A precocious teenage movie buff is eager to show the maturity of his taste, but since he’s too young and inexperienced to have developed any real taste of his own, he often defines himself by what he dislikes. One of my proudest moments as a 16-year-old cinephile was writing a scabrous review of Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist for my high-school newspaper. As I sat in the Varsity Cinema, my attention drifting from Polanski’s innocuous literary adaptation, I began plotting various ways to call out the Emperor with no clothes. With zeal worthy of Rex Reed, I proclaimed it “dry” and “redundant,” calling it too dark for kids and too dull for adults. To twist the knife, I took aim at its world-renowned director personally, saying it represented a sad “return to form” (implying that his entire post-exile period, aside from The Pianist, was undistinguished).
I haven’t seen Oliver Twist since that fateful day in 2005, but a fellow can learn a lot between 11th grade and adulthood, and given that my very same column included an ecstatic rave for Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, I suspect that my present-day perspective would be more nuanced. At the time, I had never read the Dickens book, nor had I seen any of the other film adaptations, so my frame of reference was narrow. I perhaps should have noted that grown-up critics rarely resorted to words like “crap,” and, given that I had seen only three other Polanski movies at the time (The Pianist, Chinatown and The Ninth Gate), maybe I shouldn’t have been so dismissive about a man commonly regarded as one of the greatest living filmmakers. But when you’re a 16-year-old boy with no significant accomplishments, it feels good to envision yourself as smarter than the Palme d’Or-winning director of Knife in the Water.
Feeling superior to “bad” movies was a favourite pastime for me as a young man. I enjoyed laughing at the wobbly tombstones in Plan 9 from Outer Space and the gorilla-with-a-diving-helmet in Robot Monster, and couldn’t get over how the entire country of Japan didn’t notice that Godzilla was just a guy in a rubber suit! When you’re a boy, and aren’t smart enough to criticize a movie for its ideas, you’re stuck aiming for the low-hanging fruit. It took a while for me to understand that Ed Wood and Phil Tucker were not blind to their films’ technical imperfections, or that Wood’s films often featured radical (or at least unusual/interesting) ideas, or that the best kajiû films developed an immaculately realized aesthetic wasn’t aiming for realism. I hadn’t yet realized that “good” and “bad” are not a strict dichotomy.
So you can imagine the impact that two pioneering “bad movie” books by brothers Michael and Harry Medved—The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (1978) and The Golden Turkey Awards (1980)—had on my younger self. “Would you believe that Richard Burton, Jane Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Faye Dunaway and so many others could fall so far and land so hard?” teases the back cover of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. “D.W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hughes and Samuel Goldwyn … What cloud passed over these moviemen’s eyes that they could not see?” These books have mostly been forgotten, and hardly any grown-up critics have anything nice to say about them, but for better or worse, they were seminal for the film-buff teenagers who discovered them at libraries and used bookstores.
Like me, Harry Medved, the book’s credited author (with an assist by Randy Dreyfuss), was a precocious teenage wiseacre, only 17 at the time of publication. It was later revealed that his brother, future right-wing pundit Michael Medved, actually handled most of the writing, but declined credit for fear that the book could compromise his screenwriting career (he would take co-author credit on their future books). In the introduction, the authors frame the project in populist terms:
“For several years now, in every sort of social gathering, we’ve noticed an odd quirk of human nature. When the conversation turns to motion pictures, people show greater enthusiasm in laughing together over films they despise than in trying to praise the films they admire. It may be edifying to discuss the virtues of cinema classics, but listing the oddities in filming disasters is far more enjoyable. When the subject is bad movies, even the most reticent members of a group will have an opinion and can suggest some beloved turkey for consideration. To appreciate movie greatness—especially in this era of growing sophistication—may require a certain amount of background or patience, but absolutely anyone can recognize a lousy film when he sees one.”
As a member of the last generation who grew up without every movie ever made available instantly online, this book was tantalizing and frustrating. It promised dozens and dozens of exotically terrible movies that were frustratingly absent from my local Rogers Video. Could these obscure, forgotten films really be as wonderfully awful as the Medveds promised? Here are a few of the clunky zingers that riddle the book:
- At Long Last Love: “Mention of At Long Last Love sparks people in the movie industry talking disaster—and they don’t mean flaming office buildings or crippled airplanes.”
- Dondi: “The trouble with David Kory is not so much that he is an inexperienced five-year-old making his ‘acting’ debut, but that he is directed by a man with a five-year-old’s maturity. Kory does, however, contribute his own share of nausea.”
- A Place for Lovers: “Faye Dunaway is supposed to portray a character at death’s door, so apparently she contracted an embalmer to do her make-up. Her appearance and facial expressions suggest the masks of Japanese No drama while her idiotic high-fashion posturing would embarrass a wooden manikin.”
- Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: “The acting in this film has to be seen to be believed: it would embarrass even the players in a sixth-grade Christmas pageant. The tendency toward overstatement is so prevalent that we wonder whether the director was specifically hoping for an audience of children with defective hearing and poor eyesight.”
- Three on a Couch: “The most noteworthy aspect of Jerry Lewis’ performance in his hair styling. His head seems to have been treated with a mixture of axle grease and Shinola shoe polish. Every strand drips with goo, and the ducktail in back of his head suggests that the waterfowl in question has been the victim of an oil spill.”
In truth, there’s a reason relatively few of the Medveds’ selections have endured as camp classics. According to the authors, “nearly two thousand” films were considered, but Michael Medved’s 2005 memoir Right Turns reveals that they padded the book with mediocrities they watched on TV to make the publisher’s due date. Since the book was published before the home video revolution, when most of the films existed only as fuzzy memories or urban legends (“Did you hear about the movie where John Wayne played Gengis Khan?”), few readers would be able to verify the alleged awfulness of, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn or Frank Tashlin’s Say One for Me. In many cases, the Medveds’ “Worst” tag has come to define the films’ legacies, whether merited or not. People who stumble on, say, Laurel and Hardy’s The Big Noise discover that it’s no better or worse than any other Laurel and Hardy film of the ‘40s.
The Fifty Worst limits itself to just a handful of the “Grade ‘Z’ Atrocities” that would eventually become the Medveds’ stock in trade (Eegah!, Swamp Women, Robot Monster, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and a few others). Mostly, the book focuses on high-profile flops of the day (Che!, Myra Breckinridge, Lost Horizon, At Long Last Love) and embarrassing performances by famous actors: Clark Gable as the Irish revolutionary in Parnell; Humphrey Bogart in the hillbilly comedy Swing Your Lady; Elvis Presley as a racecar driver in Spinout; an ageing Bob Hope in Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!, and many others. In between, the authors take a few contrarian positions, notably with their inclusion of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II.
Needless to say, the book’s populism often veers into anti-intellectualism. Their dismissals of films maudit like Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, while not admirable, is at least understandable (both were popular punching bags). But nothing excuses the obnoxiousness of their take on Ivan the Terrible: “Many critics are moved by respect for Eisenstein’s previous great achievements, others are operating on the theory that any film so painful and tedious to watch must count as some sort of classic,” the Medveds theorize. “Inspired by the solemn hosannas of this critical elite, thousands upon thousands of viewers have subjected themselves to this cinematic torture over the years.” They conclude, “The average filmgoer should trust his own instincts.”
Today, the book is interesting only as a way of interrogating the idea of what constitutes a “bad” movie. The authors write from a perspective that is stubbornly middlebrow and middle-class, and are equally contemptuous of high- and low-culture. “No book on the worst films could be complete without a jungle movie, a Japanese horror epic, a singing-cowboy saga, a violent blackspoitation film, and a spaghetti western,” write the authors, as if these genres were bad by definition. Michael Medved had not yet undergone his right-wing conversion, but consider the reactionary nature of the Myra Breckinridge chapter: “The rest of the film dedicates itself to being as offensive as possible. Four-letter words are frequently uttered, a judge smokes marijuana, and Myra performs fellatio on Myron – a fantasy Myron has while he masturbates. However, the low point occurs when Myra straps a dildo around her waist and commits sodomy with a brawny young man.”
Or consider their takedown of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, an admittedly lesser entry in the series. Is it bad because of its “atrocious acting, sloppy direction, farfetched scripts, execrable music, amateurish photography, laughable sets, and last but certainly not least, ludicrous monsters,” as the Medveds claim? (Mind you, these are traits that they regard as “consistent” in all Toho monster movies.) Well, “atrocious acting” seems a little harsh – “serviceable” or “perfunctory” is more like it. “Execrable music”? Well, the “Save the Earth” musical number in the English-dubbed version of Smog Monster is pretty damn bad, but most Toho monster films benefit greatly from the rousing music of Akira Ifikube. “Amateurish photography”? Widescreen DVDs and Blu-Rays have revealed that even the worst Toho monster films feature gorgeous, colourful cinematography. “Ludicrous monsters” and “farfetched scripts”? Hey, sign me up.
The name “Edward D. Wood Jr.” does not appear once in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. A few months after it was published, the luckless filmmaker died in poverty at age 54. Two years later, the Medveds’ follow-up volume, The Golden Turkey Awards, would proclaim him the “Worst Director,” and his Plan 9 from Outer Space “Worst Picture,” of all time. The latter prize was the result of a write-in vote from the first book’s readers, and represented a surprise victory over flop du jour Exorcist II: The Heretic. “Who could have guessed,” wrote the Medveds, “that a Grade Z horror movie from the fifties would outpoll all those well-publicized flops of recent years?” The Medveds hit the road with a “World’s Worst Film Festival,” screening films like Plan 9 from Outer Space and They Saved Hitler’s Brain at colleges and revival houses throughout the ‘80s (Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton were reportedly spotted at a screening). They wore angora sweaters and recited Plan 9’s now-familiar list of flaws (stilted dialogue, cardboard tombstones, Bela’s chiropractor stand-in, etcetera), facetiously calling it an “avant-garde masterpiece.”
The critic J. Hoberman attended one of these screenings, writing about it in his 1980 essay for Film Comment, “Bad Movies” (which would become significantly more seminal to my understanding of film than the Medveds’ books). Dismissing the Medveds as purveyors of “humorous non-books,” Hoberman articulated the pleasure of bad movies as accidental surrealism. Of Maria Montez, a favourite actress of underground filmmaker Jack Smith, Hoberman wrote: “Maria’s transparent role-playing, and her unconcealed delight at being the center of attention, were more authentic to him than the naturalism achieved by successfully phony actresses. The often poignant, heightened realism induced by such a failure to convince is the key to the objectively bad film.” In that spirit, Hoberman found much to appreciate in the way that filmmakers like Wood and Oscar Micheaux created warped facsimiles of “real” movies: “Edward Wood was a toadstool at the edge of Hollywood, nourished by the movie industry’s compost; Micheaux constructed an anti-Hollywood out of rags and bones on some barely-imaginable psychic tundra.”
Emerging in the ‘80s as a sort-of corrective to the Medveds, a Times Square habitué named Michael J. Weldon published The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, a veritable Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide for cultural detritus. “Psychotronic films range from sincere social commentary to degrading trash,” wrote Weldon in the introduction. “They concern teenagers, rock ‘n’ roll, juvenile delinquents, monsters, aliens, killers spies, detectives, bikers, communists, drugs, natural catastrophes, atomic bombs, the prehistoric past, and the projected future. They star ex-models, ex-sports stars, would-be Marilyns, future Presidents (and First Ladies), dead rock stars, and has-beens of all types.” The book was catholic enough to encompass Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (because of producer Albert Zugsmith), Ninotchka (because of co-star Bela Lugosi), and Fellini’s 8½ (as the review bluntly states: “Barbara Steele is in it”).
Weldon’s Psychotronic Video magazine became one of several zines celebrating disreputable cinema: Sleazoid Express, Zontar, Subhuman, Trashola, Ungawa, Pandemonium. The “Psychotronic” concept questioned the ideological and aesthetic factors that separated “good” and “bad,” but Weldon is more confrontational than Hoberman, and less interested in the films’ poetry: “Critics searching for art condemn most of these features for the very reasons that millions continue to enjoy them: violence, sex, noise, and often mindless escapism,” he wrote. In his 1995 essay “‘Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style,” scholar Jeffrey Sconce defined the emerging sensibility as ‘Paracinema’:
“Paracinema is thus less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus. In short, the explicit manifesto of paracinematic culture is to valorize all forms of cinematic ‘trash,’ whether such films have been either explicitly rejected or simply ignored by legitimate film culture. In doing so, paracinema represents the most developed and dedicated of cinephilic subcultures ever to worship at ‘the temple of schlock’.”
As for the Medveds, they published two more bad-movie books, neither of which made a comparable impact: 1984’s The Hollywood Hall of Shame (about the making of notable box office disasters) and 1986’s Son of the Golden Turkey Awards (one more trip back to the well). Their spirit lives on in the Razzies, the bad movie award ceremony that gets a few annual inches of bemused press before the Oscars. Its awards go to easy targets like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and even George W. Bush (who won “Worst Actor” for Fahrenheit 9/11). John Wilson, the Razzie founder, slavishly imitated the structure of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time for his dreadful 2005 book, The Official Razzie Movie Guide. A more ambiguous successor is Mystery Science Theater 3000, which ostensibly mocks “cheesy movies,” but really just uses the movies as a jumping-off point for jokes (and has fostered the rediscovery of the likes of Manos: The Hands of Fate and the films of Coleman Francis).
One final note: in the closing pages of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, the authors print personal “worst films of all time” ballots by prominent critics of the era. The Village Voice’s Fred W. McDarrah cites Dark Star and Sweet Movie; the New York Post’s Archer Winsten votes for Pink Flamingos and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and Kenneth Turan, the still-active critic for the Los Angeles Times, claims that The Long Goodbye, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, “anything by Lina Wertmuller,” and “anything by Peter Bogdanovich” filled him with “cranky animosity.” In The Golden Turkey Awards, the Medveds list all the films that received 15 votes or more, along with a pithy description. They include Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Death Race 2000, Head, It’s Alive, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last House on the Left, Little Shop of Horrors, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, The Lords of Flatbush, Night of the Living Dead, Reflections in a Golden Eye (“An ‘arty’ soft-focus fiasco for distinguished director John Huston”), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (“it has achieved a vast and wholly inexplicable popularity”), and Soylent Green.