[17 November 2010]
What is it that’s so compelling about bad movies? I don’t mean the parade of overblown, big-budget, generic pictures Hollywood is constantly forcing upon the world. I’m talking about the movies that come out of left field, that fall through the cracks, that are so bad they’re good. The documentary Best Worst Movie takes a look at the hilariously misguided 1990 horror film Troll 2 and the devoted following that has elevated it from obscurity to cult phenomena. For the uninitiated, the plot of Troll 2 concerns plant-eating monsters who turn their human victims into vegetables in order to eat them. It’s a nonsensical premise, poorly executed and even more poorly acted. Yet it’s utterly compelling. Here are some lesser known turkeys, all of which will satisfy the most discerning of bad-movie-lover and may help us understand why we love these types of films so much in the first place.
Deadly Prey (1987)
Like many bad movies, Deadly Prey is a rip-off, pure and simple. It is the story of a man being hunted for sport is taken wholesale from Richard Connel’s short-story “The Most Dangerous Game” and it’s protagonist Mike Danton—a war vet forced to use the survival skills he learned in Vietnam when kidnapped by a band of mercenaries—is a blonde, blanker though no less chiseled imitation of John Rambo. But there’s something about Deadly Prey that distinguishes it from all the other action flicks that littered the shelves of 1980s video stores.
Maybe it’s the tiny, cut-off, denim shorts Mike Danton traipses around in throughout the film, recalling Tobias Funke of Arrested Development and his never-nude complex; or the cheapo soundtrack, complete with Casio Rapman-style synth-blasts that telegraph every moment of pseudo-suspense; or even the ridiculously implausible kills, which include Danton literally ripping a guy’s head off. Maybe it’s not even the movie itself. It could be the tagline, which describes the action as taking place “75 miles southeast of Los Angeles” in an apparent attempt to compensate for the movie’s lack of logic with bizarre and completely arbitrary specificity; who cares how far it is from Los Angeles? Or maybe what makes Deadly Prey so entertaining is a magical combination of all these things; or better still, some unquantifiable, bad movie alchemy that turns what should make a film totally unwatchable—flubbed lines, uncharismatic actors, a second-rate story—into something you can’t stop watching.
Megaforce, like Deadly Prey, has the look and feel of a rip off—of Delta Force, The A-Team, the G.I. JOE cartoon series, any movie or TV show, in other words, where an elite group of super soldiers dress in silly costumes, use futuristic weapons and ride around the desert in dune buggies. The thing is, Megaforce predates what it seems to be ripping off. It’s of that special breed of bad movie that actually has a few original ideas—albeit silly ones—and still comes off as a poorly scripted, badly acted, derivative knock-off of a superior film. And yet that superior film didn’t exist back in 1982. Megaforce is, in effect, the poor man’s Megaforce.
Not only that, but it’s a campy cult phenomena waiting to happen. There’s bad synthesizer music, feathered hair galore, plentiful headbands, and a skin-tight, gold spandex jumpsuit worn by our hero Ace Hunter, which he struts around in, hands on hips, at every available opportunity. Watching it, you can easily imagine fans lining up around the block for a special midnight screening, dressed in their own homemade gold spandex jumpsuits. You can almost see them kissing their thumbs and holding them up to the screen in unison, Rocky Horror-style, whenever Ace Hunter and his ostensible love interest Major Zara make this strange, apparently romantic gesture at one another. It’s hard to believe Megaforce hasn’t garnered a massive, rabid following like Troll 2.
Especially when you consider the climax where Ace Hunter, presumed dead by his comrades, rides out of a cloud of dust on his motorcycle. How will he make it back to HQ? Just then Ace presses a button, wings pop out of the bike, rocket-boosters shoot out the back, and Ace takes off into the air. Nothing in the rest of the movie prepares you for this. What was a substandard action movie has become full-blown, dumb, implausible sci-fi, complete with shoddy special effects and Ace mugging for the camera as he pilots his super-cycle against the fakest looking backdrop imaginable. It’s a transcendent moment. The sort of awe and disbelief you feel right then is as rare in so-called bad movies as it is in more respectable fare; it may, in fact, be more powerful in a flop as obscure as Megaforce. The lousy acting and sluggish pacing lower your guard, lulling you into a sense of complacency and then bam!—you see something so amazing you can only stare, mouth agape. Terms like good and bad don’t even apply to Megaforce, much less a flying motorcycle. A flying motorcycle simply is, in the most zen way possible. And something so silly doesn’t need to be enjoyed with the sense of irony that accompanies many bad movie viewings. There’s something genuine about the silly, even sublime. And how many movies, really, can you call sublime?
Beaks: The Movie (1987)
Beaks: The Movie, not to be confused with Beaks: The Novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Beaks: The One Act Play by Anton Chekhov or Beaks: The Abstract Expressionist Painting by Jackson Pollock, is yet another rip-off, this time of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. And while you wouldn’t expect Beaks: The Movie to match the level of craftsmanship of Hitchcock’s classic, you might reasonably expect this poorly dubbed dud to be content with emulating its fairly straightforward story. Why bog down your cheap knock-off with a huge cast of characters you don’t have the time to develop or a convoluted story you don’t have the skill to tell? But like so many cash-ins of not only The Birds but other deceptively simple genre fare like Jaws and Alien, this is exactly what Beaks: The Movie does, as if desperately overcompensating for lack of originality.
Sure, there are some hilariously unconvincing scenes of birds pecking at innocent bystanders, all of whom obviously have bird seed sprinkled on their clothes to lure the birds closer. But the majority of the movie is taken up by footage of a news reporter and her cameraman covering the bird attacks in what may or may not be Spain, interspersed with inexplicable clips of a peasant in a rural church and a family vacationing in what may or may not be Puerto Rico. Note to the makers of animal-attack movies: All anybody wants from an animal-attack movie are animal-attacks. Which isn’t to say that Beaks: The Movie isn’t without merit. Watching something this disjointed and incomprehensible, full of scenes that seem to have been shot for a half dozen separate movies and then strung together at the last minute by some exhausted, underpaid editor, makes you realize what a miracle it is when something even remotely lucid reaches the screen. By comparison, Deadly Prey is a masterpiece of efficient, economical storytelling. Yet this is precisely what makes Beaks: The Movie so striking. It’s so far out of the director’s control it’s almost exhilarating. With its endless and randomly inserted images of pigeons flapping their wings in slow motion it resembles an experiment art house film from the 60s. It’s like a free verse poem whose meaning you can never hope to decipher. It’s as beautiful and abstract as anything since, well, Beaks: The Abstract Expressionist Painting by Jackson Pollock.
[Mysteriously, no trailers or highlight reels of Beaks: The Movie are available on YouTube, but the entire film is currently available for viewing here for the morbidly curious.
Lightning: Fire From The Sky (2001)
I was born and raised in Rutland, Vermont, where Lightning: Fire From The Sky was shot by low-rent local auteur David Giancola, so it’s hard to remain objective. Where residents of New York City, Los Angeles and other major metropolitan destinations routinely witness the large-scale destruction of their beloved homes on the big screen, I’m of the lucky few who get to see their dinky, boring hometown destroyed—whether it be the killer flood of Giancola’s Killer Flood, the hail storm in Frozen Impact or bolts of lightning in Lightning: Fire From The Sky. Watching a David Giancola movie is like stumbling into some weird, alternate Hollywood, where the plots of the movies are just as dumb and formulaic, but the special effects are laughably cheap, the setting is always a middle-of-nowhere town you’ve never heard of, and the cast is headlined by awkward, goofy-looking people that wouldn’t make it as extras in a Michael Bay picture and rounded out by a few washed-up, embarrassed professionals—Billy Ray Cyrus in Radical Jack or poor Stacy Keach in nearly every other Giancola movie.
Lightning: Fire From The Sky stars Jesse Eisenberg, a long way from the success of Zombieland or The Social Network, as a teenaged boy obsessed, like most teenaged boys, with meteorology. All he does all day long is talk about the weather or look at weather patterns on his clunky computer, just like you did when you were his age. His father, played by former Dukes Of Hazzard star John Schneider, finds his son’s obsession unhealthy. But when the kid discovers a huge lightning storm heading for Rutland it’s up to father and son to reconcile their differences and work together to save the town from this abnormal weather pattern, characterized as so evil you expect the lightning to don a pair of dark shades and start hunting the cast down one-by-one like a mercenary from Deadly Prey.
All of which is to say that Lightning: Fire From The Sky isn’t exactly realistic. But is that reason enough to laugh? We certainly don’t expect realism from those big budget blockbusters, so why should we hold their low-budget counterparts to impossibly high standards? And after watching Beaks: The Movie, Giancola’s film seems downright graceful, a feat accomplished without the opportunities usually afforded Hollywood directors. If nothing else, it’s coherent—the sort of minor achievement you should remind yourself of when tempted to ridicule the people behind the scenes of a bad movie. As for the acting, it is pretty awful. Remembering their lines is the least of the actors’ worries. They walk into frame, lean against door posts at impossible and uncomfortable angles, fidget nervously, cross their arms in incredibly awkward and heretofore unknown ways, and jut their elbows so sharply and directly at the camera the whole thing feels like some appendage-themed horror movie shot in 3-D. Apparently, as soon as Giancola called action they forgot what it was like to be a human being. But would I fare any better under the scrutiny of the camera? Who hasn’t felt this way at some point in their lives? Who hasn’t found themselves at a job interview or on a first date or in some other high-pressured situation losing the capability to act like a regular person? This is what makes bad movies like Lightning: Fire From The Sky so much more charming than your average star-studded spectacle, more relatable, maybe more human.
[Lightning: Fire From The Sky has also proven to be too obscure even for YouTube, but this time, unfortunately, those who seek out this one are on their own.]
The Howling III: The Marsupials (1987)
As we all know sequels are almost always terrible, no more so than those in-name-only sequels that further bloat already bloated movie franchises. Sometimes, however, that connection to the first movie becomes so tenuous it acts as a sort of freedom for a sequel. The first Howling is a fairly respectable, straightforward werewolf picture, while the gloriously titled The Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf from 1985 is a fun, new wave spin on the formula. The Howling III: The Marsupials is an entirely different story. Unburdened by whatever mild expectations viewers of the first Howling might’ve had, untethered to the conventions of the horror genre, the movie veers wildly in so many different directions it not only doesn’t resemble the franchise it is ostensibly a part of, it doesn’t resemble any other movie out there.
The plot follows an Australian werewolf named Jerboa who runs away from her clan of fellow werewolves and winds up in Sydney, where she meets and falls in love with Donny. Donny is a crew member on a low budget werewolf movie called Shapeshifters 8, whose director can only be described as a gay Hitchcock and who casts Jerboa as the lead in the picture. There’s also a Russian ballet dancer named Olga—also a werewolf—who defects to Australia and falls in love with the mustachioed Professor Beckmyer, a soft-hearted werewolf-sympathizer who wants to protect these creatures from the government’s cruel scientific study, as well as the local rednecks, who like to hunt them down Deadly Prey-style. It’s all ridiculously convoluted but done with undeniable style. And like Lightning: Fire From The Sky it’s the sort of movie that makes you wonder about the filmmakers themselves. Whenever you’re tempted to laugh at the seemingly unintentional hilarity stop and ask yourself if that goofy line of dialogue, that ludicrous plot twist, that odd or disconcerting tone is maybe, just maybe intentional.
In fact, there are some real powerful moments in The Howling III. There’s an incredibly effective scene where we catch frantic glimpses of the transformation of a werewolf, tied down to a lab table, on the nearby, static-filled monitors recording the event. Later on we witness the birth of Donny and Jerboa’s off-spring, watching as it crawls up Jerboa’s hairy stomach and into her pouch—perhaps the most touching portrayal of a newborn half-human, half-marsupial werewolf ever committed to film. Still later, we watch as Jerboa, Donny, Olga and Professor Beckmyer move to a remote hut in the outback to raise their children away from the meddling of society, fifteen years of peace and solitude passing in montage. And just when you think the movie might end on this unexpectedly quiet note Donny and Jerboa run off to Hollywood, where Jerboa becomes a famous actress, wins an Oscar, gets up to make her acceptance speech and accidentally turns back into her werewolf form. Gay Hitchcock suddenly appears out of nowhere to yell “Cut!”, and The Howling III: The Marsupials is officially over. It’s an ending as silly and sublime as that of Megaforce. And like Megaforce, The Howling III is a cult phenomena waiting to happen.
It’s the perfect bad movie because ultimately it’s not that bad. Isn’t this what makes watching so much schlock so rewarding? That search for the undiscovered gem? That moment when you finally stagger forth from the murk of mediocrity and fall, exhausted, grateful, upon a wholly singular and weird work of art? Think of all the impatient moviegoers who walked out of Troll 2 halfway in; then think of the first intrepid explorer who ventured all the way to the end of the movie to discover not merely another crappy low-budget horror flick but something far more surprising. It must have been strange, exciting and a little bit scary—as good a definition of a bad movie as any. Discovering your own personal best worst movie makes you feel like Columbus coming upon America, or Admiral Peary finally reaching the North Pole, or whoever it was that first got a motorcycle to leave the confines of the Earth and lift off into flight.