Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Wednesday, April 26, 2000

the comfort of badness

I've just been reading Joe Queenan's 1994 book, If you're talking to me, your career must be in trouble: movies, mayhem and malice (and a truer--if not a longer--title was seldom penned). One of the essays in the book, "In the realm of the senseless" is a loving (or loathing) disquisition on Bad Movies He Has Known. And it's wonderfully funny and witty. While I do not feel that I can be as wild and witty, I too, would like to share the list of Bad Movies I Have Known, in the hopes that perhaps you, too, may be spared the interminable agony of actually watching these clunkers.

As Queenan notes, the one thing that these films would seem to have in common is that no script writer came near them. No director actually directed them; they merely took their salaries and vamoosed. These films more or less ... congealed, instead of being filmed and edited and assembled in the normal movie way.

Herewith follows BADNESS, in no particular order:

The Comfort of Strangers (1990): Queenan actually mentions this film, but only very briefly. Unfortunately, in not giving it a proud place in his essay, he slights it. For The Comfort of Strangers is badness of a rare stripe. It's stealth badness. All the elements are present for it to be a truly very nice film, of the terribly genteel Merchant Ivory stripe: a good cast, wonderful setting, A-list screenwriter. And yet ...
     First, it takes place in Venice. The one in Italy, not the one in California. The settings are relentlessly lovely. Old crumbly Renaissance buildings everywhere. The art director and set decorators actually knew what they were doing with this film.
     They were, perhaps, the only ones who did.
     The cast should be wonderful. Rupert Everett, Natasha Richardson, Helen Mirren, Christopher Walken. We're talking the Merchant Ivory irregulars here. Weirdly, you can't actually say that any of the cast does anything less than a workmanlike job. Natasha Richardson, although not my favorite, is not a bad actress. Christopher Walken is ... well, at least he isn't guilty of false advertising. Although a trademark full-blown loony Walken performance in a film of this apparent elegance is, to say the least, entirely unexpected, when you see him, you know what you'll be getting. And Helen Mirren gives a performance that, as usual, seems to have been teleported in from some film other than the one she is currently inhabiting. (This is not an insult. Usually, she simply acts rings around everyone in a film with her, making you forget that she's NOT the character, while you realize that nobody else is inhabiting their characters quite as well.) Rupert is truly stunningly decorative in this film. (This sounds like a side note, but it isn't. Walken and Mirren make much of his character's beauty, much to his wife's discomfort.) Early on (possibly the first scene, although I don't remember specifically), he appears from the rear in his altogether. And his altogether is VERY all together. (The man has SHOULDERS. And other things. Nice frontage, too, at least the above-the-waist parts. One suspects that he was a spectacularly successful hustler when he plied The Trade, or could have been if he'd wanted to be.) A sight that could inspire millions. And, let us face it, the man is also a very good actor. (And not a bad writer. Gorgeous and multitalented. Doesn't it make you sick?) He acts up a storm in this film. (He kind of has to, really.) And yet ...
      And yet somehow, all of this powerhouse acting talent, not one doing a bad job (though one is tempted to put a leash on Walken's scenery-chewing), can't save this film from becoming 107 of the most painful film moments known to mankind, because clearly THEY don't understand why they're doing this either.
     Direction and writing should be above reproach. The film is actually written by both the author of the novel on which it is based, and Harold Pinter, of all people. Which is strange, because one would swear that no screenwriter had been anywhere near it, let alone one of that calibur. Paul Schrader (Mishima, Affliction, City Hall, etc.) supposedly directed this film, but it's hard to find evidence that he was anywhere near it at any time.
     Basically, the film wants to be a nice little story about a kinky couple into SM sex (Walken and Mirren), who slowly entice a sweet young newly-married couple (Everett and Richardson) into their circle. Somewhere along the way (before, in fact, actually getting onto the screen), the sex in this story gets entirely misplaced, leaving only Walken casually abusing Everett every time they get together, and Mirren apologising for him and making it seem as though she might in fact be an abused wife. Why, one might ask, do they continue to get together after the first such instance? One might indeed ask that. As, in fact, the woman sitting in front of me in the theater at the time did. (She and her friend were much more entertaining than the actual film.)
     In any event, you keep waiting for the sex, and it keeps not happening. And after 102 minutes of torture, you're just about at the end of your rope. But the movie has another five minutes of desperately intense and acute torture left for you (and, actually, Rupert), which makes the previous 102 minutes seem like something really nice and wonderous and good. (I will not keep you in suspense. Rupert dies gruesomely, and the drugged Natasha is forced to watch. I give away the twist ending because nobody should have to sit through those 102 minutes ever again. This is the point at which the woman sitting in front of me stood up and said, "I sat through all this crap for THIS?" I think she was expecting Rupert-enravishment.) We then discover that, instead of being serial SMers, Walken and Mirren turn out to be serial killers. (No, really.)

Vamp (1986). Stars Grace Jones. Many would say that it should be condemned on these grounds alone, as she is partially responsible for the worst Bond film ever made. (So, for that matter, is Christopher Walken. Hmm....) But, in fact, she's quite adequate when playing a larger-than-life parody of herself; she's perfectly tolerable in Boomerang, for example. The film also stars Chris Makepeace and Gedde Wattanabe.
     It's dreadful.
     One scene will tell you everything you need to know about this film. Chris Makepeace's character is being seduced by Grace in what turns out to be the Vampire Bordello from Hell and/or Outer Space. (No, I'm not making that up. I wish I were.) They reach that point where he thinks he's about to be deflowered, and the viewer knows he's about to be enVamped.
     Grace bites a chunk out of his neck!
     That's right. She doesn't sink her fangs in and slurp like a normal vampire. She bites a fist-sized chunk out of his neck and then starts licking ever so delicately at the hole. He, instead of screaming like a normal person, looks terribly surprised. Than he dies. Apparently, nobody told the writer about the whole reciprocal sucking thing that has to happen before you create a vampire child. Or that you have to die because the vampire sucked out all your blood and not because you simply bled to death from your jugular vein. After that, Chris (now enVamped and just a tad peeved about the whole thing) and his friends (nonVamped and trying to avoid the process) go about saving the earth from the invading space Vampire plague. (I'm STILL not making this up.) After which, Chris gets to take the sewers home. (He has this little daylight problem, you see.)
     I watched this film with my best friend. (Part of an unexpected double bill with Flight of the Navigator, which is, in fact, a rather nice, fun movie, so this was one HELL of a tone change.) At one point--at several points, in fact--I asked him if he would please let us leave. He kept saying that he wanted to watch, because it HAD to get better.
     It didn't.
     He STILL owes me for that one.
     It's THAT bad.

Night of the Comet (1984): Much like the above, but without Chris and Grace, with Catherine Mary Stewart and Mary Woronov (always a pointer) and Robert Beltran (who should have known better) and a comet taking the place of the vampires.

Radioactive Dreams (1986): Much like the above, but without Chris or Grace or Catherine Mary or Mary or Robert, WITH George Kennedy (who REALLY should have known better) and nuclear war, nuclear winter, its aftermath and assorted Mad Max villain-types taking the place of the vampires and the comet.

Tai-Pan (1986): Well ... I must admit to a soft spot inmy head for this one. (No, not my "heart", my "head", because it has to be there to prevent further brain damage.) See, this film is one in which, about a third of the way through or so, you can watch the actors suddenly realize that this film--the first Western film allowed to be done inside China itself, and even inside the historic portions of the Forbidden City itself--which had a budget bigger than almost every other film released that year combined, which is based on a popular (and very long) novel, which was directed and written by nobody anyone ever heard of (uh-oh), that this film ... was total and utter dreck. Not merely stealth badness in that you thought it should be good, but stealth in that the actors are taken by surprise. Now THAT is good stealth, baby!
     Nonetheless, it's the sort of film which, if you go in knowing that it's one of the worst films ever made, is actually kind of fun to sit through. (This is a good thing, or else my best friend would be unable to pay back the karmic debt owed me for making me sit through the two worst movies I have ever paid for in this lifetime.) One of the best lines in filmdom (and it won't come across, I know it), comes when the virtuous son of Bryan Brown's character goes, with much reluctance, to a whorehouse. (His father wants him to lose his virtue, for reasons that are never quite understandable.) The prostitute works her wiles at him, and finally, in a last ditch heroic effort to save himself for marriage (which succeeds, by the way), he stands up to leave, and starts walking with his legs in a truly awkward position. (A position known to every man alive as the "I have an erection and my pants were too tight BEFORE that" walk.) When the man with him ask what's wrong, he groans in pain and then says (in a Scots accent so thick it almost has living texture), "I think I rrooptured meself!"

Anything with Shannon Tweed (with the possible exception of the old cable series "First and Ten") In fact, any film televised on Cinemax after 11PM (midnight Eastern time), when it earns its nickname of "Skinemax" by showing soft-core porn. (Really, what earthy use is softcore porn? It's both too explicit to leave anything important to the imagination, yet it manages not to actually show anything.) To be sure, Shannon herself isn't actually that dreadfully awful; she just picks dreadfully awful films. Straight men watch these films, as far as I can tell, because they get to see breasts galore. Straight women probably don't watch them, except in the company of gay men and other straight women, so they can all sit there and make scurrilous remarks about the starlets' breast enhancements. These films are also the land of The Botched Breast Job. Women who get good boob jobs don't appear in these films. In these films, you see women with scars so hideous, they still look painful. In these films, you see women whose implants have, apparently, moved around, so that they look to be the Four Breasted Woman From The FratBoy Planet. (And straight men apparently like this. Curious.)

Night Terrors (1992): a film which, despite being a Skinemax staple, deserves special mention. It stars Martin "Endless Love" Hewitt as a radio talk show host who has sex with his call-in listeners on the air (they come to visit) and who gets framed for murdering one of them. Keith "Kung Fu" Carradine is the major villain of the piece. Sam "Flash Gordon" Jones is the detective pursuing Martin as he tries to prove his innocence. It deserves special mention because it has more sex than I can remember ever before seeing in a Skinemax movie. (I confess, I watched because I wanted to see how low Martin and Sam and Keith had gotten. Also, there was a reasonable chance that Martin and Sam might get nekkid. Which they did, sort of.) It also stars Tracy Tweed, Shannon's sister. (With whom Martin gets nekkid.) Basically, despite being hotly pursued by both the bad guys AND the police, Martin finds time to have a lot of sex. Meanwhile, every woman (and I do mean EVERY woman) except Martin's One True Love--which, actually, it takes him a while to realize that she IS his One True Love, with all the sleeping around he manages to squeeze in whilst running for his life-- is a castrating bitch (sometimes literally), and/or a lesbian AND a prostitute (the "and" is used advisedly). I don't mean that there are one or two lesbian prostitutes. I mean that there's like HUNDREDS of lesbian prostitutes. And in "Night Terrors" entire length, there's maybe 10-15 minutes where some person or another isn't having sex.
     I promise you, this isn't a recommendation. If you look at this film and are struck blind by its sheer badness, don't say I didn't warn you. (It was weeks before I could look at a television and not see breasts floating before my eyes.)

Penitentiary (1979): Dear god, this is a truly, MASSIVELY, hideously awful creature. I can't really tell you what it's about because I couldn't actually tell. All I can say is that Leon Issac Kennedy winds up in jail, defends his virtue successfully, which results in him being put on the prison boxing team. Women prisoners are brought in from the other side of the prison to be entertained by the boxing matches, so of course, there is much sex in the bathroom. (To say nothing of prisoners hiding in the ceiling. If you can get in the ceiling, why wouldn't you just escape instead of hanging around to seduce women prisoners? But anyway...) It should have killed off the blaxploitation prison flick, it really should. Instead ... it spawned sequels. (Penitentiary II and III. The third one has a character, if that's the word, called "The Midnight Thud." Run away, run away.... On the other hand, the review of P-III at IMDB is almost worth it having been made in the first place.)

Lifeforce (1985): Well, what'cha gonna do? It's based on a sometimes fun but desperately and SINCERELY trashy book called "The Space Vampires". Basically, these people bring back a space ship full of alien humanoids that they find on Halley's Comet. (No, I did NOT make this up.) The aliens then proceed to both have sex with and kill rather a lot of people. Sometimes simultaneously. They also run around naked rather a lot, which is, I believe, almost the entire appeal of this film. It's not quite bad enough to be hideous--it has actual production values, believe it or not--but the script doctor was out to lunch on this one. It's another one of those movies with the sort of cast that leaves you scratching your head and thinking, "How the hell did THOSE people get involved with THIS mess?" (There is a brief moment when it looks like Steve "Duane Barry" (from the X-Files) Railsbeck and Patrick "Captain Picard" Stewart are going to do the serious liplock. Instead, Stewart explodes and splatters onto the ceiling, thus ruining a lovely romantic moment.) It does have its moments, now and again, but mostly, Lifeforce is just a mess.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970): The film in which Russ Meyer's breast obsession reached truly ridiculous heights. Badness di tutti badness. The film which means that Roger Ebert has to be ever so slightly kinder to truly BAD movies than he might otherwise want to be. (Or, conversely, the film which liberates him to torch them without mercy. Hard to tell, really.) For Ebert is credited with the story and some of the screenplay for this ... this ... this THING. This abomination before every deity that now, that has ever existed. It stars nobody you have ever heard of--I'm pretty sure this film probably destroyed many many many many many careers.
     How ridiculous did Meyer's breast obsession get? In this film's climactic scene--one in which it looks like the hero, if that's the word, is possibly going to be molested, if that's the word, by the ... villain? Anyway, in the film's climactic scene, the villain (for lack of a better word), rips off its shirt and bellows, "For I am ... SHE-WOMAN!" And SheWoman has quite the pair of bazooms, despite being apparently a man in all other respects. (And you sit there looking at these gargantuan breasts, and all you can think is, through this whole film where this desperately skinny man has been running around in tight 70s clothing ... where the hell were THOSE things hiding? And what the hell is a she-woman, anyway? I mean, a he-man is supposedly a very manly man, and this person, whatever else they may be, is not an extraordinarily womanly woman.)
     Unfortunately, as Roger Ebert was a University of Chicago alum (of sorts), and teaches the occasional course at the university, this film has become a graduation requirement. You are not allowed to see it before the end of your senior year; you are not even told that it exists until then, lest you find out about it and transfer in an attempt to escape its hideousness. On the fateful day, you are blindfolded, dragged kicking and screaming to the auditorium with the other people who will graduate the next week, tied to your chair, and made to watch. (Thankfully, as compensation, the next night they always stick on "Bedazzled", which, while tacky in its own way, is pretty funny, so it all kind of works out.)

And now you know about several films to avoid. If you watch them after these warnings, you have no-one to blame but yourselves....

Posted by iain at 11:12 PM in category