Menus Subscribe Search

The Worst Week

ReeferMadness

Reefer Madness was one of the first worst movies. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Benefits of Being the Worst Movie Ever Made

• July 02, 2014 • 2:00 PM

Reefer Madness was one of the first worst movies. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Plenty of movies have been bad, mediocre, or even good, but only a select few have been called “the worst.” What might seem like an ignominious distinction, though, is also its own kind of success.

Movies made for the purpose of entertaining audiences went mainstream in the early 1900s. More than a century later, IMDB has more than 250,000 titles in its database and, even then, it’s safe to assume that some have been left out. No one person can watch them all. The average person can’t even watch all the good ones—the Criterion Collection, commonly thought of as the gold standard for foreign and classic films, has re-released over 700 movies, which means that if you wanted to tackle the whole library, which is expanding all the time, you’d need to watch one a day for two years. And this still barely scratches the surface of American film.

Plenty of folks have tried to chip away at the mountain of cinema, and one of the ways they’ve done so has been resorting to that most human of traditions: making lists. One of these is a Wikipedia page called “List of Films Considered the Worst.” The movies here have been drawn from sources like Roger Ebert’s list of the most-hated films, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the Golden Raspberry Awards, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. If this page is to be believed, then all of these movies aren’t just bad; at times, they’ve been considered the most bad. They’ve been accused of being the actual dregs of a hundred years of film-making.

What’s a better plan for achieving immortality, or at least a long-tenured place in the cultural lexicon: making a great movie, or making a terrible movie?

The earliest entry on the list is Reefer Madness, a classic of drugsploitation that has the same understanding of narcotics as your grandma does Twitter. Reefer Madness is hilarious. It feels like a PSA made by lunatics, an almost Grecian myth of excess—the characters smoke marijuana and then literally kill each other. This is one of the first films ever to be considered transcendentally bad, but over the years it’s gotten even worse, which is to say, better; it belongs in a very particular tradition of bad movies, which are the ones that you should watch as soon as you can. Other titles in this group include Plan 9 From Outer Space, failure-auteur Ed Wood’s magnum opus; Robot Monster, a Space-Age parable so incompetent it makes children playing with stuffed animals seem documentary; ’80s camp classic Mommie Dearest, in which Faye Dunaway gives a performance of histrionics that feels like trying to watch an air-raid siren; Skinemax standard-bearer Showgirls; and probably the most enjoyable of all, The Room, a movie so incomprehensibly, indescribably terrible that it loops around the spectrum of quality and becomes delightful. If you haven’t seen The Room, see it tonight.

Unfortunately, not all bad movies are the worst in this way. Two other types of films fill the Wikipedia list. The first are those sabotaged by their own ambition, scale, and size, which fail despite the presence of talent and money and all of the other ingredients you normally expect to produce a good film. This includes Heaven’s Gate, Myra Breckenridge, Caligula, and Ishtar, and is heavy on work from the ’70s and ’80s, when Hollywood was still rife with funding, drugs, an inclination toward risk, and an environment that could get a little too friendly toward the artist. Then there’s the third category, and the least interesting—movies that are made cheaply or insincerely or crassly, movies that are incompetent in the most ordinary of ways, movies like Adam Sandler’s recent oeuvre, failed children’s films, and Battlefield Earth. These movies are never worth watching, even out of morbid curiosity; there just isn’t anything there.

MAKING ART IS INHERENTLY a risk, and there’s a certain cruelty in calling a film the worst of its kind. The first category, the movies so bad that they become good, all have one thing in common, which is incomprehensible sincerity. It’s hard to fault men like Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau for believing in their own visions so fiercely and then actually bringing them from concept to screen, and this is part of why the experience of watching them is joyful—their effort and affection elevates what would otherwise be painful schlock into something worthy of being watched. Of course, you could also argue that this is sad, that inadvertent comedy, especially when it’s derived from lovingly made drama, is inherently a bummer. But realistically—and compared with, say, obscure mediocrity—can there be a better fate for a movie like The Room than this?

The other two categories don’t offer the same opportunity for celebration. The ambitious failures usually fail due to some of the worst human traits, ones like hubris and megalomania and madness. And the pure trash is pure trash, made without any genuine honesty or optimism. If a film is born out of insincerity, there’s really no way to meet it but with the same disingenuousness.

But at the very least, the worst movies ever made offer some comfort: Even in absolute disaster, there’s something to be learned about why we make entertainment, and how it can go wrong. Occasionally, the failure even succeeds, albeit on a different rubric than the one it originally had in mind.

And this list of movies raises another question. What’s a better plan for achieving immortality, or at least a long-tenured place in the cultural lexicon: making a great movie, or making a terrible movie? It might be making a bad movie. A really, really bad movie. A movie so bad, so bizarre and rough, so inexplicably terrible, that some people will call it the worst movie ever made; a movie so bad that its existence forces viewers to question what they know about art and artists. There are plenty of good films. Fewer are the worst.

Kevin Lincoln
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a writer living in Los Angeles. He also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Grantland.

More From Kevin Lincoln

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been sucked from beneath the Colorado River during the past ten years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been sucked from beneath the Colorado River during the past ten years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.