Friday, February 24, 2023

What were they thinking? The greatest cinematic dumpster fires ideas ever

When I put out a list of things, I never pretend the list is definitive.  I understand opinions and one man's trash is another man's art.  But I defy anyone to argue that the following movies don't deserve to be called among the worst ideas ever.  

These aren't the worst movies.  Roger Ebert once said that he hated to give bad reviews.  Just the mammoth effort that goes into even the worst movie should be worth a C+.  Nonetheless, bad movies are made.  Movies that perhaps should have been good.  Or movies that looked good on paper, but not in the delivery.  Or movies that had potential, but a bad director, bad editing or bad production or performances torpedoed the poor thing. 

The following list, however, is not that. This is not a 'worst movies ever' list. This is a "what the heck were they thinking?" list.  These are movies that you could stop a random five year old and ask if they were a good idea and the five year old would know better.  They are ideas that no sane person ever should have thought would work.  And yet here they are.  In many cases, they  were produced by people at the top of their game.  Yet their only place in history is a cautionary tale for anyone taking up a camera. 

In no particular order (except the last): 

The Dungeons and Dragons Movie 

Poor D&D.  On the 25th Anniversary of its publication, many news outlets ran stories about its history and its influence.  Big players from Hollywood celebs to corporate leaders in the tech industry spoke of its influence on everything fantasy/sci-fi that has come since.  From video game basics to the influence on fantasy publications today, it's not hard to argue that D&D is one of the most influential cultural outputs of the last 50 years. 

It's also one of the most maligned.  Initially when I heard about it in high school, it was no different than Pac Man or Trivial Pursuit as fads go.  But somewhere that changed, and by the late 80s the whole D&D genre was a cultural pariah.  To play D&D was to ensure lonely Friday nights.  

So the announcement that D&D would be getting the Hollywood big budge treatment had to be good news for that subculture of D&D RPGers.  And boy were they disappointed.  What a train wreck. Celebrated actor Jeremy Irons was brought in as a ringer to be that Alec Guinness heft for a movie filled with mostly less known to minor actors.  I'm not sure his reputation has entirely recovered. 

What landed on the big screen was almost a parody.  Ed Wood could have done better.  It was cheap and bad and excruciating to watch.  I caught it on a streaming service a few years ago and tried to watch it, and I couldn't.  It was so bad it was embarrassing.  When you feel ashamed for the actors, you know it's bad.  Again, most who were in it I've not seen since, except Jeremy Irons.  And his appearance is still wrapped up with his scenery gorging over the top performance.  

Of all the movies on this list, I admit this didn't have to be a bad idea from the start.  But the minute they saw the plans, the actual screenplay, they should have pulled the ripcord and waited for something better.  

The general fan reaction to the movie


If ever something defined cultural fad, it was The Monkees.  Seizing upon the Beatles revolution, The Monkees were meant to target that demographic of young girls who were watching their mop top Beatles mature and embrace a more adult, and more psychedelic, direction. 

Enter the TV show The Monkees.  Charming and likeable and 'too busy singing to put anybody down', they were a fine way to kill a half hour beginning in 1966.  Because they portrayed a fictional rock group living in California, they had to have music.  And the army of talent enlisted to write and play Monkees songs was impressive.  The problem was, the band was made of actors playing musicians (though two were actual folk musicians in their own right).  The albums featured the Monkees singing, but professional songwriters and musicians were playing and writing the songs. That was the difference: the studio marketed them as an actual self contained music group in the manner of the Stones or Beatles.  Think Milli Vanilli for the 1960s.  That, and a general weakness of premise, helped put an end to Monkee-mania barely two years into the project.

Not to die out too soon, however, the 'band' rallied its resources, and with funding from - of all people - Jack Nicholson, attempted to slow their failing fortunes by producing their own film, ala Beatles style: Head.  If you've never seen it, don't worry, you're not alone. Rather than save the Monkees brand, it all but sealed the deal.  Peter Tork left shortly after, and soon after that went Michael Nesmith.  Instead of being their big comeback, all that Head became - for those few who have heard of it - was a cautionary tale.  Sometimes it's best to let a dying premise die. 

Battlefield Earth 

John Travolta has certainly had an up and down career.  He became an overnight success as dimwitted Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back Kotter.  Then he starred in the defining Disco moment of the Disco era: Saturday Night Fever.  The very next year he scored box office gold in the big screen version of Grease.   Then that was that.  He made some good and stinker films over the next few years.  Some good, others not so good.  Some downright embarrassing. Urban Cowboy was passable.  Look Who's Talking was cute.  But those were bright spots among forgotten films and shameful flops.  

Then came Pulp Fiction.  Playing the dancing hit man Vince Vega put him back at the top of his game.  His and Uma Thurman's iconic dance became the talk of the town.  Suddenly he was in the driver's seat again.  For the next few years, he had clout and influence. So what did he use it for?  The 2000 release of - Battlefield Earth

Battlefield Earth is fiction written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.  I have no clue.  I just know when Travolta brought the vision to the screen, everyone cringed.  It was that mortifying.  By just looking at the screenshots you could see the words plastered across the images: Stinker.  And it was.  It went beyond maligned and panned to being outright mocked to the level of meme. It was also so bad you know it had to be that bad from the beginning.  Consider the source material. 

Whatever momentum he received from Pulp Fiction was quickly squandered, and very few of his subsequent films made more impact than Staying Alive.  

In fairness to Travolta, something a little less embarrassing (remember, Travolta was not a dancer, but had to learn to dance for his role as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever):

Leonard Part 6

In the early 1990s, Bill Cosby was one of the undisputed power players in America.  Already successful on many fronts, Cosby's titular sitcom was one of the biggest shows in television history.  Cosby was 

also an activist.  He used his influence to bring black culture into the American mainstream, while showing black culture does not have to mean hood and ghetto.  He was also partly responsible for the mythology of MLK, even using an episode in his show as a platform to lift the March on Washington and the MLK legacy to almost deific levels. 

By the late 80s and early 90s, Cosby became the fist celebrity to overtake Paul McCartney as the wealthiest entertainer in the world.  Immensely powerful, wealthy beyond imagining, and universally respected, Cosby was a man who could snap his fingers and get anything he wanted.  

So what did he want?  To do some weird space action farce called Leonard, Part 6.  I really can't speak to this since I've never met anyone who saw it.  Even in its day it was mocked as the movie that had smaller audiences than the number in its title.  A joke from conception, it screamed 'This?  This is what you cashed your credentials in to make?'  It didn't destroy Cosby, but it sure tarnished his reputation as a creative force.  Other strategically placed tarnishings on other fronts would come around the corner down the road.  But the first chinks in the Cosby armor began in empty theaters across America under the marquee promoting Leonard, Part 6

Magical Mystery Tour

The Beatles.  The biggest pop culture phenomenon in the world of modern entertainment. Their accomplishments and accolades read like a treatise on the wildest dreams of any entertainer in the last hundred years.  I needn't list the celebrated accomplishments of their meteoric career.  They are too well known to list here.  

Truth be told, however, The Beatles as culture changing, music altering, industry reforming, creative juggernauts existed mostly in the first years of their ascent.  From late 1962 to the release of their magnum opus Sgt. Pepper in 1967, their accomplishments and the evolution of culture, music, fashion, attitudes, art, and the recording industry in the 1960s were practically one and the same.  It is likely no coincidence, however, that this began to wane upon the death of their manger Brian Epstein.  While many dismissed him by that point as irrelevant next to the monstrous success and influence of the band, in hindsight one has to wonder just how important he was to their creative output.

That's because the first thing they did following his untimely death was produce the made for television movie Magical Mystery Tour.  Improvisation was the idea, and it was mostly Paul at the helm.  The plan was to fill a bus with actors, musicians, friends, circus performers, and anyone else available, then film whatever happened.  Sadly, nothing did.  It was a bomb from the get go, fans recoiled and critics pounced.  It was the first major creative blunder of their brief yet remarkable career.  It also showed the world that The Beatles, in the end, were not infallible.  As a bonus, it's a lesson for all involved in creative endeavors: sometimes your best friend is that restraining factor you rail against the most before you have unchecked power. 

Paul takes charge, and the others' enthusiasm shows it

Howard the duck  

I believe the first major cinematic foray into the Marvel Universe if you think on it.  Even after the less than stellar Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, George Lucas, along with Steven Spielberg, was considered one of the wonder boys of Hollywood.  He was seen as a filmmaking Midas, who turned to gold anything he touched.  Following the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film critic once boasted that Spielberg and Lucas could make  a movie about dirt and it would turn to magic.

No instrument invented can measure the creepiness of this
So naturally Lucas decided to focus his energy and attention on a big screen release of - Howard the Duck.  You know.  Howard the Duck.  Not being a comic book fan, I was only vaguely aware that the character existed.  How many of my friends were aware of Mr. Howard is beyond me, since not once in my entire childhood or youth did the topic come up.  And that is no doubt part of the problem.  The other part being the movie itself, which seemed to fail on almost every level that a movie can possible fail. 

Another part worth mentioning, BTW, was the actual Howard the Duck.  A teched up pseudo-puppet monstrosity.  Just look at it.  The scenes between the duck and Lea Thompson are almost violating in their creepiness. 

When she was interviewed some time later by Jay Leno, he asked Lea Thompson what she was thinking taking the role.  She admitted that in hindsight she wondered why she did it.  In response, Leno stated the final summation for the film and its impact on the world of entertainment: 'Don't worry, nobody saw it.'

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

That's right, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - the movie!   Sgt. Pepper is The Beatles' claim to legend. For decades it has been considered, if not the single greatest album of all time,  the single most influential album of all time.  It created an immediate shift in the whole business of the music industry.  It also represented the zenith of The Beatles' push to make the recording industry itself into an art form.  Wildly successful and culturally influential, it isn't their best album, but in terms of impact, it is to music what Citizen Kane is to movies.  

So what do you do about that? You make a Disco era feature film, loosely based on it, starring the Bee Gees!  In fairness, by the late 1970s, the BGs were mighty successful in their own right.  At the height of their success, riding the wave of that other 1977 hit Saturday Night Fever, many thought they could overtake The Beatles themselves.  Initially a Broadway show, the movie concept was heavily supported and financed by Peter Frampton, who himself was coming off the most successful live album to date. 

From Steve Martin and Donald Pleasance to Alice Cooper and Peter Frampton, from Carol Channing to Wolfman Jack, the project was a who's who of 70s cultural fads and icons. It was also a disaster.  Even though Universal Studios hoped it would become that generation's Gone With the Wind, it was the opposite.  While making an acceptable amount at the box office, it was quickly panned.  Word of mouth caught up with it, and not a few believe careers were permanently damaged from being connected to this movie, especially Frampton's.  It didn't do the Bee Gees much good either.  It all but cemented them in the 'Disco culture' which covered the film like a bad suit.  Once Disco died in 1980, it took the Bee Gees with it.  When that's what people remember about your film, you can bet the idea was a bad one from the start. 

Yes, it was that bad.

The Star Wars Holiday Special 

The all time, grand slam, gold medal, blue ribbon cinematic disaster in all of movie history.  George Lucas insists he never even heard of the movie.  According to him, he was almost shocked to see it on television when it debuted.  The problem is, Lucas is not one to trust when it comes to his version of history.  Remember a decade or so ago when he lambasted fans who insist Han shot first in the original Star Wars theatrical release?  As if there aren't millions of copies of the original for us to look at to see Han clearly shot first. In fact, he's the only one who shot.  When you believe being a billionaire gives you the right to redefine reality, your memories are not to be trusted.

I have no doubt that Lucas was not involved in the day-to-day production of this mess. But by 1978, the monster success of Star Wars as a bona fide global phenomenon put Lucas in the driver's seat when it came to the brand's usage.  Based on those in the know brave enough to say so over the years, he was aware of the project, understood the context in which it would be produced, and even continued to give it a thumbs up during production.  Yet given what happened on that fateful November night in 1978 when it aired, I can see why he would want to distance himself. 

I mean, what do you do when confronted by a horror like this:

My generation, and almost any kid under the age of 40 at that time, sat glued to the TV that night.  Remember, no DVDs, no VCRs, no streaming services.  Even though Star Wars lasted in some theaters for over  year, we knew once it was gone, it was gone.  So we were elated to hear that a sequel was going to be released - and on television no less!  Oh the joy, the excitement!  We couldn't wait.

To this day I remember the reaction among the kids on the next day at school.  In our class, we sat at tables of six, made up by having our desks all grouped together with three facing three.  I believe we just sat there and said nothing. If I remember correctly, we almost felt embarrassed for having wasted a valuable night of our lives watching such a thing.  

Again, Lucas insists he was a million miles away from this heap of dung.  I have no doubt he wasn't involved in much of the nitty gritty.  But in 1978, I also know he was aware, and aware enough to deserve some of the blame.  Given later ventures of his (see Howard the Duck above and the Star Wars Prequels), it becomes even easier to believe he was more involved in this than he will ever admit. 


  1. On lists of best and worst, I can usually find at least one example of what I think should not be on the list. On the above list, I can not find one such.

    1. Heh. I have to admit it's a pretty solid observation. It came from a conversation with my sons that began with pondering the logic behind the Sgt. Pepper movie, and the apparent harm it did to those involved. They also noticed, as they went on, how many of these bad decisions came from people at the top of their game. I thought that was interesting (it was also their observation that H. the Duck was the first Hollywood step into the Marvel Universe - which I'm not sure about but seems right).

  2. (Tom New Poster)
    And you haven't even considered "Cocaine Bear". :)

    1. I have never heard of that movie. I had to Google it and it does look like it belongs on some list.

    2. As a proud Kentuckian who literally has a picture of himself standing next to the actual cocaine bear, I will not hear one word against this modern american classic of cinema!

      (tongue firmly in cheek, but the real bear actually is in KY)

  3. Finally! A subject near and dear to my heart!

    Hmm... I like your category selection. Believe it or not, I actually have seen all of these EXCEPT the 3 band-related ones (yes, I really did watched Leonard part 6, we rented it back in the day).

    Some fun stories/explanations to add on. GoodBadFlicks did a look at D&D and... it is actually kind of inspiring what they were thinking and trying to accomplish with that film. Oh it didn't work at all, but after watching that video I felt just a tiny iota more respect for the filmmaker's effort. His ambition outstripped his ability, but have any of us lived lives that exciting?

    As for the SW: Holiday Special... well good pick there for this. SFDebris in his extensive video essay on the creation of Star Wars, its two sequels, and the prequels, examined the Holiday special in part 4 here. (i've timestamped it.) If you want to know what they were thinking... well there ya go. Though I do think SFDebris may be onto something that it was the failure of the Holiday Special that led Lucas to buckling down and making Empire Strikes Back so dang good.

    So I guess another question is... was it worth it? Well we can blame Donnie and Marie anyway.


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