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Tuesday 20 March 2018

Film: The rude, the bad and the ugly

As a new comedy about the making of a notoriously terrible film opens, our film critic pays homage to a special breed of movies that are so terrible, they're almost good...

Cult status: James Franco in the Disaster Artist
Cult status: James Franco in the Disaster Artist
Resident Evil
The Emoji Movie
The Dark Tower
The Hitman's Bodyguard

Paul Whitington

What's the worst film ever made? We're spoilt for choice I'm afraid, but The Room is often nominated as a real contender. Written, directed by and starring a chap called Tommy Wiseau, it's a production of such staggering ineptness that one cinema academic called it "the Citizen Kane of bad movies". That's high praise, as it were, but The Room deserves it: full of unconnected events and dramatic dead ends, it charts the absurdly stilted and melodramatic love triangle between Johnny (Wiseau), his perfidious girlfriend and a handsome interloper.

It was greeted with bewilderment and derision when it was unleashed in the summer of 2003, and earned just $2,000 at the box office. But some films are so bad they're almost good, and The Room turned out to be one of them: a small group of dedicated fans were charmed by its unintentional comedy, and later began showing it at midnight screenings.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the craze caught on and turned The Room into an enduring good/bad classic: fans know the awful lines by heart, and throw spoons and footballs during screenings. Hollywood types like Paul Rudd, Will Arnett, Kristen Bell and James Franco are big fans, and Franco has just released a comedy inspired by the making of it.

The Disaster Artist is based on a memoir by Wiseau's bewildered co-star, Greg Sestero, played here by Dave Franco. He's a callow young actor who's struggling to make his name in early-2000s Hollywood when he meets a strange man at his acting class. Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) claims to be from New Orleans but sounds middle-European: he's mysterious about his roots but tells Greg he's going to make a film and asks him to co-star in it.

Cast and crew will be flabbergasted by Wiseau's shambolic script and wildly eccentric acting, but somehow The Room will get made, and achieve more fame than it ever would had it been competent.

The Disaster Artist is very funny, and affectionately lampoons Wiseau's compelling eccentricities rather than sneering at them. But if Wiseau is the Orson Welles of bad movies, then Ed Wood is the Stanley Kubrick.

A World War II veteran with an abiding interest in cross-dressing, Wood eked a living on the fringes of 1950s Hollywood making low-budget B-pictures intended to be shown in late-night double bills. Bride of the Monster, Necromania, Night of the Ghouls - their titles speak for themselves, but Ed's masterpiece of ineptitude was Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956).

Wood had befriended the legendary Hungarian star Bela Lugosi, who by that point was a broken-down drug addict, and persuaded him to star in Plan 9. He was to play a sinister 'ghoul man' but died midway through production: undaunted, Ed asked his dentist take over the role.

Sets wobbled, amateur actors delivered fumbling non-sequiturs, paper plates stood in for passing space ships. It was awful, and might have disappeared into the ether had it not become a TV favourite in the 1970s, and been championed by critics like Michael Medved as a contender for the worst film ever made.

It's certainly one of them, and like The Room, boasts all the essential ingredients of a classic good/bad film - bad actors, an awful script, ropey direction and an overall absence of any kind of narrative logic. And Ed Wood's era, the 1950s, was a fruitful time for good/bad films, thanks to the huge market for cheaply made supporting features, and the period's obsession with aliens and science-fiction.

Everyone has their own favourite terrible 1950s sci-fi B-movie, but Robot Monster (1953) is a classic stinker. Made in four days with a budget of just $16,000 by a 25-year-old writer/director called Phil Tucker, it told the story of 'ro-man', a homicidal robot alien who has almost succeeded in wiping out humanity when his plans are thwarted by an antidote to his toxic ray gun. Marauding dinosaurs made a brief appearance in extra time before we found out that it was all a dream - or was it?

As his non-existent budget didn't stretch to robot costumes, Tucker cast his friend George Barrows as the monster - George had his own gorilla suit, so they used that and added a space helmet with a skull inside it. The result was spectacularly nonsensical, though Robot Monster would later become a cult good/bad classic. But spare a thought for poor old Phil Tucker: he was so devastated by his film's critical failure that he tried to kill himself.

In The Giant Claw, a bird the size of a battleship emerges from an antimatter galaxy (don't ask) to attack the Empire State Building and swat away fighter jets as though they were flies. Which sounds great, except for the fact that the bird was a laughably animated puppet, sending this shambolic 1957 B-picture into the happy realm of unintentional comedy.

Shark movies are predisposed to be silly: in fact there's only ever been one good one, and once Steven Spielberg wisely withdrew from the Jaws franchise, quality control went out the window. Boasting a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Jaws 4 (1987) is astonishingly bad, a shoddy tale about a remote-controlled rubber shark that attacks wealthy bathers off the Bahamas. He was also a fish of many talents because, as one critic helpfully pointed out, "sharks cannot float or roar like lions".

I don't see why not, because in Sharknado (2013) they get to fly. When a freak storm hits southern California, it whips up a cyclone packed with man-eating sharks and dumps them on downtown Los Angeles. Critics recommended either watching it while drunk, or not at all, but it was a bit of a laugh.

Birdemic could be considered a companion piece. Acclaimed as a "trash-terpiece" by The Village Voice, James Nguyen's 2010 low-budget shocker took Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds into new and regrettable territory. In it, Silicon Valley is targeted by giant vultures and eagles that have somehow been rendered toxic by global warming, and spit acid and explode on impact.

But are films like Sharknado and Birdemic cheating? Are they cynically incompetent, bogus bad films deliberately searching for cult status? I'm not sure - because making movies this bad would be hard to do on purpose.

There was nothing deliberate about the awfulness of Battlefield Earth, because its makers intended it to be deadly serious. John Travolta co-produced and starred in this pompous adaptation of Scientology guru L Ron Hubbard's 1992 sci-fi novel, which was a hot mess, risibly acted, terribly written and the deserved winner of eight Golden Raspberry awards.

I've rather a soft spot for Nazi-themed bad films, which is lucky for me because there are lots of them. The Boys from Brazil (1978) was nominated for three Oscars, but is one of the most stupid films ever made. Gregory Peck starred as Dr Josef Mengele, the Nazi death camp doctor who's hiding out in the Paraguayan jungles and trying to clone a small army of Hitlers. It was ridiculous stuff, and a similar theme had already been explored in They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968), as Nazis scientists severed the Führer's living head and somehow managed to keep him alive for decades.

Bad acting is the lifeblood of these movies, and my good/bad Oscar would have to go to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Frank Perry's 1981 film was based on a memoir by Joan Crawford's adopted daughter and starred Dunaway as the legendary Hollywood actress, who is portrayed as an eye-rolling, obsessive compulsive maniac. Dunaway chewed the scenery at every opportunity, and in the film's most infamous scene, bursts into her daughter's bedroom caked in cold cream and goes postal when she finds a dress hung on a wire hanger. It's a terrible film, and an awful lot of fun.

The worst films of 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

Resident Evil

In the sixth, and hopefully last, instalment of this nonsensical sci-fi franchise, Milla Jovovich (pictured) reprised her thankless role as Alice, who drowns in a sea of bad special effects and gratuitous sadism while trying to save the planet. Not nice.



So bad it's actually entertaining, this bargain-basement bunny-boiler thriller starred Rosario Dawson as a woman who realises too late that her boyfriend's ex is a lunatic. Katherine Heigl (above) co-starred in a film packed with unintentionally comic moments.

The Emoji Movie

The Emoji Movie

Wouldn't it be fun to make an animated movie about the emojis that live inside your mobile phone? Not so much, as it turns out, as the Emoji Movie was a bit of a stinker which bored the life out of child and adult alike.

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower

This epic fantasy based on a series of novels by Stephen King novel jumped around like popcorn in a microwave and made no sense whatsoever. Idris Elba (above) played a kind of inter-dimensional cowboy who befriends a mysteriously clairvoyant teenage boy. One of the year's biggest box-office disappointments.

The Hitman's Bodyguard

The Hitman's Bodyguard

A film so bad it gave me headaches, this daft and irredeemably trashy buddy thriller starred Ryan Reynolds (pictured) and Samuel L Jackson as fugitive hitmen on the run from the henchmen of an eastern European dictator. It was all a bit euro-trashy, and Gary Oldman overplayed the villain as only he can. Not good.

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