“Whether or not I like someone doesn’t depend on what kind of genitals they have.” [Anne Carlisle in “Liquid Sky” (1982)]
Garbage! Trash! Junk! Refuse! Rubbish! We all know what it is, and we all get rid of loads of it all the time. I’ll bet at times you even wonder, “How did I ever accumulate so much crap?” How do we, as a society, create so much waste that it seems like we have trash dump sites with piles of garbage so high that they could compete with the Great Pyramids of Egypt in height alone. However, can’t we say the same thing with regards to movies and other versions of media too? For everything that’s worth viewing, doesn’t it seem like there is so much trash out there that it’s like you are fighting off an elephant stampede with a fly swatter just to try and find something worth spending your time and money on?
Now, Dear Reader, I have tried to impart my pearls of wisdom to you so you will not be so frustrated in this eternal quest. I also hope that you appreciate my efforts on your behalf. Of course, it also would be nice if you could show your appreciation for my efforts with a small financial token sent in my direction too (I also accept cash or money orders… however, no firstborn children please!) Unfortunately, I think we all know that the only thing I might receive from you might be something more likely to be found in one of those trash heaps or possibly even something more extravagantly fragrant dispatched by airborne delivery, instead, at my head! Be that as it may, where is all of my babbling leading to for the Blog Post this month? Well let me explain! There are certain movies and other forms of media that are so outrageously bad or ridiculous that they are worth seeing just for the laughs alone, unintentional or not! A more blunt way of putting it is, “Something so bad, it’s good!” This is true in all forms of art whether it be visual, musical, or even, literary. They even have names for these types of works such as “Kitsch” or “Camp”. The Merriam-Webster definition of the word, “Camp” for instance is:
Something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing or a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture.
However, most of the time, this stuff is just pure CRAP!!! Nevertheless, this month’s Post will discuss the exceptions, rather than the rule. In other words, I will highlight those “trash” movies, etc. that were actually pretty enjoyable and well worth viewing just for the outrageous fun aspect alone. However, first I will discuss a truly bad trash item. Then I will discuss a good “trash” item that you just might find worth your time. None of the things that I will praise here will ever be thought of as high art, but they just might be, at least, amusing. We will see. Now, to first get the ball rolling, let me begin by telling you about a popular TV show that can be fitted into the category of “stupid trash” rather than amusing! That TV show is “BATMAN!”
When ABC’s “Batman” (1966-68) debuted it was a huge ratings hit. Unlike the far better later transformation of the Batman character into the lone psychologically tormented “Dark Knight” in future comic books and movie lore, this version [with a spastic Robin (Burt Ward) hopping around like someone with a live ferret stuck in his shorts] was played for simplistic morality and heavy handed intentional humor. As Batman, bad actor Adam West, had the role of his dreams. Even though he was so wooden in the role that “Pinocchio” could have out acted him, he milked it for most of the rest of his life on TV, in movies, on animated series voice work, and at different public events. Despite the fact that before it came on the air, it received the lowest audience test score for a show in ABC Network history, it became so popular that everybody wanted to be a guest villain or at least have a cameo role on it. Even Spencer Tracy said he’d play the Penguin if he could kill Batman on the show (God Help Us!!!). For all I know, if Tracy didn’t die in 1967 ABC might have even considered it. Despite the fact that the show was almost painful to watch due to the non-existent acting, cheap sets, kindergarten storylines, and non-funny attempts at humor, it lasted for three long years before the public finally had enough of this trash and ABC cancelled it.
However, a much better example of something that is 100% pure trash, but also an unintentionally funny little gem is the noir film, “Wicked Woman” (1953). “Wicked” starred Beverly Michaels (Who?) as Billie Nash, a drifter with the worst bleach blond dye job in film history, wearing high heels and a white (virginal) summer dress while strutting around on the screen with male leering eyes following her everywhere. The plot, what there was of one, was that after Billie finds a room in a cheap boarding house with lusting next door neighbor, Charlie (Percy Helton) eyeing her every move, she gets a waitressing job in a cheap bar with handsome, muscular owner, Matt (Richard Egan) married to an alcoholic, shrewish wife. Needless to say, Billie eyes Matt and Matt eyes Billie’s as….sets(!!!). They both then set out to swindle the wife’s half ownership of the bar away so they can sell off the place and skip off to Mexico together. Of course (I know you are telling me, “Please! Please! Don’t say IT again…”), things do not go as planned!
In the nineteen fifties a whole truckload of films were made with wanton females (almost always blond) tempting men to their doom. There was a habitual conga line of actresses like Cleo Moore, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Diana Dors, Carol Ohmart, Karen Steele, and, of course, Michaels who didn’t have to worry about being cast, on the couch or otherwise, to find work in these classics. The thing that makes this movie work is that everyone is playing it so straight and taking it so seriously that it makes it even funnier the more outrageous it gets. As an actor, Richard Egan made a good Army judo instructor which is what he did in the service during WW II. He basically used one facial expression to convey various emotions throughout the entire movie and none of them were even remotely believable. However, maybe the best of the bunch was Helton, as Charlie.
Helton had a long career as a character actor playing various small parts or secondary roles, at times, of a more humorous nature due to his looks and a breathy and raspy falsetto voice. He was bald, short, and hunched over. He kind of looked like a cross between a Christmas Gnome without the pointy hat and beard and Peter Lorre’s Dad. In “Wicked,” between his skulking around Billie while being used by her until he turns the tables on her it almost looks like the two of them are about to break out into a Punch and Judy puppet club-fest! Fun fact: this was Helton’s favorite performance and he even hung a three-sheet poster of the film in his home. As for the 5’9″ Michaels, she had a life that turned out rather more subdued. Two years after “Wicked Woman” she married the film’s co-writer and director, Russell Rouse who maybe used this movie as a warm up since he would later win a best screenplay Oscar for the Doris Day comedy, “Pillow Talk” (1959). She retired from acting in 1956. They had two children and stayed married for 32 years until his death in 1987. Michaels continued to live a quiet life until she also passed away in 2007. Not too wicked after all, don’t you think!
Since I just mentioned a good trash film noir how about we now move onto discussing a ridiculously awful trash film noir. The movie in question: “The Man Who Cheated Himself” (1950). The plot consists of a veteran police detective who, while having a secret affair with a shallow rich socialite who is getting divorced, has to act to protect her when she kills her estranged spouse sort-of by accident (Yeah, that one again!). Now there is nothing wrong with doing an old noir standard storyline for a film. Its popular since its has been done so many times. However, this version departs from just dull redundancy and instead, sky rockets into ludicrous trash category all by itself. Why does it, you may ask? Well, it’s because the two lead roles are played by Lee J. Cobb and Jane Wyatt!
You haven’t lived until you see the two of them romantically pawing each other (Ugh! Yuck!). It seems like Cobb (this was the only romantic role he ever did) wears his trench coat and hat 50% of the time just to hide the fact that: (1) he’s shaped more like a football middle linebacker than a leading man, and (2) to keep you from noticing that he’s wearing a toupee! As for “Father Knows Best” Jane Wyatt, she looks more like she’d rather be wearing an apron to go make a cake rather than wearing a fashion gown to go to a high society event. Hell, she isn’t even a “Blond” (sacrilege for a 1950s movie femme fatale)! While watching this mess, I subconsciously found myself with my mouth wide-open and stunned. The movie is also not helped by the bland screenplay and direction nor the bland performance by actor John Dall as Cobb’s brother who figures out the plot. The movie even had one of the most boring manhunts in film history at the abandoned ruins of an old fort under the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time it nears the end, Cobb looks more like he’d rather be having a beer at the local VFW than supposedly lamenting his wrongheaded life choices.
Trash movies can also be found in Science Fiction with both good and bad results and with money not always being a critical factor as to its quality. Case in point: the punk S/F film, “Liquid Sky” (1982). This film, which was only made with a budget of about $500,000 was a truly whacked out dark comedy portrait of a drugged out bisexual, promiscuous, sometime model, Margaret (Anne Carlisle), who lives with her drug dealing girlfriend while constantly being abused, both verbally and sexually by the crowd she hangs out with. One night a small alien spaceship occupied by a bunch of small aliens (Special Effects courtesy Hasbro) lands on the rooftop of their penthouse apartment and observes her activity. Soon enough they discover that when Margaret has sex while high (basically all of the time) her partners when achieving orgasm release endorphins that are better than heroin that the aliens can suck out of these victims while causing them to immediately die and vanish. Margaret is spared because she doesn’t have an orgasm (maybe they should have renamed this film, “Alien Sex Junkies from Space”). Once Margaret discovers that she has this power, she sets out to take revenge on all of those who had previously abused her.
This film was made by a partial Russian production team, that consisted mainly of producer/writer/director Slava Tsukerman and cinematographer Yuri Neyman. It was a foreigner’s fever dream of how they viewed New York City’s punk/drug scene and the strange thing is that this film’s whacky premise actually works. Yuri’s cinematography is impressive with strong lighting, color, contrast, composition, and movement to convey individuals with jagged emotions and even more jagged mental states. Slava’s foul mouthed screenplay is hilarious and you are rooting your head off as Margaret keeps eliminating the various jerks in her life. Anne Carlisle is terrific in the role and, even though it seems like every other word she utters is an obscenity, you feel real sympathy for her despite the fact that she is almost as unsympathetic as everyone else. She even played her movie nemesis Jimmy, who would later become one of her victims (talk about F*&king yourself!). “Liquid Sky” was the most successful independent movie of 1983 and Tsukerman in 2014 even wanted to make a sequel with Carlisle returning as Margaret. However, nothing yet, so stay tuned (anyone have a spare $500,000 around?).
As I previously said, having a lot of money to throw at a conceptual S/F trash movie does not make it any better. All it makes is an even bigger and more expensive piece of CRAP! As an example, lets look at the worst one made in the past 25 years: “Mars Attacks” (1996). This movie, directed by Tim Burton was supposed to be a big budget homage to the numerous aliens invading earth B movies made popular in the 1950s and to which Burton wanted to pay homage to. It boasted a large A list of top notch ensemble acting talent (Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Rod Steiger, Sylvia Sydney, etc.) and a combined budget of 100 million dollars to play with. Once that factor was resolved, they were ready to begin. Unfortunately, there was just one little problem that was never really resolved. That little problem was: EVERYTHING!
The first, and maybe the biggest mistake of all was why would anyone agree to do this movie in the first place. Who in their right mind would think that the public would actually want to see a big budget movie incorporating the cheap and tacky visual styles of 1950s S/F B-movies (aliens with big brainy heads wearing glass helmets, flying saucer spaceships, etc.)? These movies were made cheap in the 1950s because S/F movies back then were looked down upon by studios and they had to cut financial corners to be made at all. This did not completely change until the first Star Wars movie was made in 1977. Next, why would you make such a movie if you were trying to do a parody of 1950s S/F movies but incorporate some serious graphic violence (enough that they had to do some serious editing and re-writes in order to not have this movie R rated)? Lastly, whether this was a parody or a serious film, how can you have this type of acting talent in one film and the only person who actually gives a really fine performance was, of all people, Jim Brown (Yes, NFL running back Jim Brown)? When Jim Brown gives your best performance in a movie with all of these great actors, well, that’s when all the studio executives involved in this production need to dust off their job resumes and look into new career opportunities in the fast food service industry. And while we are busy swinging the executioner’s axe, lets also take a couple of good Louisville Slugger swings at director Tim Burton’s neck too!
As a director, Burton is the classic case of being one of style over substance. While he has actually done some good adult stuff (“Sweeney Todd”…, “Big Fish”) and some good films more for children (“Corpse Bride”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) this film is his Titanic (the actual disaster, not the movie). Burton, along with his original screenplay writer, envisioned this movie as similar to “Dr. Strangelove” in that “both films had a similar story but with different tones.” That’s kind of like saying Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great tap dancer except for the wheelchair. On release, the movie was a mega box office bomb and definitely, a shining example of a truly expensive bad trash film!
Now Dear reader, I could continue to further list good trash and bad trash movies but then this post would run ad infinitum, so I will finish up my post by listing one last really good trash movie and call it a day. That movie is a comedy horror movie that actually has some unexpected and touching moments which make it a surprising little gem. The movie’s name: “Bubba Ho-Tep” (2002). “Bubba” is based on the Bram Stoker Award-nominated novella by award winning mystery and horror author Joe R. Lansdale. It takes place in a nursing home in East Texas and revolves around an elderly resident named Sebastian (Bruce Campbell) who thinks he is Elvis Presley, and who supposedly switched places with an Elvis impersonator that was the Elvis who died in 1977 because Sebastian/Elvis was tired of the fame. Unfortunately, while trying to make a little money impersonating himself as Elvis he loses all documentation in a propane explosion proving that he is actually Elvis and, to make matters worse, after injuring his hip during a performance he lapses into a coma from an infection and doesn’t wake up until 20 years later. Now old, impotent, and semi-incapacitated, he has no friends except for a fellow resident, a black man named Jack (Ossie Davis), who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy (Is this whacky enough yet?). Well, next thing you know Sebastian and Jack have to take action when fellow nursing home residents start getting killed by a re-animated ancient Egyptian mummy (named Bubba Ho-Tep by Sebastian) that feeds on the souls of the residents and which was originally stolen and then subsequently lost during a severe storm near their nursing home (Yep! This now can officially be classified as, “Very Whacky!”).
Schlockmeister writer, co-producer and director Don Coscarelli (“Phantasm I, II, III… etc.”) had a total operating budget of a little over $500,000 (Hmmm! Where have we heard this one before?) and 30 days to shoot the whole Damn thing. Most of the film was also shot in an abandoned veterans’ hospital outside of L.A. to save costs. Upon completion only 32 prints were made to be circulated around to various film festivals to gain publicity. So by now you are probably thinking, “Why do I think what I just described is worth anything more than a good warm bucket of piss?” Well, surprisingly, a couple of good reasons! The first was a fine adaption of Lansdale’s story which highlights a mix of comedy, the bizarre, and companionship between two mismatched friends which Lansdale also did very well in his Hap and Leonard series of novels and subsequent TV series (2016-18). Second, two fine performances by veteran actors Ossie Davis and especially, Bruce Campbell.
Campbell has been a B movie acting standard bearer for decades on TV and in the movies while also finding work as a voice actor, producer, director, and writer (Hell, he was even hawking his autobiography, “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor” during a book tour to promote this film). Oh, did I forget to mention that he is an ordained minister too! For all I know, he probably also sells aluminum siding and life insurance policies on the side. Nevertheless, he can actually act and in “Bubba Ho-Tep” he gives a fine performance. His Elvis is sad, lonely, introspective and frustrated by how his life has turned out. He muses about how the aged, like himself, are forgotten and ignored by a society that increasingly favors the immediate and the young. The cheap horror aspects of the film are easily forgettable, but it’s his performance along with his interactions with Davis that make this movie worthwhile. Just like “Liquid Sky”, for years they have been trying to make either a sequel or a prequel to this film and in 2018 a limited issue comic book series supervised by Lansdale was even issued which explored Elvis’s further adventures. However, as of now, that’s all we have!
Instead of wasting 100 million on “Mars Attacks,” you’d think a smart studio could have instead taken a million from the budget and funnel it to the folks that made “Liquid Sky” and ‘Bubba Ho-Tep” wouldn’t you? It sure could have produced something that was a lot more trashy fun for a lot less cost! But maybe, I’m just whistling in the wind after all!
You tell me!