Summer is the perfect time to catch up on your favorite terrible old movies. Tom Gualtieri counts down 10 of the best worst horror films of all time.
WHEN EXTREME SITUATIONS are taken beyond their limits, when the real becomes grotesque, or when good intentions meet bad execution we get camp: the comedy of the ridiculous. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical.” The usage may also be derived from archaic French slang meaning “to pose in exaggerated fashion.” I like that.
Movie camp is divided into two camps: 1) so bad it’s good and; 2) teetering on the edge. Films like Mommie Dearest, Showgirls, and Plan 9 From Outer Space are of the former variety: earnest but… oops! Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and The Bad Seed are of the latter. Like fruit that’s been left on the tree too long, they are overripe and ready to burst.
In those films, the grotesque is pushed to its limit. Piper Laurie’s performance as Mrs. White in Carrie lives in the same world as Bette Davis’ Baby Jane: the biggest possible performance that can be given on film without throwing the movie out of balance. Genius. The Bad Seed, however, lives somewhere in between with some fine stuff leveled by accidental comedy.
John Waters, with his boundary-and-button-pushing early films, like the brilliant drag playwrights of the off-Broadway scene, Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch, managed to bring excess into commercial favor. (Busch, in his play, The Lady in Question, which affectionately sends up 40’s intrigue films, gave us a German “bad seed” called Lotte, exceptionally well played in the off-Broadway production by Andy Halliday in a wonderfully ludicrous blonde wig – looking very much like Patty McCormack.) Busch, Ludlam and Waters, whose work is wildly different but shares elements, took the full-to-bursting notions of these films into camp heaven and into the mainstream.
Then you’ve got movies like Troll 2, a piece of low-budget film-making that has risen from schlock to cult status. Unintentionally hilarious, Troll 2 is neither a sequel nor about trolls, though the difference between a troll and a goblin, specific to the dungeons and dragons set, obviously didn’t bother the filmmakers. The Best Worst Movie is a 2010 documentary about the cult obsession with it.
Like Troll 2, every one of this month’s films are accidentally funny, which doesn’t mean there aren’t fine elements in at least a few but, mostly, you’ll find them either: 1) funny or; 2) “Ow, my face hurts” because when you aren’t laughing, you’re doing this:
Listen for indelible clichés like: “Why are you doing this?” “Don’t come any closer,” “I’ll make him pay for what he did” and “What’s going on here?” (Side note: if your script contains more than one of these you are a hack.) Watch for an opening credit sequence lasting more than 4 minutes – a sure sign you’re in shaky hands. Then there’s “The Face Grab” – that moment when an actor has to indicate her extreme desperation by grabbing both sides of her face.
All of these movies require good friends, good popcorn, a good sense of humor and absolutely no taste whatsoever. They are funny for all the wrong reasons.
So from worst to worstest:
10. The House Where Evil Dwells (1982) – Samurai ghouls! Japanese-speaking crabs! Soft-focus sex! Hara-kiri! Judo! Boobies!
Wait! There’s backstory: there always is. Back in old Kyoto, a samurai returns home to find his wife doing the hovering butterfly with another man. They all die horribly. (Did that even need to be said?) One hundred and fifty years later, they’re wearing eternal greasepaint and haunting their former house. Apparently they’ve reconciled long enough to team up against the new tenants.
Toshiya Maruyama, Mako Hattori, Toshiyuki Sasaki enduring the greasepaint.
American writer Ted (Edward Albert) and his wife Laura (Susan George) drag their daughter to the old homestead through the work of Ted’s lawyer, Alex (Doug McClure.) (I smell cherry blossoms and a love triangle in the air!) Weird things start to happen. Ted and Laura wear kimonos. The lights turn off. The faucet turns on. The tatami mats get re-arranged. And a ghost flips a salad bowl. Sure signs the Fletchers should be moving out, don’t you think?
Ted throws himself into the plywood walls, chasing ghostly seductress Otami. Then he gets drunk with some Japanese businessmen and things go all to hell what with Laura spitting out fightin’ words like “Oh! Well I hope you had a real. GOOD. TIME!” and seducing Alex. The talking crabs, muttering what sounds like Japanese from an episode of Scooby Doo, chase little Amy around the bonsai garden. The ghosts possess her parents and their lawyer after a 4-minute exorcism involving the local monk who waves the spirits away with Asian ghost repellent.
Later there’s Judo, samurai swords and a reenactment of an ancient horror that leaves bowels and a severed head on the floor. I don’t envy the real estate agent.
9. Dreamcatcher (2003) is a movie about poop, so crappy it expects you to be afraid of Alien food poisoning. The monsters, you see, take up residence in your colon, causing the worst case of the runs you’ll ever experience. One character dies while expelling a turd-alien into the john. For no explicable reason, the aliens also inhabit the body of another character (Damian Lewis of Homeland), causing him to speak in a pointless English accent saying things like “‘allo guv’nor” and “cheerio.” No no really – I’m totally serious. That actually happens! I’m unclear what bad, English cliches have to do with Native American folklore. I’m also a little fuzzy on why an alien coming out of your butt is supposed to give an audience the shivers instead of the giggles BUT I’m sure it will all make sense in the end.
There’s a lot of malarkey about 4 friends (Lewis, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant and Thomas Jane) who share a telepathic gift and that time they stopped bullies from abusing a mentally handicapped kid (Donnie Wahlberg). Some military folk get involved, with Morgan Freeman leading the way and some native American people pop up dead. None of it makes sense and there’s not much explanation either.
It’s rather sad that this film essentially flushed writer/director Lawrence Kasdan’s career. This is the man who wrote the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark! Knowing that makes it difficult to laugh at Dreamcatcher. Perhaps it’s a movie for people who are anal retentive. Or a warning to eat your fiber! Or a comfort to those who have had bad experiences at the local diner.
I wonder how so much talent could have gone so wrong but every artist has his Waterloo. Mostly you’ll stare at the screen with your mouth agape. If you want to live dangerously, order some takeout – preferably a raw burger and fries or a questionable quart of chow mein, invite a few of your best buds over and eat yourselves sick.
8. The Bad Seed (1956) – is a sort of prehistoric ancestor to The Omen, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Village of the Damned and Who Can Kill a Child (which itself seems to have been the inspiration for Stephen King’s Children of the Corn.) Overly earnest and terribly funny, The Bad Seed has a script by Maxwell Anderson strictly from hunger with every line delivered in one of three ways: earnestly, imperiously or nonchalantly.
Patty McCormack plays the budding sociopath who murders a playmate for a penmanship medal. She doesn’t like people “pawing after her” but begs a “basket of hugs” from her parents. She’s dresses in the girliest of girly clothes and her blonde pigtails are high-camp crack. McCormack, at 11 years old, is incredible as the murderess, Rhoda Penmark.
Eileen Heckert gives a memorable performance as the alcoholic mother of little Rhoda’s victim. Nancy Kelly as mom Christine begins to worry that something may be rotten in Penmark. Genetically wrong. In the Penmark bloodline. Monica Breedlove, amateur psychologist and omnipresent landlady, barely suspects a thing despite Rhoda’s obvious insincerity. But handyman Leroy (the great character actor, Henry Jones) has Rhoda’s number. Unfortunately, he sleeps on a bed of highly flammable excelsior which is obviously dangerous in some way because it gets mentioned over and over and over again. When Rhoda finds some strike anywhere matches, well… you can guess the rest.
7. Prince of Darkness (1987) – Turns out the son of Satan is not actually a black-haired child born to a senator and his wife, nor a mewling infant born to an actor and his wife, but a giant jar of spinning mint jelly in the basement of an old church discovered by Priest, the unnamed character played by Donald Pleasance. (The character is listed in some in some places as Father Loomis. And if Loomis seems a familiar name, it’s because it is a favorite in the John Carpenter catalogue of character names.) For the ever-faithful Donald Pleasance, Priest is a variation on his Halloweenrole but with a Catholic frock.
During what is arguably the longest opening credit sequence in the history of film, lasting a FULL TEN MINUTES, we meet all the major characters in long scenes between title cards. By the time we got to “directed by John Carpenter” the crowd with whom I saw this was rolling in the aisles. Not a good sign.
Priest summons an old friend, a quantum physics professor (Victor Wong) and his team of grad students, to the church to study paranormal activity. Professor Birack (Wong) uses a lot of SAT words while his people get all scientifical with lots of charts and machines that go “boop boop boop.” Meanwhile homeless people stare at the church. Don’t make fun! Homeless people are scary! Especially if they’re led by Alice Cooper as “Street Schizo!” He impales a nerd on a bicycle and then disappears for the rest of the movie.
Plagues start showing up, which is a sure sign of the apocalypse. These include earthworms on the windows, maggots in the coffee and ants giving facials. Then poor, stupid Susan (Ann Howard) goes into the basement to do some scientific stuff or something and has a violent encounter with the spooge of the spawn of Satan, who prefers oral. She becomes a projectile jelly dispenser and begins infecting her colleagues. None of them, apparently, know not to swallow. (See the awful The Invasion for more on vomit & transmission.) Susan is so good at her job that no one can find her and most of the cast gets to say “Have you seen Susan? Radiologist? Glasses?” at least once.
The rest of the PhDs and under-5 players get a taste of the devil batter and, you guessed it, are turned into zombies or, you know, murdered for variety. Then there’s Kelly in her perfectly coiffed ponytail, pajamas and melting face trying to reach through a mirror to get in touch with Satan. Yeah. For real. Here:
It’s like The Evil Dead but with green jam, Donald Pleasance, and no sense of humor. Watch, laugh, eat jelly on toast and ponder the nature of good and evil. Or just wonder if it’s some kind of metaphysical non-sequitur.
6. Fear No Evil (1981) Combining elements of The Omen, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead and, strange to say, Grease, this movie will have you in possessed, contortionist fits. Rolling off a 70’s supernatural trend which influenced horror into the 80’s, Fear No Evil is one of those accidentally entertaining messes whose camp value gives Showgirls a run for the money. The plot concerns archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Rafael who are dispatched to fight Lucifer. (Why Uriel is missing is anyone’s guess! Maybe the name was just too silly?) It seems The Devil has been reborn as a waif-thin teenager at the local high school. (At his most deadly, Lucifer resembles a hybrid of Susan Sarandon, Frank n’Furter and a Real Housewife after too much collagen.)
Unfortunately, the high-minded (?) ideas are never matched by the actual product. Lucifer, archangels, zombies in painted latex, an attack at a performance of a Passion Play, a male bully who grows breasts (don’t ask), and even a freaky homo-erotic shower scene reminiscent of Carrie will keep you riveted to the whole bizarre enterprise. It’s just too strange to be true.
5. Body Parts (1991) – When a plot involves limbs transplanted from a murderous psychopath you know there will be choice dialogue in a Ziploc bag marked “ham.” When that movie also stars Jeff Fahey, you can be certain it will be a campstravaganza. The movie is suggested by a French novel translated as Choice Cuts. Boileau-Narcejac is the writing team responsible for the novels which became Les Diaboliques andVertigo. They also wrote the screenplay for Eyes Without a Face. You’d think this movie would be prime. The grisly special effects are excellent, the score borrows liberally from 50’s sci-fi horror but the whole thing is overcooked.
An ambitious surgeon (the great Lindsay Duncan, playing it cool, calm and collected) has developed a technique for transplanting limbs – nervous, muscular and vascular systems all in working order – onto needy recipients. What these recipients don’t know is that their body parts have come from a psychotic killer. Someone should have checked the donor card before he was sentenced to death because he wants his limbs back. Jeff Fahey plays a psychiatrist who is the beneficiary of nothing more than a “good right arm.” Brad Dourif, as an obsessed painter (is there any other kind), gets the other one and the mesmerizingly goofy Peter Murnik is overjoyed with his new legs. Kim Delaney is Fahey’s wife and they all make the best of howlers like:
This arm is killing me! (Fahey)
I know this sounds crazy, but I got my arm from the same place you got your legs. (Fahey again)
Honey, you have this guy’s arm, you don’t have his personality. (Delaney)
Just listen to what your arm is saying to you.(Dourif)
And, my personal favorite:
Now we transplant heads…don’t you see where this can lead? (Ms. Duncan)
Actually, Dr. Webb, I do know where this can lead – right to my funny bone. Serve it up with a splitting-side of hilarious.
4. Blood Feast (1963) – I’ll say this: when this movie was over I was hungry for more. Every course of this feast mixes the ingredients in a way that is so wrong, it’s right. The acting is on par with a supremely mediocre community theatre production of The Iceman Cometh; the gore effects look like ground chuck in red velvet batter, and there’s nary a teaspoon of skill from anyone involved. But, oh… what a sweet treat!
It seems that Dorothy Freemont wants a party for her 20-something daughter’s birthday. Killer-caterer Fuad Ramses promises her a feast the likes of which have not been seen in over 5,000 years. And he needs ingredients, so he begins collecting the body parts of beautiful young women to resurrect the goddess Ishtar. He may also have visited the thrift store because his goddess is a fashion district mannequin covered in gold paint and his cooking utensils would have seen better days in a tenement kitchen.
Then there’s Fuad’s make-up. Oh, never mind. Detective Frank is on the case and starts a romance with Suzette Freemont at a lecture on ancient rituals. Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose career in exploitation films began with soft-core titles such asThe Adventures of Lucky Pierre and Boin-n-g before his dubbing as the “Godfather of Gore,” doesn’t exactly show a knack for realism.
There’s a scene on the beach where a couple is getting cozy on a blanket when Fuad does his dirty work, knocking out the boy and stealing the girl’s brains. It sounds perfectly horrible doesn’t it? Until the boyfriend gets his big moment and that’s when you want to hand the guy a knife and fork to help him chew the scenery.
The scene ends with this tasty morsel of dialogue:
CHIEF OF DETECTIVES: He always kills the same way. He just takes one part of the body. This time he took the brains. Now what kind of a creature would do that?
FRANK: A pathological killer. A sick, sick mind. Well, we’ve gotta notify the parents.
But wait – there’s more. Oh so much more. I don’t want to spoil your appetite by giving you too much at once. So here are a few small helpings:
SUZETTE: I was reading about all those murders and it sort of takes all the joy out of everything.
MRS. FREEMONT: Oh it is horrible. But Suzette, don’t be silly. Anyway, the dinner party Saturday will take our minds off all this horrible killing.
FRANK: The killer must have thought she was dead. It’s a miracle she wasn’t.
EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTOR: Well, she is now.
Don’t eat while you’re watching. You’ll be laughing too hard and you might choke.
3 & 3.2 – Homicidal (1961) & Strait-Jacket (1964) – A beautiful blonde has a liaison with a handsome man in a hotel, drives a car a long distance after committing a crime, then finds herself in a strange relationship with a knife. No, it’s not Psycho. It’sHomicidal!
Miriam Webster (not Merriam-Webster like the dictionary), later revealed to be Emily from Denmark (Emily from Denmark?!?!?!) is played with a generous array of grimaces by the beautiful Joan Marshall (billed here as Jean Arless.) Less than 15 minutes into the film we find out Emily ain’t right in the head. She’s got a predilection for a long surgical knife and facial acrobatics. She also has a sadistic relationship with poor Helga, the elderly, wheelchair-bound stroke victim who relies on her. Helga is the old nurse who raised Warren, a strange-looking fellow who may or may not be Emily’s main squeeze. If you ask poor old Helga about Emily, you won’t get an answer because all she can do is rap violently on her wheelchair with a doorknob. If only she’d learned the Morse code for, “I don’t like warm milk for breakfast!”
Warren’s sister, the real Miriam Webster who runs the local florist, doesn’t like Emily either. Not one bit. Emily is a creepy-time gal, in addition to being a sadist and a murderous lunatic.
There’s something off about Warren too – there’s that disembodied voice and his peculiar face. Plus, his relationship with Emily is… just. Not. Right. It’s all too disturbing and so unintentionally funny you’ll want to make sure to wear your Depends.
Ms. Marshall is top-notch, especially when she lets her psycho side erupt all over her face. Nothing beats her raving tantrum in the flower shop where she smashes Warren’s picture and rips the head off a porcelain groom…
We’ll forgive William Castle for his use of cliché and grand excesses including dialogue like “Do you think Emily’s a cold-blooded murderess? Miriam, answer me!” Castle purposely guides his horror into the world of the ridiculous, creating elaborate gimmicks to draw audiences. He employed very good actors in an impressive array of roles and never took himself too seriously. He was like a low-rent Hitchcock with gimmicks and no style. One of Castle’s notable gimmicks features prominently just before the climax! A 45-minute fright break that would have allowed you to get a refund if you stood in the cinema lobby’s “Coward’s Corner” until all patrons had left the theatre.
EMILY: If you stay in this house one more minute I’m going to kill you.
And this bit of wisdom:
DOC: It’s only when hate is dammed-up that it breaks out in murder.
CARL: In other words then, Doc, anybody could kill that didn’t have an outlet for their hate?
I first saw Homicidal in a double feature with Strait-Jacket, the Joan Crawford vehicle that put me on Castle overload. The image of Crawford wielding an ax is iconic though completely unrelated to the axe-wielding in Christina Crawford’s memoir. (What am I talking about, you ask? Why, camp history, chickens: Mommie Dearest.)
Crawford plays a recovering axe-murderer who is released from the asylum, presumably after a rigid 12-step program, into the care of her daughter (the striking Diane Baker, known to horror audiences as Senator Ruth Martin in Silence of the Lambs.) Lucy Harbin (Crawford) spends time adjusting to life outside the asylum as her daughter Carol does therapeutic things like buying her a dress and wig identical the ones she wore on the night of the 40 whacks. Take it from there. When people start getting chopped to bits – including one particularly gory beheading in the slaughterhouse, you can be sure Lucy wonders if twelve steps weren’t enough.
LUCY: It was an asylum. And it was hell. Twenty years of pure hell!
2. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962, basically) – Oh – what can I say about tragic Jan and her mad-doctor fiancée?
Dr. Bill is so consumed with love and power that even after Jan is separated from her head in a tragic car wreck, he keeps it alive on a cookie sheet. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 dubbed her “Jan in the Pan.”
Apparently Dr. Bill has a plan for Jan in the pan. He is determined to find a body as gorgeous as Jan’s was before it fell victim to that hairpin turn and his lead foot. Then he’ll just transplant Jan onto the new torso. (See Body Parts for elaboration of mechanics of said plan.) Easy peasy. Dr. Bill’s search takes us to some seedy strip clubs where women with terrific bodies make easy pickins. None of them prove the right model and Dr. Bill eventually finds Doris – an artist’s model with a grudge against men.
“I hate all men,” Doris says, “I hate them for what one did to me once.”
One roofie later, Doris is on the slab and Dr. Bill is ready to sever her head with a scalpel even though he insists “I’ve got to hurry. The drug will wear off soon.” Call me kooky, but if I had to cut off someone’s head quickly, I might use something bigger than a butter knife. Jan in the Pan has become something of a nuisance, a real Chatty Cathy. Even though she’s missing limbs she’s found her third eye and spends a lot of time debating good and evil as she psychically communicates with Dr. Bill’s failed experiment whose digs are conveniently just across the basement.
“I’m only a head,” she opines, “And you’re whatever you are. Together we’re strong.” Other choice dialogue includes this:
DR. BILL: Which would you rather be? Paralyzed or dead?
DR. CORTNER: The Superintendent had it out with me. He thinks it’s you who’s been stealing those limbs from the amputee operations.
DR. BILL: So what if it is?
KURT: You’re nothing but a freak of life! And a freak of death!
1. Love Me Deadly (1973) – I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that accidental comedies about necrophilia are pretty rare. This one is jammed with elements mostly a-typical in horror, making it an absolute scream:
- A groovy theme song sung by a Dionne Warwick sound-a-like.
- Innocent scenes of frottage between a heroine and a young, well-scrubbed corpse.
- Polyester pantsuits and glossy peach lipstick.
- Gay prostitutes with dialogue like “Screw you, Mary!”
- Lyle Waggoner’s tan-lines.
- Montage sequences numbering more than one.
- Christopher Stone in bun-tight bellbottoms.
Lindsay, our heroine (played with lip-smacking delight by Mary Charlotte Wilcox), has daddy issues. We know this because of the cornucopia of sepia-lensed, childhood flashbacks. We must assume, however, that Daddy is dead because Lindsay spends her days haunting funerals where she can have her way with male corpses after the mourners have gone. During one of these encounters, she is seen by mortician Fred McSweeney (Timothy Scott), who also has a secret; he embalms people alive. Technically, they die in the process, as we see with his first victim, a gay prostitute he picks up in front of an all-male movie theatre. When McSweeney approaches Lindsay at one of the many funerals in her life, he offers her an alternative – an invite to a secret society of necrophiliacs who will make her feel welcome.
Lindsay struggles with the idea of joining the local chapter of Necrotics Anonymous even as she battles the breathing men who want to celebrate free love. Each is sexy in his own swinging 70’s way. Alex is played by Lyle Waggoner and Wade by Christopher Stone, the former in his neckerchief and the latter in fringy leather vests.
Then there are those montages – no dialogue, just a groovy score and plenty of action. My favorite is the gallery sequence where both men exercise their alphas by demonstrating who is the boss of Lindsay. But nothing can top the shot of Lindsay gazing dreamily at a Hearse.
Its tragical-hysterical ending might support the idea of this as a cautionary tale, reminding us not to suppress our true selves. If Lindsay had only allowed herself to enjoy her forbidden passions, none of this would ever have happened!
Originally appeared at The Weeklings
Tom Gualtieri is a theatre artist with his hand in many disciplines: lyricist, playwright, performer, director, knitter. He maintains an ongoing collaboration with composer David Sisco. His solo play, That Play: A Solo Macbeth, was nominated for a 2013 Drama Desk Award.