To-day it was announced that Tobe Hooper, the director of the great, original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, passed away at the age of 74. I haven't seen a lot of Hooper's films but I really do think Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a masterpiece. I once wrote about it:
Familiar aspects of the self are a catalyst for a chain of dream logic terrors in Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The self, both physical and mental; an unexamined every day intimacy with flesh and blood is teased out into a cunning, gleefully beautiful and grotesque nightmare. Even the extraordinary skill and talent for filmmaking on display aren't enough to account for the singular brilliance this movie achieves.
You can find my full review of it here.
It seems strange that I'm writing about Tobe Hooper when I didn't spend any time talking about George Romero and very little talking about Jeanne Moreau. Of the two, I'm probably a greater fan of Moreau, but I do love Romero's first two Dead films. And there was a lot more to him than zombies--there's a nice interview with him included on Criterion's release of Powell and Pressburger film opera/ballet of Tales of Hoffmann, for example. I was fascinated to see that Romero was listening to the soundtrack to The Quiet Man when he died.. And I think, out of the ways one could die, that has to rank pretty high up there. I remember John Wayne's character in the film describing the fictional town of Innisfree (named after a Yeats poem) as sounding like heaven when his mother told him about it as a child.
But the reason I wanted to talk about Tobe Hooper to-day was because a few days ago I saw this video from The A.V. Club by writer Paul Scheer listing his top five worst films of all time. One thing was clear to me right away--if these are the worst films Scheer has ever seen, he hasn't seen a lot of movies. Included on his list is Spider-Man 3 which, to be sure, is a bad movie but the fact that it was made with a basic competence in film craft puts it miles ahead of thousands of other films. His number one worst film, The Room, is such an obvious contemporary choice. It is a bad film but, as Scheer points out, it's one of those films which are fascinating in the way it is bad. "So bad it's good", in other words. There's the weird cadence of the editing and dialogue, the exterior shots limply inserted at random, the actors delivering lines with a kind of tonelessness that suggests a complete lack of direction (rather like Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, actually). But what makes the list a crime is the inclusion of Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce at number two.
In my own review of Lifeforce, I talk a lot about what is silly and kind of stupid in the film. But there's a boldness to its gender reversal of Dracula, the real reason for the naked woman Paul Scheer seems to take such pleasure in deriding. He may not like seeing naked women, but saying a film is bad because of that is like saying Singing in the Rain is bad because you don't like musicals. It's not like she's naked on accident. Lifeforce has problems but Mathilda May's body isn't one of them.
I considered at the time writing a rebuttal list. Now that Tobe Hooper has died I feel honour bound. So here's a top five worst films, subject to change. And naturally I'll be drawing from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 a lot.
5. Lost Continent 1951
What makes this film worse than an average b movie adventure film from the 1950s? In the ominous words of Dr. Forrester: "Rock climbing".
4. Manos: The Hands of Fate 1966
Any serious worst movies list must include Manos: The Hands of Fate, or, as Spanish speakers know the film, Hands: The Hands of Fate. Aimless shots of unremarkable fields rolling by at the beginning of the film give way to poorly framed dialogue scenes with bad sound. What more can be said about a movie with so little to say?
3. Outlaw of Gor 1988
Presented in its entirety on YouTube by the officially licensed Mystery Science Theatre 3000 YouTube channel is Outlaw of Gor--no, not Outlaw with Jane Russell, Howard Hughes' legendary mediocre western. Its weirdness makes the Hughes film a cut above this low rent attempt to cash in on the audience for 80s fantasy films like Conan the Barbarian. Outlaw of Gor is set in the fictional fantasy world of Gor, a cheesy sexist fantasy conceived of by author John Norman who very badly wishes he was Robert E. Howard. The film takes Norman's embarrassing fantasy and adds tone deaf performances, sub-Halloween store quality costumes, lousy special effects, and a very unfortunately slumming Jack Palance as some kind of wizard.
2. Track of the Moon Beast 1976
Here's one I don't think gets as much attention as it deserves. My favourite from MST3k's final three seasons on the Sci Fi channel, it has none of the charm of Final Sacrifice and none of the competence of Final Justice. Track of the Moon Beast begins with a prank pulled on the main character that obviously must have looked very effective to the screenwriter but in practice turns out to involve the protagonist looking up and seeing a reflective mask and not reacting to it. This would be awkward in itself but it's followed up by what seems like fifteen minutes of dialogue from bad actors explaining the prank. This kicks off a movie with the luscious production design of blank white walls and characters who memorably drone on about stew recipes.
1. Transformers: Age of Extinction 2014
Finally, here's one from outside MST3k. I know what I said about basic filmmaking competence, but this one gets extra negative points for being the product of predatory greed and cynicism. Most of the worst movies on MST3k at least have some heart to them. If you've seen Tim Burton's film about legendary bad director Ed Wood, you've seen how, even if these guys were lousy at what they did, they at least did it with love and that kind of love gives their films a peculiar charm. Truly, the lowest level of Hell ought to be reserved for films that are designed to exploit the medium as a cold, ugly, moneymaking machine. From my review:
Some movies, we see to be entertained. Some, we see for a transcendent experience, to challenge our intellect, to learn new things about the human condition, to gain perspective. And then some movies are like cancerous tissue; they perform none of these functions but sustain to sustain, drawing resources from product placement and heavily stipulated investments to ensure a profit over the budget required to pay actors who don't care about the project and bloated special effects studios.