5. Staying Alive (1983)
Staying Alive was the beginning of the end for John Travolta. He was a superstar off the strength of Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978), and he even had the smarts to turn down a glorified cameo in the turkey that was Grease 2 (1982). But karma was out to get him, and it struck with a vengeance in 1983 when Travolta and director Sylvester Stallone teamed up for this saturday night fever dream that would up a synth-pop nightmare.
To its credit, Staying Alive isn’t a film that pulls a bait and switch fifteen minutes in; it’s terrible from the second it hits the screen. After the events of Fever, womanizing goofball Tony Manero (Travolta) moves to Manhattan to pursue his dream of becoming a dancer, but as the loafer light title credits show, this isn’t exactly disco. The Manero adored by movie fans everywhere is replaced with a John Rambo stuntman who fancies himself the next Gene Kelly – Kurtwood Smith’s face of disapproval pretty much says it all.
Travolta reportedly worked out with Stallone and bulked up for the role, but they might’ve been better off working on the script, which views like cliff notes of the original. Tony has a girl (Cynthia Rhodes) who adores him, but he falls for a girl (Finola Hughes) that’s using him, and so on, until the climactic “Satan’s Alley” show on Broadway(!?).
A show that goes on for so long it starts to feel like Stallone’s mad at his audience and using an oiled up Travolta as his instrument of torture. His direction is gawky, superficial, and quite possibly in the record books for using the most dance montages in one film. By the time Tony struts down the boulevard to the title tune a la the original, it feels like a polyester slap in the face. Roger Ebert said it best: “That could’ve been the first shot of a great movie. It’s the last shot of this one.”
Defining Terrible Moment: The spectacularly bad Broadway finale, where Travolta pirouettes his way through a Queen video gone horribly wrong.
4. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
The Exorcist (1973) was a tremendous success in Hollywood, prompting director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty to preemptively voice their disinterest in making a sequel.
Naturally, Warner Bros. couldn’t have cared less about either man’s inclusion, and handed the reins over to filmmaker John Boorman, whose resume included classics like Point Blank (1967) and Deliverance (1972). The idea was to capitalize on unused footage from the first film and work in returning cast members Linda Blair and Max von Sydow for a more psychological approach to the horror genre.
Unfortunately, the only horror coming through is from the realization that “psychological” was studio code for “boring.” The Heretic centers around Father Philip Lamont (Richard Burton), who is assigned to investigate the case of Regan MacNeil (Blair) and her possession four years earlier. After that, the plot spins out of control faster than Regan’s neck in the original, mashing hypnosis, locusts, and international travel into a movie that barely holds together.
Blair gives it her best, as does von Sydow in his brief appearance, but the performances from the rest of the cast are appalling. Burton’s Father Lamont is a particular scream, fumbling around with a permanent face of fright that looks like he just watched Exorcist II: The Heretic on repeat.
By the time the film’s confusing finale arrives, the glee of potentially seeing a possessed Regan is sidestepped by a double who does her best to look dissimilar to Linda Blair. Not only does The Heretic tease over 90 minutes of mind-numbing stupidity, but it can’t even deliver the cheap thrills promised by a rehash of unseen footage. It seems as though Boorman was possessed by a spirit who wasn’t very good at making movies. God only knows what the studio was thinking when they crafted this demonic slice of trash; such a story would view more intriguing than the actual film.
Defining Terrible Moment: Father Lamont landing on a bed of nails in the midst of a faith based fever dream. It’s a pain that pretty accurately sums up this cheap studio cash-in.
3. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Christopher Reeve was a terrific guy and a perfect Superman, so it’s a shame his reign as the world’s greatest hero came to a close with the stupid hunk of kryptonite that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Reeve, who only took the part to finance a passion project, is still charming as Kal-El and his alter ego Clark Kent, but even he is unable to avoid the blame this time, having supplied the script with its cheesy premise of battling nuclear war across the globe.
A premise, regrettably, that allows Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) to show off his idiot nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer) and make an electrically bronzed baddie that sounds like Hackman on testosterone .
Nearly a decade removed from the wondrous beauty of the original Superman (1978), Quest for Peace is a decline of epic proportions. It’s pretty depressing to see Hackman, Margot Kidder, and Jackie Cooper return in roles that succeed in only dumbing down their one engaging characters, while listening to Cryer’s A.D.H.D. accent is akin to cauterizing an eardrum.
The story exemplifies preachiness perfectly, and never for a moment does the threat against Superman seem interesting or even believable. Mark Pillow gained and lost a career in the span of his appearance as Nuclear Man, embodying the cliché of a generic villain like few other men in history – nuclear or otherwise.
Cannon Films, the B-movie studio behind such lowbrow fare as the Missing In Action series, inherited the franchise mantle after Warner Bros. struck out with Superman III (1983). Hoping they could resurrect the series within their monetary constraints, director Sidney J. Furie cobbled together this 88 minutes with roughly a quarter the budget of the originals, and Jor-El Almighty does it show.
The flying scenes mine as well be George Reeves from the 50’s TV show, while providing evidence that humans can apparently breath in outer space just fine. Add in an some heat vision culinary and Clark Kent doing aerobics, and The Quest for Peace ultimately becomes The Rest in Peace of the Superman franchise.
Defining Terrible Moment: Nuclear Man flexes his atomic power by… making Lenny uncontrollably breakdance? Made even worse by Cryer’s incessant mumbling.
2. Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)
Action movies aren’t known for their thought-provoking content or illustrious acting – they operate under the simple template of an exciting lead, a clever gimmick, and memorable action sequences. 1994’s Speed had all that and then some, aided by a charming Keanu Reeves, an unstoppable bus, and a handful of iconic moments spread through its swift runtime.
But Speed 2, appropriately subtitled Cruise Control, manages to commit the cardinal sin of mainstream action and miss every single criteria needed to even be entertaining. It’s a bomb bigger than the one villain Willem Dafoe pretends to plant on the titular ship.
Annie (Sandra Bullock) is now dating LAPD officer Alex Shaw (Jason Patric), who somehow hides the fact he’s a SWAT team member until she crashes into him during a driving test. To compensate, Shaw immediately whisks her away on some vacation cruise where a nutcase (Dafoe) with a suitcase takes control of the ship and drives it towards an oil tanker – or something.
It’s lame. The story isn’t even clear with its objective, making any potential suspense drown with the ship’s dumbfounded captain. The set pieces barely qualify in a definitive sense, and aren’t even close to qualifying when it comes to excitement or memorability. Jan de Bont, who proved he could do disaster justice with the original film and 1996’s Twister, directs like he’s trying to close up shop early, and skims only the most superficial of readings from any one moment onscreen.
The cast clearly doesn’t help matters, as Bullock becomes a whiny victim and Patric succumbs to the most boring lead performance in the history of summer blockbusters. It’s painfully obvious that the studio had Keanu in mind for the part, and Patric’s strengths as an actor are just not in this arena – at all. Speed 2 was rightfully thrown to the sharks as the definition of an awful action movie, but thanks to the number one entry on this list, it’s not even the worst sequel of 1997.
Defining Terrible Moment: Shaw hops onto a barely tethered lifeboat in what’s sure to be a nominee for “The Most Underwhelming Action Stunts of All Time” list.
1. Batman & Robin (1997)
Given the exorbitant amount of “terribles” and “awfuls” already used elsewhere on this list, the number one film deserves vocabulary that fits the crime. Directed by Joel Schumacher, who has a solid resume otherwise, 1997’s Batman & Robin is the magnum opus of appalling sequels.
It goes out of its way to strive so low in creativity that only a talented filmmaker could make something this jaw-droppingly low on the IQ scale of film. It cherry picks the worst elements of the already bad Batman Forever (1995) and blows them up to atomic levels of repugnancy. It also hosts some of the worst scriptwriting and acting found in any movie, sequel or not.
Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) continue to protect Gotham from the bad guys and purveyors of good puns. Then Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) shows up with his ice gun, Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) with her innuendo, and Bane (Robert “Jeep” Swenson) with his…grunting.
Naturally, that’s not enough for only one movie, so Alfred’s niece (Alicia Silverstone) comes to visit and dons the Batgirl suit so they could sell her action figures too. Apparently the studio commissioned Schumacher to make a feature length commercial for toys, which at least explains why the core three change costumes mid-fight when the city becomes engulfed in snow.
This screeching halt of a plot point also gives a nice summation of a script that’s better off undiscussed. O’Donnell plays Robin like a prepubescent hassle, Silverstone an air-headed Brit without an accent, and Schwarzenegger magically constructs a performance from ice puns alone. Academy Award nominees George Clooney and Uma Thurman are actually so revolting it’s funny, to the point where calling Clooney the George Lazenby of the franchise would be a disservice to the unpopular Bond.
As the mutated offspring of Tim Burton’s stylish original, the film dug a bat-tastic grave that housed the franchise for almost a decade. That Christopher Nolan was able to take Batman in the direction he did is in some way a result of the tepid response to this abomination of a film. In that regard, movie fans should pencil in a tiny asterisk next to Batman & Robin, right after ranking it the worst sequel in the history of cinema.
Defining Terrible Moment: Batman whipping out a “GothCard” and bragging that he “never leave[s] the cave without it.” Words don’t do it justice.
Author Bio: Danilo Castro is a freelance writer and editor of the Film Noir Archive blog. He has contributed and reviews to several publications including PopMatters, Noir City, and CinemaNerdz, spending much of his time watching classical Hollywood cinema. But if its not, that’s okay too.