By John H. Foote
What exactly, or better yet, how do you define a guilty pleasure?
For me it is this.
Knowing what you do about film, knowing the movie in question has very few, if any of the qualities that would make it a great film, quite the opposite in fact, but you cannot help watching. You like it and cannot explain why. Like driving past a car wreck, you just have to stop and gaze despite the carnage you might see. It is the same principle with a guilty pleasure in film, you know the film is anywhere from dreadful to not very good, but you cannot help it, something about it holds you. Maybe a performance, maybe just the grand silliness of the whole thing, who knows, it is your guilty pleasure.
Here are mine….
No particular order here.
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
When Universal Pictures ran out of ideas for their cash cow monsters, Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman, The Mummy, and the Invisible Man they came up with a novel idea. Since the monsters had encountered one another on film, how about they encounter the hottest comedy team in movies, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello? The monsters would play it straight, remain frightening while the comedy team cut up around them. Sounded stupid, right? It was a huge smash hit. Huge! By combining Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) they were able to turn the creatures on poor Bud and Lou, which allowed chubby Costello a chance to unleash his best kind of comedy, unbridled terror. It was a treat to see Lugosi back in his signature role, and Chaney Jr. was always great as the werewolf, even better as long-suffering Larry Talbot. The monster created by Frankenstein was little more than a shuffling super strength killer, used by Dracula, but that is another story. A lovely cameo from the Invisible Man ends the film and sets up on the five sequels that came after.
I am going to say it. That opening strip scene by a young and gorgeous Jane Fonda is still one of the most intensely erotic moments on film. I am sure once video came along it was the subject of many teen boys night time fantasies. Fonda has fun in the film, a deeply stupid science fiction film that exists to have the beautiful actress flaunt about half naked in skimpy costumes that display her delicious curves. She became the poster girl for beauty and girls with curves. But trust me, it is a stupid movie.
STREETS OF FIRE (1983)
Michael Pare was the next big thing. Dark smouldering looks, he reminded casting directors of a young Brando. The major difference was that the young Brando could act, Pare could not. He posed, he postured, he looked great until he spoke! Sadly, everyone around him in this Walter Hill rock and roll fable was a good actor, which simply amplified his shortcomings. Diane Lane is very good as the rock star Pare loves but can never have, Rick Moranis, and best of all an evil Willem Dafoe are all pretty good, which kills Pare. Some great songs including I Can Dream About You.
LOST HORIZON (1973)
You cannot quite believe it when it turns awful, because for the first thirty minutes it matches the 1937 original nearly shot for shot. We think, oh so wrongly, we are settling in for a good film, at least an honourable remake of a classic and then, something terrifying happens. The songs start. Liv Ullman, bursts into song, her voice obviously dubbed, children start dancing and singing, a bad sign, and the madness goes on and on and on. The opening song over the titles is a lovely, haunting, enticing, but every one to follow is wretched, simply and truly an affront to song, to music and to cinema. A staggering flop in the seventies, Columbia was just recovering when they released…wait for it, Ishtar (1986).
Warren Beatty is one of the sharpest minds in Hollywood, and I say that having sat in front of the man and interviewing him. Laser eyes, blazing with intellect bore into you, and he does not suffer fools. Lucky for me, I am no fool. I admire Beatty, always have and watching him portray a not too bright, dreadful lounge singer was fun, goofy, silly fun. I understand why the film flopped, it was terrible and deserved to fail, but damned if Beatty was not great. Watch him punctuate the song stanzas in Little Darlin’ by the Diamonds…hilarious.
W.C. FIELDS AND ME (1976)
A really bad movie with a really good central performance. Rod Steiger is terrific as screen legend Fields in this film based on the memoirs of his lover Carlotta Monti, portrayed by Valerie Perrine. Is it accurate? Who knows when the source material is that of an adoring lover. Did Fields talk like that all the time? According to Monti, yes. Steiger digs deep, getting far past what the weak screenplay gives him to find Fields demons and what drove home. It is a fine performance in a bad movie. Perrine had been nominated for Best Actress in Lenny (1974) and it was here her obvious limitations came out. Steiger was a great actor, Perrine…was pretty. And shapely.
STAYIN’ ALIVE (1983)
For this sequel to Saturday Night Fever (1977), Director Sylvester Stallone (yep, you read that) turns John Travolta into himself and his own version of what would happen if Rocky Balboa became a Broadway dancer. Travolta got himself ripped, into astonishing shape for the film, rippling muscles, a solid six pack, beautifully defined body, but all for naught as the movie tanked. Continuing the story of Tony Manero, who is now a dancer, the film has none of the heart or urgency of the first. Unbelievable, uninspired, ridiculous, it is beyond dumb. Only the lovely Cynthia Rhodes does reasonably good work in the film, not even Travolta, a most likeable can keep this mess alive.
SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)
As Superman/ Clark Kent, I thought Brandon Routh did just fine, certainly better, vastly superior to Henry Cavill, who more or less replaced Routh. Forgetting sequels three and four do not exist, a great move, wish I could, this film picks up five years after the end of Superman II (1981). Remember? Lois figured out Clark was Superman, he tells her everything then gives up his powers to live as a mortal with her. But then three baddies, led by General Zod show up and more than ever we need Superman, and of course we get him. In the five years he has been gone, Lois, now a mom (yep, you are right), living with another man, but still in love with Superman gets caught up in it all placing she and her son in peril. Her guy swoops in to save her but is not quite super enough to do it, so Superman, realizing who the child is, does it. Great effects, the landing of a plane on a baseball field, the lifting of a massive yacht are stunners, decent acting, a great villain, career dead Kevin Spacey makes a perfectly smug Lex Luther, and a Superman very few liked. I thought he was terrific. The image of Superman, high above the earth, his body drinking in the healing rays of the sun, should be iconic. Routh did more in that single moment than Cavill did in an entire film, and two appearances since.
Again, we have a great actor geared up to do great work, only to be undone by the film’s director, Danny DeVito and script. Jack Nicholson was pumped to portray Jimmy Hoffa, he could not wait. Pouring over documentaries and TV footage, he captured the speech patterns, the walk, the coiled fury he spoke with when angry, his performance was uncanny. But DeVito was on another planet directing the film, at one point closing in on a headlight for no apparent reason, to us anyway. He did not support his actor and when it is Nicholson, should you not? You bet you should.
KING KONG (1976)
In between the classic black and white King Kong (1933) and the extraordinary epic Peter Jackson gave us in 2005, magnificent in every way was this curious box office hit produced by ambitious Dino De Laurentiis. “You-a see-a my monkey, you-a gonna cry”, he told us. I saw it, I did not cry. The silly blockbuster had a guy in a suit as Kong, though sometimes they used a stiff limbed mechanical ape, each painfully obvious. The best thing in the film was Jessica Lange as Dwan, the blonde beauty Kong fixates on. At first, yes, like Fay Wray she is terrified and does a lot of screaming, but when it becomes clear the ape means her no harm, she settles down. Surprisingly erotic Lange is given a bath under a waterfall, then blown dry by Kong, the act making her almost orgasmic. She alone makes the film worth watching, along with the lovely score. Somehow, King Kong (1976) actually won an Oscar for visual effects, but I have always assumed that Award was for Miss Lange’s body and her fake orgasm in Kong’s hand. Talk about a blow job!
Deepest, Darkest Movie Secret — Hitchcock is terribly overrated. Not among even the greatest twenty directors. Sue me!
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.