5. Grand Theft Auto – Ron Howard
Cashing in his success on TV in the late 70s, Ron Howard decided to make the transition to the big screen with Hot Wheels: The Movie or as he titled it, Grand Theft Auto, a film with a heavy aura of a TV movie, which served as an excuse to crash cars for 84 minutes. Highly repetitive and riddled with one-dimensional, almost caricature characters, Howard’s debut is a product of its era and reeks of the cinematic inexperience of everyone involved.
Despite being filmed in just a couple of weeks and with a large chunk of the budget going to vehicles on death row, Grand Theft Auto managed to be a commercial success, although universally panned by critics. The short run time seems to drag on for what feels like an eternity and the aftertaste is one of trying to combine Spielberg’s Duel and The Sugarland Express by taking the worst parts of both and creating an intolerable blob of a movie.
4. Praying with Anger – M. Night Shyamalan
It is very common for directors to start their career with a film concerning a topic they know firsthand. M. Night Shyamalan’s Praying with Anger is an exploration of Indian culture from the perspective of a native that was born and raised in the western world.
This sounds so familiar, that viewers have even labeled it as semi-biographic. Even though this theme might sound interesting on paper, Shyamalan’s directorial debut quickly devolves into a series of pseudo-profound statements lifted straight out of a high schooler’s diary.
Very little subtlety is present in the story, with most events being highly reminiscent of dozens of teenage films of the 80s. Shyamalan, who also wrote and starred in the film, presents himself as an enlightened, unique character, striving to discover himself, but ends up looking like an entitled brat, with delusions of grandeur and enlightenment.
The wooden delivery never lets you forget that this was an amateur effort at creating a film, even if you somehow went past the low production value. Shyamalan completes this atrocity with shoddy camera work and by dressing up the film in tacky music, reminding us that filmmaking is not a young man’s game.
3. Caged Heat – Jonathan Demme
In the early 70s, Jonathan Demme started out at Hollywood by writing a series of female prison films which were essentially exploitation movies for male audiences. In what would prove to be the last of his exploits in that shady corner of cinema, Demme stepped behind the camera to direct Caged Heat.
The low production value is evident in every turn and it is only topped by the horrendous performances of the cast. Caged Heat is a bland story that only serves as an excuse for nudity and is at times toeing the line between feature film and softcore. Demme desperately attempts to include serious elements regarding prison abuse and human rights in his script, but all his work is constantly undone a few scenes later, with the film reminding us of its true purpose.
Terrible as it is, Caged Heat will always be here to remind us the compromises young filmmakers must make before they earn a chance to prove themselves.
2. What’s Up, Tiger Lily? – Woody Allen
Few directors can claim to have had a weirder directorial debut than Woody Allen. After a studio purchased the rights to the Japanese action thriller Key of Keys, it was decided that the only way to cut its losses was to dub it in English and turn it into a comedy. Thus, What’s up Tiger Lily? was born.
The original film’s premise -a detective’s quest in finding a secret microfilm- became a search for a famous egg salad recipe. Allen reordered some of the scenes and dubbed the main character to provide audiences with a glimpse of what would later become the staple of his brand of humor.
Unsurprisingly, the comedy falls flat very quickly as the charm of deliberately mismatched dialogue washes away in the mayhem of non-sequitur scenes, shadow puppetry and disjointed musical numbers by The Lovin’ Spoonful. What’s Up Tiger Lily? seems to be less of a comedic experiment and more of an attempt from Allen to get his name out there –as he also plays and introduces himself at the start of the film- in order to secure future work.
1. Piranha Part 2: The Spawning – James Cameron
It is no secret that James Cameron loves exploring the depths of the ocean and the mysteries it holds, having made both feature films and documentaries on the subject, as well as undergoing an expedition to the Mariana Trench. It therefore seems quite fitting that his debut as a director would be in a film about a shoal of piranhas surfacing to feast on unsuspecting humans.
A sequel to the 1978 movie that was a spoof to Spielberg’s Jaws, The Spawning strips away any comedic element in favor of cliché B-movie horror tropes. Riddled with amateur performances by unknown actors (some of which made their way in Cameron’s later films) and with a plot so ridiculous that included the piranhas taking flight during the final act, The Spawning feels like the lowest of the low when it comes to 80s B-Horror.
Some of the failure could be due to the fact that Cameron wasn’t even allowed to see his footage and was locked out of the editing room during post-production. According to his biography, he broke into the editing room to prepare his own cut, but was caught and removed.
However, to this day he retains a good sense of humor about his humble beginnings, being quoted as saying “It gets better halfway through when seen at the drive-in with a six pack of beer” and “I believe it is the finest flying piranha movie ever made”.