The Top Ten Movies: So Bad, They’re Good.
Crap directors like Michael Bay and Uwe Boll do more than clutter up the cinema with bad movies: they give bad movies a bad name. There is nothing transformative about the latest CG robot slap-fest or B-movie knock off of a horrible video game. The reason these ass-clowns are reviled by movie lovers isn’t sentimentality for childhood memories or prissy fussing over “proper” modes of movie making. It’s because they can’t even make a movie so dreadful that it becomes fun. They don’t love movies that much. But we do! So to celebrate all of the awful movies that have invaded the cinema-plex this summer, we’re going to give you the inside skinny on the best worst movies you could be watching.
We star the list with a world-beater: The Story of Ricky is such an amalgam of every bad Kung-Fu movie that I was shocked to see it had come out in the nineties. This movie feels like a complete throwback to the 70’s era of poorly dubbed, shoddily cut, and weirdly plotted chop sockey… I was convinced I was watching the original Ur martial arts movie from which all other kung-pao movies had descended. So what is the big deal?
Violence, and lots of it. This movie makes Fist of the North Star seem like an adorable toddler training video. Ricky is rightfully imprisoned in a super max, private prison for murdering a drug-lord who caused the death of his girlfriend (she actually was so incompetently scared of a drug deal in her building that she throws herself off the roof.) He soon runs afoul of the prison power structure, and every bad ass with any martial arts training comes head-hunting our invincible hero to gain a reward.
The gore and choreography are so over the top in this movie, you have to see it to believe it. Allegedly, the final boss fight covered the star playing Ricky with so much fake blood that he was red-colored for three days. Ricky punches through walls, through skulls, and through metal…and into the rib cage of the cop behind said metal shield. More body parts fly off of bad guys due to Ricky’s attacks than a game of Twister at a leper colony. The quality of the stunt work is both amazing and awful. One guy gets his head crushed by a baddy, and it looks like somebody slapped a Carvel cake full of red food coloring. They probably did! When Ricky’s love interest flies to her doom, the film crew just chucks an obvious mannequin over the railing. She practically squeaks when she hits the pavement.
You can’t go wrong with the chop sockingest Kung-Fu movie ever made. When Tony Jaa or Jet Li break the bones of 20 plus fighters in one scene, you can calmly walk out of the theater, knowing that you’ve seen better. And worse.
9. Mom and Dad Save the World (1992)
All hail Tod Spengo! This movie features SNL alum Jon Lovitz in his break-through role…if by break-through you mean he decided to go right back to television after this debacle. To be honest, this meant we got the amazing animated series, The Critic, so everything is right with the world.
Demented and diminutive space emperor Tod Spengo (Lovitz) has conquered the second best planet in the universe, christened Spengo in his honor. Since he, his underlings, and the populace of Spengo are all blithering idiots, it is decided to simply destroy the best planet, Earth, via a giant space laser. While lining up his shot, Spengo becomes enamored with an Earth female, Marge (Teri Garr), whom he abducts with a magnet beam while she is on a holiday with her husband, Dick (Jeff Jones.) The two unwitting (and nearly witless) Earthlings arrive on Spengo, where Marge is lavished with pomp, while Dick is tortured and sentenced to death. In the dungeon, he meets the rightful king of Spengo (Eric Idle) who directs him to the resistance led by his son…another blithering idiot. After much adventure, Marge and Dick re-unite and must face Tod Spengo and his death ray for control of the Earth.
This film is sheer insanity. Anthropomorphic fish and dogs wait upon the emperor Tod, killer mushrooms live in the sewer, and the resistance hides in the dessert dressed like birds (of which no known species actually exist on Spengo.) Dick discovers that the only weapons the rebels have is a grenade that atomizes anyone who picks it up…so he simply leaves it for the bad guys…who pick it up…one after the other after the other. Teri Garr is always a treat, Jeff Jones is his usual snide but incompetent self, and Jon Lovitz is the most memorable space emperor since Lord Helmet conquered Ming the Merciless. Add to it all a thick layer of satire about how Earth is just the slightest bit less stupid than Spengo, and you have a comedic gem. Oh, and a flying station wagon features heavily, so you know it has to be good.
8. Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
Oh, Billy Zane. You have made some of the worst movies known to man. But still I love you. This is a destructive relationship.
The first of three planned Tales From the Crypt films (none of the others were actually made) features Jada Pinkett Smith and Billy Zane as adversaries who are battling for the fate of the world. A care-worn stranger (William Sadler, giving a terrific performance) arrives in an armpit, one horse town, with hell at his back in the figure of The Collector (Zane) a demon in human form who covets the key he carries. The key is of Biblical power, being the last key needed for demons to retake the Earth from the weak flesh bags that currently inhabit it. It is also filled with the blood of Christ, which prevents any demons from crossing any boundary the blood is spilled upon. Saddler finds a flop house that was once a church, and holes up with the desperate denizens inside, waiting for morning so he can once again flee from the grasps of Zane’s Collector. The low-lifes he shares the hostel with are tempted, one by one, to steal the key and gain demonic rewards, until only a handful remain, including Jada Pinkett Smith, who is a woman with a violent past. She proves to be excellent at killing baddies, and Sadler makes her the new carrier of the key, who must now defeat Zane or plunge the world into darkness.
The appeal of this film is the terrific B-movie performances of the stars. Smith is a tough as nails fireplug, Sadler actually makes his ludicrous tale believable, and Zane could con the horns off the Devil with his sexy, sexy swagger. On top of this is the tried and true Tales from the Crypt mentality of schlock and awe (complete with Crypt Keeper cheesiness at the start and finish). If you loved the show, or just love corn-ball horror, you owe yourself a dance with this devil.
7. Leonard Part 6 (1987)
Austin Powers owes a deep debt of gratitude to Bill Cosby for embarking upon the tragically fated spy comedy, Leonard Part 6. This movie is the pits, from start to finish. It is almost too bad to watch. The story features a retired CIA operative, Leonard (Cosby), who is brought back for one last assignment: stop an evil vegetarian mastermind who is turning animals against people. The acting is wooden (with some of the worst spy puns since Roger Moore spent time in her majesty’s secret service) and the action is a farce (Cosby dons ballerina shoes at one point, and pirouettes a gang of poultry-based villains into submission before plucking their feathers.) The villains and heroes repeatedly mug for the camera, and even face-palm during the action, to show the audience that they get how bad this film is. Cosby was so ashamed, he went on a press tour…to torpedo the film by asking people not to see it. So why is it on the list?
Simple: when you strangle the goose this hard, at least one golden egg is going to fall out. This movie, strangely enough, does a good job of lampooning the Bond series (it’s called part 6 but explained that the other five parts are too sensitive to national security to be released), which had become almost too cheesy to die. Cosby can still turn dog turds into pudding pops, no matter how bloated the script (which he wrote). The sheer joy of watching something so bad that the cast knows it’s the worst, and yet still keeps going, is not to be missed. It also has scenes so mind bendingly bad (like a kitchen assassination where every wayward bullet actually helps the chefs make a better meal, or Cosby fleeing an explosion on an ostrich that flies…) that you need to see this. This VHS sat collecting dust on my parents’ shelf for 15 whole years before I mustered the courage to watch it. It was well worth the wait.
6. Dolemite (1975)
Rudy Ray Moore IS Dolemite! The apogee of the “blaxploitation” cinema of the 70’s managed to be the best of the genre, and to transcend the genre. Moore, a stand up comedian who adopted the Dolemite persona on several occasions, is able to wrestle the genre away from the purely exploitative, and to use it as a weapon for social commentary. While fully embracing many of the questionable elements of such movies (criminalization of blacks, sexualization of women), Moore was able to make a film that was empowering, by creating a hero with a unique cultural stamp. While not as popular as Shaft, Dolemite went on to several sequels and informed pop-culture for a generation.
Dolemite was a pimp set up on charges by the man. A crooked cop and a rival conspire to get him set up on bogus drug and weapon charges, and Dolemite is packed away to a federal penitentiary. Years later, the leader of his “call girl” army of karate-expert women, Queen B, and a warden convinced of his wrongful incarceration, free Dolemite so that he may bring his righteous fury and justice back to the streets, making the neighborhood safe again (or as safe as a neighborhood full of Kung-Fu call girls can be…)
Dolemite is both the embodiment and satire of many cultural stereotypes. He represents, and repudiates, inner city life, where pimping and prostitution are rampant. His army is filled with confident, self-aware women who are nobody’s victims. Dolemite is also an institution unto himself, like a James Bond who has had to make his own way, complete with gadgets and the backing of neighborhood power figures. There is an underground power structure in this film, and Dolemite is its guardian and hero. He also happens to be one snappy dresser.
Audiences may be familiar with Shaft, but they ought to acquaint themselves with one real bad mother trucker in the person of Rudy Ray Moore’s action packed human tornado…Dolemite.
5. Equilibrium (2002)
This movie tries so hard. It is the bastard child of The Matrix and every dystopian book ever written, with some really really questionable martial arts thrown in. As a bonus, it was the launching pad for Christian Bale, so fans of his work should already be well aware of this terrible film.
In the future after World War 3, the world is controlled by the Tetragrammaton Council, a state religion/philosophy that denounces all human emotion. To this end, they mandate regular drug use that strips citizens of their emotions (like listening to Kenny G, but in a pill form), and they dispatch clerics to destroy art, books, and music that might inflame the passion of the masses. One of their best clerics is Bale, who is paired with the BEST cleric played by Sean Bean (spoiler, he dies) who successfully destroy centuries of humanity’s greatest artifacts. Eventually Bean succumbs to curiosity, reads a book, and is killed by Bale. Bale suffers remorse from this act, and begins to skip his medication…leading him down the rabbit hole of culture and self-doubt that result in him becoming the greatest champion of the emotion-embracing rebellion.
This movie has lofty aspirations like nobody’s business. Unfortunately, it fumbles at these aspirations like a co-ed with his first bra-strap. The future dystopia is an amalgam of 1984 (omnipresent propaganda), Brave New World (enforced drug use), and Farenhiet 451 (the clerics are just the book burning firemen of that tale with cool guns.) None of this really seems to gel, though, as the resultant society is so unworkable that even a child can (and does) defy their nefarious grasp. Layered on top of this is an absolutely ludicrous fighting style, dubbed Gun-kata, that would get anyone who used it killed faster than licking raw chicken. It wants so hard to be slick and polished, but Gun-kata is basically a child’s fantasy of deflecting bullets by being really stylish and cool. The Underworld series of movies (in which you can kill a vampire with plain old bullets if you shoot them enough) treats guns with more respect, which is pretty much a damning knock on any system purporting to be the best gun fighting method ever devised by man.
If you want a crispy puff of stylish and faux-literate dystopia, this is your film. The action is beautiful if you can ignore how insane it is, and it just tries too damn hard to hate it. If your Netflix queue is empty, this is a solid way to hate yourself for an evening.
4. The Running Man (1987)
Long time readers knew I had to get my Arnold fix on this list, and so I present to you perhaps my favorite Schwarzenegger film: The Running Man. Lifted with liberal changes from Stephen King, this tale is another dystopian nightmare where justice is meted out based on ratings in a system akin to The American Gladiators. Criminals are sentenced to a run, where they have a set time limit to evade hunters (and watchful viewers looking to score prizes) and to reach a target location. If they do, they’re heroes. If they don’t, they’re just plain zeroes.
The original short story, written by King under his pen name Richard Bachman, was a masterpiece of anguish and righteous fury. Runners could escape rationed health care by enrolling in a show where they were hunted for sport. For each hour they remained above ground, their designated next of kin got money. One man, learning of the rigged nature of the show (no payouts were ever made) goes on a jihad against the powers that be, and rides a glorious Thunderbird out of the sky straight into the heart of the corrupt society. This is not that movie.
What this movie is, is the prototypical Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: Arnie is the put upon every man who is swole of mind and body, who is given a raw deal, and uses his ingenuity (read: tremendous biceps) to get himself some rough justice. He also rips off witty one-liners faster than a fortune cookie factory on Crystal Meth. The list of baddies sent to murder him makes American Gladiators look like the DMV. A flamethrower is about the most mundane method of death you find in this film. With winks and nods aplenty to his earlier work (“I’ll be back”…”Only in re-runs!”) this movie threw Steven King under the bus (too soon?) and went for straight Arnold glory. And who could blame them?
3. The Last Dragon (1985)
Who’s the master, Leroy? This urban coming-of-age story set in New York features martial artist Taimak as Leroy Jenkins (aka Bruce Leroy) who is a promising student who one day hopes to become as successful as his idol, Bruce Lee. After performing trials of skill for his master, he is deemed to have reached the ultimate level of training and to posses a mysterious energy, called The Glow. The only problem is, Leroy doesn’t feel like a master. Sensing his doubt, his master sends him off on a wild goose chase for a mysterious, and fictitious Kung-Fu master (literally Sum Dum Guy). Along the way, Leroy protects his neighborhood, his fellow students, and a potential love interest from the machinations of an evil arcade mogul (I guess those existed in the 80’s?) and the ire of fellow martial artist, Sho’nuff (Julius J Carry III, who manages to have an even better real name than his movie title: Shogun of Southtown Sho’nuff.) Events conspire to finally throw Leroy and Sho’nuff into direct combat in order to determine who is the master.
A fairly cut and paste tale of martial arts and the search for identity, The Last Dragon has two major strengths (three if you consider that Taimak is a ridiculously capable martial artist who dons Bruce Lee’s style like a second skin): billed as a martial arts musical, The Last Dragon has some insanely catchy chops, including the soundtrack to the final fight scene, which rivals the Rocky soundtrack as a glorious anthem for getting pumped up; and the scenery-chomping performance of Julius J Carry III. As the Shogun of Southtown, Carry makes up for his lack of martial arts skill by becoming a dynamo of menacing snarls, snarky put-downs, and pants-wettingly amazing costumes. Whether fighting in a clandestine fight club wearing football pads, terrorizing the local fast food joint in a leopard trimmed karate uniform, or starting a brawl in a movie theater while wearing a fur-lined cape, Sho’nuff puts the style back into…um…stylish sociopathic behavior. One can see how Carry went on to charm the masses as Lord Bowler, the gruff bounty hunter rival to Bruce Campbell in everyone’s favorite western series, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
2. Escape from New York (1981)
It was a close thing that this list didn’t become a ten film salute to director John Carpenter. His filmography reads like a who’s who of B-movie masterpieces that walked the fine line between awful and amazing. Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, They Live, Halloween…Carpenter made more potentially career ending bombs in the early 80’s than the U.S.S.R. His dedication to big ideas on tiny budgets (and willingness to create his own soundtracks with a tinny synthesizer) put him in the enviable position of making pretty much anything he liked. Just you try to get a major studio to cast Rowdy Roddy Piper as the lead in a film about body snatchers who have no faces. John Carpenter got shit done, is what I’m trying to say. And his biggest cult classic was 1981’s thriller Escape from New York.
Kurt Russell heads a surprisingly deep cast playing the anti-hero Snake Pliskin. An ex-special forces member who has survived every mission imaginable (he even survived Detroit!) Pliskin is blackmailed into rescuing the President of the United States who has been shot down over the island prison of New York. Surrounded by the army, the Big Apple has become the Big Slammer, housing the worst of the worst. The leader of the largest gang, a man named The Duke (Isaac Hayes), has the President, and demands to be released with his army, unconditionally. The ruthless warden of the island, played by spaghetti western legend Lee Van Cleef, shoots Snake up with a time released poison and send him in alone. Get the President, get a pardon and the antidote. Fail, and it’s game over, Snake. Snake? Snake!
Sorry, Metal Gear flashback. The effects in this film are decidedly low rent, but the gritty realism of New York shines through as Snake fights his way from one iconic location to the next. Kurt Russell creates a foul-tempered nihilist in Snake who was so much fun to root for that pop-culture has been aping his performance ever since. This film was so beloved by fans that a sequel, Escape from L.A., was pretty much just a re-shoot with a higher budget. A commercial failure, Escape from New York became a cult favorite, and is well worth watching.
1. Highway to Hell (1992)
If you’ve never seen this ludicrous ride through the underworld, you are in for a treat. Starring nobody you would know, and featuring cameos from Gilbert Gottfried, Lita Ford, and both Ben and Jerry Stiller, this shoestring production tells the tale of two young lovers who are heading to Vegas to be married when they take a wrong turn and end up in Hell. Hellcop, the guardian of the border between Earth and Hell, takes the young woman hostage and leaves the young man for dead. Finding an ally in a local convenience store clerk, the young man gains a magical shotgun and a souped up hot-rod, which he takes on a journey through Hades (which looks suspiciously like Nevada) on the search for his lost love.
This movie takes some time to gain a head of steam. Chad Lowe (actor Rob Lowe’s younger brother) is the young hero, and is kind of a wimp for the first half of the film. Besides a few great sight gags (including a paving company called Good Intentions that is grinding up luckless sinners to make asphalt) the film seems to lack direction. Do they want to play this film straight up as a supernatural adventure…or do they want to ride a flaming motorcycle over a tank full of demonic sharks and embrace the inner cheesiness of this film. Following an encounter with a psychopathic ice cream truck driver, the director decides to go for broke, and the movie really starts to shine. Suddenly our hero is a one-line spitting, shotgun toting demigod on wheels who kicks metric tons of ass. The visuals become more unhinged, and the action is completely over the top. And that my friends, is how you make a movie so bad it’s good. If you find yourself half-way through making and movie and can’t figure out if you should kick ass or chew bubblegum, throw away the Bazooka Joe and get down to kicking ass.