I don’t walk out of movies. Nor do I start one at home and throw in the towel before the end, no matter how worthless, no matter how bad.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a fact. I don’t understand my fidelity to finishing even the trashiest garbage, but there is something about leaving a theater or turning off a DVD that makes my skin crawl. It just feels wrong, like shooting kittens or mugging little old ladies. I walked out of a movie once at the urging of a friend and I’ve regretted it ever since. Yes, the movie was rotten (and no I have never gone back and finished it), but once I left I felt like it was an act of moral cowardice. Not quite on the level of Red Badge of Courage, but something along those lines.
Thanks to Thomas Pynchon’s last book I have finally given up this personal obligation to finish with books. Somehow I came to the conclusion that if I wasn’t enjoying what I was reading and not getting anything meaningful out of it, I could put the book down and move on to something else. No sense in wasting countless hours indulging Pynchon in his nonsensical garbage.
Why can’t I do the same for movies? Of course the time commitment is much less, but I have been frustrated, angered, and made miserable by countless movies. Why is it OK to be tortured for two hours? Why put up with any misery even if it’s only two hours worth?
I’m beginning to suspect my movie love is obsessive. I feel the need to see everything (except The Human Centipede – I’m doing just fine without that) and part of seeing everything is seeing all of everything – warts and all. How can I tell what was wrong with a movie if I don’t see all of it? Or how do I know there won’t be something worth seeing in the last reel?
So I compiled at list of movies that have caused me the most displeasure. I won’t go so far as to say these are the worst movies ever made since I haven’t seen everything, especially largely reviled movies like Frozen Assets and Ishtar (and Jerry Lewis still won’t let me see The Day the Clown Cried). Plus I’m largely giving a pass to low budget pieces of crap. It’s easy to rag on incompetence. I prefer to highlight the worst movie made by supposedly competent filmmakers. Those who made Manos: Hands of Fate, Black Ninja, or Monster a Go-Go didn’t have a basic understanding of the world around them or the people in it, let alone basic cinematic grammar and ragging on them would be like picking on the retarded girl in the playground.
So here is a collection of movies that I wish I had been able to walk out on, movies that have no redeeming qualities, movies that were conceived, developed, filmed, edited, and screened with no vision, creativity, or aesthetic. They are, in a word, excrement.
In no particular order:
Zardoz (1974) Dir./Wr. John Boorman
In fairness to writer, director, and producer John Boorman, he did have a vision with this one, though it was so misguided I can’t believe no one pulled him aside and asked what the deal was with the giant flying head that vomits guns. This is one of those post-apocalyptic pretensions that trick filmmakers into believing they are saying something profound about contemporary society. There’s a lot of goofiness about immortality, mind control, and Sean Connery dressed in … well, I’m not sure what he’s dressed in, but it surely wasn’t flattering. If you’ve never suffered though this one, here’s a trailer:
I hope that doesn’t delude you into thinking it will be a campy good time. It isn’t. It’s deadly dull, taking all the worst of Planet of the Apes and mashing it up with the worst of 2001. The trailer is incomprehensible and the movie doesn’t clear much up.
The Scarlet Letter (1995) Dir. Roland Joffe, Wr. Douglas Day Stewart
Watching this incarnation of The Scarlet Letter I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t a colossal joke. It seems more like the product of a movie that’s satirizing the way Hollywood bastardizes art for commercial success, like Alan Alda’s Sweet Liberty, than an actual movie that people thought was a good idea. I kept waiting for the camera to swing around and catch the battles behind the scenes to maintain some fidelity to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. But that never happens and Joffe packs in one embarrassment after another: Indian attacks, witch trials, anachronistic feminism, and, worst of all, Rev. Dimsdale’s heroism and even a happy ending! Blech.
Just because they say it is “freely adapted” from the novel doesn’t excuse the corrupt process that brought this monstrosity into being. Here’s an idea: If you don’t like the story of one of the greatest American novels ever written, don’t use it as the basis for your movie. Make up an original story. But would that have been too hard? I guess so. While they’re at it they should re-do The Great Gatsby and instead of that downer ending, why not let Jay and Daisy live happily ever after? Or they could “re-imagine” Moby-Dick where Ahab learns the evils of whaling and teams up with his new pal Moby to battle an evil whaling conglomerate in the style of Flipper or Free Willy.
Movers and Shakers (1985) Dir. William Asher, Wr. Charles Grodin
Sometimes you see a bad movie and think that it must have looked like a good idea on paper, but somewhere along the production line it fell apart. I can’t imagine how Movers and Shakers looked good on paper or any other material. Charles Grodin, often a very funny actor, wrote the abysmally unfunny screenplay about a studio executive (Walter Matthau) who makes a promise on his best friend’s death bed that he will make a movie out of his favorite book: a how-to sex manual. Matthau spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out how to make the movie. Unfortunately it is painfully unfunny. Steve Martin pops in for a misguided cameo as an aging screen idol. He’s not believable or funny. (And Penny Marshall is his girlfriend?!) Nothing in the movie is remotely funny. It’s just dull, dull, dull, which is strange with so much good talent attached. Gilda Radner is in it for God’s sake! You know it sucks when Gilda Radner can’t make me laugh.
This material could only have been funny if it was grounded in real life, if we believe that there actually is a movie they could make, no matter how bad it would be. How about a promise to re-make a Swedish sex film? That could have been funny. Or how about making The Scarlet Letter with a happy ending … oh, wait.
Jud Süss (1940) Dir. Veit Harlan, Wr. Veit Harlan and E. W. Möller
OK, this is a virulently anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda piece, so was I even expecting to like it? Originally I would have said no, but a friend of mine urged me to see it. It is, he insisted, a good movie if you can get past the anti-Jewish stuff. I figured he must have seen something worthwhile in it so I checked it out. I’m now convinced my friend stands as another exhibit in the case against film school. He spent too much time there looking at pretty pictures and not learning about life. For some reason he thinks it’s possible to separate the anti-Semitic text from the images.
I’ve been lenient on lots of movies for racism. You have to judge them by the time they were made, so it isn’t fair to condemn Gone with the Wind for its racist depictions of blacks. But the difference is Gone with the Wind could have existed without those characters. Jud Süss cannot exist without the conniving, money grubbing Jew manipulating the state for his and his peoples’ own needs at the expense of defenseless gentiles. Jud Süss argues a point that ultimately justified the Holocaust for many Germans. I can’t get excited about that. Oh, and objectively speaking, even if I was able to ignore the hooked noses and raping of the pure gentile girl, it’s still a shockingly boring movie. Just look at this clip. It should be filled with tension: a girl appealing to the Jewish finance minister for the life of her husband, but he only has one thing on his mind. It’s paced at about the same clip as my 94-year-old grandmother’s stories about spilling tea on Eleanor Roosevelt.
The Happening (2008) Dir/Wr. M. Night Shyamalan
I’ve always like Mark Wahlberg so it hurts me to say he delivers one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture in this clunker. I’ve never, however, liked M. Night Shyamalan so I feel justified laying the blame for Wahlberg’s terrible performance at his feet. It was the director’s job to curb Wahlberg’s habit of ending every statement with a question mark, but for some reason the hack Shyamalan just patted him on the back and moved on. Shyamalan got lucky with The Sixth Sense, a pretty bad movie that relies on a gimmick to impress people. And Shyamalan has made one piece of trash after another since then, making The Sixth Sense look more and more like Casablanca. As much as I hated The Last Airbender, even that was a step up from the utter failure that was The Happening. The set up has possibilities but, as usual, Shyamalan, fumbles them. Large groups of people begin killing themselves along the eastern seaboard. Are terrorists releasing toxins in the air that make people kill themselves? Of course not! It’s something much sillier than that. RiffTrax, Mystery Science Theater 3000 in their new form, lampooned the film brilliantly in this clip:
Well, it wasn’t really fair. I mean Wahlberg actually says to himself, “Be scientific, douchebag.” It’s as if Shyamalan wrote the gags for them. (Though it isn’t as bad as my favorite Shyamalan example of bad writing. From The Last Airbender: “We have to show them we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in theirs.” Yeah, OK.) Can we stop pretending that this guy ever had any talent?
The Sting, Part II (1983) Dir. Jeremy Kagan, Wr. David S. Ward
You know you’re in trouble when the director of a sequel goes to great pains to assure everyone that his movie isn’t really a sequel. Instead it’s “inspired by and a continuation of” the first, highly successful film. How something can be inspired by and a continuation of a film without being a sequel isn’t all that clear, but the studio had to know they had a momentous flop on their hands. Mac Davis, whoever that is, just can’t fill Robert Redford’s shoes. And I love Jackie Gleason, but he should have known better when he was offered a role originated by Paul Newman.
And this is where the producers get tricky. They knew Davis and Gleason weren’t exactly Redford and Newman so they slightly changed their names and said, “Ta-dah! They’re not really playing the same parts. It’s completely different … but the same.”
I think The Sting is a fine movie, but years of far better grifter movies have diminished its stature. That said, The Sting Part II is rotten, lifeless, devoid of any creative instincts that weren’t plundered from another source, that watching it makes The Sting look like the classic everyone seems to think it is. I wish I could find a clip of the movie somewhere so you can see for yourself how everyone is wooden, especially Terri Garr putting on a crummy French accent. I guess the incompetence of the accent was supposed to be funny but, like everything else in the movie, it just comes off as incompetent.
The Haunted Mansion (2003) Dir. Rob Minkoff, Wr. David Berenbaum
It’s sad when movies don’t fulfill their genre requirements. When romances aren’t romantic. When thrillers aren’t thrilling. When dramas aren’t dramatic. They’re all sad. But there is nothing sadder than a comedy that isn’t funny. I grow increasingly embarrassed when someone is trying ever so hard to be funny, but ends up being as funny as a stroke. There are few comedies I’ve seen that are as wretchedly unfunnny as The Haunted Mansion, a crude attempt to cash in on the success of another film based on a Disneyland attraction, The Pirates of the Caribbean.
The Haunted Mansion has long been one of the most popular attractions at Disneyland. As a child I always looked forward to the stretching room, the ballroom filled with dancing ghosts, and the crowded cemetery. I had no way of knowing that crass studio executives would get their hands on some of these beloved scenes and try to pervert them into a cash cow movie franchise.
I don’t have a problem with them making it into a movie, so long as the movie isn’t terrible. But all they saw were the dollar signs of Johnny Depp’s franchise and didn’t want to be bothered with the hard work of developing a creative, funny script. They rushed out a bore of a script filled with punchlines that wouldn’t make a first grader laugh. To turn a disaster into a catastrophe, they then cast Eddie Murphy in the lead. Now I love a lot of what Murphy has done in the past, but he hasn’t been on his game in years (decades maybe). I would say that casting Murphy in the part is a clever attempt to subvert the old movies where black actors are comically afraid of ghosts (“Feets don’t fail me now!”), but I doubt that much though went into it. Murphy is just as terrible as the written material and what we end up with is a mess that Murphy, Wallace Shawn, Terrence Stamp, and everyone else associated with it are probably more than happy to pretend never happened.
And now we learn that Guillermo Del Toro is out to remake the movie and, hopefully, erase the memory of the terrible film that preceded it.
If all movies were as bad as these seven I would have renounced film and buried my nose in books years ago. Luckily they aren’t. What are some of your cinematic horror stories? I’d love to hear about the movies you hate with a passion.