It can get worse

>> Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The ScatterKat and some of her friends and I went to see a showing of Plan 9 From Outer Space last night. She hadn't seen it before, but was excited about it because she really loved Ed Wood. (Well, who doesn't love Ed Wood?) Me, it had been a while, a long while. Maybe twenty years or so since I'd seen Plan 9.

I saw Plan 9 way back in the day for the same reason most people have seen it now: Plan 9 has this almost-wholly-undeserved reputation for being the worst film of all time. It apparently originally got this moniker from Michael Medved, who used to be a pretty well-known film critic but these days spends lots and lots of time being wrong about stuff: he's a senior fellow at The Discovery Institute, which is a big Creationism shop, and he does a lot of right-wing talk radio and writes books about how shitty everything in Hollywood is except for Mel Gibson's movies. So, you know, chalk it up as another thing Michael Medved got wrong.

Don't get me wrong: Plan 9 is a pretty awful movie, poorly acted and badly shot, with some of the most hysterically ridiculous dialogue ever written and an incomprehensible plot that folds back on itself not just every few minutes but sometimes within a single character's dialogue (e.g. the aliens keep on complaining that the humans won't acknowledge their existence before immediately--in the very same lines of dialogue--talking about how they're going to kill the humans who have stumbled across their existence; Jeebus, star people, make up your freakin' minds, already). The Wikipedia entry for Plan 9 suggests that some of the film's most notorious "gaffes"--e.g. visible boom mic shadows--are the result of improper matting on contemporary prints (Plan 9 was shot in 4:3 and evidently intended to be matted in widescreen 1.85:1) or the result of incomplete post-production once the negatives were out of Woods' hands--e.g. shots that were filtered day-for-night were improperly processed, causing the appearance of continuity problems--but this doesn't do anything to explain away actors knocking down parts of the set. For starters. Or the mind-boggling dialogue, e.g. Criswell's infamous, rambling opening monologue:

Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown... the mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you, the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony, of the miserable souls, who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places. My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?

--Ah, yes, I am interested in the future, probably moreso at this point than Mr. Criswell, who died in 1982. Wonder if he saw that one coming?

And then there's Plan 9's most infamous... issue? Can you call it a gaffe when it was done completely on purpose and planned out? Director Ed Wood had a bit of unused and essentially unusable footage of his friend/star/muse Bela Lugosi, some of it intended for a Dracula picture Wood was never able to get the money for and some of it possibly intended as personal home movies. Anyway, Lugosi died before Wood could make another feature with him, but Wood wasn't one to waste any bit of film he had, and he wanted to include Lugosi posthumously in Plan 9 when he made it three years after the horror legend's death. Not having the sense, however, to make the dead Hungarian's role an incidental one, Wood padded the part out with an uncredited stand-in... a chiropractor who was, as you may know, younger, taller and hairier than Bela Lugosi, who indeed looked nothing like Bela Lugosi even with a cape pulled up in front of his face, which is how he appears throughout the whole thing except for the little bits here and again when he accidentally lets the cape slip a bit.

I suppose Plan 9's plot does deserve a small mention (even though I already said it was incomprehensible): it's delightfully nonsensical, bearing some resemblance to the Underpants Gnomes' nefarious scheme. Aliens have been trying to contact the Earth (in between the times they've been silencing witnesses, I mean), and their first eight plans have apparently failed so now they're stuck with Plan 9, explained by the aliens' leader:

Plan 9? Ah, yes. Plan 9 deals with the resurrection of the dead. Long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary gland of the recently dead.

Ah, yes. Plan 9. That Plan 9. And the point of raising the dead? Well, obviously, it's... you know... the dead rise from their graves... and... uhm... so they're dead, you know, and now they're sort of like zombie vampires that... you know... have risen, right, because they have electrodes that have been shot into their pineal and pituitary glands... which causes them to rise... if they're recently dead, okay, and the electrodes are... uh... well, they're long-distance electrodes... which were shot into the glands... which... raises... them....

No, I mean that's pretty much it. And the aliens raise three dead people, who just wander around a graveyard where they were buried, except for Bela Lugosi, who sometimes walks out of the woods wearing a version of his Dracula costume and then turns right around and walks back into the woods--when he isn't growing several inches, darkening his hair and becoming younger, that is.

And yet, for all of this, Plan 9 just absolutely isn't the worst film I've ever seen. For that matter, the Wikipedia entry for Plan 9 makes the still-completely-valid point that Plan 9 doesn't even rate on IMDb's bottom-100 movies as rated by users. Manos: The Hands Of Fate, a movie that makes Plan 9 look like Citizen Kane and that has sometimes been described as the worst movie ever shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (the cast and writers of MST3k have said that Child Bride was in fact a worse film--so bad they couldn't even use it)--Manos ranks third on the IMDb list, behind Daniel The Wizard and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, a pair of 2004 movies I haven't seen. But that's at least fair so far as Manos is concerned: it's a worse movie than Plan 9.

I might have to say the worst movie I've ever seen is actually Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, which is possibly a hugely polarizing statement for me to make, as there are people out there who still swear Kelly is a great director and that Tales is some kind of misunderstood masterpiece. I'd also have to concede that Tales has one saving grace that isn't found in Manos in the form of a single, surprisingly great performance from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and a tolerable performance from Justin Timberlake, who manages to be charming despite also being visibly lost in a thankless, pointless, and pretty much completely nonsensical role; on the other hand, it's probably also fair to say that a cluelessly wooden performance from Sarah Michelle Gellar and simply bizarre appearances by Christopher Lambert, Kevin Smith and almost the entire nineties cast of Saturday Night Live more than offsets anything good Johnson and Timberlake (these two, of all people!) bring to the table. Plus, Tales is offensively pretentious with its whole allegory-for-Revelations shtick, with its freshman Philosophy 101 late-night-bull-session-at-the-dorm nonsense passed off as intellectual profundity which Kelly then believes he has to explain to everybody in the audience too stupid to get all the metaphorical crap (Kelly, indeed, seems to think this is everybody watching his stupid little epic, when it's nobody), with its attempts to "cleverly" cite indie pop music (which just come off as clumsy), and its ridiculous pseudo-scientific Macguffins (which are clearly meant to bowl the audience over with mind-bending, cutting edge quantum mechanical notions--but instead come off as demonstrating that Richard Kelly once skimmed a Discover magazine in a dentist's office while waiting for some anesthesia to wear off because he didn't think to get somebody else to drive him home). There's also the added post-Wachowskian sin Kelly commits of having too much material to fit into one movie and not enough money to make the three movies he envisioned, so he made one movie and then wrote a bunch of tie-in comic books that are supposed to explain or set up everything, meaning that the movie in and of itself is actually an incomplete experience that isn't supposed to be comprehensible standing alone even though it's paradoxically meant to be capable of being enjoyed by itself as a self-contained project, except (as if this wasn't actually already bad enough) the comics suck and the whole affair is more or less twaddle no matter what.

The thing is, Southland Tales isn't entirely incompetently made, despite the bad effects, despite a fair amount of wasted talent, despite the terrible script, despite the heavy ham-fistedness of all of it. We could go back to Manos, really, which is so technically incompetent there are better home movies made by little kids.

Or we could pick on the improbable Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. Nobody ever believes this movie really exists, despite the fact that you used to be able to watch the whole thing on YouTube (these days, you have to settle for clips). Patton Oswalt didn't actually make this thing up, folks. My Dad actually knows a guy who worked on it, even. Death Bed has a ridiculous premise: no, the title isn't poetic or anything, this is actually a movie about a bed that eats things and people, and since beds aren't exactly known for swimming around off the Massachusetts shoreline eating summer vacationers or, really, for any kind of mobility whatsoever, this means that victims must actively participate in their demise by lying down on the bed and waiting to be devoured (which consists of sinking into the bed and being skeletonized in some kind of deep, red digestive juice that is somehow inside the mattress). The ironic thing about this, and the really criminal thing about Death Bed, is that waiting for people to lie down on the bed and get dissolved in it turns out to somehow be even less interesting than you might imagine, and Death Bed isn't so much a silly, campy bad movie as it is a really horribly dull bad movie. You know, Plan 9 is at least a sprightly, short bad movie that springs along at a decent clip and is over before it stops being funny. Death Bed, meanwhile, is pretty much interminable. They're possibly showing it in Hell right now.

And speaking of boring: BloodRayne. So, here's a movie that has a kind of amazing bizarro cast: Ben Kingsley, Udo Kier, Billy Zane, Meat Loaf, Michael Paré, and Michael Madsen, any of whom can normally be expected to liven up and steal scenes from an awful, awful movie. Plus, there's Kristanna Loken in a skimpy, skintight outfit for much of the movie, which ought to be a good thing. Problem is, it's an Uwe Boll movie, and Boll is one of the worst directors in the history of cinema.

Let me explain Mr. Boll's entire career in a nutshell: see, for a long time, Germany had this crazy tax code that allowed investors to sink money into a movie production and write it off pretty much no matter what, but especially if the movie tanked. And so what Uwe Boll would do, is he'd buy up the rights to make film adaptations of video games, and then he'd get all these German investors to sink shit-tons (I mean shit-tons, really) of money into these productions and he'd hire some crazy-talented people to appear in these awful movies that usually had nearly nothing to do with whatever the source material happened to be and that generally (with one or two exceptions) have lost money at the box office. Which led to Boll gaining even more investors for his next project; the worse his last movie did, the more Germans lined up to invest in the next one... until, that is, Germany went and tightened up a bunch of their tax loopholes, at which point suddenly Uwe Boll couldn't even get a sandwich made, although he's had a string of straight-to-video releases the past few years. But the gist is this: Uwe Boll's entire film-making career is predicated on him being a shitty director and producer who could lose money for his investors.

BloodRayne, a movie about a half-naked vampire hunter and featuring some crazy-cool performers, is a long boring slog interrupted midway through by the single most tedious and un-erotic sex scene ever committed to film. Whereas some of Uwe Boll's movies are at least funny-bad, a special-edition DVD of BloodRayne ought to be released in a box with a melon-baller so you can scoop your own eyeballs out during the movie and somehow salvage the whole experience that way.

I think it's hard to write an already-too-long blog post about movies worse than Plan 9 without at least mentioning John Travolta's faith-based vanity project, Battlefield Earth. The only thing about that is, Battlefield Earth, as reviled as it is, isn't actually as bad as the last few movies I mentioned, and while it might be worse than Plan 9, I think I'd really have to put them on par with each other. Aside from the fact Earth had a lot more money dumped into it, and aside from the fact it actually made IMDb's worst-movies list, Earth and Plan 9 really have a lot in common: bad acting, awful dialogue, ludicrous scripts, campy aliens, bizarre plots, a great deal of presumably unintentional humor (Travolta probably didn't mean Battlefield Earth to be funny, but it's not impossible Ed Wood was winking at the audience to at least some degree with Plan 9). Contrary to what some people may have told you, Battlefield Earth is a thoroughly enjoyable film--if you're drunk and/or have a bunch of snarky friends to watch it with, and if you don't regret throwing away whatever money you spent on the rental or buying it from a bargain bin at Wal-Mart or Target or wherever. Any movie where the plot hinges on both the fact that the antagonistic aliens are basically allergic to the planet they invaded for whatever stupid reason and on the protagonist cavemen defeating the aliens by using the exact same technology and tactics that failed when deployed by their ancient ancestors can't be all bad: more like, it has to be so bad that it becomes good again, but not "good" in any of the usual senses of the word when it's used to mean, you know, "good".

I probably could go on. I never did get around to talking about Robot Monster, for instance. Assuming you're still with me, though: what's the best worst movie you've ever seen, and was it really that bad?


John the Scientist Saturday, December 3, 2011 at 4:38:00 PM EST  

The Kid With the Golden Arm.

Actually any of the Venom Mob films starting with The Five Deadly Venoms, but TKWTGA was the first one I ever saw.

And what makes it bad? Look at the clip. And you don't need bad English dubbing to make it worse, the plot and fight scenes make even less sense in the original Mandarin. :D

Pangolin Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 3:37:00 AM EST  

The worst film ever made by far was Robin Williams version of Popeye the Sailor. The acting was bad, the casting was bad, the sets were absolutely vile and the soundtrack will make your ears bleed.

Dark Star might be worse except with a few deep pulls off a bong it's the funniest movie ever made. Nobody knows why.

Eric Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 9:46:00 AM EST  

Pangolin, I adore Robert Altman's Popeye! Script by Jules Feiffer and a soundtrack by Harry Nilsson! An entire actual village built on location in Malta for the production that was too big to tear down and remains a shoddy tourist trap thirty years later! And as for the casting: Shelly Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl, are you kidding?

And yes, I (and a few friends of mine, actually--I'm not alone) can still break out into boozy-sounding renditions of "Sweethaven" and "Everything Is Food".

No, it isn't Altman's best film and it has its flaws, but there's a kind of legitimate cult-classic awesomeness to it. And not in a "It's fun with a crowd like Rocky Horror" kind of way, either (The Rocky Horror Picture Show really is kind of an awful film on its own merits, though it does have a pretty great soundtrack.) Popeye suffers at least partly from the fact that the responsible studios--Paramount and Disney--and the people responsible for actually making all had different ideas about what they were making: Disney thought they were making a kids' film, Paramount thought they were making a family film that might have crossover adult appeal, and everybody else thought they were doing a kind of countercultural riff on the original Segar comic strips (which were kind of out there back in their own day).

I'd ask you to revisit it, Pangolin, though I'll concede part of the problem with a cult classic is that it polarizes, that it isn't to all tastes. But if you don't watch it as a Disney film, or a Paramount family film, but as a Robert Altman film written by Feiffer and Nilsson and starring Robin Williams when he was still kind of edgy and new--it isn't great, no, but it is pretty brilliant despite some rough corners sticking out here and there.

I covered some of my love and affection for Dark Star in a memorial I wrote when Dan O'Bannon passed away in 2009. All I'll say here is that the "extended version" drags, but the shorter "original" version (actually expanded from material O'Bannon and John Carpenter shot as their student film when they were at USC--hence the scare quotes 'round "original") is a blast.

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