Vanity Fear

A Pretentious A**hole's Guide to B-Movie Bullsh*t

Like many of my more painful experiences, it all began because I had 15 minutes to kill.  I had plans to meet up with my friends Carol and Dwight for a night of dinner and conversation, but I arrived at our meeting spot early and decided to pass the time by walking over to the used book store across the street.  I wasn’t inside the store for more than 20 seconds when I spotted a large format soft-cover book that I remembered from my days checking out every movie-related title the local library had in its system, but my initial reaction wasn’t one of nostalgia, but rather the loathing of betrayal.  Imagine the emotions a devout Christian feels when he runs into the pastor of his former church who stole all his money and ran away with his wife and you’d have a good idea of the sensation that came over me.

As a kid who was drawn to the world of Hollywood’s bastard stepchildren in the same era his peers were getting busy learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons, coveting the ninja weapons advertised in the back pages of martial arts magazines and drooling over posters of Heather Thomas, the four books by the Brothers Medved offered the best entry into the world of cinematic failure, largely because so few other alternatives existed.  

Between 1979 and 1986, they published The 50 Worst Films of All Time (co-authored with Randy Dreyfus), The Golden Turkey Awards, Son of the Golden Turkey Awards and The Hollywood Hall of Shame, the first two resulting in the 1982 box office bomb It Came From Hollywood, in which clips from bad movies were juxtaposed with embarrassingly awful comedy skits featuring Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner and Cheech & Chong (to their credit the Medved’s rightfully included the film in The Hollywood Hall of Shame).  Before the existence of the internet, these four books were the first place young enthusiasts such as myself went to in order to learn about the films and directors that are all enshrined in the bad movie pantheon.  These books taught me all about William “One Shot” Beaudine, who never met a first take he didn’t like; educated me in the history of African-American comedian Willie Best, who Bob Hope once named one of the finest talents he ever worked with and who started his career billed under the unconscionably racist stage name of Sleep’n’Eat; made me dream of the day I could see Blackenstein and introduced me to the man they judged to be the worst director of all time—Edward D. Wood, Jr.

In fact one could argue that Wood’s fame today owes far more to the Medveds than it does to any of his subsequent biographers—his reputation as the greatest example of a failed auteur comes almost entirely from his inclusion in their second book and has never faded despite the discovery of many directors whose failures proved just as uniquely memorable and spectacular (Harold P. Warren anybody?).

But for all of their value as an introduction to this rather perverse field of study, the Medved books all had a dark side that became more evident as the kids who read them grew up.  These were not books that were written out of affection for their subject, but instead a snotty, self-congratulatory disdain.  The more you read their books, the more you realized that Harry and Michael didn’t love bad movies, they hated them.  This became more obvious as Michael went on to become a well-known television movie reviewer, co-hosting Sneak Previews with Jeffery Lyons.

A religious man who wore his family values conservatism on his sleeve, he made no bones about the fact that he only approved of films that celebrated his own personal ideology—dismissing anything that he believed represented the evils of Hollywood liberalism.  Eventually, he gave up film criticism to become a pundit and radio talk show host, where he can always be counted on to slam what he considers to be the decadence of mainstream society while also penning essays that take the somewhat controversial stance of arguing that slavery wasn’t as bad as America-hating liberals make it out to be.

It was for this reason that I shocked myself when I decided to pick up the used copy of their second book (The Golden Turkey Awards) and took it to the counter and paid $9.95 to add it to my collection.  At the time I really had no idea what was compelling me to buy a book I knew I hated and it was only until I got it home later that evening that I realized the reason why.  

Not too long ago I shared with all of you my revolutionary Linda Blair Anomaly Quantum Film Theory, in which I hypothesized the existence of an alternative universe inverse to our own based on the fact that one of my favourite b-movie actresses remains best known for what I consider to be her worst and most over-rated film.  In the course of proving my hypothesis I discussed that film’s much-maligned sequel and mentioned how in several books I read during my childhood it was discussed as being one of the worst films ever made.  When I opened up The Golden Turkey Awards, I immediately realized that it was one of the books I was talking about.  Based on votes submitted by readers of the Medveds first book, The Golden Turkey Awards judged Exorcist II: The Heretic to be the second worst movie ever made, following only the infamous Plan Nine From Outer Space.

Because they were the clear winners of the Medveds’ poll, these two films each earned their own chapters in the book, while the 15 runners up were listed in this box:

And it was seeing this list that reminded me why I am always annoyed to the point of irrational (when you consider how trivial the subject is) anger by such attempts to determine “The Worst” or “The Best” of “All Time” (or “Ever Made” or “In History”, etc), especially when the construction of the list is left to the hands of the public at large.

Back when I was a teenager, I—like many kids who wore their angst as a badge of honour—took the music I listened to very seriously, which also meant—naturally, considering my love for the filmmaking arts—that I was equally grave about the videos used to advertise that music.  That was why I was very interested when MuchMusic (the Canadian equivalent of MTV) decided to spend a weekend honouring “The Best Music Videos of All Time” as chosen by the men and women who had programmed the channel since it debut.  Like all such lists their choices were open to debate, but they did an excellent job of highlighting videos from the entire (albeit short) history of the genre, taking pains to honor both the legendary and the obscure.  Their only serious fuck-up was placing Guns & Roses “Don’t Cry” at the very top of the list, but even this wasn’t entirely unforgivable (as cheesy as it was, one had to admit that it was a powerful and epic kind of cheesiness).

Unfortunately this all changed the following year, when the channel decided to repeat the experiment (thus negating the whole “All Time” aspect of the endeavor), but this time allowed viewers to compose the list by voting for their own personal favourite videos.  With that single decision a reasonable, well thought out and historically appropriate list was replaced with a hilariously awful alternative that featured virtually no videos released more than three years earlier and whose top 10 was composed almost entirely of New Kids on the Block singles (ironically, though, “Don’t Cry” still came out on top).  

The people had spoken and proven that they didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about.
Looking at the list of 17 movies the Medveds’ readers had judged to be “The Worst Films of All Time” I saw clear evidence of the same enervating phenomenon.  To take it seriously would force a person to conclude that the period between 1975 and 1978 represented the worst three years in cinematic history since—according to the list—11 of the 17 worst movies of all-time were released during that time (two years before the book’s publication in 1980).  The only other alternative is to assume that rather than make a serious effort to determine the worst film in the history of the cinematic arts, the people who sent in their choices (by traditional mail mind you) simply voted for the worst film they remembered seeing recently.   In so doing they managed to ignore the 70 years of film history that preceded their present decade and proved nothing more than their own ignorance and weak memories.

In even the absolute best cases the clear fault of such lists is that they attempt to apply an exact measurement to a subjective experience—determining the “best” or the “worst” of artistic works whose pleasures and deficiencies affect each individual viewer in different and entirely personal ways.  But at least when such lists are composed by a group of educated experts, one can feel satisfied that every attempt has been made to judge the medium fairly and make choices that represent the entire range of history, rather than any particular era.  When, however, the composition of the list is left to anyone who chooses to take part—regardless of their level of knowledge—the result inevitably focuses on experiences people immediately remember rather than ones they might have to think back a bit to recall.  

For further proof of this one need only look at Entertainment Weekly’s recent online list of The 25 Worst Sequels of All Time.  Since actually reading the list requires you to navigate through a series of pages, I’ll post the list in its entirety right here:

1. Staying Alive (1983)
2. Caddyshack II (1988)
3. Leprechaun: Back 2 tha’ Hood (2003)
4. Blues Brothers 2000 (1998)
5. Batman & Robin (1997)
6. Weekend at Bernie’s II (1993)
7. The Fly II (1989)
8. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
9. Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)
10. Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
11. Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004)
12. The Phantom Menace (1999)
13. The Sting II (1983)
14. Conan the Destroyer (1984)
15. Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003)
16. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
17. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
18. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
19. Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise (1987)
20. The Godfather Part III (1990)
21. Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003)
22. Teen Wolf Too (1987)
23. Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983)
24. The Next Karate Kid (1994)
25. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

EW’s list represents a more recent phenomenon that has become popular in the age of the Internet.  Unlike the Medved’s list, which involved thousands of participants, this example was composed by one person—a writer named Chris Nashawaty—but was still presented by the magazine’s website as a definitive list, rather than just one man’s (apparently limited) opinion.  Looking at it one immediately appreciates that Nashawaty is a child of the 80s and 90s, based on the lone title from a decade in which Madonna had yet to become relevant (the entirely harmless Battle for the Planet of the Apes).  In his introduction Nashawaty attempts to justify his decision to focus solely on the past three decades by insisting that outside of a few Thin Man films and a handful of other B-movie series, sequels didn’t exist before the 80s—a declaration that essentially proves that either a) Nashawaty doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about or (more likely) b) he had to come up with the list quickly and decided to simply name a bunch of movies he remembered watching in his family living room growing up.

But—beyond it annoying the sweet holy fuck out of me—the reason I chose to select this particular effort out of the thousands of similar lists available on websites/blogs online is the complete absence of a specific sequel—one that just 27 years earlier (admittedly a period probably longer than Nashawaty has been alive) was named by thousands of Medved readers as the second worst movie of all time.  Nowhere in EW’s list do you see:

How Exorcist II: The Heretic managed to avoid Nashawaty’s pointy finger of mockery is unknown.  It’s possible that he simply doesn’t consider it to be as bad as contemporary moviegoers judged it to be when it was originally released or (much, much more likely) he hasn’t actually seen it and having pre-dated his personal cinematic experience it never appeared in his head as he began to compose the list.

Actually, the only thing I do appreciate about Nashawaty’s list is that it is obviously composed of film’s he has actually seen.  I may disagree with the validity of many of his choices (especially Ocean’s Twelve-—a film whose negative critical reputation baffles me to this day) but at least I can tell that he didn’t include any films he hasn’t himself watched, which is more than I can say for the asshole who wrote the following passage in a list of 5 misbegotten horror movie sequels that appeared in a book published in 2005:

1) The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977): Personally I think William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973)
is the single most overrated horror film of all time, but even it deserved better than this.  It is a
mystical mumbo-jumbo that at times seemed to be designed as a cure for the very worst case of

Yes, as you so perceptively guessed, I am the asshole responsible for that passage, which I wrote despite the fact that it would be another two and a half years before I actually sat down and watched the movie I so glibly dismissed.  In this case I had a deadline looming over my head and a desperate need to pad my wordcount up to an acceptable 60,000 words.  To that end I inserted a series of “Good/Bad” lists at the end of each chapter (choosing to forgo the more traditional “Best/Worst” template), but found myself stuck between wanting to express my own personal opinion, while also providing a clear look at the popular consensus.  In wanting to do that I found myself occasionally obligated to include movies I had yet to see, judging them not on my own personal experience, but rather by the majority opinion I had encountered.  If I could go back and do it again, I would have definitely done it differently, but that’s pretty much true for all of my books at this point.

So, yes, I am a hypocrite, but a repentant one.  As my penance, I'll wrap up this extremely self-indulgent screed by entertaining you with my favourite sequence from the severely under-rated Ocean’s Twelve-—which just so happens to be the exact same sequence Chris Nashawaty singles out as a reason for the film to merit inclusion on his list: