10 Classic "So-Bad-They're-Good" Films
Success sticks out in memory, but so too do failures -- especially the bad ones. Here are ten films that fall so flat on their face that you can't help but hit rewind.
Failure is what we’re told to avoid. However, few things can teach us more than falling flat on our faces. Failure can be a beautiful thing; the story of Icarus comes to mind. Of course, Daedalus is the one who gets out of that tale successfully, ostensibly the one we should emulate. But he doesn’t demonstrate the striving and failing that most of us are familiar with. Try, but you’ll likely fail. People will learn. And, eventually, you’ll learn.
This is why bad movies can continue to entertain despite being burdened with terrible acting, poor plotting, cheap effects, and questionable premises. There’s beauty in a failure, a type of grotesquerie that’s more present in our lives than the heights of success.
Sure, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, the Coen Brothers, and Kathryn Bigelow, among others, have all created films we love, envy, and enjoy. Those are the gods of Olympus. But humans were never meant to dwell there, and the failures and pleasures of "so bad-they’re-good" films comes into play, reminding us of our own frailties and uncertainties. Here are ten films that are genuine, sincere examples of our ambitions coming into contact with our limitations and the resulting fallout.
Crafted by Amir Shervan, an Iranian businessman and cinema owner, this film is both a rip-off of the highly popular Lethal Weapon series and a demonstration of the American Dream. Shervan, an Iranian immigrant, was plucky, constantly searching for funding for his films, calling in favors from friends to finish. Indeed, most of his sets are filmed in the homes of his buddies scattered through Southern California. Though he made the wonderfully goofy Hollywood Cop and the dour, claustrophobic (in a John Carpenter Assault on Precinct 13 sort of way) picture Killing American Style, it is Samurai Cop that is the epitome of his style. A film held together with band-aids, with terrible color timing, questionable editing, and a shooting schedule put together by someone both financially and chronologically challenged, Samurai Cop is the ultimate bootstrap film. Yes, the lead wears a cheap wig after he cut his hair halfway through filming. Yes, most reverse shots were filmed in the director’s office, interspliced with shots from other locations. Yes, a goofy rubber arm that fools no one makes an appearance. Still, the fact that this film was finished, and ultimately released is a testament to the director’s savvy, even if it didn’t translate to the screen.
Glen or Glenda
Of course, Plan 9 from Outer Space is what most people know Ed Wood for. However, it was Glen or Glenda that cemented his reputation, for better or worse, as America’s premier purveyor of cinematic shlock. In a way, this is Wood’s most personal film, showcasing his affinity, and sympathy, for crossdressing and transvestites. It’s also personal because it is truly awful, filled with heavy-handed philosophizing, stock footage, out of place Bela Lugosi cameos, and pseudo-scientific explanations. The latter both offend and make the term ham-fisted an insult to pigs around the world. Regardless, this is a transgressive film, decades ahead of its time, showing how sexuality isn’t a binary, but rather a spectrum. If made today, in a purportedly more enlightened time than the '50s, perhaps it might have survived the harsh reaction is received. The message, maybe; the production, definitely not.
Mac and Me
Product placement has a big place in contemporary mainstream film. Movies cost money -- a lot of money. A return on investment is not always guaranteed. To offset the high production costs, studios turn to big corporations, promising screen time for their products in return for some cash. When done well, it becomes largely seamless: for example, the occasional BMW logo or Subway cup in the background. When done poorly, e.g. Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, the film screeches to a halt to beam commercials to the audience. Perhaps the most gratuitous -- and earliest -- example of blatant production places comes from Mac and Me, an E.T. rip-off from 1988. Filled with Spielbergian schmaltz without the Spielberg, the Mysterious Alien Creature (Mac), disguised in a bear costume (long story), mounts the counter at an impossibly clean and popular McDonald’s and delights the corporately calculated diverse crowd of customers with a dance number, complete with beauty shots of the employees, restaurant, and menu. Ronald McDonald is even there. This several minute scene feels like five hours, as does the rest of the film, but there’s something almost charming about how utterly cynical and monetized this scene is in its single-minded devotion to picking the audience’s pockets. Typically, it’s hidden disingenuously, as if the art should come first. Here, there’s only honesty.
Maniac Cop 2
Calling this film exploitative might be one of the biggest understatements there is. Exploitation films have a long history in B-cinema. Universally, they’re cheap. But, it’s that cheapness, and the workaround required by the budget, that makes the B-genre so engaging. Hacks abound, but still there’s talent, the epitome of ambition running into limitation. In William Lustig’s 1990 flick Maniac Cop 2, the exploitation genre, the hallmark of gritty, late night viewings at dingy theatres, gets a love letter. Featuring an undead cop that seeks revenge on criminals and cops alike, the film features cult icons Bruce Campbell, Robert Davi, and Robert Z’Dar as the titular character. Blood flows like water. People get set on fire and stay on fire for whole scenes.
Maniac Cop 2 might be one of the best examples of film imparting a type of cognitive dissonance in an audience: you’re entertained and disgusted simultaneously. You get to see plenty of Z’Dar’s infamous jawline, along with his nude haunches, in an oddly slowed down prison shower fight scene. Plus, it has the best tagline of any sequel, “You have the right to remain silent forever... again!”
Clichés, as David Foster Wallace noted, are, on the surface, lame and unexciting. Nevertheless, they express deep, terrible truths that resonate in the wider culture. They’ve just been said so many times that it is almost like saying water is wet. Deadly Prey is a movie totally comprised of clichés, those hailing from '80s action movies in particular. There’s a plot, but it doesn’t matter. There’s a main character, complete with hard body and denim cut-offs required by '80s masculinity, but who can remember his name? He’s Action Guy -- that’s all you need to know.
What makes this film entertaining is just how derivative and cookie-cutter it is, while also being an utter distillation of everything that makes American action films work. Each element is predictable (except the shoehorned pathos of the ending) and you know exactly how scenes are going to play out -- yet the purity of this rip-off is incredible. If you took First Blood, Die Hard, and Commando, rendered them down into a hyper-concentrated syrup, you’d have Deadly Prey.