By John H. Foote
No one sets out to make a bad film, no one.
The films I chose for this article are films that had no right to be so awful, there are talented people involved. Yet somehow, the work was terrible.
Great directors such as George Stevens, Steven Spielberg, and John Boorman are here, and actors such as Sean Penn, John Travolta, Robin Williams, Demi Moore, Max Von Sydow, Peter Frampton, Robert Duvall, John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Madonna, Ben Affleck, Richard Burton, Louise Fletcher, Liv Ullman, Michael Caine, Roberto Begnini, John Travolta again, and yes, John Travolta yet again.
Bear in mind these are the films I consider to be the worst, it is entirely of my creation. Each of these films was painful to endure, but endure I did because seeing these makes the great ones worth the celebration.
25. STAYIN’ ALIVE (1983)
This wretched sequel to Saturday Night Fever (1977) began the fast decline of John Travolta in the eighties. By 1985 he was finished. Picking up a few years after the first film, Tony (Travolta) is now a dancer in New York trying to get work. Directed by Sylvester Stallone as a Rocky-esque story about a struggling dancer going the distance, it is ridiculous. The Broadway show he dances in is unlike anything I have ever seen. So very bad, but Travolta was ripped with sweaty muscle in the best shape of his career. Stallone must have got him to stop eating.
24. JAWS 4 – THE REVENGE (1987)
Another massive Great White shark is in the waters near the Brody family, who have lost two family members to the feasting marauders but this time it is such an insipid stupid film it is nearly unwatchable. The shark hunts Ellen Brody, yes, I said hunts, just how I am not sure, but it goes after her. Yes, a great white shark knows her movements. I really said that. Luckily, though not for him, Michael Caine is along in a terribly written role. Just a disaster that makes clear why the first was so great. The rubber shark gives the best performance in the picture.
23. SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964)
Do I have to even explain? A terrible film that found its way into the mainstream, ugh. Low budget horror shows like this were usually drive-in fare, but incredibly this became popular, a cult classic, though one wonders how, and why?
22. TARZAN THE APE MAN (1982)
The title should be, Jane, Jungle Babe, because Tarzan is very much a supporting character, portrayed by Myles O’Keefe, who slipped back to obscurity after the film. John Derek directed the film which exists for his wife Bo to undress throughout the picture. Stupid, stupid, stupid does not begin to suggest how terrible the film is. Not even gazing at Bo Derek’s’ beautiful body can interest me in ever seeing this mess again.
21. THE SCARLETT LETTER (1995)
Based on the classic novel, the film featured a solid cast, well, aside from Demi Moore, but in the company of Robert Duvall and Gary Oldman one has hope. Nope, this Roland Joffre directed nightmare changes the narrative, never the wisest thing to do with classic literature. Horrible on every level except the score. The actors look embarrassed throughout, with good reason and Hawthorne must be doing flip flops in his grave.
20. JACK (1996)
Francis Ford Coppola bottomed out, all the way out, with this painfully awful film about a child with a rapid age disease, portrayed eventually by Robin Williams in the worst performance of his career. Forever smiling through the tears Williams portrays him as a complete innocent, which becomes laughable fast. From the beginning you become painfully aware they want your tears not your attention.
19. JACK AND JILL (2011)
Adam Sandler plays brother and sister in this brutal film that features, get this, Al Pacino as Pacino, who falls for the sister. So bad it is embarrassing watching Pacino mug his way through this mess. Makes you long for Hee Haw! We have come to expect junk from Sandler but is it not a sad state of affairs when we expect nothing more from Pacino? Is this garbage the best he is being offered?
18. SGT. PEPPERS LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1978)
Who thought casting Peter Frampton in this mess was a great idea? Looking to cash in on the success of Tommy (1975), the geniuses behind this nightmare must have known what was coming? Only Steve Martin, still early in his career, is watchable in this hellish experience, not even the music of The Beatles can salvage this piece of garbage. Once seen it can never be unseen, nor unheard.
17. KING KONG LIVES (1986)
Not here he doesn’t. This film was dead on arrival. An artificial heart revives Kong after that fall from the World Trade Centre in the 1976 remake. Who thought a sequel to the 1976 film was even necessary? Seeing Kong with a scar on his chest to let us know they replaced his heart with an artificial one is one thing, but no explanation about how his bones would not have been reduced to dust falling from the top of the World Trade Center? Just awful, and in every way unnecessary. An anatomically correct Lady Kong can never be unseen. Ever.
16. SHANGHAI SURPRISE (1986)
Sean Penn and Madonna were a couple for a short time and, during their volatile time together, they made this horrible film that was the Gigli (2003) of its time. Penn, who has been the best thing in a few stinkers, stinks this film out. He and Madonna are awful together. Zero chemistry. Like nothing. Arctic freeze out.
15. THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)
Two-time Academy Award winning Best Director George Stevens failed so miserably with this film his career never recovered. There are just so many really bad ideas within the film. Swedish Actor Max Von Sydow as Jesus? A cast of spot the stars that was distracting more than entertaining. They shot some of the film in Monument Valley and Death Valley, home to the John Ford westerns. Each time we see Jesus and his disciples moving through this area, I was looking for natives or a stagecoach. More than three hours of painful cinema made worse by its agonizing self importance and sanctimonious narrative. What was Stevens, a great filmmaker, thinking?
14. MOMENT BY MOMENT (1979)
John Travolta was at the height of fame, round one, when he made this terrible film with Lily Tomlin. Exploring an older woman having an affair with a younger man, the film had promise, but was rightfully savaged by the press. A love story must have chemistry between the two lovers but there is nothing here, like nothing. Travolta’s performance consists of smiling through tears or looking adoringly at Tomlin. Painful.
13. MASTER OF DISGUISE (2002)
With a single movie the film career of comic Dana Carvey was over, he never recovered, and Hollywood wants nothing to do with him. One of the most gifted comics to emerge from Saturday Night Live and Wayne’s World (1994), Carvey might never again make a film after this junk. Junk.
12. DR. DOOLITTLE (1967)
The children’s story was brought to the screen as a lavish, no expense spared musical starring he who could not act, Rex Harrison, as the doctor who has broken the language barrier with animals. This was so bad on so many levels critics had a proper field day reviewing it, hailing as kitty litter to pure manure. The effects were laughable, a zipper clearly visible on the push me-pull you, sort of a two leaded lama that must never have to relieve itself. Harrison speaks all his songs, no surprise, without a shred of emotion. Horrible and incredibly a Best Picture nominee.
11. AT LONG LAST LOVE (1975)
Peter Bogdanovich was the toast of Hollywood, the man of the hour after giving audiences The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973) before his ego told him he was God and could do anything. Making an old-fashioned musical was his dream project that became our nightmare. So terrible, so bad, pathetic really, it virtually ended his career in Hollywood, finishing him as a filmmaker. He found work but was never taken seriously again. Cashing in his friendships with the aging John Ford and Orion Welles took him so far, his ego killed the rest.
10. PINOCCHIO (2003)
After somehow convincing the Academy that the mugging he did in Life is Beautiful (1997) was Best Actor worthy, Begnini then set his sights on Pinocchio. As the puppet, using a sickening falsetto voice, the Italian comic is atrocious in the film. Humiliating in every way. The cost of this movie should be the returning of his Oscar. Begnini conned the Academy once, but this time no chance as the film was a childish nightmare of incompetence and maddening self indulgence.
9. THE ROOM (2003)
Yes, it really is that bad, and true Tommy Wiseau cannot neither act, nor direct or write. But it did become a cult classic and its making was depicted in the Oscar nominated The Disaster Artist (2017) so I suppose it has some value as a film. Beats me what it is. Dreck, serious dreck.
8. GIGLI (2002)
Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez equals junk. Serious, horrible garbage. Neither funny, nor interesting, nor anything remotely entertaining it is famously awful. I could recall from memory how bad without having to subject myself to the film again…that bad. They have zero chemistry together, how did they have an affair?
7. LOST HORIZON (1973)
The opening is shot for shot, a remake of the great Frank Capra film of 1937, but once inside Shanghai La, the musical numbers begin and what is meant to be paradise becomes hell. Watching the great Liv Ullman suddenly burst into song, dubbed, and then Peter Finch, also dubbed, quickly becomes tedious. And it just goes on and on, without mercy. Meant to be a blockbuster, meant to be a huge hit, it is among the most ridiculous films ever made. Only the opening song, full of mystery and hope, scores points, the rest will make you long for hell.
6. HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)
Based on a popular comic book, which might work now, but in 1986, produced by George Lucas, it was all damn silly. A duck – a walking, talking duck is somehow blasted to earth and stranded, before finding a home with a pretty young singer. Lea Thompson must rue the day she ever accepted a role in this severely stupid film that actually crosses over into inter species sex, in this case bestiality. I kid you not. Tim Robbins is around as a goofy scientist, but the duck is the star, God help us all. The audience I watched it with was in hysterics, not in a good way. I was pissed for the two hours I can never have back.
5. THE CONQUEROR (1955)
In the deserts off California they shot this film far too close to where the government was testing atomic weapons. Most, if not all, of the cast and crew would die of cancer related illnesses, often blamed on atomic exposure. The film is atomic waste, just horrible. John Wayne was woefully miscast as Genghis Khan, opposite Susan Hayward, and though they are said to have had fun making the film, it was nearly death to their careers. Wayne rebounded with The Searchers (1956) while Hayward won an Oscar for I Want to Live (1958). Laughingly terrible. One wonders what Wayne was thinking?
4. SHOWGIRLS (1995)
So much has been written about poor Elizabeth Berkley and this film, anything I say is moot I suppose. However, if I do not write about it I am not doing my job. Is it fair to blame long legged, drop dead gorgeous Berkley for this terrible film? No, it is not. She says her lines, she does her best under misogynistic conditions with a script that holds women in obvious contempt. And come on, she can dance, she tries. The trouble is the script and the fact the actors were directed to spit their lines out like venom. Everyone fails. Everyone. Only Gina Gershon comes off with any sense of realism, and that is pushing it.
3. SWEPT AWAY (2002)
This remake of the classic Lina Wertmuller film featured Madonna, directed by her husband Guy Ritchie and, in stunt casting, the son of original star Giancarlo Giannini. My question, after interviewing Madonna, was she acting? I mean that rich, spoiled, deluded self-absorbed rich girl was very much who I encountered during the interview. She was a screeching harpy in the film and it was no surprise when he began hitting her. Wertmuller’s film was a masterpiece of class war and sexual repression’s being burst, while this is stupid, ridiculous nonsense. Passion? None. Art, please.
2. BATTLEFIELD EARTH (2000)
Pure excrement. A vanity project for John Travolta, made to appease him, the actor portrayed a nine-foot alien with tendrils hanging from his nose resembling, well, um, snot. Travolta is a psychological, an alien life form which has taken over earth to mine the planet of its precious resources. But some earthlings fight back, and this upsets Travolta. So he snarls and yells his way through a truly horrible film that has us questioning his talent. And Forest Whitaker? Dude? What were you thinking? You are among the finest of your generation, how did this happen to you? Raw sewage tossed onscreen as a movie. And I am being kind.
1. EXORCIST II – THE HERETIC (1977)
I have been told that the way to experience this mess is on acid, which I do not touch. However, I believe it as director John Boorman used visuals to propel his narrative rather than dialogue. The result is a horror show of images, terrible performances, and incredibly stupid choices all strung together with metaphor. Flashing back and forth, exploring the first time Father Merlin fought the demon, and continuing the story of Regan, the little girl from the first film possessed, nothing makes sense. In the middle of it we have Richard Burton’s voice of God booming on the track, and James Earl Jones turning into a big cat. Maybe acid is the way to go, but that means I have to sit through this again…no thanks.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”