Book Review: The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time by Phil Hall: A Great Compendium

The celebration of the worst films ever made has become something of a cottage industry over the years. Although college kids were watching Reefer Madness (1936) and laughing at it during the ‘70s, it was probably the appearance of The Golden Turkey Awards that really set things off. The book was published in 1980, and there have been many more since. The latest is The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time, written by Phil Hall. The author is a contributing editor to Film Threat, and he is something of a bad-film aficionado.

The challenge for Hall was to come up with something unique, and for the most part, he was successful. I guess you cannot write a book like this without including Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), but at least Hall does not write the same clichéd review of it that we see over and over again. Rather, he discusses how Plan 9 and The Golden Turkey Awards gave rise to this genre of criticism in the first place. I had to chuckle when he explains that the Michael Medved who wrote the book is the same as the current “right-wing kook” on the radio.

Some of the other “classic” bad movies included here are Mommie Dearest (1981), Airport 1975 (1974), All This and World War II (1976), Chariots of the Gods (1970), Valley of the Dolls (1967), The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990), and Gigli (2003). He really threw me off with a few entries though. Before diving in, I scanned the alphabetical list to see what 100 films he had chosen. I must say I was baffled when I came across such titles as Lost Horizon, The Blue Bird, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Was he being deliberately perverse?

As it turns out, he was not. Since the dates are not included on the chapter page, I had no way of knowing that those were remakes. And based on his descriptions, it sounds as if they do indeed merit inclusion. Along these same lines is something called The Turkish Wizard of Oz (1971). It is an example of an entire genre that I had never heard of before, the world of Turkish remakes. Apparently the Turks have been making their own versions of classic movies for years now, and other titles they have tackled include Star Wars, The Exorcist, and Batman.

Where the book began to pay off for me was with obscure films by respected directors. This is an area I found highly intriguing, especially with entries by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Jean-Luc Godard. It was only upon reflection that I wondered if Hall was really playing fair. I am not sure that those films would have merited inclusion if they had not been made by such illustrious names. The Kubrick title is his first feature, Fear and Desire (1953). The Godard is King Lear (1987). Obviously neither of these are from the respective director’s “golden” period, and while they do sound strange, I am not convinced that they fully qualify as two of the 100 worst films ever made.

Still, the majority of movies in here do seem to fit that designation. What I had hoped to find were weirdo, bad films that I had never heard of before, and on that count, Hall delivers. Certainly not all 100 of them, but enough to make it worthwhile. One of these is The Green Cockatoo (1937), a British effort at an American gangster film. The dialogue alone sounds like a hoot. Hall gives a couple of examples, such as a club-owner’s description of the place as being “knee deep in coppers.” But the best has to be when this same man advises someone to “cut yourself a slice of sleep.”

Then there is Dogarama (1971) starring Linda Lovelace. If you looked at that title and actress, and said to yourself “No, it couldn’t be…“ Well, it is. Evidently the Deep Throat (1972) star denied the existence of this romp for years, but finally admitted to it. Hall reports that Hugh Hefner has a copy of this bestial romance in his private collection. The very existence of a film like this is hard to fathom. I understand that people have their fetishes and all, but apparently this was an attempt at a “real” porno, to be played in the theatres. It is just hard to imagine the “raincoat” crowd at an early ‘70s porn palace digging a bestiality feature. Can’t wait to see how Amanda Seyfried recreates this one in the upcoming Lovelace.

With a book like this, it is inevitable that people will disagree with some of the choices. A few of the titles I would argue against including are Head (1968), Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), Zabriskie Point (1970), and Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title (1966). There is no question that each of these movies have flaws, but they have plenty of redeeming qualities as well. The opening sequence of Head is magnificent, with Mickey Dolenz (of The Monkees) jumping off a bridge to the strains of “The Porpoise Song.” And I reviewed Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title as part of the Fox MOD series, and liked it. Morey Amsterdam’s jokes are stale as day-old Matza bread, but that was part of the charm for me.

I suppose that is one reason why these types of books continue to proliferate. The whole field of criticism is subjective after all. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure as they say. Why does Shanghai Surprise (1986) merit inclusion over Showgirls (1995), or Xanadu (1980) you might ask. Even the author cannot really explain. Well, he tries – but he contradicts himself. Hall says that he excluded films that have developed their own “so bad they’re good” cults, such as those two. Yet, isn’t Mommie Dearest one of the ultimate cult flicks, for that very reason?

As the book makes clear, bad movies can be just as much fun as “good” movies. They are certainly entertaining, and the supply seems endless. There are plenty in here, and Hall’s affection for many of them is obvious. The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time is a great addition to the bad-movie library.

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Greg Barbrick

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