Tag Archives: bad movies

If you want to see the mountains surrounding Houston, Texas, you can do no better than watch Irwin Allen’s 1978 disaster epic, The Swarm. You also get to see a train run over the cliffs into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Mountains of Houston? Cliffs on the Gulf of Mexico? That’s just a start. Let’s add ludicrous dialog and cheesy special effects and a plot that tries to pull every heartstring but only manages to milk ever cliche. 

Richard Velt in the Wilmington Morning Star stated “The Swarm may not be the worst movie ever made. I’d have to see them all to be sure. It’s certainly as bad as any I’ve seen.” Velt also stated “All the actors involved in this fiasco should be ashamed.” The film has a score of 9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. 

The film is credited with killing off the whole genre of disaster movies. 

I had the occasion of seeing the film recently on cable and could hardly believe my ears at some of the tin dialog. 

“That’s a complicated story. It begins a year ago. But let’s skip that.”

And don’t call me Shirley. 

The plot involves an invasion of killer bees who, at the start of the movie have attacked a military base in Houston. 

“So, the occupation of Houston has begun — and I am the first general in history to get is butt kicked by a mess of bugs!”

These are not your ordinary honeybees, but the Africanized variety, dubbed “killer bees,” and they are swarming by the billions. The American Bee Association was considering legal action against the filmmakers, claiming defamation. The film then ran a disclaimer at the end credits that read: “The African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hardworking American honey bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation.”

Or as Michael Caine’s character says, “We’ve been fighting a losing battle against the insects for fifteen years …  I never dreamed that it would turn out to be the bees. They’ve always  been our friend.”

Yes, Michael Caine, who signed onto the film without even reading the script, persuaded by the all-star cast that had already been corralled. You would think that a movie featuring Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Bradford Dillman, Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray (in his last screen appearance) and costing somewhere between $12 million and $22 million (in 1978 dollars) would show some class on the screen. But you forget Irwin Allen, who was to film in the ’70s what Michael Bay is now: The ultimate in fromage. Allen’s most famous and successful films included The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Disasters R Us. 

Commenting on this film being one of the worst films he had ever made in an interview, Michael Caine said, “It wasn’t just me, Henry Fonda was in it, too, but I got the blame for it!” The cast featured seven Oscar winners: Caine, Dame Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, José Ferrer, Patty Duke, Lee Grant, and Fonda; and two Oscar nominees: Richard Widmark and Katharine Ross. Caine has claimed in interviews that he used his fee from this film to buy his mother a house in Los Angeles.

(Caine is famous for taking some roles just for the paycheck, and quite candid about doing so, for such films as Ashanti (1979), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), Jaws: The Revenge (1987), The Island (1980), The Hand (1981), and 1984’s Blame It on Rio. A working class boy takes whatever job he can get. Work is work.)


When the bees threaten a nuclear power plant, Jose Ferrer’s Dr. Andrews says, “Billions of dollars have been spent to make these nuclear plants safe. Fail-safe! The odds against anything going wrong are astronomical, Doctor!”

And Richard Chamberlain, as Dr. Hubbard asks, “I appreciate that, Doctor. But let me ask you. In all your fail-safe techniques, is there a provision for an attack by killer bees?”

Apparently not. 

One general (Richard Widmark) wants to blast them with insecticide, but our hero, Caine, warns him about the ecological disaster that would follow. “Can explain to me, how you air drop chemicals, without killing the native insect life! If your chemical will kill the African bee, it will also kill the American bee, right?”

Widmark: “Right! And better a few American bees than a lot of AMERICAN PEOPLE!”

Caine: “That is the point, General! The honey bee is vital to the environment! Every year in America, they pollinate six billion dollars worth of crops! If you kill the bee, you’re gonna kill the crops! If you kill the plants, you’ll kill the people! No! No, General! There will be no air drop, until we know exactly, what we are dropping, and where, and how! Excuse me!”

You will notice there are quite a few exclamation points in this script. You might call them a swarm of exclamation points. 

The bees attack not only the nuclear plant, a missile silo and the military base, they go after a small town in Texas named Maryville. There is a real Maryville in the state, up on the border with Oklahoma. According to Wikipedia, it has a population of 15 people. Yet, in the movie, they are planning a flower festival. One young man, attacked by the bees has escaped and hallucinates a giant bee. 

As the bees destroy Houston, Widmark, as General Slater, worries, “Houston on fire. Will history blame me … or the bees?” 

Then, there’s the business with the army helicopter. “We have visual contact. … A black mass, sir. A moving black mass. Zero altitude. Dead ahead. They’re hitting us! Oh my God! We’re out … we’re out of control! Ahhhhhh!”

The copter spins wildly and as it tumbles in circles on the movie screen, the horizon, seen through the windows, tumbles in synch, making it crystal clear that the spinning is done by the camera, not the copter. Cheesy special effects are an Irwin Allen hallmark, as when the actors on the ship in The Poseidon Adventure all lean to one side and back on cue as the boat rocks — or doesn’t — and the camera alone lurches back and forth. 

Then, there’s the issue of scenes that cannot make up their minds whether it’s daytime or night, as they switch in the editing. One cannot but remember the same issue in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, which gets its own votes for “worst film of all time.” 

There are some oddly racist lines in the film, although probably through sloppiness and neglect rather than intent. The General repeatedly drops the words “Killer Bee” when referring to the African killer bees, so we get uncomfortable moments of him informing Caine they have been “Rounding up Africans“ and stating that, “By tomorrow there will be no more Africans … at least not in the Houston sector.”

Sloppiness seems to be the modus operandi for Allen and his crew. Henry Fonda plays a paraplegic doctor in a wheelchair who nevertheless manages to kick open a door when needed. 

Chamberlain to Fonda about the bees: “They’re brighter than we thought.” Fonda: “They always are.” 

Caine: “It’s damn hard to believe that insects have accomplished what nothing in the world could have done, except germ warfare or a neutron bomb: neutralize a ICBM site.”

Widmark, as General, to Chamberlain: “Well, you dropped your poison pellets and the Africans spit at it. Now they’re moving towards Houston faster than expected.” Chamberlain: “General, you should know that the enemy’s always expected to do the unexpected.”

It was claimed that something like 20 million bees were used in the making of the film. Managing them was a huge challenge. About 800,000 of them were individually “de-stung,” by having their stingers removed so they could be used interacting with the actors. The film’s production went through several beekeepers before finding one who hired people to remove the bees’ stingers. Cold weather incapacitates bees, so it was done in a refrigerated trailer. A few stingers were missed, and some lingering venom did get into the air on the sound stages, causing allergic reactions. 

The bees in the film were housed in various countryside enclosures, and were moved every night to give them new forage and prevent “bee rustling” (i.e., theft of the bees or their honey). The bees on the film’s set were controlled by releasing queen bees, which beekeepers kept inside their protective bee suits. In addition, everyone had little yellow dots on their clothing, which were actually bee feces. Caine stated in an interview that during filming he thought the little yellow spots left by the bees on his clothing was honey so he began to eat it, unaware he was eating bee poop.

Killer bees were a hot topic in the news in the 1970s, with a fear that the Africanized honeybees would take over and present a real danger to humans. Of course, that led to quite a few killer bee movies, including Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), Killer Bees (1974), The Savage Bees (1976), The Bees (1978), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978). The last film on this list is the sequel to the third one on it. Lucky for all of us, The Swarm did so poorly at the box office, a planned sequel was never made

Of course, the final lines of any horror or disaster film ends with setting up the potential sequel, and The Swarm is no exception, as Katherine Ross says, “Did we finally beat them? Or is this just a temporary victory?”

And Michael Caine replies: “I — I don’t know. But we did gain time. If we use it wisely, and if we’re lucky, the world might just survive.”

Click any image to enlarge

chainsaw“Earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture, so I know one place ‘Love Stinks’ will not be opening. love stinks

“It’s the kind of movie you fidget your way through, holding your wristwatch up to the light of the screen to see how long you have survived, sort of like seeing how long you can hold your breath underwater. It’s a macho test to survive this miserable, vile clunker. 

“You, lucky moviegoer, can always walk out. You can demand your money back. But pity the poor reviewer, paid to sit through it, who cannot leave but is handcuffed to his seat, with wire claws lashing his eyelids open, being forced to watch endless failed flatulence jokes, Elvis jokes and hair jokes. 

“How can a flatulence joke fail? This movie shows you. 

“Yes, you can demand your money back, but I can never demand back the time I gave to this sinkhole. It is time missing forever from my life and will be listed in my memoirs as my greatest regret. This is a movie that can damage you spiritually.”

Wow! I really didn’t like that movie.

But I seemed to have enjoyed writing about it. This is a constant nag to a movie critic, and one of the questions most often asked of us — “Do you have more fun writing bad reviews.”thumbs down The answer, of course, is I hate writing bad reviews, but — you got me — I love writing fun reviews of really awful films.

This is the crux: Some of the most memorable movie reviews are the pans, like when Roger Ebert wrote, of “North,” “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.”

Most people go to movies occasionally. The most avid rarely go more than once or twice a week. But the movie critic sees movies, sometimes several in a day. We become surfeited.

We also see a lot of un-inspired twaddle. You, the moviegoer may be mildly entertained by a mediocre movie; you can forget it soon after exposure. But the critic has probably seen a dozen rom-coms with the same plot, the same jokes, and the same actors — at least they do seem to blend together eventually into a single pair of Hugh Grants and Julia and sex

Imagine a light romantic comedy with Julia Roberts and Mandy Patinkin, with clever writing, snappy direction and a heartwarming ending.

  Then imagine that Roberts isn’t available, so you replace her with a look-alike. And then Patinkin isn’t available, either, and neither are the good writers nor a classy director. 

What you have is “Love & Sex,” a film that never rises to its own ambition.

It can’t decide whether it wants to make real points about real life and love, or wants to be a low-budget imitation of a high-budget Hollywood meet-cute romance.

It is true that I wasn’t a fulltime movie critic. Mostly I covered art and music. But I was a kind of back-up critic for our regular guy, and he often gave me art films and foreign language films to review.

For this I am hugely grateful.

It isn’t simply that foreign films are better than Hollywood films, but rather that the bad French films or Italian films are less likely to be imported and distributed in the U.S., meaning my films was pre-selected for quality.

That meant, I  got to see a better run of films than our poor movie critic.

But for times he was on vacation, or out sick, I wound up having to review some real dogs.

There have been so many first-rate foreign, indie and small films to come through town lately that it sometimes seems that a critic must have run out of stars to sprinkle from his pepper shaker.  So it should be a relief to find a dud, but it never is.

And there are so many.

earthbound humans Anyone who manages to sit through “The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human” to the end and, in a masochistic exercise, remains in the theater for the credits will see the two funniest jokes of the movie — not making too strong a claim for them. 

So you don’t have to squirm in your seat that long, I will reveal them here: First, the credit line says, ”This movie was shot entirely on location on the planet Earth,” and then the disclaimer line reads, ”No humans were harmed in the making of this movie.” 

There you have the best this sorry exercise has to offer. You can now save your money.

Or, to turn to another one:

wicker park To call “Wicker Park” glossy is an insult to the word “glossy.”  There is not a thought in its pretty little head. 

And it does look gorgeous. Shot mostly in winter, its cityscapes are as romantic as Impressionist paintings. The falling snow provides a sense of motion, even when the film is dead in the water. 

But it’s like watching a 90-minute fashion commercial, and with about as much character development.

You are grateful for good films; certainly, you would prefer that all the films you see are top-notch. Good films make your life better, richer, fuller. The only problem is that, for a critic, there are only so many words you can use to praise a film, and the praise can get a little numbing for your reader. How can you express your enthusiasm without seeming addled or hyperbolic? You put five stars at the head and hope your readers will notice.

And most films you see are neither very good, nor very bad. They are a bear to write about. What can you say? You won’t waste your money, but you won’t remember the film at all by next year.

A friend recently asked me to send her some of my old movie reviews for fun, and I scrolled through hundreds of them, and I was shocked at how many movies I saw, I wrote about, and yet I have not a single recollection of. They have evaporated.

But the truly awful movies: They are memorable. And they give the critic a chance to rev up the invective. We have suffered through you movie, so we are going to balance the karmic account by enjoying the review writing as much as we didn’t enjoy sitting in the dark theater cringing our way through the miserable offering.

ask the dust There is a long-abused, overworked and now out-of-date word to describe Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust.” 


This movie, set in Los Angeles in 1934, is as phony as a three-dollar Hollywood smile. Nothing in it rings true. Not the dialogue, not the acting, not the sets, not even the air. 

Which is too bad, considering Towne was also responsible, as writer, for the best LA-in-the-’30s movie ever, “Chinatown.”

But “Dust” fails in all the ways “Chinatown” triumphed.

It’s our revenge.

“A Home at the End of the World” was made by Warner Independent Pictures, and that pretty well sums up its strengths and weaknesses.  Warner Independent Pictures — that’s like Consolidated Amalgamated Home Made Pies Inc.

How can a gigantic multinational media conglomerate make an independent film?  Well, it can’t.

Critics are often accused of hating movies. And there are movies we hate, but critics — and it is true for me — don’t hate movies; we love movies. And so, we are heartbroken when a movie fails to live up to its potential. And more than heartbroken, we can actually get angry about it.

Because it is so unnecessary for a movie to be as bad as some of these films are.

A tin ear is a painful thing.

Not for those who have it, but for those who are asked to review its productions. 

It begins with this film’s title. Here is a story of epic sweep, recounting a heroic and desperate episode in the Mormon migrations westward into Utah. It is a tale that begs for a star like Charlton Heston, a score like “Exodus,” a cast of thousands. 

And they name it “Handcart.”

The technical name for this trope is bathos. It is a sign of tone-deafness.  But that is just the beginning. Throughout this two-hour saga, its makers manage to trivialize every point possible, turning genuinely dramatic events into cliches of cloying sentimentality and predictability.

fast food fast women

So, we have to lay our cards on the table. Wretched is wretched.

When friends and relatives rib me about being paid to watch movies for a living, I only have to point them to something like “Fast Food Fast Women” to prove that there is a cost involved. This film is payback. 

It’s one of the worst films of the year, a candidate for the Ed Wood Award for incompetent cinema. It’s that bad.

It isn’t only the cheapy films, or the exploitive films that cause this hiccup of disaffection. It is often the high-budget literary films that drive me to distraction.

house of mirth 3 If you’ve ever gotten a shirt back from the laundry with too much starch, you will have some sense of what is wrong with “House of Mirth.” It creases where it should drape. 

You might expect a movie with mirth in the title and Dan Aykroyd in the cast to be a barrel of laughs, but there is not so much as the hint of a smile in this glum period picture made from the Edith Wharton novel about New York high society in 1905. It is Wharton with all the subtlety left out. 

What is left is the worst of Masterpiece Theater: Mannequins in rich dresses moving about and pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues. 

And, oh, those lines they are forced to mouth:  “If obliquity were a vice, we would all be tainted.”

I like that line: “ pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.” It is bad movies that evoke such language.

So, yes, I have to admit, writing reviews of bad movies (as opposed to writing bad reviews — reviews badly written) is often a good deal of fun. Certainly more fun than sitting through the movie.

But there is another kind of film that elicits bad reviews. There are movies that rile up the moral indignation normally complacent when watching an entertainment medium. Some films are morally reprehensible.

I am not talking about taking political sides in a current debate, as if a pro-Arab film is somehow a bad film because of its message. I’m talking about something deeper than that.

And readers so often confuse the content of a film with the quality of the film. I never had more reaction — negative reaction — to a review I wrote than when I panned Meryl Streep’s “Music of the Heart.”

The events of the film had a good heart, good intentions. It was about teaching music to inner-city kids. This is an idea no one can argue against. But the movie was a cloying, sentimental lie, from beginning to end. I could not believe a pismire of it, despite that it was “based on real events.”

music of the heart

“Music of the Heart” is the most nakedly manipulative movie I’ve seen in years.  It yanks you around from pillar to post, trying to make you grab for the hankies, but instead, it makes you squirm in your seat. 

It means to make you feel good as you leave the theater, but take my word, the earlier you leave the theater, the better you’ll feel. There is no other word for the movie but ”phony.” Nothing in it is believable.

The kind of thing that made me cringe was the fantasy that a part-time temporary teacher in the New York City school system, now a divorcee from a Navy man, had enough money — despite complaining about her poverty in the film — to buy and renovate a New York brownstone.

When I see movies like this, I wonder what chumps the film industry takes us all for. How many final basketball games are we meant to sit through, wondering if the underdog will win? 

The Big Game in this film is a Carnegie Hall concert, meant to save the music program in the school where Streep teaches. Will they pull it off? With the help of Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt and — if they are too highbrow — Mark O’Connor? 

This is not a story; it is a ritual. But even ritual must be judged by the truth that underlies it. There is nothing in this film even remotely related to real life: And I’m not just talking about how a single-mother substitute teacher with two young boys can afford to buy and renovate a house in Manhattan, building a little bit of Yuppieville in the middle of Harlem.  No, I mean that no schoolchild ever acted like these children, no ex-husband ever acted like this one, no new boyfriend ever thought the thoughts of this one, no group of tiny fiddlers, spending the year playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in unison can turn around and instantly start playing J.S. Bach’s four-part counterpart on the stage of Carnegie Hall. 

But what can you expect when a film sets out to press every button mechanically? There is artificial pathos at every moment, from divorce through rejection into spousal abuse and drive-by shooting. 

There is even a little girl in leg braces who received inspiration from the example of Perlman. No cheap tear is avoided by director Wes Craven. 

 The film moves from one crisis into another by rote, using each to create a mini epic of schmaltz with each problem and resolution leading into the next, building to the Big Crisis at the end, with the Big Payoff.

Well, I heard squawks and squeals from all the fine and sensitive readers who thought I was disparaging the idea of teaching kids music, that somehow, I thought giving Harlem children violins and attention was a terrible thing.

I tried to make it clear in my review that I thought no such thing. Teaching is good; movie is bad. The distinction isn’t always made by civilians, for whom the mechanics of filmmaking are subliminal and the story is all that they notice.

I want, finally, to give you one whole review, entire. I was often blamed for alleged artiness, that I valued art films over entertainment. And while I certainly asked of films that they have some lasting value to the viewer — something beyond the momentary tickle of amusement — I was no fan of mere artiness.

In fact, the film that gave me the most severe moral nausea was perhaps the artiest film I ever saw, save only “Last Year at Marienbad.” It was Peter Greenaway’s “8½ Women,” which struck me as so vile and misogynistic that it gave me the equivalent of metaphysical borborygmus.

8 1:2 women

There is no one who admires art films more than I. If you have read my film criticism over the years, you already know that if it is slow, wordy and has thoughtful gazes instead of car crashes, I usually give it stars out the wazoo. 

But I have met my match. 

Peter Greenaway’s new film, “8½ Women,” is so pretentiously arty, so aridly sterile, so ponderously coy that I could barely make it through to the end.

If you’ve seen other Greenaway films – “Draughtsman’s Contract,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” “Prospero’s Books” or “The Pillow Book” – you have some idea what to expect. If you enjoyed those films, you may enjoy this. I could find neither pleasure nor intellectual stimulus. 

The film follows a 55-year-old financier and his grown son as they accumulate a harem on their Geneva estate, and then we watch as the whole thing breaks down. 

That synopsis makes it all seem more coherent than the movie does, which is elliptical to the point of cloying.

It is all told in a series of brief, enigmatic vignettes strung together like baroque pearls on a string.

  The 8½ women are not really women, and they are not really stereotypes either: What they are are embodiments of various fetishisms.

Critics have lamented Greenaway’s misogyny – I won’t belabor that point – but it isn’t simple misogyny. In fact, the women in this film don’t matter at all, one way or another. What matters are the accouterments of their individual brands of fetishism. 

In other words, while pornography objectifies women, fetishism objectifies the paraphernalia and ignores the women altogether. 

So, we have a harem including: a prostitute dressed as a nun; a woman in a business suit who makes usurious loans; a nude woman in leather body brace who loves horses and a 600-pound, enormously pink pig; a Japanese woman who wants to be a female impersonator so she can be more ”feminine”; and an amputee – the ”½” woman. 

I have no doubt that Greenaway is serious about all this. But in human hands, such a cast could create only ludicrous comedy. Unfortunately, Greenaway doesn’t have a funny bone in his body: It is all quite grave. 

Both father and son in the film are notorious narcissists, and it seems as if Greenaway is, too, but instead of navel gazing, they are staring a bit lower.

Most of the nudity is of 55-year-old John Standing, admiring his penis in a mirror.

I’ve never seen a film with this much nudity that is so unerotic. 

Giving stars to a film like this is a problem. We are supposed to take into account the intent of the film. We don’t give bad reviews to action films because they are brainless: We take into account what the film intends and whether it succeeds at it. 

Well, Greenaway intends to make a pretentiously arty film. So, should he get five stars for succeeding at making a reptilian, repulsive, boring, emetic and anaphrodisiacal yawner? 

In his press material, Greenaway says that ”it is absolutely imperative to read poetry many times” and that we need to view his films multiple times to extract the meaning from them. 

I think you’ll be a champ if you manage to make it through even once.

Kong over city

The original King Kong, released in 1933, is a movie classic in spite of itself.

Few movies have dug themselves deeper into the public subconscious, yet, by any objective standard, few movies are as badly made: Its writing is infantile, its acting wooden. Even the special effects, so innovative in the day, are now the f/x equivalent of a stagecoach.

King Kong may be the worst-made great movie of all time.

Just consider such dialogue as: “I’ve never known it to fail. Some big hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and — bang — he cracks up and goes sappy.”

It can make you cringe.

Yet the film does keep us transfixed: It may be a badly written film on purely cinematic terms, but it’s a great movie nonetheless. Great enough to be No. 43 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time.

And the fact we’re still watching the original, now on DVD — to say nothing of remaking it over and over — proves that the first giant-monkey movie had legs like few others. One wonders whether Peter Jackson’s slicker 2005 version will last as long or be as deeply loved.

The foggy gray and dangling lianas are the inner tangles of our brains, in 1933.

The foggy gray and dangling lianas are the inner tangles of our brains, in 1933.

in 2005, there is a clarity to the visuals that diminish the Longinian sublime. Better? Maybe.

in 2005, there is a clarity to the visuals that diminish the Longinian sublime. Better? Maybe.


The answer will come not from how well the film is made, nor how good its acting is or its special effects, but rather from whether the film engages us on a subconscious level: What is the movie really about?

The original Kong has supported as many interpretations as it has had viewers. The movie itself makes a case for its being a modern Beauty and the Beast.

“That’s it. Play up that angle,” moviemaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) tells reporters in the original film. “Beauty and the Beast. Kong could have stayed safe where we’d never have got him, but he couldn’t stay away from Beauty. That’s your story, boys.”

But that’s only one subtext.

For many young men who first saw the film on TV when they were adolescents, Kong is the personification of their own inchoate and newly hairy urges and unrequited loves. Kong as the great id.

To paraphrase Walt Kelly: We have seen King Kong and he is us.

There is also the Christ image of Kong onstage, crucified and manacled.

But there are other meanings: For some, the movie is an allegory of slavery. The powerful king of the island trapped and brought to the New World in chains.

Kong first look

For another camp — at least many years ago in the American South — Kong was a depiction of the threat to White womanhood by what they called the unbridled “Negro lust.”

(There is much that is racist in the film, and much to cringe over, with the minstrel-show islanders with their coconut brassieres and bone-tied hairdos. We have to overlook a lot to enjoy the film now.)

Yet, we do enjoy the film. If Kong survives in our collective consciousness, it’s because of these more dreamlike realities, these irrational and atavistic persistences, and not because of its scant dramaturgical elegances.

It speaks to our unconscious. Not our rational selves, but our dream selves.

Kong speaks to us as myth.

“Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong! The Eighth Wonder of the World!”

The impresario stands onstage in front of the giant ape. The poor beast, in his “chrome steel” chains, is both humiliated and confused.

It is the fulcrum — the central point of the original movie between two unbalanced halves: the first in the jungle and the second, shorter half in the city.

Two opposed halves with their different mythologies. Two different versions of nature that have been in conflict throughout history.

One myth of nature is that of violence and survival. Nature, red in tooth and claw, where men venture at their peril. This is nature as the Big Thing, inside of which humankind is the little thing. Nature that inspires fear. Jaws.

Kong on beach

But at odds with this, in the old King Kong, is Rousseau’s vision of nature as innocent and pure, caught in a world made corrupt by the machinations of human beings. In this version, nature is the source of the unsullied good; human society the source of all that is evil.

Kong is paradoxically both these visions at once: the powerful force of nature, but also the innocent caught in a world not of his making.

It is not likely that Kong’s original makers, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Ernest Shoedsack or Willis O’Brien, ever had anything so profound in mind. They almost certainly just wanted to make a “swell picture” that would scare the willies out of us and make lots of money for RKO.

But art is often better than its makers intended, and Kong is Exhibit A.

This conflicted myth is the central power of the movie. The film manages to fuse both visions of man and nature into a single tragic image.

King Kong didn’t invent the basic plot: The silent film Lost World set the paradigm. But it, with its great unthinking dinosaur captured and brought to London, doesn’t give its beast the humanity that Kong gave the great ape.

And the many followups, from The Giant Behemoth (ever seen a small behemoth?) or Gorgo don’t maintain the wattage of their ancestor. The bottom of the barrel may be Reptilicus.

No, wait. That honor goes to the Dino De Laurentiis abomination, the 1976 remake of King Kong. The less said of it, the better.

Jackson’s remake is infinitely more cinematic than either the original or the De Laurentiis monster, and Naomi Watts, in particular, is no-contest a better actress than Fay Wray. The newest film has its points. But it is too knowing, and can never quite scratch the mythological itch that Cooper and Schoedsack did.


The only respectable colleague of the 1933 King Kong is the Japanese version of Godzilla (Gojira), which hits those low, plummy mythological notes, and maybe hits them a little closer to home, especially for those Japanese civilians who lived through the Second World War. As metaphor, Godzilla, with its brilliant, depressed score by Akira Ifukube, is as direct as parable. Everyone should see the original, sans Raymond Burr.

The two films, Kong and Godzilla, show the power that may reside in popular entertainment that embodies deep myth. Modern filmmakers have it all over for style. But style isn’t what ultimately counts. Even badly made films can hit the bullseye. For that, the original is still king, and no pretender can claim the throne.


Barbarella group

Forty-five years  ago, Jane Fonda  got naked in outer space.

That zero-G striptease is all that most people know about Barbarella,  a movie that opened in October 1968  and was seen at the time as the worst kind of cheese.

“A mix of poor special effects and the Marquis de Sade,” one reviewer said.

And that is the reputation it has been saddled with ever since.

But the movie, directed by French Svengali Roger Vadim  and made for a pittance, has an odd staying power: Many of its scenes are memorable the way a Mozart melody is. Whether it is Pygar the blind angel, the eye-patch Evil Queen — the “Great Tyrant” —  or the psychedelic “Mathmos”  — a kind of molten id-lava that flows under the city — the film sticks in the mind like a particularly disturbing dream.

English and original French comic book versions of "Barbarella" with scene from film.

English and original French comic book versions of “Barbarella” with scene from film.

“A dream we dreamt with our eyes open,” as Fellini  says.

If you look at it purely objectively, Barbarella is a really bad movie. The dialog is campy. The acting is either wooden or, if you are feeling generous, stylized. The plot wouldn’t hold a Flash Gordon  serial together.

The costumes are polyester and scanty. Even the sets are comically shoddy: Barbarella’s space ship is covered up the walls with orange shag carpeting and even the exteriors, like the Forests and Lakes of Weir,  or the Labyrinth of the City of Evil,  have the claustrophobia of a cheap soundstage. Special effects are not much more advanced than a lava lamp.

The Mathmos

The Mathmos

Yet, none of that ultimately matters. Like a small cache of sister films, Barbarella transcends its tawdry birth because it gives us dream-memorable scenes. The parts are greater than the whole.

“A film is a ribbon of dreams,” Orson Welles  said. “The camera … is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret.”

One shouldn’t be too portentous about such things, but the history of cinema is littered with bad movies that are too memorable to die. Like advertising jingles you can’t stop hearing in your head, they just stick.

Think of King Kong (1933).  Its acting is wooden, its writing jejune, yet it is one of Hollywood’s greatest classics. On any objective level, the movie is awful – every time Bruce Cabot  opens his mouth, you cringe – yet those scenes with the big monkey have buried themselves in our collective unconscious. The movie is great not because it is a finished work of art, but because it connects directly to our psyches like a dream you can’t understand, but know is meaningful.

The majority of great bad movies are science fiction or horror films. This shouldn’t be surprising, after all fear has a more driven imagination than hope.

It is what makes 1950s’ monster films such an instantly recognizable genre.

Our fear of nuclear annihilation is given vent in fighting giant ants, spiders or iguanas; our fear of the Soviet Union shows in the number of Martian invaders.

But the list isn’t limited to Them!The Angry Red PlanetThe Crawling Eye  or Things to Come. For it isn’t only a B-movie thing. Mainstream Hollywood schlock can lodge in our collective brains, too, like the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes  or the spinning head of Linda Blair,  spewing invective and vomit in The Exorcist.

The value of such films is not in their thin plots and narrative contrivances, but in those brief scenes that traumatize us. They are straight from our id and are burned into our memory like a cattle brand.

Think of Freddie Krueger  pushing the girl around the ceiling in Nightmare on Elm Street,  or the flaming Plymouth chasing the teenager down the road in Christine.

Or Rae Dawn Chong  teaching the missionary position to the Neanderthal in Quest for Fire.

All of them have left the confines of their movies to become part of our common mythic inheritance.

Barbarella is full of such mental peanut butter to stick to the roof of our brains. Before Barbarella, did you know that angels built nests? That flying manta rays could pull sleds? That you could be killed by a mechanically induced excess of pleasure? That the mathmos could rise and devour us all in a colorful burp of lava lamp?


Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea) tries to kill Barbarella in the "Excessive Machine."

Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) tries to kill Barbarella in the “Excessive Machine.”

Despite its candy-color design scheme and its stretched polyethylene see-through sets, Barbarella overflows with unforgettable detail. But that isn’t all it has.

Barbarella has one claim to uniqueness. It is a camp film all the way.

Writer Susan Sontag defined camp in a famous 1964 essay as a style that emphasizes artifice, frivolity, and shocking excess, among other things.

You couldn’t find a better description of Barbarella.

More important, she said, “You can’t do camp on purpose.” It cannot be made to order; it bubbles up from the sincerity of lesser talent. Camp cannot know it is camp.

Yet Barbarella may be the exception that proves the rule. By all appearances, it was meant to be read as camp, and yet, it still functions well as camp, unlike all the other films from the era that tried so hard to be hip and with-it, but now only seem as dated as bell bottoms.

The reason must be found with its maker, Roger Vadim.  A minor-league filmmaker, Vadim was the creator of Brigitte Bardot,  whose most famous film, And God Created Woman (1956),  managed to transform her into a “sex kitten,” the neotonic French Marilyn Monroe. Vadim’s Bardot films are filled with memorable scenes, mostly coy and erotic, but none rises to the level of great cinema. When he was done with her, he tried his star-making power on Jane Fonda;  he also married her. Their films together, including her 1964  remake of the great Arthur Schnitzler  play, La Ronde,  were entertaining, but mediocre at best.

But sometimes, when you put a mediocre mind to work on a mediocre idea, something clicks. With Barbarella, Vadim could create a camp world sincerely, because he believed in it, but without the self-consciousness that ruins most trendy films of the time. His esthetic level and the camp level meet perfectly, with neither aspiration nor condescension to upset the balance.

Perhaps that is why the proposed remake of Barbarella, by super-hip cinemaker  Robert Rodriguez,  went nowhere. Rodriguez is too knowing a filmmaker. Barbarella works on the thin, slippery edge between sincerity and irony, a place too small for a large talent like Rodriguez to find foothold.

Worse, he proposed to use Rose McGowan in the title role, and she is prima facie the wrong actress to play the part: too smart, too sophisticated, too knowing. All wrong.

Other actresses run up the flagpole include Scarlett Johansen, Carey Mulligan and Anne Hathaway. You have to scratch your heads.

When Rodriguez gave up on it, the rights were bought by Dino de Laurentiis, before his death in 2010. His widow is now set to produce the new version. The de Laurentiis name on a film is the kiss of death. Remember King Kong of 1976?

Fay Wray (1933) and Jessica Lange (1976), best forgotten.

Fay Wray (1933) and Jessica Lange (1976), best forgotten.

The new Barbarella would ostensibly be a TV series, perhaps for French TV, perhaps in English.

Don’t hold your breath. Like the original King Kong, it was done right the first time.