So much has already been said about Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990) that I won’t go too in depth in talking about this film. When I first saw Troll 2 I was too young to recognize that it was a bad movie, but old enough to discern that it had no trolls in it (there’s goblins) and that it bore no connection whatsoever to 1986’s Troll, which I had seen on television quite often. At age nine I was able to focus on the main character’s perspective without irony, especially as he spoke to his dead grandfather, and I even recall thinking that “Nilbog,” being “goblin” spelled backward, was a clever word puzzle. Please believe me, I’ve come a long way. I say this because, like 1953’s Robot Monster, Troll 2 does work on some level “when viewed as a child’s eye monster fantasy.” Though even then I knew that the goblin masks were shit. When seen through the perspective of a mature, rational human being, however, it’s a hilarious piece of accidental surrealism.
Fragasso is an Italian filmmaker, and language barriers and cultural misunderstandings only partly explain some of the bizarre choices found upon the screen. The amateur cast is able to do little with Fragasso’s poor approximation of American dialogue, and the confused story-line, cheap special effects, and questionable choices only serve to heighten the fever-dream nature of the film. There is only overacting or no acting at all, no in-between, and one of the “actors” was actually a real life mental patient… and it shows. The characters never act like natural people and instead come off like alien impersonators, such as when the mother, who is the unintentionally creepiest element of the film, tells her son, “Joshua, start singing. Come on, sing that song I like so much,” and they proceed to awkwardly sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” What? Or when the daughter, Holly, tells her boyfriend, “If my father discovers you here, he’d cut off your little nuts and eat them.” WHAT!? Truthfully, this is one of the more technically competent films on the list, but the writing and artistic choices are so fucking bananas that not a minute goes by without some oddity leaving the viewer scratching their head or laughing aloud at the absurdity.
Troll 2’s infamy has developed a dedicated cult following and has even become the subject of an endearing documentary, Best Worst Movie (2009), directed by Micheal Stephenson, the actor who as a child played Joshua. The film helps to give a lot of perspective on what ended up being on screen, and helps to answer or at least reaffirm various aspects that devotees of Troll 2’s awfulness only suspected. With this pedigree, Troll 2 is the epitome of tasteless entertainment.
Horror’s “Worst” Films – Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Poor Stirling Silliphant, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter. We thought we had left him behind after his vicarious relationship to 1964’s The Creeping Terror, but the trickster Deities of Terrible Movies were not done with him. While in a Texas coffee shop he happened to bump into local fertilizer salesman and amateur thespian Harold P. Warren, with whom he was friendly. Warren declared to Silliphant that anyone could make a horror movie and went so far as to bet him that in fact he could do so, and he immediately began sketching his ideas on the coffee shop’s napkins. His story, taking some obvious cues from Dracula, involves a family who becomes lost while on vacation and end up at a remote home which houses a nefarious cult. The film was tentatively titled The Lodge of Sins, however, during post-production Warren changed it. The first clue for viewers that what they are about to see is incompetent is the movie’s final title, Manos: The Hands of Fate, which translates with ludicrous redundancy to Hands: The Hands of Fate.
Warren set about gathering his cast from the local theater, including John Reynolds as Torgo and Tom Neyman as The Master, and young women from a local modeling agency to play The Master’s wives. Also prominent is the beautiful Diane Mahree as Margaret. Warren, not surprisingly, cast himself as the film’s hero, Hal. Not having enough money to pay his cast, he instead promised them a share in the profits. Warren’s hand-wound camera could only record 32 seconds at a time and sounds were added, incompetently, during post-production, by only a very few people.
The resulting film is one of the most tedious cinematic experiences of my life. Never have 70 minutes felt so long. Manos abounds with slothful driving sequences (which Warren had intended to use for credits, but never did), frustratingly poor editing (with the clapper visible at one point), and the camera lingering uncomfortably long on actors, who sometimes appear just as frustrated. The plot is largely incoherent, especially as Hal bullies his way into a clearly dangerous situation, and as I write this shortly after seeing the film I’ve already forgotten most of it. The pacing is dull and the experience soporific. I felt that had I been dying while watching it the result would be similar to the effect which mesmerism had on the title character of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), with me also in a permanent hypnotic state upon the edge of oblivion, unable to leave consciousness, but instead of talking with surrounding physicians I would be forever watching Torgo’s maddeningly twitching face.
I’d take the fate of the Lament Configuration over this any day. The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) was a disjointed snooze, but at least it was brightly lit enough to see what was (or wasn’t) happening. Add to this a superfluous scene of two teens making out (one of the models broke her leg so Warren reused her here) and being hassled by the cops, and other shots that are confounding in their unnecessity, and the experience becomes ever more trying. At the least the mind-boggling cat fight between the wives is sort of entertaining.
However, I’ve yet to fully explain the worst aspect of Manos. John Reynolds’s Torgo is one of the most infuriating performances I have ever watched, with his erratic mannerisms and his awkward waddling with cartoonish swollen thighs (he’s supposed to be a satyr, but that never comes across in the film). Reynolds is like a man on drugs – in fact, he is a man on drugs. He was high on LSD while filming, and it shows. The aggravating, stuttering voice-over work doesn’t help matters. As I watched Torgo I couldn’t help but be reminded of a porn VHS tape from the early 80s I somehow once got a hold of when I was young. There was a scene in which the performers were clearly out of their minds with drugs, saying their lines over each other with no rhyme or reason. One of the women forgot all about the set up dialogue and began immediately fellating the delivery guy while he was still trying to remember and deliver his lines in pathetically slurred speech, swaying drunkenly in the doorway. It took him five minutes to realize the sex had already begun. At that pubescent age my libido was on a hair trigger, but even then I could only look on uncomfortably until I finally shook myself from my stupor and hit the fast-forward button. Watching Reynolds struggle through his lines produced a very similar effect.
Reynolds was ultimately a tragic figure who didn’t live to see the film’s premiere. As Bob Guidry, the Director of Cinematography, once explained: “He killed himself about six months after the movie was finished. John was a troubled kid; he didn’t really get along with his dad, who was an Air Force colonel, and he got into experimenting with LSD. It’s a shame, because he was really a talented young actor.”
Because at rare moments the universe is a just place, the local premiere of Manos: The Hands of Fate was not met with glowing reviews and the film fell largely into obscurity until Mystery Science Theater 3000 resurrected it for their show in 1993. If one is as morbidly curious as I was to see this film, I strongly suggest you do so with the help of the MST3K team, because even if with their remarks this film is still an absolute endurance test.
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):