Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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