I was planning a scholarly dissertation on gay subtext in Martin and Lewis pictures for this week (well, not really, since that would require actually watching the things), but instead I’m bowing to requests various and sundry that I augment my spiel on overrated movies with one on bad movies I can’t resist. In all honesty, I won’t say that all of the titles I selected are bad—some of them just aren’t terribly respectable and one (at least) qualifies as a noble failure.
Since just about everyone knows I can rattle off a string of 1930s-40s crapfests that I find irresistible without half trying—just put Bela Lugosi or George Zucco in an Old Dark House and I’m pretty happy—I decided to limit myself to more or less modern titles, which in this case means nothing prior to the mid-1960s. (Hey, from my perspective that’s kind of modern.) One thing I did not stint on, however, was the horror genre. This would be a fairly short list if I had, since I have a much greater capacity for fairly awful horror pictures than any other kind. Even so, this wasn’t as easy a task as I’d envisioned. I felt like Zero Mostel in The Producers (1968) looking for Springtime for Hitler and rejecting things like The Punisher (2004) because it was too good. That’s why I ended up including titles that just aren’t very respectable—things that look odd on a shelf if you place them next to Citizen Kane (1941).
Seaside Swingers (1965). “When the Dreamers meet the swingers it’s the swingin’est hit that ever swung,” claimed to U.S. poster for this Hard Day’s Night (1964) wanna-be that set out to do for Freddie and the Dreamers what the earlier film did for the Beatles. Well, it didn’t. In all fairness, the ridiculous title was an American contrivance to goose the movie’s prospects (since I first saw it on the bottom half of a double-bill of a kiddie matinee, I don’t think it worked). The original Brit title was Every Day’s a Holiday (which isn’t too hard to guess because a song by that title crops up two or three times), and it’s a rather endearing little movie that features rather than stars Freddie and the Dreamers.
In reality it’s a British seaside, or rather holiday camp (a strictly Brit institution that was captured more fancifully, and less romantically, 10 years later in Ken Russell’s Tommy)—musical comedy. The slightly rodential-looking, but pleasant John Leyton (best known to Americans for a short-lived WW II TV series, Jericho, a year later), the sneeringly snobbish Mike “Whiz Kid” Sarne and the improbably named Grazina Frame (who sports about two acres of teased blonde hair). For the uninitiated, Sarne was a writer, critic, musician and ultimately a filmmaker, who made something of a splash with Joanna in 1968 before crashing and burning with Myra Breckinridge in 1970. He’s still around—you can spot him as the long-haired musician in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2008), where you will note that much time has passed.
Throw in a pre-Oliver! Ron Moody as a bogus Italian singing teacher, the Baker Twins (always around when someone wanted pretty blonde twins—for the movies, I mean), cinematography by soon-to-be-filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, Hammer horror favorite Michael Ripper as a retired music hall artist and some not too bad songs and you have a good notion of the film. Freddie and the Dreamer completists should note that the two songs they perform in the film—the mind-numbingly strange “What’s Cooking?” and the straightforward “Don’t Do That to Me”—are not on any compilation albums.
It’s not a great movie, not even a particularly good one (though an interesting document of its time), but I admit to unreservedly loving it. I even tracked down a used VHS pan-and-scan copy a few years back and burned it to DVD. I lie awake nights thinking about a properly letterboxed DVD release. That sounds like an exaggeration because it is, but it would be nice to be able to see the silly thing where Leyton, Sarne and Frame actually fit on the screen. Should you ever be inclined to track this down, be prepared to have somewhere to go during Leyton’s “Crazy Horse Saloon” number. After a minute of this, you’ll thank me for the advice.
At Long Last Love (1975). I’ve mentioned Peter Bogdanovich’s famous musical disaster in the past, but it’s such a powerhouse of a flop—and such a personal favorite—that I can’t ignore it on any such list as this. Actually, it’s the movie here I think of as a noble failure, but it’s the kind of failure that’d be a lot more noble if Bogdanovich himself weren’t almost single-handedly responsible for why it tanked. OK, let’s forgive him the idea of making an Ernst Lubitsch-styled musical comedy in 1975 and filling it—almost non-stop—with Cole Porter songs. In fact, that part’s pretty darn noble in my book.
But then turning around and casting your girlfriend (Cybill Shepherd) in the lead, despite her lack of much of a singing voice, is dubious. Casting Burt Reynolds—who pretty completely just can’t sing—as the male lead is worse. Then having the arrogance to decide that these non-singers would perform their songs live comes close to the realm of a creative death wish. And it’s a wish the film pretty much fulfilled, since Bogdanovich never again had the kind of clout that allowed him to make At Long Last Love in the first place.
Bogdanovich has tinkered with the film in the intervening years. Following the lead of Chaplin, who cut down former girlfriend Georgia Hale’s footage for a re-issue of The Gold Rush (1925), he tried to prune a lot of Shepherd’s footage, but that was a vain hope, since she’s in most of the film—and she’s hardly the main problem. Rumor has it that it’s Bogdanovich who keeps the film from a DVD release (believe it or not, there’s a market for it). I’ll confess now that I’ve talked to the fellows who produce a lot of the special features on 20th Century Fox DVDs in the hopes of getting the ball rolling. Warts, bad choices and all, I’d be first in line to upgrade from my bootleg copy.
The Sentinel (1977). I can never quite decide if Michael Winner’s horror picture The Sentinel is an underrated little gem or just an outright disaster I love regardless. It’s probably somewhere between the two extremes. Of course, it’s long been fashionable to simply hate Michael Winner, and I’ve just never been able to do that. Winner’s made some losers, it’s true, but a few titles like The Jokers (1967) and I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname (1967) are terrific movies, while his updated (and transplanted to England) version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1978), for all its faults, retains far more of Chandler’s novel than does Howard Hawks’ 1946 version. (It also bears the distinction of once being cited by Jimmy Carter as his favorite movie. So there.)
I always thought that Winner’s biggest problem lay in a basic inability to choose the best material. After all, who in his right mind would follow up the brilliantly cynical What’s ‘Isname with Hannibal Brooks (1969), a ridiculous WWII yarn with Oliver Reed transporting an elephant across the Alps? Years later, another British filmmaker told me that Winner’s problem was that he’s simply more interested in being a director than he is in making a good film. Actually, the two faults could neatly dovetail.
Even so, Winner’s movies are invariably fun—and if you ever listen to his commentary track on the DVD of What’s ‘Isname, you’ll find him an intelligent personality and a great raconteur—and infused with a sense of a filmmaker who’s having a great time making the movie (or having a great time being a director, take your pick). That’s certainly one of the things I get from this much maligned horror film that’s generally dismissed as either an Exorcist (1973), or a Rosemary’s Baby (1969) rip-off. I’m never clear how it can be both, but in fact, it’s neither. Even if it were, I’d gladly admit I’ve seen it and enjoyed it more often than the other two.
The movie, adapted by Winner from Jeffrey Konvitz’ novel, is way over on the far side of preposterous and requires no little suspension of disbelief. If you can accept that the entrance to hell is in a Brooklyn apartment building, you’re part way there. If you can also buy into the idea that—starting with the angel Gabriel (or maybe Uriel)—there’s always been a sentinel guarding this entrance to keep the denizens of darkness out of the world so much the better. (Just what Gabriel was doing in Brooklyn is never addressed—since this clearly before the move to Los Angeles, maybe the Dodgers were playing.)
Now, somewhere along the way, you see, this responsibility got transferred to one of those ubiquitous super secret branches of the Catholic Church, who have taken to having the entrance guarded by failed suicides (who thereby earn a free pass out of damnation). By the time of the film the sect has been ex-communicated and is being run by Milton-spouting (Paradise Lost gets a workout here) Jose Ferrer and Arthur Kennedy. That brings us to the film’s “what a cast!” cast.
As he had just done on Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), Winner piles on old movie stars in small roles with a vengeance. Here we get not just Ferrer and Kennedy, but Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, John Carradine, Eli Wallach, Sylvia Miles and Burgess Meredith—not to mention such not-yet stars as Beverly D’Angelo, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger. The bulk of the film is in the hands of model-actress Cristina Raines and Chris Sarandon (fresh from Dog Day Afternoon), while Burgess Meredith gets the lion’s share of supporting cast time.
The whole thing centers around Raines—who, wouldn’t you know it, has attempted suicide twice—being manipulated into the building in question where its bizarre inhabitants do bizarre things to unnerve her. Of course, they’re really all demons trying to drive her to suicide. Some of it is actually pretty creepy, especially Raines’ encounter with her zombie-like father. As filmmaking, a lot of it is creatively done, even if Winner recycles a few tricks from his earlier films. Nearly all of it is melodramatic (John Carradine’s one coherent line, “The entrance to Hell!” is pricelessly ripe), silly and in appallingly bad taste—which is what gives the movie much of its charm. The ending in particular was singled out for censure at the time of its release because Winner used actual circus freaks for his depiction of damned souls. Whether or not this is tackier than Beverly D’Angelo’s masturbation scene is a matter of taste.
Beware the TV print of The Sentinel! Not only is it heavily censored in some pretty amusing ways—the cutting of the aforementioned D’Angelo scene makes it appear that Raines is highly offended by Sylivia Miles offering her tea—but things have been added. All references to the Catholic Church have been removed, as have any shots of the sect’s crucifixion rings, while inserts of a painting of Satan (cribbed from a Night Gallery episode) and close shots of a Satanic ring have been spliced in. No, it doesn’t make any sense—why would an apparent group of Satanists try to keep ol’ Lucifer from gaining entrance to earth?—but it’s apparently less offensive. In any case, if you tackle this baby, ask yourself this: Just where does the sentinel reside while the building is being torn down and replaced with a more modern apartment complex?
The Manitou (1978). Now, this is a truly guilty pleasure if ever there was one—and there’s some bonus guilt to make sport of a movie where the filmmaker, William Girdler, was killed in a helicopter crash just before his final opus was released. However, I’m just not sure what else you can do with a movie about a deformed 400 year old slimy, demonic Native American medicine man named Misquamacus emerging from a “tumor” on Susan Strasberg’s back. Throw in Tony Curtis as a wisecracking bogus psychic, Stella Stevens as a more legitimate psychic, Burgess Meredith as a doctor, Michael Ansara as John Singing Rock (a modern day good guy medicine man) and Ann Sothern as some kind of window dressing for a seance scene—now, there’s a recipe for splendid silliness. Top it all off with an evil spirit battling it out with the bare-breasted forces of good on an astral plane (I guess) and it just doesn’t get any better.
I admit I haven’t seen this in years (I may have to buy it now), but I fondly recall seeing it on opening night. A friend and I did a triple feature of moviegoing that night—Damien: Omen II, this and a midnight show of Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974)—and, I fear, annoyed part of the audience at The Manitou. When the doctors started debating just what the growth on Ms. Strasburg’s back could possibly be while standing in front of a human embryo growth chart, we burst out laughing and never quite regained our composure.
Fear No Evil (1981). OK, this is rubbishy stuff. It’s overheated, badly acted (Barry Cooper in particular ought to be forcibly restrained from even considering acting again—and may have been, since this is his latest credit) and in explosive bad taste. It’s the bad taste that gives the movie its appeal—well, that and the low-budget creativity of writer-director Frank LaLoggia, who went on to make a pretty credible ghost story, Lady in White (1988). Actually, this is one of those movies—Carnival of Souls (1962) and the weirdly overrated Session 9 (2001) are others—where you get the sense that the filmmaker had access to a really great location (in this case Boldt Castle in Alexandria Bay, NY) and decided to work a film around it. Some of it actually succeeds.
The movie’s pretty much your standard son o’ Satan yarn—except I guess the constantly reborn character in question is supposed to be the old boy himself. But then the movie’s not all that clear on that or several other points. All in all, it’s a Carrie rip-off, but with a pretty charmless male lead (Stephen Arngrim) of hellish lineage as the much beleagured teen. It’s also extremely peculiar in being both wildly homoerotic and somehow homophobic at the same time. There’s a male version of the Carrie shower scene with a particularly odd payoff, but it’s hard not to notice that all the gay content is associated with matters Satanic. At the same time, it’s equally difficult not to enjoy the spectacle of androgynous sub-Travolta school bully (Daniel Eden) sprouting breasts by way of payback for kissing Satan—who for some unknown reason plays these last scenes in a kitschy black chiffon negligee and g-string—in the shower.
Woolly-headed to the nth degree, the film rarely seems to be sure what it’s about and I question if it really has an agenda of any kind. Whatever it is or is meant to be, though, Fear No Evil is your chance to see a very odd beachside Passion Play go wildly wrong (complete with a nod to Eisenstein’s Potemkin) with cheesy effects and lots of gore—not to mention the (not very) special effects-driven big climax that’s unfortunately powered by effects that are less chilling than they are evocative of the end of Yellow Submarine (1968). And it’s all covered in a largely inapt selection of punk and new age rock—the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, the Boomtown Rats, the Talking Heads—that were foisted on LaLoggia by the distributor. Frankly, I think these add to the film’s perverse fascination.
Adventures in Baby Sitting (1987). Like just about everyone else I’m pretty much in the anti-Chris Columbus column. OK, so his Harry Potter movies were good (but everybody after him did better), but it’s going to be a cold day in hell before I forgive Home Alone (1990), Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Nine Months (1995) or Rent (2005). That said, I am totally charmed by his debut film, Adventures in Babysitting. From its energetic opening with Elisabeth Shue lip-synching the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” to its bittersweet ending shot, I can find nothing in the least wrong with this little movie.
Yeah, it’s a teen comedy of the John Hughes school, but it’s a skillfully made one that never seems to run out of charming surprises like the bit where the protagonists have to make up a blues song to get out of a blues bar (“Nobody gets out of here without singin’ the blues,” bluesman Albert Collins tells them). And there’s a nice shock effect moment where Shue stands up to some gang members (“Don’t f*ck with the babysitter”). Plus, there’s an almost magical moment involving Shue’s young charge (Maia Brewton) and her encounter with her comic book hero, “Thor” (Vincent D’Onofrio). But what really puts it over for me is the chemistry of the cast—Shue, Brewton, Keith Coogan, Calvin Leeds, Anthony Rapp and Penelope Ann Miller all play off each other beautifully. OK, call me a sap if you like, but I love this movie.
House on Haunted Hill (1999). I know I’m not supposed to like William Malone’s remake of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959). I’m not exactly sure why except for the persistent impression that William Castle was a great filmmaker (he wasn’t) and that a 1950s Vincent Price horror film has to be good (it doesn’t). Really, apart from Price (not really at his best) and the quaintness of Castle’s ballyhoo gimmicks, there’s not a lot going for the original—other than nostalgia and fond memories of the acid vat business.
Malone’s remake certainly has its problems—like the fact that the ending doesn’t make a lot of sense and goes a little CGI happy—but it also has a much better atmosphere going on than anything Castle managed. (Malone’s Feardotcom (2002) is even more atmospheric, even if it makes almost no sense.) In fact, parts of the film are truly unsettling—especially any of the flashback material dealing with Jeffrey Combs (his presence is always a plus) and his mad doctor sadistic experiments in the former asylum for the criminally insane that has been turned into the house of the title. These are some of the most lingeringly disturbing scenes I’ve encountered in a modern horror movie, yet they’re surprisingly brief.
The whole cast is a plus, actually. Taye Diggs always makes a film better than it otherwise would be (Malibu’s Most Wanted, anybody?). It’s something of a shock, however, to find Chris Kattan delivering a solid performance. But the show stealer most of the way—apart from Combs—is Geoffrey Rush in what amounts to the Vincent Price role. Rush is even given a Priceian mustache, but wisely he chooses not to imitate Price. Instead, his character comes across like a 50-50 mix of Price and showman William Castle himself. This may not be a great picture, but it, like Dark Castle’s other William Castle remake 13 Ghosts (2001), isn’t a travesty of some great masterpiece.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003). No, it’s not a good movie. I even gave it a pretty bad review when it came out. At the time I wrote, “ Corpses—depending on where you are in it—is a lot like an art film, a porno loop, a gross-out horror movie, and a music video. But none of these elements—intriguing though some of them are individually—ever turn into a single coherent idea.” I still kind of feel that way—and I still keep waiting for that 105 minute NC-17 version to replace this 89 minute one to maybe alter that view. (Are you listening, Mr. Zombie?) So why do I seem to find the film utterly fascinating? I’m not sure, but for a movie I panned, I’ve seen the damned thing at least half a dozen times, which is more than I can say for the demonstrably better (or more coherently) made Devil’s Rejects (2005).
I know a lot of the appeal lies in Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding, but Haig is just as good—and more in evidence—in Rejects, so that’s not enough. I know part of what I liked about Corpses stemmed from Zombie’s belief that it was just cool to name these characters after ones from Marx Brothers movies. And it was, Rob, it was! (Though it would have been even better if Karen Black had comported herself like Margaret Dumont!) So why did you have to go and ruin it by not only explaining it, but proving these were aliases in Rejects? At least, you didn’t spoil all the neat clips from James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) and George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) by explaining those—you kept the faith with your fellow old movie geeks there.
In all honesty, I think what appeals to me is the very thing I bitched about—that it never becomes a coherent whole. I like the fact that the film shifts in tone and style. I admire the way Zombie weaves together his “monster movie” TV-watching childhood, a sense of an old-fashioned “spook house,” and his particular take on drive-in movie horror. In much the same way, I get a kick out of a soundtrack that includes Zombie’s brand of rock (even if I don’t quite know what that is), Helen Kane singing “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” and Slim Whitman. There’s just something inherently appealing about that to me. It helps that both the Helen Kane and Slim Whitman sequences (especially the latter) are brilliantly done.
When the film came out, a number of people complained that it was too much like one of Zombie’s rock videos. I hadn’t seen one then, but when I finally did, I was fascinated by the fact that Zombie didn’t allow himself to be hampered by format restrictions. Instead, he threw in everything from Academy ratio full screen to 1.85:1 to full-blown 2.35:1 widescreen. That’s exactly the same spirit I like about Corpses and its “everything and the kitchen sink” approach. It’s also what’s missing from The Devil’s Rejects and even more from his Halloween (2007) rethinking.
Am I turning around and making a case that Corpses is good? No, not really. I think its first half hour is a good—occasionally brilliant—movie, but after that its pleasures become spotty. It’s also just a little—sometimes a lot—too sadistic for my taste. Thankfully, it stops way short of torture porn, but it is undeniably sadistic. Still, something keeps pulling me back to it.
EuroTrip (2004). Raunchy, silly and maybe even stupid, Jeff Schaffer’s EuroTrip just plain suits me. It’s simply the ne plus ultra of dumb teen movies—except I don’t really think it’s dumb at all. On the contrary, I find it marvelously inventive and surprisingly funny even on repeat viewings. Granted, its absolutely funniest sequence—Joanna Lumley as the preposterous proprietor of an Amsterdam youth hostel (“If you do not wish to have your valuables stolen, I suggest destroying them or discarding them right now. You can also try hiding your valuables in your anus”)—ended up on the cutting room floor and wound up as outtakes in the ending credits. (But, hey, when’s the last time the outtakes in a movie were really funny?) The full scene is, however, available on the DVD.
Whatever EuroTrip‘s limitations as art—depending perhaps on your definition of art—it’s that rare thing these days: a comedy with lots of random gags that actually has a structure and doesn’t rely on a bunch of post-modern references to other movies. It also boasts a great cameo by Matt Damon and a terrific song, “Scotty Doesn’t Know,” that ought to have been up for an Oscar in that long irrelevant “Best Song” category. And about that song—when I screened Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour in 3-D, I kept telling people that her “Rock Star” song sounded suspiciously like “Scotty Doesn’t Know,” no one paid any attention. (This, I think, had much to do with a desire not to watch the movie to find out.)
Vindication came last week when it was announced that the band, Lustra, who were responsible for “Scotty Doesn’t Know,” have claimed copyright infringement against “Rock Star.” I only hope that one of the areas of recourse the band is looking into involves making Cyrus sing the song with its original lyrics.