In a post-Sharknado world, there are likely quite a few people out there with a burgeoning new interest in bad, cheap, cheesy or otherwise ridiculous movies. Many film geeks, even the purists and snobs out there, can find deeper appreciation for the art by examining just how badly a film can go wrong. The trick is finding which bad movies to watch—choose wrong, and you’re just watching something vulgar, dumb or god forbid, boring.
Indeed, not all bad films are created equally. For every true gem, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of features with almost no replay value. The following are not necessarily “the best of the best,” but they are the films without which no collection can be considered complete. For someone just getting into bad movies, every one of these films is required viewing.
Some, you have no doubt heard about before. Some are very obscure. But all are essential.
In any bad movie discussion, it’s practically mandated that you begin by at least acknowledging The Room. The brainchild of bizarre visionary/possible vampire Tommy Wiseau, the film is a prime example of many qualities that tend to elevate a bad movie into a classic. First and foremost is Tommy himself, the quintessentially passionate but hapless director whose name appears in nearly every credit. Writer? Tommy Wiseau. Producer? Tommy Wiseau. Lead actor? Tommy Wiseau. You can see where this is going.
In terms of its execution, the film is achingly sincere, a dramatic epic seemingly inspired by some thinly veiled break-up or unrequited love in Wiseau’s past. The rest of the cast is nearly as clueless, in a story that wanders aimlessly and devolves into subplot after subplot, none of which see any kind of resolution. The film is amazingly inviting to repeated viewings, just to soak in the weirdness and ponder how such a thing comes to be. It’s no wonder an entire viewer’s guide exists to guide neophytes in their first public viewing.
Birdemic has become a huge cult hit in recent years for reasons very similar to The Room, and the two films show striking similarities. Most notably, they both have a directorial figure who guided every step of the production personally, even when common sense tried to intervene. James Nguyen, the self-styled “master of romantic thrillers,” combined a Wiseau-like naïveté with a complete lack of funding and acting talent to create the most incoherent rip-off of The Birds moviegoers had ever seen. To call the acting bad is to slander the word “bad.”
However, that’s nothing compared to the Birdemic special effects. Featuring inarticulate CGI models of birds repeatedly screeching and hovering in place as only the tips of their wings flap, it set a whole new standard for terrible visuals in the digital age. To date, these may still be the worst-looking animal assailants ever produced, and it’s difficult to imagine how the title could ever be wrested away.
From sincere failure, we turn to gleeful excess. Perhaps no movie better captures the ridiculous spirit of 1980s “adult action” than Hard Ticket to Hawaii, and that’s including Stallone’s Over the Top. Boiled down and concentrated into this beachside Andy Sidaris feature is nearly every cliché that would characterize the best Cinemax or USA Up All Night selections: Former Playboy Playmates, graphic violence, comically inept acting and gratuitous nudity that has to be seen to be believed. Throw in a subplot revolving around a rogue snake “infected by deadly toxins from cancer-infested rats,” and you’ve got perhaps the best summertime piece of schlock ever made.
How does one accurately describe Len Cella, the master of Moron Movies? Imagine a lonely, middle-aged man who has always yearned for some sort of creative outlet. Bitter and jaded from half a lifetime lacking personal fulfillment, he lays hands on a film camera in the early 1980s and starts recording comedic shorts, each less than 15 seconds long. Totally freeform and largely devoid of anything resembling a cogent thought, his work is truly unique, bringing together a head-scratching mix of puns, scatological humor and bitter resentment for the outside world.
When screened, the shorts are bizarrely hypnotic, provoking curiosity and incredulity in equal measure. That’s exactly when Johnny Carson was thinking when he had Len Cella on The Tonight Show several times from 1983-1985. Although his 15 minutes of fame are long gone today, Cella’s fever-dream shorts deserve to be discovered again.
One could easily construct a list like this devoted entirely to the island of Japan, but if we’re choosing just one film to convey just how weird a place Japanese cinema can be, Battlefield Baseball is the best option. Combining the tropes of a high-school sports film (such as the “delinquent-turned-star-player”) with the reckless abandon and genre-hopping of the better-known Shaolin Soccer, it takes the absurdist comedy elements of that film and then exaggerates them exponentially. There are teams of zombie players, exploding baseballs, cyborg principals, secret tornado pitches and a body count in the dozens. In short, it should be a cinematic tradition for the opening day of baseball season.
Any movie so notoriously bad that it inspires an entire documentary dedicated to how things went wrong is going to be a good contender for this list. In the case of Troll 2, that 2010 doc, Best Worst Movie, shed some light on how a director of Italian exploitation cinema with no English-speaking ability came to America, cast a small-town dentist in a lead role and proceeded to make an unintelligible mess of a film. From the blank-faced leads to the potentially psychotic extras, Troll 2 features one of screendom’s most colorful casts in a movie that illustrates exactly what happens when a commanding cinema hack exerts complete control over a group of non-actors. You end up with a Troll sequel that doesn’t contain a single actual troll. Plenty of goblins, though.
Parody is tough to do well in film, especially if a filmmaker’s sense of humor leans toward the juvenile. Writer/director/producer and master of micro-budget filmmaking Glenn Berggoetz set out to make a cheeky, irreverent Die Hard parody in this film, which was shot for only $2,000. To his credit, he made something that is inherently watchable and often hilarious, but rarely for the intended reasons. The forced humor is incredible to behold, as one-liners and snarky comments are shoehorned into everywhere they could conceivably fit. Repetition abounds. By the time the film plays out into a climactic fight scene and the villain throws the same spin-kick move over a dozen times in a row, it’s clear that To Die is Hard is probably the most memorable film $2,000 can buy.
You could get away with showing the kids a few of these films, but you’d be smart to hide this one away. Beyond its fantastically stupid “talking killer turkey” premise, Thankskilling demonstrates a surprising mix of genuine and unintentional humor. For every interesting creative concept, though, its stunningly inexperienced cast members are there to step in and drag the film back down to Earth. Shockingly offensive and shamelessly crude, this bizarre holiday exploitation movie switches gears from gross to titillating at the drop of a buckled Pilgrim hat. You’d be foolish to expect anything else from a feature film that contains nudity in the first second of screen time.
Yes, that’s a real movie title. Representing the Wonderfully Whimsical World of Lifetime, this made-for-TV movie is exactly as trashy and melodramatic as that moniker would suggest. How does one manage to wake up pregnant, exactly? Well, in this scenario, it involves an innocent mother, a power-mad dentist and large amounts of nitrous oxide. Naturally, being Lifetime, nobody believes the mother’s wild story of impregnation at the orthodontist’s office, and it all builds to a sting operation where the dentist is purposefully tempted by police with a hot female officer willing to roll the dice regarding unconscious sexual assault.
A recently rediscovered classic, Miami Connection was produced by yet another non-English speaker (always a good sign) “Grandmaster Y.K. Kim,” a taekwondo proponent who wanted to make a film about cleaning up the streets with the twin powers of friendship and groin-punching. There are very few films that sound better when summarized: An ’80s synth-rock band of taekwondo students faces off against a rival rock band and a gang of drug-importing ninjas to make the streets of Florida safe for everyone. Throw in some legitimately catchy original songs about friendship and the most randomly melodramatic side plot ever conceived, and you’ve got the recipe for a cult classic.