Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Return of the Worst Movies Ever Made

In the year 2007 Australian screenwriter, film reviewer and occasional actor Michael Adams fulfilled a new year's resolution by watching more than 365 of the reputed worst films ever made, maintaining a pace of at least one film a day. Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies recounts Adams's ordeal and presents his findings, naming what he claims as of October 2009 to still be the Worst Movie Ever Made.

Adams prepared for his task by creating scores of categories, assigning each to a Bingo ball and allowing his Bingo machine to set his viewing assignment for each night. This gives a randomness to his viewing that invests his narrative with some suspense. For several months, four films are tied for the Worst. That invites the reader to wonder whether any film will "top" them and whether Adams will watch your personal Worst film. He grades films on a 100-point system, breaking the grade down into five 20-point categories: production, script and direction, acting, themes and enjoyment value. However, he doesn't quantify his grades for each film, probably due to production limitations. It's a cheap book: no pictures, since book publishers doing for-profit projects can't get away with the kind of "fair use" screen caps we bloggers use. It may disappoint the true list-monger for these reasons, as well as for being the Julia & Julia of bad movie books. The chronicle-of-a-year format allows Adams to tell us about his own career as a reviewer and sometime TV personality, his wife's employment ups and downs, and their daughters first words. But Adams wins points for not taking cheap shots at the easy targets and for delving fairly deep into bad cinema within his pre-arranged constraints (no foreign-language films, no porn, 60 min. minimum length, etc.). Nor does he run with the herd. Among the current favorites for Worst Film, The Room makes his "top" twenty but falls out of the running because Adams finds it wildly entertaining, while Troll 2 ranks as a "guilty pleasure" and Adams never gives us its actual score.

A spoiler warning would probably be appropriate here. Since Adams strives to create suspense about which film ends up Worst, I wouldn't want to deprive those who intend to read the book themselves of the temptation I felt to flip to the end. So I'm going to open up a little space here and then discuss a ranking that goes unpublicized on the book's covers before revealing the author's five worst films.

* * *
Adams's book is no Golden Turkey Awards. Apart from naming the Worst film, the only other achievement he notes is the career of the Worst Director of all time. In fact, I didn't even know there was a competition until Adams forced the thorny crown upon the brow of Uli Lommel at the end of August. There's an element of moral outrage to this award, which Lommel earned more for his exploitatively fictionalized serial-killer movies of this decade (Green River Killer, Curse of the Zodiac, etc.) than for the infamous ripoff of Boogeyman 2. For Adams, Lommel is the Worst because he's the most cynical of directors, as well as one of the least talented. Three of his films (the two aforementioned plus B.T.K. Killer, Green River being the worst) made Adams's top twenty. If there's a runner-up in the director category, it would be Donald G. Jackson of Demon Lover fame, who earns his spot with his later films like Roller Blade Seven and Big Sister 2000. Honorable mention would probably go to Jackson's collaborator and successor Scott Shaw, a fellow practitioner of "Zen filmmaking," a style described by Adams as "turn up with a camera, make it up as you go."
So what are the Worst films in the learned opinion of someone who watched quite a few in his purposefully limited time? I'll summarize his fatal five in degenerative order, saving the Worst for last:

5. The Weird World of LSD (10/100). It turns out that I've seen some of this one, because Something Weird Video included a little clip of it in the intro to its Image DVDs. This drug expose features trip sequences that "haven't the slightest resemblance to any reality, LSD-suffused or otherwise," Adams writes, ranking it worse than all the 1930s drug films because of its "utter inanity and ineptitude." The clip was uploaded to YouTube by ModModWorld:

4. Ax 'Em (10/100). Eli Roth recommended this one to Adams. Made by Michael Mfume, the son of a former NAACP president, it was filmed in 1992 as The Weekend It Lives. Adams actually takes Roth's word for it, mostly quoting the director directly before adding his own awful pun: "Ax for it by name." Roth describes a practically illiterate film about a mad urban slasher, while Adams notes further incompetence in Mfume's staging of action. It's hard to tell from the description how bad this really is, since Roth mostly describes his own and other people's reactions to it, but Adams saw it in December so he had a lot to compare it with.
Cykwill2000 uploaded this murder clip; Roth found the old man's dying words hilarious.

3. Ben & Arthur (9/100) is offered as a gay companion piece for The Room that eclipses the more famous stinker in outrageous ineptitude. Producer Sam Mraovich is the write-director, the cinematographer and editor, and also provided the film's score. He stars as Arthur, eager to marry Ben in Hawaii and menaced by his religious-fanatic brother Victor. Adams says it's "as over-the-top insane as it is ludicrously executed," with production values "as bad as anything I've seen."
This trailer was uploaded to YouTube by reelsiriuspwnage.

2. Vampire Blvd. (4/100), from the aforementioned Scott Shaw, is "like porn without the sex scenes, skit without comedy, action-horror with neither." It features Shaw as a demon-fighting 'Nam vet along with ninjas, Robert Z'Dar as a robot, zombie girls created by science, a singing Joe Estevez, etc. "No one knows what they're doing in any scene or how it relates to any story," Adams deduces, putting "scene" and "story" in scare quotes. This film was the last straw in a pack of Shaw films that figuratively broke Adams's brain. But there was Worst to come.

No trailer available for this one, but one box cover may be worth a thousand frames.

1. Dark Harvest 2: The Maize (4/100). Adams writes that he saw this on December 30, the equivalent of having four seconds left on the time-bomb mechanism before conceding "victory" to Vampire Blvd. In his opinion, it's "for people who thought The Blair Witch Project didn't have nearly enough aimless wandering around captured on grainy video." Multi-threat auteur Bill Cowell hunts for his missing daughters in a corn maze, finds them, loses track of them again, and is stalked by a murderer. It has an eight-minute sequence in which Cowell digs a hole. Interviewing Cowell later, Adams learns that the director didn't mean for it to be released publicly, but that Lionsgate thought they could exploit it and paid him to do so, slapping the Dark Harvest tag on the once-humble The Maize: The Movie. You'll see that it has the same score as Vampire Blvd, but Adams gives it the nod because it's 26 minutes longer.
And here's the trailer, uploaded by itndistribution.

* * *

Adams should know better than to expect anyone to accept his verdict as the last word of bad movies. I'm sure he knows that there's still a lot more out there, and he reports that he's still watching stinkers, albeit at a less frantic pace. But as far as I know he hasn't yet seen the film I consider the Worst, the unspeakable Midnight Movie Massacre. On the other hand, I haven't sat through any of his fatal five, so I suppose we're even.
Any book like this brings up the problem of how to rate bad cinema. You could argue that Adams gives too much compensatory weight to unintentional entertainment value. Like many bad-movie buffs, he believes that a film you can laugh at (rather than with) is better than a film that bores or baffles you. I buy into that reasoning somewhat myself, having claimed in the past that the Worst film would have to be a failed comedy (as Midnight Movie Massacre is) just so no one could claim to be entertained by laughing at it. But I sometimes wonder whether we laugh too easily these days, at bad movies or bad things in real life, or whether we'd rather just laugh at things than feel outrage, compassion or anything that might motivate us to make things better. But I should stop myself right now lest I sound like someone making a speech in a bad movie.
I'm just saying that if we didn't let some filmmakers off the hook for making us laugh, whether they meant to or not, lists like these might look a lot different. That's for each of us to decide individually, of course. I don't think there can be an objectively Worst film that everyone would have to agree on, and there may not even be an objective ideal of moviegoing experience that would require us all to agree on some films' pure badness. After all, identifying a truly Bad film is just a way of saying that it's interesting in some distinctive way that an objectively Bad film shouldn't be. The perfect Bad film, perhaps, would be the one you forget as you're watching it and can't describe afterward. We've all seen films like that, but they'll never be written up in books and unlike those movies memorialized in Adams's and other tomes, they'll take every new generation by surprise.


Rev. Phantom said...

Interesting read. I agree that there is probably no way for everyone to agree on what exactly defines a "bad movie", but these all seem to fit my definition.

dfordoom said...

I'm always a bit suspicious of worst movie lists, since some of my all-time favourite movies frequently show up on them. Like Showgirls!

To me a movie is only truly bad if it's not just badly made, but boring as well. Ed Wood's movies were very badly made, but they were never boring, so for me they can't be bad.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiousity, did "In Sword We Trust" make it on his list?

Troy Olson said...

Those trailers you posted certainly make for some bad, bad movies. BEN AND ARTHUR looks pretty hilarious, actually.

The hardest part of something like this is that a) there are already SO many bad movies out there and b) they are being made so quickly and cheaply nowadays that you can never catch-up on a definitive list. It's just impossible.

As you mention, the debate that comes with an endeavor like this is actually determining what makes for a really bad movie. I guess it matters if you are grading the film on a quality standpoint or an entertainment one. From that standpoint, I truly think there are good bad-movies and bad bad-movies.

I've watched WICKER MAN, RAD, COMMANDO, and TROLL 2 many, many times, and it goes without saying that from a formal quality perspective, they are mostly crap. However, the fact that I'm more apt to pop one of those on for a rewatch than I am a Fellini film proves out that enjoyment value and quality don't have to go hand-in-hand.

To me, a truly bad movie is TRANSFORMERS or TWILIGHT, big budget crap with no entertainment value that feels like a shallow cash grab (although, I have to admit that watching Rifftrax'ed versions of both films WAS entertaining).

dfordoom said...

I agree with Troy that the truly bad movies are the big budget ones that cost $150 milion and are less entertaining that the movies Ed Wood made for a few thousand dollars. And the truly bad directors will be found among those who churn out summer blockbusters.

Samuel Wilson said...

A quick answer to Crhymethinc's query: Adams steered clear of kung fu and wuxia movies in general, though he does deal with Al Adamson's Jim Kelly films and may regard Anglo kickboxer Gary Daniels as the worst actor ever.

For those wondering about In Sword We Trust: you won't find it in the IMDB, and no one seems to know what its original title was. The version I saw back around 1999 may have had the worst English dubbing ever, but that doesn't necessarily make it one of the worst films. It does make it a hilarious event to sit through.

I'll agree with Troy and dfordoom that waste should count for something when calculating the truly worst films. Overproduced films can be just as awful and sometimes more awful than underfunded ones. Something like Van Helsing comes to mind to prove my point.

dfordoom said...

I've seen a couple of Al Adamson's movies and thoroughly enjoyed them. Five Bloody Graves is a wonderfully weird western, and Nurse Sherri is a total hoot. You can get both these movies (including both the horror and sexploitation versions of Nurse Sherri) in a set. If it's still in print it's good value and a great deal of fun.