard could be—has recently been spreading throughout the country, popping up in sold-out shows in New York and other cities, and on a recent episode of Tim And Eric Awesome Show Awesome Show, Great Job! Approaching the film as a Chicago-based outsider, with a healthy skepticism of L.A. phenomena of any stripe, I’m now convinced that it’s the real deal. It may not have the staying power of a Rocky Horror, if only because midnight-movie culture just isn’t as sustainable as it once was, but in the annals of bad cinema, The Room deserves shelf-space next to Ed Wood’s Glen Or Glenda? Both are personal and shockingly amateurish laughers that put their directors in front of the camera and are all too revealing of their odd peccadilloes. Wood has a thing for angora sweaters; Wiseau has a thing for pillow fights, red roses, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Who are we not to luxuriate in their fetishes?Making a movie is a large undertaking. Even the independent filmmakers who're trying to make a name for themselves by maxing out their credit cards on a production are in for a long process. However, there are some films that while watching you start wondering how it's possible to spend hundreds of millions on a movie, and it seem like not a dime went towards the piss poor script. On the other hand, there are times where the filmmakers' reach exceed their grasp. People complain all the time about the same cookie-cutter movies being made over and over again. But there's a thin line between creativity and going off the rails.
The George Lucas produced Howard the Duck is an infamous bomb. It's a really expensive film where the people behind it had no idea which audience they were appealing to, so the movie has a really schizophrenic tone.
On the one hand it tries to be a big-budget science fiction film that appeals to families, and uses Lucas' name to market to the Star Wars audience. But it's also centered around a duck having sex with Lea Thompson, features "duck tits" and a giant alien penis/tongue going into a cigarette lighter. And to show you how far the MPAA ratings have moved in the last 30 or so years, this was a movie that was rated PG in 1986.
There are many ways to waste money and destroy careers in the film industry. Right now, all you have to do is turn on cable and see a horrible, shitty film playing. However, the following are some of the more common ways "awesomely bad" films are made.
► These People Were Actually Nominated For Oscars... And Some Of Them Won!
An actor, actress or director lands a great project. The film is successful, gains critical acclaim, and the person is recognized with an Academy Award for his or her contribution. That means their career is set, and there will be nothing but roses ahead, right? Wrong.
Either through poor choices or cashing in on the success, there are a number of Oscar winners whose post-win careers have veered into a straight to DVD ditch. Since they now can be listed in the trailer and on the poster as "Academy Award Winner," the actor, actress or director now has the power to get films into production that might be stuck in development hell just by attaching their names to the project. However, there might be a good reason it was stuck in development hell.
A good example of this is Nicolas Cage, who won the Best Actor Award in 1995 for his role in Leaving Las Vegas. If you look at his IMDB page for everything post-1995, arguably with the exception of 'Adaptation and one or two others, it's pretty damn bad. And reportedly, Cage is in the position of doing any film that he gets offered to pay off debts and back-taxes.
Other examples of poor post-Oscar decisions that probably should have gotten an agent fired:
- Halle Berry followed her 2001 Oscar winning performance in Monster's Ball with the James Bond film Die Another Day, the horror-thriller Gothika and then the pièce de résistance that is Catwoman.
- After winning his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams has been in RV, Patch Adams, Jakob The Liar, Bicentennial Man, House of D, License to Wed, August Rush, Old Dogs and Man of the Year.
- It is possible to bounce back. Hillary Swank won her first Oscar for her role in Boys Don't Cry in 1999. She then did a string of films that bottomed out with 2003's The Core. However, her very next film was Million Dollar Baby.
- Cuba Gooding Jr. won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Jerry Maguire in 1996. In the 15 years since, his IMDB page consists of Radio, Norbit, Home on the Range, 'Instinct, Chill Factor, Pearl Harbor, Rat Race, Boat Trip, Snow Dogs and Daddy Day Camp.
However, the studios won't abide diminishing returns forever, and sooner or later if things don't change, it's off to straight to DVD land ... or worse ... late-night soft-core porn.
► The Vanity Project
Similar to what I mentioned above, this is when someone in Hollywood has a pet project they have enough clout to get made but (for a myriad of reasons) it doesn't work. As a general rule, if in the opening credits you see the same person listed as "Produced by, Written by, Directed by, and Starring ..." it's a bad sign. Yes, good films can be the product of an auteur's vision, but you could probably count on both hands the number of directors who get that kind of control and more times than not things work better in a collaborative process. Usually there needs to be someone with enough power to offer a different perspective, and from time to time say, "No."
The film adaption of Battlefield Earth was the pet project of John Travolta, who as a member of the Church of Scientology wanted to get L. Ron Hubbard's book to the screen.
"Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in The Fugitive. I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies."1980's Heaven's Gate is an infamous debacle that contributed to the collapse of United Artists and ruined director Michael Cimino's career. Cimino was coming off the success of The Deer Hunter, which had won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1979, and decided on a western epic based on the Johnson County War.
What was originally a film budgeted for $12 million eventually ended up costing $42 million (which, if adjusted for inflation, would be over $100 million in 2014 dollars) because of blown schedules and production delays. Studio executives forced Cimino to trim the film from its initial run time of over five hours to around three hours, forty-five minutes. The theatrical cut ran about two-and-a-half-hours. And if you cut almost 50 percent of the narrative out of anything, it's going to be a poorly paced, disjointed mess.
As an example of his fanatical attention to detail, Cimino tore down an entire street set because it "didn't look right." Cimino wanted the street to be six feet wider. When the set construction boss pointed out that it would be cheaper and faster to tear down one side and move it back six feet, Cimino insisted that both sides be dismantled and moved back three feet, then reassembled. Heaven's Gate is also the reason why the American Humane Association (AHA) monitors animal activities on all movie sets. In Cimino's pursuit of authenticity, four horses were reportedly killed and others seriously injured while shooting the battle scene, as well as allegations that other animals were slaughtered for various scenes. The AHA picketed the film and asked the public to boycott it. The uproar led to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) authorizing the AHA to monitor the use of animals in film production.
All in all, Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet (nearly 220 hours) of footage, costing approximately $200,000 per day. Heaven's Gate earned less than $3 million domestically when it was released.
Maybe it's that I like what Paul Giamatti does with what he's given, but I don't find Lady in the Water as bad as the likes of:
- Signs—Hydrophobic aliens, wearing no protection, invade a planet covered in water, has water vapor in the atmosphere and try to eat a species composed 3/5 of water?
- After Earth—After just a thousand years, every organism on Earth has evolved to kill humans ... even though humans don't live on Earth anymore. Evolution doesn't work that way.
- The Happening—Killer plants and people running from the wind? Just think about that for a second.
From Christopher Orr at the New Republic:
Perhaps oddest of all, The Happening imagines itself to be a powerfully pro-environment movie. The snatches of televised commentary we see at the end of the film declare that this murderous act of nature was a warning; everyone seems to assume the obvious lesson to take is that we’d better treat nature nicer lest it decide to start wiping us out again. Allow me to suggest, contrarily, that if millions of Americans were killed by some tree-originated pathogen that could be released again at any time, the immediate result would not be a renewed enthusiasm for peaceful coexistence, but rather a program of deforestation so aggressive it’d make the Brazilian lumber industry look like tree huggers.However, Lady in the Water is Shyamalan's least successful film. It also caused a very public split between Shyamalan and Disney, which distributed The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, which had problems with elements like Shyamalan casting himself in the film as a visionary writer whose work inspires a Messiah.
► The Unnecessary Prequel/Sequel/Franchise Killer
If something is successful, why not do it again and make more money? However, if you want to make more money and a good product as well, the sequel/prequel/reboot runs into a situation that requires a fine balance. It can't be more of the same or people will complain it's redundant. And it can't be too different, or people will complain the filmmakers forgot the elements that made the original film great. And if it doesn't work, it can lead to a Broken Base, where fans will just ignore entire elements of the story or reassess how good the original product actually was.
The Matrix is a great film. The problem though is they didn't stop after the first film. Many feel the impact of the original film has been dragged down by the two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, and some fans of the original like to pretend the sequels don't exist.
And then there's Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin.
Both the Star Wars prequels and Batman and Robin are also examples of being ...
► Commercials For Toys, The Soundtrack, Cups At McDonalds, etc.
I remember an episode of HBO's The Chris Rock Show in which Chris' guest was Spike Lee. If I remember right, they were discussing how a movie like Belly got made, and Chris Rock's response was "the soundtrack." The film is not really a film. It's a 90-minute commercial (or music video) for the soundtrack.
A film's profit is more than just its box office nowadays. It's also merchandising (toys, video games, coloring books, cups at McDonald's, etc.) So it's entirely possible for a movie to not make back its budget in the theater and still be successful. Of course, in order to do this, it sometimes restructuring the plot to include elements that may make little to no sense. As a general rule of thumb, if you're watching a film and a character or object shows up that doesn't fit, ask yourself whether it could be sold as an action figure and then you'll have your answer.
► Cocaine Is A Hell Of A Drug
If you watch a lot of films from the mid-70s to the early 80s, it seems a lot of film executives were getting high on cocaine. And I mean Tony Scarface Montana mounds of Cocaine. It's the only way to explain how some of these films got greenlit and distributed.
With 1980's Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck and Gene Kelly (in his final role), it's something that on paper seems like it should work. Olivia Newton-John was coming off the success of Grease, Michael Beck had just starred in The Warriors, producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver somehow convinced Gene Kelly to take part in the movie, and Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra contributed a big chunk of the songs used for the film. Of course, there was one small thing; the script. According to IMDB, filming began without a finished script and the story was basically cobbled together as filming went on.
- There's the Village People epic Can’t Stop The Music, where Bruce Jenner wears a crop top and daisy dukes.
- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Because who doesn't want to watch George Burns sing Beatles tunes?
- KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park - Produced by Hanna-Barbera, this movie was made at the height of KISS' popularity and it's a shameless cash grab by the band.
- The Apple - A particularly Godawful film that is so full of plotholes and an ending that seems to come out of nowhere. My theory for the abrupt ending is that the crew ran out of coke.
► "Paint By Numbers" Versus "True Art Is Incomprehensible"
This is probably the greatest source of bad films.
When I did the diary about TV and film clichés, I noted that almost every work employs a certain amount of tried-and-true clichés, conventions, formulas and stereotypes to hold a story together. In a good film these type of things are usually forgiven, since the audience doesn't really notice 'em. However, in bad films they stand out like a sore thumb, with the writer and director sometimes serving up a cliché storm to the audience. Depending on the film, it's possible for it to work, but usually it leads to an uncreative, boring mess in which the viewer could figure out the major plot beats during the first five minutes.
For example, Roland Emmerich's 2012 goes down a checklist of disaster film clichés.
- An apocalyptic event that defies all known real science is discovered.
- Secret government conspiracy/program to save humanity.
- The government program will be led by the biggest asshole the world has ever known, who will disregard any and all advice given to him.
- A precious few find out about the coming DOOM and try to warn their family, from whom they are estranged.
- The disaster begins, signified by blowing up a given country's national monuments.
- The survival of everyone is dependent on the guy who's estranged from his family doing something incredibly heroic, which "earns" his redemption in his family's eyes.
On the other end of the spectrum are the films that throw out the clichés and structure, not as part of a coherent narrative decision, but as a purposeful way to show how different they are. A lot of bad "Art" films wallow in this. Things don't make sense? The plot is incomprehensible? You "just don't get it."
I shudder if the majority of people look at my brush work and say it is pretty, for then I know it is ordinary and I have failed. If they say they do not understand it, or even that it is ugly, I am happy, for I have succeeded.An interesting middle ground example between these two extremes is 1999's American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. When it was released, the film was critically lauded and won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Kevin Spacey, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
However, the film has not exactly aged well, and it now has a tendency to show up on lists of the most overrated Best Picture Oscar winners of all time. It largely stems from the fact that when you sit down and watch it now, American Beauty comes off as a movie that thinks it's really "deep" in its cultural commentary when it's not (i.e. "You mean upper middle class people have dysfunctions and problems too?!?!"). Nothing exemplifies that more than a scene of characters watching and pontificating on the significance of a plastic bag floating in the wind.
► Gimmick-y Movie-making
Sometimes movies aren't really about anything. Not in the Seinfeld-ian sense, but they're not really about characters or story progression. They're centered around a concept or gimmick to put butts in seats. The problem though is that a gimmick might get people to take a chance on a film, but you can't really base a two-hour film around a gimmick ... at least you can't base a good film around a gimmick.
1995's Showgirls, directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas, who sold the script for this sucker for what was a record $2 million at the time, is a prime example of this trope. The entire marketing hook and hype for Showgirls was sex. I believe it's the only studio film to have a wide release with a NC-17 rating. The trailer for Showgirls plays up what they can't show you, and how erotic and controversial the film will be. It's probably the last big-budget studio sex film. Although, I guess I should point out that Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike follows similar beats as Showgirls, just a bit more sanely and from the perspective of a male character.
Rather than using nudity for artistic or dramatic purposes, this is the movie with the chick from "Saved By The Bell" getting naked for the sake of getting naked.However, sex scenes are not the only way to gimmick-up a film. How many times have you seen a movie marketed for its explosions, violence, stunt casting, visual effects and the most recent one of "Lifelike 3D!," only to see it and find out that beyond the CGI-gasms there's nothing else? Bad horror films are particular offenders on this score. Some are marketed as the "scariest" film you'll ever see. It's so scary they can't even show you clips from the film. May God help you if you come to the theater, because you may die from a heart attack. And then you finally see the film, and it's a cliché-ridden crapfest.
1979's Caligula is primarily infamous for trying to straddle the line between being high art and a porn film, and failing miserably at both. The original script was written by Gore Vidal (who later disowned the film) and it was directed by Tinto Brass. However, the film was produced by Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine, who had final cut. Unhappy with Brass' product, he brought in someone else to recut the film and added in hardcore sex scenes, with some of them not making any sense to what little plot the movie had. This led to many different versions of the film.
There are nine different cuts of Caligula, and with each of them you're still left pondering how a movie with good actors (Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud), and gratuitous amounts of sex and violence, can be so damn boring.
A porno starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud? Oh hell yeah. I was under no illusion that Caligula would be any good at all, and that 156-minute run time did make me nervous (yes, I went with the unrated cut; would you expect less?), but some movies persist in the cultural memory simply because they’re so outrageous, we can’t help but be delighted they’re real. Oh of course it’s trash, and of course it’s filth and perversion and horse-fucking and girl-on-girl and Peter O’Toole being crazy and Malcolm McDowell fisting a dude and—wait, what was I saying? Right. It’s trash, but in concept at least, it has the potential of being gloriously transgressive trash... Watching Caligula is like flipping back and forth between a prestigious but dull historical epic and a movie in which people masturbate a lot. The masturbation may be some kind of symbolism, but when you’re watching actual genitalia onscreen... well, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a dick is just a dick.
It’s tempting to blame most of Caligula’s flaws on Guccione’s meddling, and there’s little doubt that his additions—including, most infamously, a five-minute lesbian sex scene that doesn’t have anything to do with anything beyond being a five-minute lesbian sex scene—were distracting, pointless, and, by the end, irritatingly dull. During a late-movie orgy sequence, I’d swear I saw the same woman giving the same guy the same blowjob at least six times. Apart from ruining any sense of narrative momentum, the constant assault of fuckery just gets old. It starts as shocking, becomes compelling in a Rube-Goldberg-meets-the-Marquis-De-Sade kind of way, but by the time you hit your third finger-bang, the magic is gone...
Take the plot: Malcolm McDowell plays Caligula, inveterate sister-fucker and heir to not-quite-dead Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole). The movie opens with a familiar quote about gaining the world and losing one’s soul, but let’s be honest here: When your idea of a perfect day involves romping naked through the woods with a sibling, then screwing that sibling to your heart’s content, the soul train has already left your particular station.