I've always had a thing for bad movies. As a kid, my two main sources for cinematic thrills were the late, lamented Aloha Theater, and afternoon movies on channel 12 (back when it was one of five total TV stations, the scrappy independent underdog against the 3 networks plus PBS). Stop-motion monsters? Great. Guys in rubber monster suits? Fantastic. Scripts that don't make any sense? Cool. Ridiculous dubbing? Yes, please, I'll have another.
I have a theory about bad movies, and about bad art in general. It may not be a very good theory, but it's mine. I'd suggest to you that if you want to understand what was going on in society at a given place and time, you'll learn more by studying that era's fourth-rate crap than you would by studying the timeless classics. First rate work reflects the artist and his or her unique vision, first and foremost. You can learn a lot about the artist, and that can be rewarding in its own way, of course. Fourth rate work generally doesn't proceed from someone's overarching, singular vision. Someone's churning out stuff they think will sell, in order to pay the rent and put booze, er, food on the table. In the "subsistence filmmaking" world, you can't afford to go too far out on a limb, or pander to too elite of an audience. To succeed, you figure out what the unwashed masses really want (whether they admit to it or not), and give it to them as best you can. The resulting work isn't an "objective" look at the society it came from, of course, but it can tell you something about the biases of the day, and how that society saw itself. Ok, so that's my theory, and it's not hard to come up with counterexamples. A prime virtue of both Dickens and Shakespeare is that they did say something about contemporary society. But then, they were both working out of economic need, and were only later recognized as geniuses. On the flip side, some bad art results from a singular but really cheesy vision. Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda is an extremely personal statement.
So here's the latest batch of B movies, for good or ill...
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave
- An Italian horror movie dubbed into English. I guess I don't really get Italian horror movies. Italy doesn't seem like a place where you'd get a lot of horror films; if you've got sunshine and wine and olives every day, why spend a single moment thinking about serial killers, or zombies, or cannibals? It doesn't make sense, but there you go. What I really don't get is that the film's serial killer turns out to be the "hero" of the film, in a late plot twist, and the baddies were out to lay their hands on his money. I suppose we can chalk this one up to Cultural Differences. The mod 60's cottage at the end is pretty cool, though. And although the film's supposed to be set in England, it's the least convincing imitation you'll ever see, which is sort of a hoot. I understand that the dubbed English version was seriously cut for US release, and I missed out on scads of luscious Euro-sleaze. Damn. I suppose there's no point in waiting around for the director's cut, is there?
- Riders to the Stars
- A very early SF film about a group of clean-cut white guys training for a flight into space. In the end, three are selected, and one survives, and I suppose you're supposed to draw some sort of "survival of the fittest" conclusion about who survives and who doesn't. I'm not sure. Also, there's the requisite love interest thing, and they live happily ever after, naturally. One interesting bit is that the omnipresent Richard Carlson is one of the guys who doesn't make it, having a legendary bad-movie freakout and trashing his spaceship in the process. Oh, and Carlson directed the film, too. Read into that whatever you like. There's a scene in the film where the ever-present icy female scientist automatically serves coffee to the menfolk. The movie generally strives for a sense of realism, and a prof back in college once told me this really was expected of you back in those days. You could get all the postgraduate degrees you liked, but when the ol' percolator started percolating, you were still nothing but a waitress until the boys had their caffeine fix. Ahh, the 50's, such a wholesome and innocent time. Feh.
- Beast from Haunted Cave
- This is an early Roger Corman effort. There's a gold heist in the beginning, and an icky spider monster at the end, and the rest of the movie is a whole lot of skiing. I think they were trying to cash in on the ski trend of the early 60's. I wasn't around back then, but I've seen my parents' home movies, and they look really similar to this film. Except without sound, and in color, with no spider-beast (in the surviving footage). It's kinda fun to see that snapshot of a bygone subculture, plus the creature holds its own. You don't see a lot of it, because it looks pretty crappy, but it captures people alive, traps them in spiderwebs, and feeds on them at its leisure, sort of like Alien, or Shelob in LOTR. That's way creepier than you'd usually see back in those days.
- The prototypical giant ant movie. It's been a while since I watched this, so I can't comment in great detail like I should. But the large animatronic ants are just classic. And the grand finale in the L.A. sewers, near the Los Angeles River, are pretty great. TIght script, written pretty well, decent dialogue. It's just that everyone laughs because of the basic premise, I mean, giant ants? Jeez. That's crazy. But in the end, the movie exists because some moviemaker learned a little about radioactivity and went "oh, crap". So, ok, you can't really make ants grow to the size of elephants with a few gamma rays. But someone's heart was in the right place anyway. That ought to count for something.
- Manos: The Hands of Fate
- A lot of people call this the worst movie of all time, ranking up there with Plan 9 and Eegah! I think that's kind of unfair, really. The guy who made this was a fertilizer salesman in El Paso who decided he wanted to make a movie. He had a near-zero budget, zero experience, and he wrote, directed, and starred. Basically your classic indie filmmaker story, except a few decades too early, and with even less talent. The acting is about what you'd expect: The pool of top-rank acting talent in El Paso in the mid-60s seems to have been rather thin, and this movie didn't draw from that pool. We're talking high school play quality here. And making fun of Manos is like making fun of someone's high school play: It was a labor of love, they tried their absolute hardest, and even though they clearly knew next to nothing about their craft, they made up for it with a certain naive, earnest quality. It just isn't very nice to make fun of someone who's trying so hard, whether they succeed or not. Or to switch analogies, Manos is the movie equivalent of folk art, kind of like Grandma Moses, or a velvet Elvis, or the quilters down at the senior center. Again, making fun of it isn't very nice. Plus the guy cast himself as the remarkably clueless "hero" in a film with a decidedly downbeat ending, which ought to count for something. And that "Master" guy, with the robe with the gigantic red hands on it... That's an utterly awesome outfit. I think I may need a Manos robe for next Halloween. That would be the bomb, so long as you're around people who don't need you to explain it. If you have to explain the movie, you're sunk.
- Monster a Go-Go
- This baby makes a lot of "worst ever" lists. If you're a fan of that sort of thing, you may have heard of MaGG already. Otherwise, probably not. The key thing to know about this movie is that it's a splice job. Director A started movie B ("B movie", get it? Ha, ha.) but ran out of money part of the way through. Director C buys the footage, shoots a bit more of his own, and dumps the thing into the unsuspecting marketplace to make whatever cash he can. It turns out that may have been a good business decision, in the long term. If the original movie had been finished and released, it would've been just another unremarkable creature feature. But take two creature featurettes and awkwardly splice them together, and you've got box office gold. Eventually, anyway, once the ironic bad-movie nerds take notice. As splice jobs go, it's not the worst I've seen. Trail of the Pink Panther is way worse. You get a bit of Peter Sellers doing the usual Pink Panther thing, then he disappears (ok, dies in reality), and the rest of the movie is the world's most annoying female investigative reporter going around interviewing people about the "missing" Inspector Clouseau. Also, Horror of the Blood Monsters is pretty dire too, the usual Jerry Warren hatchet job. Although if you want a taste of vintage Philippine vampire cinema, this version's going to be a lot easier to find than an original film would be. Anyway, back to MaGG, the worst thing about the movie is the ending. It's like they wanted their saturday matinee audience to leave the theater angry, and go out and commit random juvenile offenses to blow off steam. I could say "Spoiler Alert" here, but c'mon, you really don't want to see this POS, do you? If you really don't want me to ruin the end for you, scroll down to the next movie, it's easy. There. Ok, so the good guys are chasing the monster (tall guy in bad makeup), it feels like we're at the climactic scene, the cops are in hot pursuit, etc. But then, the monster just disappears, never to be seen again. And the astronaut it supposedly mutated from is found alive and unharmed, thousands of miles away. So none of the movie's events ever happened, which is undoubtedly for the best. The End. Not very satisfying, is it? Kind of makes you want to go out and do some petty vandalism, doesn't it? Told you so. People usually talk about the bit where a phone rings, and you can hear a person making the ringing phone sound. It's funny, but I bet they just forgot to dub in the right sound later. There's enough awful crap in this movie (like the world's tiniest space capsule, for instance), so why bother taking cheap shots? Heck, there's a bit in Manos where they didn't quite get the clapper edited out at the beginning of the scene, if we're going to harp on bad editing. Besides, it happens so fast that you really can't savor the moment, and if you pause and rewind to see it again, your friends will call you a nerd.
- 13 Ghosts
- One of the lesser-known works of William Castle, the theater gimmick guy. You've heard of him, the guy with the buzzers under the seats, inflatable skeletons, ushers running around the theater dressed as ghosts, that sort of thing. It doesn't hurt that his movies are fun on their own, apart from the gimmicks. Good, clean fun unfortunately, but fun nonetheless.
- Monster that Challenged the World
- A prehistoric creature hatches deep beneath California's Salton Sea, and sets out terrorizing the few people who live nearby. Can our heroes stop the beastie before it reaches the ocean? Because if it does, there's no stopping it. Present-day movies never present the hero as a grumpy, paunchy, clueless middle-aged guy. Male actors could get away with a lot more back then, I guess. So the movie as a whole isn't great, and the lead actor is the angriest old coot I've ever seen. And the title is laughable. But at least the outdoor settings are pretty creepy. I remember some years ago driving past the Salton Sea with a couple of other people. We knew it was nearby because of the smell, and it wasn't a great smell. Really the worst thing about the movie is the wimpy title. "Challenged"? Feh.
- The Monster Walks
- Bad gorilla-suit movie meets bad haunted house movie. It's been a while since I watched this, and there wasn't anything all that memorable in it. One ugly bit is that the token black cast member (a chauffeur, if I remember right) is credited as "Sleep-n-Eat". Not the as the character's name, the actor's name. Ugh.
- Lost Jungle
- This is a cinematic vehicle for one "Clyde Beatty", who I gather was quite the celebrity animal trainer back in the day. Sort of Siegfried & Roy put together, if they were both short sadistic little men with big bullwhips. It seems there was a whole series of Clyde Beatty movies at one time. Elvis, in his cinematic ouevre, would inevitably end up in a situation where he had to whip out his guitar and belt out a forgettable ballad or two. Beatty couldn't act any more than Elvis could, so he fell back on his strengths as well. Instead of crooning at adoring nuns or hula girls, Beatty would just whip the hell out of a lion or tiger or two. None of those wimpy "No animals were harmed in the making of this picture" notices for ol' Clyde. As far as I can tell, the audience loved it and kept coming back for more. And now that they're old, we call these people the "Greatest Generation". Ha. I only watched this because there's a cool 30's zeppelin in it, and all zeppelins are awesome. It's a law of nature, sort of. But it's only there for a short time, and it crashes, and then it's nothing but animal abuse until the credits roll. Yech.
- Ghost Ship
- Now this is a really, really good movie you've probably never heard of. It's another spooky, atmospheric Val Lewton movie, the same guy who brought us Cat People (the original), and I Walked with a Zombie. There aren't any ghosts here, actually. Nothing supernatural at all. Just a claustrophobic cargo ship with a sea captain who's warm, friendly, and homicidally insane. He's perfectly calm and reasonable as he explains it's his job to exercise power of life and death over every living thing on board. When he has to bump off a crewman, he comes across as rational and unapologetic. He's a tyrant at sea, but on land he folds up into a bitter, lost old man. And the ship puts to sea and he's a tyrant again. As with all Lewton movies, it's all in the details. The sound, and unforgettable visuals like the gigantic hook swinging madly around the deck during a storm, crewmen trying to dodge it.
- Psyched by the 4d Witch
- I tend to go easy on movies you see on "worst movies ever" lists, like Manos (above), or Plan 9. They really aren't the worst of the worst, not even close. For instance, take Psyched by the 4D Witch. Please. This is without a doubt one of the most godawful, incompetent, nonsensical movies I've ever seen, and that's saying a lot. I don't even know where to begin with this one. It's part groovy psychedelic drug movie, and part amateur softcore exploitation pic. So far so good. But it looks like it was filmed on silent Super 8 stock, and a soundtrack was added later: Inane narration, and music that alternates clumsily between classical (mostly Russian: Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky's 1812 and Marche Slave) and the groovy "4D Witch" song of the title. In a way it might not be fair of me to pass judgment on this lil' movie. Watching it without drugs (which I did, I'll have you know) may be like watching a 3D movie without 3D glasses. You just aren't properly equipped. But from my admittedly limited perspective I'd have to say this movie would be a sad waste of perfectly good LSD. You could also be contrarian and argue this movie is so incomprehensible it must, simply must be High Art. I could probably write that film school essay myself if I really wanted to, although it'd be total BS. I gather that it's only Art if the auteur actually intended the work to be messy or incomprehensible. Godard's Breathless is full of awkward jump cuts and people sitting around smoking and talking aimlessly, but it's definitely High Art. Everybody says so, so you can be sure it must be true. On the other hand, there are any number of Doris Wishman films that are superficially similar: Jump cuts, long conversations, plot that doesn't amount to much. But Wishman movies are dreck. Maybe there's a subtle difference, or maybe it's purely a matter of consensus. Who can say?