Horror’s “Worst” Films: Tasteless Entertainment or Endurance Test?
An Introduction to the Review Series
The horror genre has been host to many (dis)honors, and one would be remiss to not include among them the recognitions for Worst Movies Ever Made. The genre has more entries than any other due to its ability to consistently churn out profitable films which have little-to-no artistic merit. Certainly, the horror genre is rich with great art and meaningful metaphors and examinations of personal and societal woes, and all those things that attract the intellect and enrich the soul. This is why horror matters. But sometimes, we turn to the genre for baser reasons – blood, beasts, and boobs (what Harley Poe refers to as “them sacred triple-Bs”). This is why horror is fun.
But there’s another reason we turn to horror. We adore the classics and we allow them to become a part of our psyche, but we recognize that those great films are few and far between. Over the years we’ve developed thick skins, enduring countless hours of on-screen disappointments, becoming savvier and more discerning with each viewing. We’ve seen scares done wrong more times than right, but we persevere knowing that the next film might be the one to crawl beneath our skin and latch onto our brain, just like we want it to. Along the way we’ve tasted the bitter salts of bad filmmaking and have developed a tolerance, and sometimes an acquired preference, for it.
Let’s face it, as dedicated horror fans, no matter how shitty a film might be, we tend to take certain joys in reveling in their awfulness. Horror (and to a lesser extent sci-fi) is the only genre that when it fails it crosses over and becomes a comedy, albeit of the unintentional variety. We sift through countless hours of dreck in order to find that glitter of treasure, and to not find humor in what can at times feel like a fruitless endeavor would drive a lesser viewer to insanity. We laugh so as not to cry.
Entertainment can be found in anticipating the tired beats and ogling at the awkward dialogue, hopefully while in the company of some friends and judgment impairing beverages. These palate cleansers allow us to appreciate masterful craft when we see it, keeping us from becoming jaded, pretentious hipsters. Let us take a moment to thank them for that. Lesser films can also serve, as Stephen King has written, as junk food. We know there’s no nutritional value there, but it’s satisfying to indulge the Id over the Superego at times. Junk food has its place in life – the same is true for bad horror movies. Not every film need be a serious work of artistic expression – sometimes it’s enough to just have a good time. We should also remember that filmmaking is a complicated, messy process and that if anything artistic remains in the end product it is a small secular miracle. It’s actually extraordinary that more films don’t turn out as bad as some of the films on this list, but those that do serve to teach us what does work in film by demonstrating what doesn’t.
Some bad movies transcend the spectrum of good taste and come full circle, becoming genuine entertainment once again, often accidentally, and those are generally the best in the oft-named So-Bad-It’s-Good category. Those are the films made with the best intentions, but they’re like text written by people who don’t speak the language, like those “engrish” signs seen across Asia and photographed by giggling Anglophone tourists – you stare for a moment while your brain tries to process what you’re reading, and you can’t help but laugh at the result (I suppose the same could be said about amateur film blogs, but I digress).
Like all the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes Lenny doesn’t get to tend his rabbits. As a related aside, I recall showing Gary Sinese’s Of Mice and Men (1992), a film I found to be an affecting adaptation of Steinbeck’s classic novel, to a friend, anticipating his reaction to the final scene to be the same as mine – namely, riveted silence. Bang! My friend bowled over on the couch, clutching his stomach –laughing hysterically. It goes to show that one man’s gold is another man’s brass. Humor, like horror, is often subjective. Even bad films, therefore, can have legitimate fan bases; to each his own.
Of course, some movies really are simply, objectively bad, lacking any entertainment value. Their fate is to dwell in that twilight haze of boredom and pain. Some break that taste spectrum mentioned above only to return right back to awfulness. The films listed below represent horror and monster films that have been generally regarded by notable critics as being the worst ever made, beginning with 1953’s Robot Monster. Certainly, the 1940s had many terrible Poverty Row flicks, some starring Bela Lugosi as his career began to tailspin (he’ll be revisited below), but those will be dealt with in some capacity at a later time on this blog. Similarly, two oft-mentioned films will get a more focused treatment elsewhere when the time comes on the website: Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978) (the latter which may deserve more credit than critics have allowed).
We should begin by laying the ground rules: I have chosen to forgo my usual grading system here because, frankly, all these films utterly fail as cinema. It’s accepted that they are replete with incompetent directing, poor acting, sometimes incomprehensible writing, and all the other things that make moving pictures into the cinematic art form. They get F’s, every last one.
So the question then becomes, Can they be considered real entertainment or are they simply masochistic tests of endurance? Is it worth the morbidly curious, rubber-necking genre fan to seek out these non-films so as to participate in some communal movie-watching schadenfreude? In the short reviews below, I will examine just how bad these films are and try to cull something positive from them, if I can. I’ll suggest if any of these are worth seeking out as entertainment (preferably with good-humored friends and a couple of beers), or if you’ll need the company of MST3K, when available, to cope through the experience. Put simply, I’ll judge whether the film at hand is Tasteless Entertainment or simply an Endurance Test.
This series includes the following films (and more will likely be added over time as I come across them):
Robot Monster (1953)
Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956)
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)
The Creeping Terror (1964)
The Horror of Party Beach (1964)
Monster A-Go Go (1965)
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Troll 2 (1990)
Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008)