Category Archives: Best Bad Movies

“It’s the skating, isn’t it? It’s that insane disco music thing.” – Roller Boogie (1979) – Bad Movies I Love

You might not know this from all my snooty, high-minded adoration of Ozu and Renoir, but there are few movies that fill me with as much joy and excitement as the 1979 disco roller skating train wreck that is Roller Boogie. It’s hard to explain why I love this movie so much, especially to people who haven’t seen it – or maybe especially to people to have seen it. It is so utterly incompetent on all levels that it should be taking its place alongside Zardoz and The Sting Part II as one of my most painful cinematic experiences, but like Brooks’ Springtime for Hitler (the unofficial measure for this series on bad movies I love), it stumbles into entertainment.

Now I can't go to Venice Beach without remember this actually happened there.

Trying to cash in on the roller skating/disco craze of the late 1970s, Roller Boogie purports to tell the story of Terri, a spoiled rich girl played by a grown up Linda Blair, who hires Venice Beach skating pro(?) Bobby (Jim Bray) to teach her how to boogie on wheels. It’s the typical rich girl falling for the rough guy from the wrong side of the tracks (or in this case, the wrong side of the 405) story, but Jim Bray’s wiry frame and high-pitched whiny voice make him about as threatening as blind toddler.

Director Mark Lester and screenwriter Barry Schneider shoehorn in some nonsense about a powerful businessman trying to strong arm the owner of the beloved local skating rink into selling, a concert recital (Terri plays the flute – remember, she’s classy!), and, of course, a big disco skating competition that’s about as climatic or interesting as Andy Warhol’s Empire. (OK, maybe it’s slightly more interesting than watching the Empire State Building do nothing for eight hours, but not by much.)

These are just narrative gimmicks in place to push the characters from one poorly written, amateurishly directed, and badly acted scene to another. There are times when you might be tempted to guess that some of the scenes are from completely different movies that just happened to have the same actors, like some jaw-droppingly bad slapstick. Of course the bad slapstick turns out to be hilarious for not being funny. Here’s a rule: It’s never funny when someone, always fully clothed, gets pulled into a pool while trying to help out some dope without enough sense to just grab the edge and make his way over to the shallow end. Despite this rule – one of the few I would consider set in stone for movies – Lester chooses to use it not once, not twice, not even three times. There is something like six or seven times poor extras are forced to pretend they have the equilibrium of a three-year-old. You can’t help but laugh at the dopiness.

Love is in the ... air?

And what’s with the “romance” between Linda Blair and Jim Bray (who, by the way, was a real life pro roller skater, not an actor and it shows). Every time they play a romantic scene I was thrown into an incomprehensible mind-twisting paradox: I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that they both could have done better. (Unravel that one.)

When Roller Boogie was finally released the critics uniformly panned it – rightly so – but that never stopped a movie from making oodles of money. The producers, however, overestimated the box office draw of Linda Blair and Jim Bray, and miscalculated the staying power of the roller disco craze, which petered out before the movie was released. So it was a flop all around.

Luckily it found a new life on DVD and, oddly enough, occasional showings late at night on TCM. Everyone I know who has seen it tells me how bad it is, then goes on to tell me what a great time they had watching it. There is a transcendent quality to its badness that dips into cinematic ecstasy. There is nothing more enjoyable than being up late at night, turning off my phone, locking the doors, shutting the curtains, making sure the neighbors are without suspicion and turning on Roller Boogie again. I always thought no one would know – until now. I’ve come clean. I love Roller Boogie (and Oingo Boingo apparently).

Linda Blair, Jim Bray, and expert costuming make it all worth it.

And in response to the old query about being stranded on a desert island and I could only have one movie with me, it would not be this one. But, if I could take ten or twenty, Roller Boogie would certainly be in the running. I can’t imagine life without Jammer, Gordo, Phones, Hoppy, the stock snob Franklin, or the fat beach cop Sgt. Danner, in his disturbingly little shorts and store-bought white t-shirt with LAPD ironed on. Plus it’s hard to dismiss anything with Beverly Garland in it.  It’s the little things like this that make Roller Boogie a piece of crap to cherish.

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“He’s so eager to believe/ And so easily deceived/ Like a baby watching magic/ He’s so gullible it’s tragic.” – The Apple – (My Favorite Bad Movies)

Ummmmm.. What?

How does one describe The Apple? It’s a futuristic morality play that is cheesily realized and not terribly moral. To director Menahem Golan the future (distant 1994 to be exact) seemed to consist entirely of people wearing spandex, animal prints, and neon lame.

The first time I saw it, I really didn’t know anything about it. In the beginning it seems to be a straightforward story of young people being seduced by the glamour of the music industry. A duo of folk singers that lose at an American Idol-like singing contest, but are noticed by Mr. Boogalow, the most powerful music producer of 1994. He invites them to a party and suddenly, in the middle of the debauched festivities, this happens:

I remember yelling out, “What the hell is going on?!?” Nothing that preceded it prepared me for the movie turning into a musical. And the rest of the movie is a procession of one sidesplitting musical number after another as the young pair of singers are alternately mesmerized and horrified by the high life. The girl is dazzled by the glitzy new world, while her head-on-his-shoulders boyfriend is not fooled by the readily available sex and drugs. The movie really falls off the rails when it turns into an ill-conceived religious parable, complete with a breathtakingly hilarious musical number in hell and a visit from God himself or, as he calls himself, Mr. Tops, who leads all the good hippies off into the clouds. The Apple could have been subtitled All Hippies Go to Heaven.

There were several more scenes and numbers I could have posted here (including the aforementioned number in Hell), but I’ll just post this bit of inanity, which looks like a cross between a Vegas floorshow and a junior college production of Jesus Christ Superstar staged in the lobby of a Midwestern convention center.

It’s brilliant – and not for the reasons intended.

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“But darling, they’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices are they?” – Theater of Blood (My Favorite Bad Movies)

Robert Morely oughtn't to ask what Vincent Price just served him.

OK, maybe this movie doesn’t fit the criterion I set out for this series. This belongs to that genre of self-aware bad movies that embrace their badness. The directors figure if they can’t make Citizen Kane they might as well have some laughs. There’s a visceral joy to movies like Return of the Living Dead or Clue, both of which came very close to making this series. As much as I like them, they are a bit too polished for my taste. I like my schlock choppy and rough, like Theater of Blood. This tongue in cheek horror film exploits Vincent Price’s gift for the hammy and discards any attempts at realism. It’s a bad movie, but it’s a howler.

When beloved Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Price) is passed over once again for a prestigious London critics’ circle award, the man is more than a little displeased. He did, after all, stage a series of Shakespeare plays throughout his farewell season, reprising some of his best roles, like Julius Caesar, Othello, Titus Andronicus, and Shylock. The only reason, in his mind, that the snooty critics could have passed him over again is they have a irrational vendetta against him and any other popular actors in favor of the trendy and obscure. This is their last jab at his dignity.

So Lionheart does what anyone would do in a similar situation: fakes his death, recruits a small army of homeless henchmen, and sets out to kill off all of those nasty critics. But just killing them would be too easy; there’s no artistry in that. Lionheart kills them, one by one, modeling each killing after a killing in a Shakespeare play. One man is stabbed by a group a la Julius Caesar, another is drowned in a vat of vine a la Clarence in Richard III, and another has a pound of flesh cut out a la The Merchant of Venice (which leads to one of my favorite lines: “Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare”).

So the young, allegedly sexy critic teams with the police to stop Lionheart before London’s critics are made extinct. It would have been a hoot if Lionheart was joined by other disgruntled actors who had been skewered by the mean spirited critics. Of course the critics are petty, sadistic harpies, which should have soured me to the film since I think criticism is a noble and important art form in itself, but even I wanted to kill these snobs.

This is almost an identical plot to another Vincent Price film, The Abdominable Dr. Phibes, though this one is more fun, campier. Phibes kills off his victims using the plagues of Egypt as models, which is much less fun than Shakespeare. Also, Price goes all out in this one. We feel the personal joy involved, like Price was getting back at all those critics that have dismissed his career over the years. He plays each murder scene with somber seriousness, never hinting at the utter absurdity of it all, especially a scene where he beheads a sedated critic in bed as though he were a doctor performing an operation, ordering the instruments from the nurse and having her dab the sweat from his forehead. There’s another scene where he poses as a gay hairstylist and it is especially hilarious.

Price camps it up as Butch, the homicidal hairdresser.

When you get a chance, check out Theater of Blood. It’s goofy and creative and, most importantly, it made me want to go back and reread some of the lesser known Shakespeare plays.  Here’s the trailer:

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“Ladies and gentlemen, the party is over. Have a nice apocalypse. ” – Southland Tales – (My Favorite Bad Movies)

Before I move on to my consideration of 1942, please indulge me with a week or two of a new series. Since I took on the movies that caused me the most pain, frustration, and all around wonkiness , I decided it would be appropriate to consider the flip side of the coin. No, I don’t mean my favorite movies of all time. The movies in the last post are so bad that the best movies would be on an entirely different coin altogether – it’s the difference between that old brown penny that has been stuck to the bottom of your car’s cup holder in a gooey mess from spilled Coke and a shiny new gold dollar piece. I’m talking about movies that are terrible, but through some strange voodoo, turn out to be immensely enjoyable.

They are often called movies “so bad that they’re good,” but I’ve never felt comfortable using that term. It implies that there is a line of value and if you follow it down lower in quality it will eventually wrap around and rejoin the great movies like Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, and Greed. I reject the idea that there are movies so bad that they out-maneuver standard measures of worth. Bad movies are bad movies.

These movies are bad, some frankly terrible, but they aren’t enjoyable because they’re bad. We don’t relish the technical incompetence, lousy performances, and amateurish writing. They are enjoyable in spite of their badness. If that seems like a fine line consider an examples from, naturally, a film.

In The Producers Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel hatch a plot to put on the worst show on Broadway, a show so bad it will close sometime during intermission, so they coax gullible old women into investing more money than the show needs and pocket the extra money. They choose a terrible script, one that glamorizes and valorizes Hitler, then go on to hire an incompetent director and clueless actors. The show goes on to become a hit because the audience mistakes what’s awful about the show for comedy. The audience mistook the intention, but appreciated the effect. Springtime for Hitler turned out to be hilarious because it could be read more than one way.

That is the case with these movies, the movies that are terrible, but watchable and rewatchable. And, like Springtime for Hitler, the filmmakers were aiming for the bulls eye, but though a fortuitous nexus of incompetence and inspiration, they hit the picture of David Beckham next to the dartboard and it was a whole lot funnier.

So for the nest week or two I will post essays onrotten movies I love, leading up to my favorite bad movie of all time. But first, one of my favorite bad movies of recent years:

Southland Tales (2006) Dir. Richard Kelly

Sarah Michelle Geller and Dwayne Johnson in "Southland Tales"

This is one of those gargantuan messes so utterly disconnected from any sense of logic, proportion, history, social awareness, cultural consciousness, or theological grammar, that you can’t help but watch with equal measures of disbelief, amusement, shock, and respect. Richard Kelly showed a lot of promise with the morosely stylish Donnie Darko in 2001, but somewhere between the thoughtful artistry of that movie and Southland Tales Kelly appears to have lost his mind. Thankfully he is talented enough to make his disaster entrancing. Here’s the trailer:

If it looks awesome, it is. About all I can say for sure is the movie takes place in Los Angeles in the near future. I think—and to be honest I couldn’t swear to any of this – the movie is about an amnesiac movie star in played by Dwayne Johnson who goes missing and shacks up with a porn star (Sarah Michelle Geller) and together they write a screenplay about the end of the world that turns out to be uncannily prescient. He doesn’t know, however, that he’s engaged to a right wing Senator’s daughter (Mandy Moore) who is desperate to get him back without embarrassing her father’s political fortunes. Meanwhile a radical Marxist group (populated with a cadre of Saturday Night Live alums) plots against the proto-fascist state that the Bush era would have left us with had there been more terrorist attacks. And Wallace Shawn is a creepy scientist building something that is supposed to be revolutionary. And Miranda Richardson, doing her best evil queen routine, plays that right wing Senator’s wife who is in charge of a new agency that watches everything and everyone. Then there’s a policeman who has a double and Justin Timberlake plays a disillusioned Iraq war hero who overlooks everything from the Santa Monica pier, pushes a new drug called Liquid Karma, and pops in for a disjointed (but not unenjoyable) musical interlude. I’m getting exhausted writing about it, but take a look at Timberlake:

If you think the plot is a mess (and I’m exhausted typing it out), you have to admire Kelly’s audacity. Many of us bemoan modern movies; they are uncreative, derivative, mechanical. At least Kelly had the balls to try for the bleachers at a time when so many are just hoping to lay down a bunt. He’s so ballsy that he starts the movies somewhere in the middle of the story, just plopping us in with little reference. He wrote three graphic novels that begin the story and apparently we’re supposed to read the novels before or after or something to fill in the holes. (I haven’t bothered.) The movie itself has some great scenes and some laugh-out-loud moments (including a botched fake shooting between Amy Poehler and Wood Harris). Dwayne Johnson’s performance is so bad that we have to wonder if it’s intentional (though, sadly, I suspect it isn’t). You can catch glimpses of it in the trailer.

In the end we get what so many filmmakers who mistake themselves for intellectuals give us (think Godard or Resnais): stylish exercises that say more about the filmmaker’s ego than anything about life, love, philosophy, theology, society, culture, or the price tea in India. But I love Kelly’s visual and aural style. He knows how to use music, editing, and camera movement to create a great sequence. He takes the best of music video directing and integrates it into a feature narrative film. And I think that’s great. The more a director can do without dialogue is much more effective than wordy explanations. He excites my cinematic senses even in a confused movie like Southland Tales.

Audiences, even those who were charmed by the cult status of Darko, agreed. The $17 million dollar film didn’t even break one million dollars at the box office worldwide. Many who did see it reacted against its sensory overload, while I ended up embracing it. Again, it’s as empty-headed as any other trashy movie, though Richard Kelly might not know it. I suppose this is meant to be some sort of expansion on the time travel musings of Donnie Darko, but what felt fresh in that movie feels stale and gimmicky five years later. I wasn’t left pondering the mysteries of time and space. All I was left with was this question: What the hell is Kelly’s fascination with time travel? It’s paradoxical. We get it. Move on.

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