D. Jason Fleming/Contributor
I was in high school when Mystery Science Theater 3000 went nationwide. I became a dedicated, even rabid, MSTie by about the five minute mark of my first episode (208, Lost Continent; “Rock climbing” still makes me giggle if mentioned at just the right moment).
Before discovering that show, I was already a connoisseur of bad movies. A particular favorite was Phantom of the Mall: Erik’s Revenge, which is even worse than the title suggests. How much worse? The mayor of the afflicted suburb in the film is Morgan Fairchild, and one of the costars is Pauly Shore before he became a “star”.
So, I know from bad movies.
As Tolstoy never wrote, every good movie is the same (and features the villain getting caught on purpose so that he can taunt the good guys from inside of a transparent enclosure before carrying out his dastardly plot), but bad movies fall into a few distinct categories.
Contrary to popular consensus, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is not the worst movie ever made. Oh, it’s bad, certainly, but it is entertainingly bad, which is why it is so beloved. It never becomes boring, or tedious, or offensive. It’s just so disconnected from what mere mortals expect from a movie that its charms never wear out.
It even, you could argue, is so bad that it becomes transcendent, achieving a quality of compelling interest because of how bad it is in every respect.
In honor of the ghost of Ed Wood, here are six more science fiction and fantasy movies that are so bad they become transcendent.
[Note: Yes, that is how the title is spelled.]
If the name Albert Pyun does not make your blood run cold and have you nervously looking for the nearest exit, I may have to question your dedication to bad movies. The schlock auteur of Bran Smasher: A Love Story, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s second-worst movie Cyborg, and the Captain America movie starring J.D. Salinger’s son that nobody wants to remember (and rightly so) has, in recent years, tried to gain control of his reputation by embracing the “cult movie” badness he seems unable to escape making.
This, his debut feature, is the one he complains was “ruined” by the producers. Try not to fall over from shock when I tell you that it is, by far, his most entertaining flick.
It starts with the title. There is a sword, yes indeed, and that sword is one of the silliest damned things ever committed to film. It’s the invention of a sword-happy eight-year-old boy in a fever dream. It has three blades. Three. And two of them launch. Like rockets.
I am not making this up.
This is a medieval fantasy, just in case the title didn’t clue you in. But the sword blades launch like rockets. Rockets on painfully obvious guy wires, but rockets nonetheless.
And there is a sorcerer. For about two minutes. Well, maybe four if you count the prologue-y stuff at the beginning. I won’t even count against the movie the fact that the sorcerer is played by Night Court‘s Richard “Bull” Moll, because he actually does a pretty good job under all the makeup and chintzy lighting.
So the misleading title already puts this in bad movie territory, but what else is there? Well…
We’ve got a hero with a reputation so awesome that other barbarians drop what they’re doing (and what they’re doing is a bunch of brothel girls) the moment they hear his name mentioned.
Said hero is so tough he de-crucifies himself through sheer muscle power. And grimacing.
A “lost kingdom” plot that wavers between The Most Important Thing Ever and Wait, There’s A Deposed King Wandering Around? Really? I Forgot About That.
And, let us not forget, the guy who played Frank on Murphy Brown as a “barbarian”. Frank. A barbarian.
In short: hugely, amazingly bad, and hugely, amazingly entertaining (all the more so when you compare it to every other movie Albert Pyun ever made).
The Amazing Colossal Man
As I may have indicated, I’m trying to steer clear of MST3K movies on this list, but this one I just had to include.
You know the story. Major Glenn TragicVictim wanders too close to an atomic bomb test, and just starts growing, and growing, and growing, until his growth snaps his mind and he tears across the countryside, destroying and eating, right up to the point where a comically huge hypodermic needle is shoved in his ankle, causing him to fall over the edge of the Hoover Dam and “die” for a year or so, before returning as another actor in War of the Colossal Beast. You know, that old chestnut.
Director/producer Bert I. Gordon really, really liked to capitalize on his initials. He made this, Earth Vs. The Spider (a giant spider, because of course), Village of the Giants (another MST3K classic), The Cyclops, and Food of the Gods, among many, many other low-budget films about gigantism.
Unlike some other filmmakers on this list, he never embraced the idea that making bad movies could be an honorable thing. He was, according to some reports, entirely bemused by the resurgence of interest in his movies in the ’90s, because he still took his work seriously, but they were being watched ironically, and that did not please him.
You’ve got to wonder about some people. I mean, taking your work seriously is a good thing for an artist, but Mr. B.I.G. was offended that anyone found his movies funny.
This is probably the best moment to tell you the reason I’m including this movie over many, many other possibilities. You see, there’s a Very Serious Scientist, who Basil Expositions the audience any number of times during this relatively short film. And the best, the absolute scream-at-the-movie-screen best moment is when he solemnly intones that “as you know”, the heart “is made up of a single cell.”
Mr. B.I.G. thought his movies should be taken seriously. And he lectured the audience that the heart is made up of a single cell.
I’ve watched this movie for nigh on twenty-five years, and that moment still leaves my jaw hanging.
This classic appears to have no current commercial release, but if you look around Youtube, you can find the MST3K version of it, at least.
You want entertainingly bad? I’ve got your entertainingly bad right here, brother.
This is a cheapo Italian Star Wars knockoff, but it is oh, so much more. You’ve got your David Hasselhoff. With eyeliner. You’ve got your Carline Munro (WOW do you have your Caroline Munro here!). You’ve got your Marjoe Gortner as the putative hero. You have a deeply-embarrassed-looking Christopher Plummer mouthing words and glancing around to see if he can cash his check yet. You’ve got sequences that rip off other classic movies, like the Colossus of Rhodes sequence from Jason & the Argonauts.
Tip of the iceberg, my friends. Tip of the iceberg.
Because, you see, nobody involved in this production — and it is very clearly a large production, had to have involve hundreds of people — nobody at any point explained to the people in charge that there is no air in space.
There is a battle. A space battle. Where one ship launches “torpedoes” at the other. Those torpedoes crash through the plate glass windows — one layer only, naturally — to the interior, and open up to reveal two warriors-with-perms each. And that permanented hair flaps and waves in the breeze from the broken windows. Broken and open to space.
Then there are the stars in the background. I’ll grant that the director of photography did a stellar job of keeping them out of focus, but the variegated colors make it clear that they’re … Christmas tree lights.
Go ahead. Watch it. Tell me I’m wrong.
John Boorman had just finished directing a movie that adapted an “unfilmable” book into a critically-acclaimed and financially successful movie, Deliverance.
Sean Connery had just finished his mega-star-making run as James Bond.
They could both do anything they wanted.
If you want to try to understand what was so bloody awful about the 1970s, a good starting point would be figuring out why the hell they both thought Zardoz would be a good idea. A movie where the following is repeated as a mantra:
“The penis is evil. The gun is good.”
A movie that features 40-ish Sean Connery in a red mankini.
The trailer below is just slightly less coherent than the film. Basically, society is divided into very Wellsian Eloi and Morlocks, Perfect People Living In Utopia (And Utterly Bored) and outside the boundaries, Raving Savages.
One of the Perfect People has a genius plan to improve humanity — get the savages to worship a new god, Zardoz, and mix their virility and ruthlessness with the Perfect People’s superior genetics.
And would you believe it makes even less sense when you watch it? Because, well, it does.
George Lucas-itis clearly set in around 1986. On the plus side, Lea Thompson.
To people who didn’t directly experience it in the 1970s, the Howard the Duck phenomenon is almost impossible to comprehend. (I include myself in that group, as Howard’s height of popularity occurred when I was two.)
No matter how much you read about it, how much explanation or description, even looking at the (yes, clever) comic books that became a cult item almost overnight, it just doesn’t make any damn sense.
Fortunately or unfortunately for us, even though Howard’s star had dimmed to the point that he was not regularly appearing in any Marvel books in 1985, nobody told George Lucas that this was a fad locked to its time and culture.
What we get is an absolutely nutball movie, filled with talented people flailing around trying to make an impossible concept work, and failing miserably.
Jeffrey Jones in a sort of a double role is suitably creepy and menacing as the Big Bad. Tim Robbins’s contribution to trying to save the picture, apart from doing the “helpful geek” role as well as you would expect, is to talk to Howard as if he were Donald, for exactly and precisely no reason whatsoever. Seriously, there is no justification for it. He knows Howard speaks clearly and without Donald Duck’s characteristic squawk. It doesn’t sound especially duck-like. But Robbins forces it at every opportunity.
Lea Thompson fares best, because she’s at her cutest and most adorable. She even makes her mid-80s hairstyles work. She even, nearly, almost makes you believe she could be attracted to a four-foot-tall humanoid duck. She doesn’t quite pull off a Charles Grodin (go watch The Great Muppet Caper again, and tell me there is even one moment where he slips and you don’t believe, believe without reservation, that he wants Miss Piggy), but closer than anyone had any right to expect.
A concept that (maybe, briefly, in its own moment) worked in a comic book, a humanoid duck trying to survive the modern madness of America, just doesn’t translate well to the screen. Even if you put breasts on female ducks so you can get a Playduck gag in at the beginning. Or have a four foot tall humanoid duck seducing Lea Thompson.
This is the one where George Lucas went off the rails, folks.
I show this movie to unsuspecting friends, because watching their reactions to it is nearly always priceless. One friend I showed it to got to the end of the opening musical number and was on the borderline between uncomfortable and bored, when the second song was announced (the movie opens with an American “Eurovision”-style contest).
The song’s title? “Love: The Universal Melody”.
My friend said “They should be shot for the title alone.”
I smiled and responded with “Meet your protagonists!” He looked at me in utter disbelief. Luckily, that day, I had backup, all of whom assured him that I was not joking. His shock and horror were delicious, and became more so as this magnificent series of unbelievably bad decisions unspooled before him.
Mere words cannot convey the wrongness of this travesty of cinema.
Certainly, it is a musical. With All Original Songs!
Yes, it is set in the future year of 1994, a year where, as you won’t recall, all the worst taste of 1980 went to die.
Yes, it is also consciously (and painfully) an ALLEGORY!, which, the filmmakers thought, coupled with being a musical, would permit them to do, well, pretty much anything and the audience’s suspension of disbelief would not waver.
Things like having the music industry apparently controlling the dictatorial government. To the point that during the “national exercise hour”, firefighters and surgeons stop their rather time-critical work to dance to “Hey! Hey! Hey! BIM’s On The Way!”
Seriously. The patient being operated on even gets into the dance in one shot.
Things like having characters shift from good to evil and back again with no thought or struggle or introspection, because, hey, the story demands it.
Things like having the antagonist appear as Satan in dream sequences, then basically saying he really is, as well.
Things like having the I-kid-you-not Most Blatant Deus Ex Machina ending in all cinema history.
Things like not setting up the ending at all prior to it happening.
And I’m only skimming the awfulness that is this film. I’m leaving aside the “refugees from the ’60s, once known as hippies” who live in a cave in the park. (They just pop up out of nowhere, too.)
There is a fan theory that Menahem Golan, director of this film, poured his heart and soul and every ounce of his talent into it. And when it bombed, both critically and financially, and vanished from cinemas all but instantly, vowed revenge on the American filmgoer.
Which would go some way to explaining all the films that Cannon Film Group made in the ’80s, of which Golan was one-half owner. (If you don’t know Cannon Films, Chuck Norris’s Missing in Action series is probably the high point of quality for their usual output.)
And if you don’t like that, well, you’ll always have Ed Wood.
D. Jason Fleming is the author of Spring That Never Came, a bad movie nut, and never managed to sell a screenplay to Roger Corman or The Asylum, for what that might be worth. He lives in the greater Los Angeles area.