First impressions are important, but they don’t always tell the whole story, especially when it comes to cinema. Filmmaking is a tough business no matter how talented you are and even though everyone wants a crack at making the next Citizen Kane, if you are just starting out in the industry, chances are you are you going to have to pay your dues before you get there.
Many great directors have had a shaky start in their illustrious career for various reasons. Whether it came down to lack of experience, an endeavor to discover their personal style or simply because they had to make a living, a lot of household names have put their signature on films that they would probably like to erase from their resume and our minds.
To remind us that everyone strikes out sometimes, here are 10 horrible debut films by great directors.
10. Alien³ – David Fincher
There are many directors with debuts worse than David Fincher, but none has ever been given such a great first opportunity only to royally mess it up. With two hugely successful films already in the franchise, even after Cameron succeeded Scott at the helm, Aliens seemed unable to do wrong.
Although few members of the cast returned for the third installation of the franchise, Sigourney Weaver was still there and so was the original production team. The stars seemed aligned for David Fincher to make a name for himself as a feature film director after spending a decade directing music clips for some of the biggest names of the era.
Alas, Alien³ never even came close to its predecessors. The production ended up more turbulent than expected, with extensive rewrites and reshoots, eventually going over budget and spending a year in the editing room. As a result, the script ends up developing subplots only to abandon them later on and the interactions between the characters seem unconvincing and stale.
Although part of the blame could be attributed to bad editing, Fincher’s direction is probably the worst aspect in the film. The constant use of flashy shots focused on camera movement even during simple conversations, leaves the impression of a hollow, grandiose endeavor to create iconic scenes out of thin air. Another transgression of Alien³ is the frequency with which cross-cutting is used to create suspense, which ultimately fails, leaving the film to resort to cheap jump scares.
All things considered, it is no wonder Fincher disowned the final cut and refused to assist in the 2003 Assembly Cut that was presented to audiences. Luckily, he was able to overcome this experience and create some of the best thrillers of the modern era.
9. My Best Friend’s Birthday – Quentin Tarantino
As far as debut films go, My Best Friend’s Birthday undoubtedly falls under the category of experimentation. The 36 minute film is like watching a blueprint of what Quentin Tarantino would come to be. Zany characters, peculiar anecdotes, pop culture references and even a martial arts scene lifted straight out of a Hong Kong movie are packed in the film’s short run time. Although that sounds good on paper, everything is executed in the most amateur way possible.
Made on a shoestring budget over the course of 3 years, Tarantino recruited a number of acting students to participate. This is perfectly reflected in the performances which range from wooden to overly dramatic and seem to belong to a school play rather than in film.
The script can be amusing at times but with no sense of purpose or story development, each scene feels like an independent vignette instead of part of a larger construct. A major reason for this is the controversy surrounding the footage, with some alleging a lab fire destroyed half the film, while others claim that it was just never completed.
Whatever the reason, the result is an unconnected series of scenes interspersed with abrupt cuts and music overshadowing dialogue to the point where it is barely audible, in one of the worst exhibitions of editing you will ever encounter. Overflowing with cultural references which quickly reach the point of diminishing returns, My Best Friend’s Birthday shows that Tarantino had the right ingredients but was very far from getting the recipe right.
8. A Fistful of Fingers – Edgar Wright
When you give a young kid a camera, the result is usually unwatchable. When you give the camera to a talented kid, you get A Fistful of Fingers. Edgar Wright’s debut is as low budget as they get and serves as a spoof of the western genre. From Leone’s spaghetti trilogy, to Tombstone and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, none escapes Wright’s satiric commentary.
Knowing how this film paved the way to Hollywood for Edgar Wright and keeping in mind that he was just 21 years old when he wrote and directed it, one may be inclined to not only like A Fistful of Fingers, but forgive all of its missteps. However, no matter how much you may want to turn a blind eye, they are there. The low production value, although understandable given the minuscule budget Wright had to work with, makes the film an eyesore.
The cast is mostly comprised of high school kids with no acting experience which pretty much leaves the script to stand alone, with its gimmicky jokes that are more often than not borrowed from Naked Gun, Airplane and Monty Python.
Though A Fistful of Fingers is not the worst debut imaginable, it is extremely fortunate that Wright outgrew these influences and went on to create his own comedic style.
7. Murder à la Mod – Brian De Palma
Before he made his bones with masterpieces like Scarface and Blow Out, Brian De Palma started out with a little known film called Murder à la Mod. In an attempt to imitate artists that he loved, De Palma presents a black and white film that starts out as a thriller and very abruptly transitions into a Charlie Chaplin style comedy half way through, before remembering it is actually a murder story in the final act. The style seems like a copy of Jean-Luc Godard’s early work and it is actually one of the better qualities Murder à la Mod possesses.
However, the few glimpses of brilliance present are heavily overshadowed by all the other things the film tries to be. Even in this early endeavor, there are times that exhibit De Palma’s unique talent at creating suspense. The problem with his debut film is that he always fails to stick the landing.
De Palma includes every type of shot conceivable, from steady camera, to shaky handheld and everything in between, in an attempt to find what works best. The final result is messy as well as incoherent and once you add the chronologically mixed narration, everything collapses into a cornucopia of nonsense. This reaches its height when subtitles with pointers to objects are introduced to assist the audience in following the needlessly convoluted plot.
6. Seizure – Oliver Stone
Many directors started their career from horror films, especially in the 70s and 80s which was a fruitful era for the genre. Oliver Stone managed to do so with Seizure, a horror film effortlessly trying not to scare its audience. With an incoherent plot that feels like it was picked it up from Stephen King’s wastebasket and contrived dialogue throughout, Stone’s debut will have you alternating between befuddlement and eye rolling once the second act kicks in.
Although every character exhibits a profound unidimensionality, the trio of villains is without a doubt the most confusing creation from the writers. Inexplicably tied to Hindu mythology and looking like a crossover between The Adams Family and the creatures from the later released The Hills Have Eyes, The Spider and her minions enter the pantheon of horrible villains.
Stone’s direction is quite jarring and unstylish with a lot of awkward camera angles, incomprehensible cuts and plain bad lighting. It is fortunate that Stone decided to move on to more serious projects, since exploring paranormal themes does not seem to be his strong suit.