The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time. By Phil Hall. Albany, GA: BearManor Media, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-59393-731-7.
Be honest. How much of life is as sinfully delicious as a bad movie review? What could be more fun that making your way through capsules of the alleged hundred worst films of all time? That’s the premise of a breezy new read from journalist and film critic Phil Hall. Call it perfect beach reading for academics. You’ll plow through thus book in a few hours, trying your best not to embarrass yourself by guffawing so loudly you disturb other sun worshippers.
Hall limits himself to one film per director, so this is no Roger Corman, Phil Tucker, or Ed Wood Jr. trashfest. The only director earning more than one mention is John Huston, one for a film he co-directed. Huston’s inclusion, For “Beat the Devil,” signals that Hall takes down famed directors as well as schlockmeisters. Among the auteurs skewered are Robert Altman (“Health”), Michelangelo Antonioni (“Zabriskie Point”), George Cukor (”The Blue Bird”), Jean-Luc Godard (“King Lear”), Stanley Kubrick (“Fear and Desire”), Bob Rafelson “(Head”), Steven Soderbergh (“Bubble”), and Orson Welles (“Mr. Arkadin”).
The films labeled “anti-classics” (1) share in common a uniform level of inept filmmaking, chaotic production, incompetent (or indifferent) acting, weird (or non-existent) editing, and nonsensical narratives. Thus, for instance, Hall excludes movies that were merely flops, such as “Heaven’s Gate.” (That’s wise as it is currently undergoing a reputational resurrection.) He also excludes those that are crummy, but which retain their internal logic rather well, such as the much-maligned “Showgirls.” It’s hard to dispute Hall’s inclusion of disasters the likes of “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” “Airport 75,” “Battlefield Earth,” “Lost Horizon,” and “Valley of the Dolls.” In addition we get some delightfully bad Japanese sci-fi, a midget Western, a few Santa Claus flicks that could cancel Christmas, and two dreadful “Wizard of Oz” remakes, including one–and you can’t make this up–in Turkish! There’s also movie-making bizarre enough to be Andy Borowitz jokes: John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Jack Palance as Castro, Bela Lugosi playing Dracula for no particular plot reason, Jayne Mansfield missing from her own biography….
All lists are idiosyncratic and this is true of Hall’s as well. At least three of his films wouldn’t make my list: Kevin Spacey’s “Beyond the Sea,” the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” and Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River.” While I agree that none is transcendent filmmaking, I’d label these, in order, inconsistent, annoying, and boring–not inept. What’s the worst film of all time? Hall leans toward “Manos: Hand of Fate,” though I’d be tempted to go with Bob Dylan’s “Renaldo and Clara.” And what of perennially cited anti-classics such as “Reefer Madness” and “Plan Nine from Outer Space?” These are included, though Hall is quick to point out those films and–a Hall favorite–“Hugo the Hippo”–are so bad that they are campy guilty pleasures.
Camp value leads to one of my two major critiques of Hall’s choices. Isn’t there a big difference between a film that gives no satisfaction–such as painful garbage the likes of “Gigli” and “Inchon”–and films that are so bad that they’re fun to watch? And wouldn’t Hall do us a greater service to develop a list of a hundred bad movies that we would enjoy? I longed for further parsing. There are films that no one should ever see. For instance, Hall mentions “Paul McCartney is Really Dead,” which was made by a company that specializes in rock “bios” that have none of the artists’ music in them. It is an exploitative fly-by-night operation that should be avoided like the plague. But who hasn’t giggled through “Reefer Madness” or “Plan Nine from Outer Space?”
It also strikes me as unhelpful to mix experimental films such as Andy Warhol’s “Empire” with Hollywood productions. (In my view, all Andy Warhol films are rubbish!) It’s really unfair to hold a porno movie, a project done on a lark, and–in one instance–an un-credited high school send up of Shakespeare to movies that were unleashed on an unsuspecting general public and marketed as something it might wish to view. That said, I recommend that you pull up a beach chair, download this book, and prepare to laugh.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst