Day 183: Dumping The Chum – Worst Films Part 1

originally published July 1, 2012

One thing this site is missing is a regular feature. I have remained true to my commitment to submit to the oft-cruel finger of Wikipedia’s ‘Random Article’ button. But Ms. Wiki served up a hot banquet full of dishes too great in number to be contained within the claustrophobic walls of a thousand words.

“List of Films Considered The Worst.” There are also pages for the ‘worst’ television shows and the ‘worst’ music. Between these three pages is a platinum mine of wonderful weirdness, some of which I’ve already addressed when I picked apart Starship’s “We Built This City”. I’ll drop in on the other two categories later; for now, let’s stick with the movies.

On the right, that’s Genghis Khan as played by John Wayne, because who else would you cast in such a role? Wayne pushed to star in this bomb, and by 1956 he was Hollywood royalty so he got what he asked for. But The Conqueror was more than just a bomb – it was a death sentence. More on that later.

The film was directed by Dick Powell, an actor whose face pops up all over B-movies and noir films from the 40’s, and produced by Howard Hughes. Hughes felt an enormous weight of guilt after the film was released to scathing reviews and terrible ticket sales, so he bought up every print and stashed them away. It remained unseen by anyone but its meager initial audience until it was shown on TV in 1974. By that time, the mentally weakened Hughes was watching the film over and over again in his L.A. mansion, probably trying to figure out where it all went wrong.

To be fair, the guilt Hughes felt had little to do with box office results. It was more about the fact that this movie killed almost everyone involved.

They picked a rustic spot just outside St. George, Utah to act as the exterior scenes in Mongolia. The scenery looked right, inasmuch as American audiences weren’t experts on Mongolia flora and probably wouldn’t complain. But they happened to be 137 miles downwind from the chunk of land in Nevada where the US government was testing their nuclear weapons.

The filmmakers knew about the tests and received a placating note from the government that there would be no ill effects to anyone in and around St. George. They shot for a couple of weeks – most of the film takes place outdoors – then even shipped 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood so the terrain looked right for re-shoots. Every particle of radiation in the area had plenty of opportunity to seep, soak, and wriggle its way into someone’s pores. And most of them did.

In 1963 director Dick Powell died of cancer. After that, the cast and crew diagnoses started rolling in. Actors John Hoyt, Pedro Armendáriz, Agnes Moorehead (who was in Citizen Kane), Oscar-winner Susan Hayward, and of course the Duke himself. Wayne may have smoked the carcinogen mix that finished him off, but it’s impossible to discount the potential influence of this shoot. Of the 220 members of the cast and crew, 91 developed cancer, including all but one of the principle actors (Thomas Gomez’s fatal car crash in 1971 might have spared him the disease). Now that’s a bad movie.

Another grotesque bomb filled with impressive star-power was this thing. 1970’s Myra Breckinridge tells the story of a man (Rex Reed) who has surgery to become a woman (Raquel Welch, because that’s possible), then goes through some wacky misadventures at her Uncle Buck’s acting academy. The movie also stars Farah Fawcett, Mae West, John Huston, Jim “Thurston Howell III” Backus, and Tom Selleck in his debut film role as “Stud”.

The film’s content is what earned its spot in this category. A bad movie is one thing, but a bad movie in which Raquel Welch ties a guy up then rapes his rear end is truly exquisitely awful. The newly-minted MPAA slapped an ‘X’ rating on the movie, though somehow they were able to re-edit and talk their way down to an ‘R’ for its re-release eight years later. They inserted clips from classic movies into the film, setting them up so that they seem to have an unexpected sexual undertone. This resulted in lawsuits by the original actors in those films. Even the White House demanded the removal of a clip that featured Shirley Temple, as she was presently a United States ambassador, and it wouldn’t look good for her to punctuate a cheap sex joke on film.

It was almost as though director Michael Sarne stayed up for a weekend, devising every possible bad choice he could make with this script (which was based on a Gore Vidal novel), then found a way to make each of them worse before using them. Sarne would take seven-hour breaks on the set to ‘think’, leaving the cast and crew to perfect their thumb-twiddling skills. He soared past the limits of his budget. He mistreated his source material. Somehow this didn’t murder his career.

From Justin To Kelly is listed frequently among the worst films of the oughts decade. The first film (and hopefully the last) to spawn from a televised talent show competition, this offense to celluloid told a love story between the top two contestants from American Idol’s first season.

First they insulted the movie-going public by creating a movie that would have fit in comfortably as a Sunday night feature on the Family Channel, and marketing it as worthy of the same price of admission as Old School or Kill Bill Part 1. Then they offended theater owners by announcing the VHS and DVD release of the film was to happen six weeks after the theatrical opening.

The choreography was allegedly so awful, the Golden Raspberries (always more laughs than the Oscars) created an entirely new category just to honor it. The film did receive three Teen Choice Awards nominations though, because even back in 2003 teens liked stupid things.

As awful as these three movies would appear to be, I nevertheless would sit through any of them. A horrible movie can be just as entertaining as a good one, provided you’re in the right company of people with quick wit and a similar desire to mock the artistically weak. Mystery Science Theater 3000 built a successful TV show on that premise. We need horrible movies, because the truly wretched ones – the ones whose intent was sincere but woefully misguided – are delicious, digestible box office poison.

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