“So bad, it’s good” cinema is on the rise, as evidenced by new websites (RiffTrax), books (Showgirls, Teenwolves, and Astro Zombies), and podcasts (How Did This Get Made?) that have been created during the past decade to meet demand from a growing fan base. It may seem like an inaccessible medium, or even a fruitless endeavor to watch them, but bad films often make for great viewing experiences. The following 25 are some of the best to start with. They all share the four, following qualities.
a. The essential bad film is genuine
“B movies” filled with rubber-suited baddies don’t usually qualify. Sharknado (2013), so self-aware, is constantly winking at the audience as if to say, “Hey, look at how silly I am.” Compare Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010) and the cash-in sequel, Birdemic 2: The Resurrection (2013). The first film, as Variety magazine put it, “was one of those rare instances of filmic ineptitude so distinctive it could pass as inspired folk art,” and the second one never quite captured that same naive magic.
b. Bad movies shatter expectations
In Superman IV: A Quest for Peace (1987), the stupidity is an ever-growing tidal wave. Superman speaks in the vacuum of space. He pieces together the Great Wall of China with his laser eyes. He even pushes the Moon out of orbit to get the upper-hand in a fight. As the film progresses, a horrified resignation washes over the audience – “Yes, he just did that. And in two minutes, something even more ridiculous will happen.” Essential bad movies are some of the most edge-of-the-seat experiences a movie-lover can have.
c. They are raw and intact
Popular movies are like hot dogs. Whatever they once were has been mangled, sliced, and reconstituted into an easily identifiable form that, above all else, sells tickets. They are formulaic, sometimes literally so, as Slate reported in their story on “Save the Cat!,” a 2005 screenwriting book that seemingly is responsible for creating, down to the minute, almost every blockbuster of the past decade. Meanwhile, an essential bad film is rarely accused of sticking to formula or convention.
d. A bad movie is an event
It is too good to keep to oneself. It must be shared! Fans of The Room (2003), Troll 2 (1990), and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) bring props, memorize lines, wear costumes, and yell at the screen. The more people watching an essential bad movie, the better. They are a license to let loose. No shushing. No throat-clearing. No passively falling asleep. A essential bad movie engages everyone who sees it.
Here are the 25 best so-bad-it’s-good films in the history of cinema.
25. Hercules in New York (1969)
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first acting roles were limited by a.) his acting and b.) his inability to speak English well. That didn’t stop Director Arthur A. Seidelman from casting the bodybuilding superstar in this fish-out-water adventure about the Greek god Hercules, who travels to New York out of boredom.
Not content to have his film anchored by an Austrian newcomer, Seidelman credited Schwarzenegger as Arnold “Strong” and also dubbed all of his lines, creating an Arnold that has (literally) never been heard before or since. There are currently two versions of the film circulating – an original that is English aristocrat Arnold, and a second, that was released later with the actor’s muddle dialogue intact.
Favorite Scene: Hercules, traveling through Central Park with his love, spots a man in a bear costume. The most ridiculous bear brawl outside of a Nic Cage film ensues, lasting a full minute with over 50 punches thrown, most of those by the flailing man-bear.
24. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola’s old-school portrayal of the classic horror novel, “Dracula,” is the most manic adaptation to date, joyously transitioning between bloody, Gothic horror to over-the-top posturing. “Zany” is infrequently used to describe horror, but this film fits the bill. Throughout, the viewer can sense that right off-screen, Coppola was just screaming, “Bigger! Bigger! No, wait, now meek and tiny! Small!”
Anthony Hopkins portrays Abraham Van Helsing as a mystical, split-personality hobo; Tom Waits gives gleefully unhinged monologues as Renfield (“The flies! The life!”), and Keanu Reeves, conversely, anchors the whole thing by giving his most wooden performance as the lead love interest, Jonathan Harker. He even earned himself a nod from Time magazine for having one of the worst 10 accents in all of film history. For the record, it was British.
Favorite Scene: Van Helsing realizes that he is chasing after Dracula and starts cackling, which transitions to him cackling and bouncing in a different place. After he raunchily dances with Quincy the cowboy, all while screaming about how “precious Lucy” has become “the bitch of the devil,” he shifts into a deadly serious tone, demanding that the men steel themselves. Then? More cackling. Is he a lunatic? Is he a savior? In Dracula, he is par for the course.
23. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)
This film school project, which took Director George Barry five years to complete, posits that a bed, originally crafted for a sex ritual, gets a demon’s blood on it, becomes sentient, and then learns telepathy. Oh, and it snores, which as The AV Club points out, “leaves one to ponder the metaphysical paradox of a bed sleeping on itself.” When a group of plucky 20-somethings find Death Bed in an abandoned mansion, well … eating ensues.
Death Bed had no official release until 2004, but a rough cut had been circulating for decades. Shortly after the official DVD release, Comedian Patton Oswalt highlighted the film in his “Werewolves and Lollipops” CD, suggesting that the mere existence of the film was incomprehensible and had prompted him to pen a script named, “Rape Stove: The Stove That Rapes People.”
Favorite Scene: Death Bed dissolves an apple (somehow leaving a core and bite marks behind), a bucket of chicken, and drinks some wine all before eating the couple that is having sex on top of it.
22. 9 Deaths of the Ninja (1985)
An American strike-force featuring an explosives expert (Brett Huff), a beautiful agent (Emilia Crow) and a futuristic ninja (Sho Kosugi) are sent to the Philippines to rescue a busload of school children that have been captured by Alby the Cruel, a wheelchair-bound, German drug kingpin with a militant lesbian bodyguard. Blackie Dammett, who played Alby, is also the father of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ singer, Anthony Keidis. According to Keidis’ biography, Dammett was making more money selling drugs than he was acting during this production. It helps to explain his performance.
Nine Deaths also features lots of peculiar set pieces – a little people brawl, a scuba fight that ends with Spike Shinobi (Kosugi) pulling the bikini-top off of his female assailant, and a meandering, inexplicable helicopter ride/assassination. Yet, the surest sign that 9 Deaths is a hysterically bad movie is external. Its production company, Cannon Films, is the same place responsible for The Apple (1980), Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984), and Masters of the Universe (1987) – some of the worst movies ever made.
Favorite Scene: Shinobi is attacked by four little people in tuxedos while visiting a fancy resort, one of whom has no teeth and makes really weird faces. The ninja triumphs by spinning them in circles, making them dizzy, holding them out of arms reach while they attempt to punch him in the groin, and by picking them up and shaking them violently before dropping them on the ground.
21. Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
Christopher Lambert returns as Scottish highlander/immortal Connor MacLeod, but this time in a dystopian future where pollution has become so bad that humanity put up a shield to protect itself from solar radiation. Sean Connery’s Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez also returns, despite having died in the first film, and together – the immortals fight General Katana (Michael Ironside) and a host of evil, corporate suits, hellbent on profiting from the Earth’s sorry atmosphere.
The production was a controversial affair that went far over budget with a script that, according to Ironside, was universally reviled by cast and crew. Director Russell Mulcahy was even locked out of his own editing booth and famously walked out of the premiere. Despite (or perhaps because of) these missteps, the film has become a celebrated disaster. In particular, the lack of accents in the film is worth highlighting, with Connery playing a Spaniard and Lambert (whose first language is French) playing a Scot. Of course, neither of those character even attempts their supposed accent. Ramirez’s Spanish-ness is further muddled in his final scene, where a bag pipe dirge plays over his exit.
Favorite Scene: In a random episode that never figures into the overall story, Gen. Katana commandeers a subway train, accelerates it to over 700 mph, and then crashes it into a stone wall. Passengers fly across the screen in terror, but no one dies. Even the stone wall remains largely unscathed.
20. Santa with Muscles (1996)
Health guru Blake Thorn (Hulk Hogan), dresses as Santa Claus to hide from the police and accidentally falls down a garbage chute in a local mall. The fall gives him amnesia, and he is duped into believing that he is the REAL Santa Claus by a conniving store worker who is also dressed as an elf. Thorn later tries to save an orphanage after learning that Scientist Ebner Frost (Ed Begley, Jr.) is plotting to buy the property and use it for mining of a harmful chemical.
If the plot sounds convoluted, fear not – it is mere window-dressing for the meat of the film – continuity errors, logical fallacies, great lines, and Hogan’s poor acting. This was also Mila Kunis’ cinematic debut.
Favorite Scene: Thorn, as Santa Claus, gets into a fistfight with two goons who are trying to steal his bag of presents. One pedestrian yells, “Watch out! He’s got a candy cane.” Non-lethal weapons are a theme throughout the movie that could easily be turned into a game by anyone watching.
19. Navy Seals (1990)
A team of US Navy Seals search for two downed chopper pilots who were captured by terrorists in the Middle East, and in process, they find a large weapons cache of Stinger missiles. Unable to destroy the cache initially, the seal team spends the rest of the film training, goofing off, and finally taking down the terrorists. Despite hitting similar beats as Top Gun (1986) and Young Guns (1988) before it, Navy Seals is a master-class on tone-deafness, one that operates more successfully as a spoof of 80s action than actually achieving it.
Favorite Scene: The hardened Navy Seals let loose on a public (seemingly abandoned) golf course, chasing each other with golf carts, jousting, falling over, goosing one another and pretending to play pool. Some are shirtless. Some take the same shot over and over again. And most remarkably, it is all choreographed to look like the mayhem is actually a dance set to Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” Strangely, this is mere minutes before one of the central characters dies.
18. Street Fighter (1994)
Col. Guile (Van Damme), along with a host of other characters from the video game, try to bring down the empire of Bison (Raul Julia), who is demanding a ransom but also plotting to build his own resort, complete with its own money (Bison Dollars). It is a truly ridiculous story that is only made more insane by the performances (see Van Damme’s “rousing” speech to his troops) and the haphazard fight scenes, which were mostly made up on the spot by the actors themselves, according to the first-time director.
Street Fighter is one of those bad movies made essential as much by what happens on-screen as off-screen, however. Between Jean Claude Van Damme’s cocaine addiction, extramarital affair with co-star Kylie Minogue, Raul Julia’s last battle with stomach cancer, and a production that was perpetually changing, it is a marvel that the film is even remotely coherent in the first place. Interested readers can study up with this fantastic article: “Street Fighter: The Movie – What Went Wrong.”
Favorite Scene: Bison, in an attempt to blow up Col. Guile’s approaching speedboat, pulls out an arcade joystick and starts playing a “game” where he detonates mines in the river. Eventually, Bison (played maniacally by Julia) gives up on poise and simply starts smashing the controller with his fists, blowing up all of the mines. It is a funny reference to amateur fighting game players, who are denounced as “button mashers,” but it is an even more exciting scene to watch because Julia sincerely gives the performance his all.