A few weeks back, we had a very good time sifting through the whole of literature and plucking out the very best of the very trashiest books. The response was, to say the least, impassioned, so it seemed only appropriate to take a similar look at the grand tradition of trashy movies. Because film is an inherently more populist medium, the intellectual engagement with film trash is, historically, a bit more consistent. Back in January, Wesley Morris wrote, “There’s a primacy to good trash that cuts away at rational thought and propriety. It plays to the need for voyeurism not only sexually but emotionally: Sometimes you want to see feeling and eroticism and awfulness turned all the way up until the volume deafens you.” Morris’ comments, of course, echo those of Pauline Kael and her immortal essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” which noted, “movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Of the films that qualified as “great trash,” Kael wrote, “What gives this trash a lift, what makes it entertaining is clearly that some of those involved, knowing of course that they were working on a silly shallow script and a movie that wasn’t about anything of consequence, used the chance to have a good time with it.” These 50 movies would, we hope, meet that definition.
Wild in the Streets
It only seems appropriate to begin with one of the movies that prompted Kael’s piece, a slapdash mash-up of social commentary, rock musical, and revolutionary comedy. “It’s a blatantly crummy-looking picture, but that somehow works for it instead of against it because it’s smart in a lot of ways that better-made pictures aren’t,” Kael wrote. “ If you went to Wild in the Streets expecting a good movie, you’d probably be appalled because the directing is unskilled and the music is banal and many of the ideas in the script are scarcely even carried out, and almost every detail is messed up (the casting director has used bit players and extras who are decades too old for their roles). It’s a paste-up job of cheap movie-making, but it has genuinely funny performers who seize their opportunities and throw their good lines like boomerangs… It’s not so terrible — it may even be a relief — for a movie to be without the look of art; there are much worse things aesthetically than the crude good-natured crumminess, the undisguised reach for a fast buck, of movies without art.”
Valley of the Dolls
A trashy novel deserves a trashy movie, and that’s exactly what fans of Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller got when director Mark Robson (Peyton Place) and his screenwriters (including an uncredited Harlan Ellison, which is high-larious) adapted it in 1967. Susann’s soapy tale of three young woman who come to New York to pursue their dreams and end up hopelessly addicted to “dolls” (pills) was fortunately done with pompous seriousness — which makes the turgid picture that much funnier.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Say what you will about Beyond, it at least knows it’s a comedy. After Dolls was a smash box-office success, 20th Century Fox let Russ Meyer — who’d just signed with the studio after making a string of profitable “nudie cuties” and exploitation quickies — take a crack at a follow-up, though Susann’s lawyers insisted that the film open with a disclaimer insisting that it was in no way connected to her work. (She later sued the studio anyway, claiming the film damaged her book sales.) And the similarity between them basically ends with the title and broad theme: a trio of lovely young women head to the Coast (Los Angeles, this time around) to find fame and fortune, but are soon up to their necks in drugs, orgies, lesbian affairs, suicides, raging football players, and murderous, transsexual record producers. The zonked-out dialogue comes courtesy of a young scribe named Roger Ebert; Meyer’s direction is both boundlessly energetic and downright bizarre. The result is a major studio release the likes of which we’ll presumably never see again.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Meyer’s biggest pre-Dolls hit was this low-budget 1965 exploitation smash, which follows a trio of take-no-prisoners go-go dancers on a thrill-seeking mission through the California desert. Violent, provocative, sexy, and strange, Faster, Pussycat is one of the most influential B-movies of all time, and its influence was particularly felt by a young trash-movie aficionado in Baltimore…
… by the name of John Waters, who’d started making haphazard 8mm films with a crew of friends and freaks around the same time. Though made for only $10,000, his third feature, 1972’s Pink Flamingos, would become his breakthrough effort, finding considerable success on the midnight movie circuit. There, audiences ate up its cartoonish caricatures, absurd humor, over-the-top dialogue, and various acts of depravity — including star Divine’s notorious encounter with a pile of doggy doo.
This futuristic tale of a ridiculously hot space traveler and her adventures in pursuit of a missing scientist came from the dirty mind of director Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman), who cast his then-wife Jane Fonda in the title role. It’s even stupider than it sounds, but it’s got an infectious comic energy and utterly disarming sense of its own silliness, and Fonda has never been more fetching on-screen.
Pretty Maids All in a Row
It’s not much of a surprise that this delightfully sleazy black comedy/murder mystery, set at a high school where every student is both ridiculously attractive and fucking a teacher, should come from Mr. Vadim. What’s less expected is the writer/producer who put this tale to the page and ensured that it made its way to the screen: Gene Rodenberry, better known for creating Star Trek. (But now that you mention it, Kirk’s frequent interplanetary snogging sessions do seem the handiwork of a mighty horny scribe.) There’s an undeniably icky vibe to the whole thing, softened somewhat by the fact that the primary cheerleader deflowerer is played by Rock Hudson. But you can’t take your eyes off it, whether out of curiosity or prurient interest; incidentally, Quentin Tarantino recently selected this as one of his all-time favorite films.
The Violent Years
The films of Ed Wood are entertaining, to be sure, but more in a “so bad they’re good” way than in a trashy/enjoyable way; the only real pleasure to be had in them is laughing at their total, utter incompetence. But the 1956 teen exploitation film The Violent Years, which Wood wrote and produced just after Plan 9, has a skeezy charm of its own. He handed directorial duties over to one William Morgan, who is able to bypass the sticky technical elements that tripped up Wood’s directorial efforts (day/night confusion, basic continuity, cardboard-and-scotch-tape production design) and focus on the more important matter of the film’s teen delinquent girl gang and what exactly they do for kicks.
Florida filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis had spent years churning out sexploitation films of the Russ Meyer variety, but he didn’t make his fortune until he set his sights on the horror market. He and sleazo producer David F. Friedman spent about a week and just over $24,000 on the 1963 film Blood Feast, which ran barely over an hour but broke new ground in explicit onscreen blood and gore — “no movie of this kind had ever been seen before,” wrote Joe Bob Briggs in his excellent book Profoundly Disturbing. The film is crude, amateurish, and stomach-churning, but it gets the job done. And Lewis is another director championed by John Waters. “His films are impossible to defend,” wrote Waters in his book Shock Value, “thus he automatically becomes one of the great directors in film history.”
Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS
For sheer bad taste, it’s hard to top this 1975 exploitation movie — again, from producer David F. Friedman — which tells the story of a murderous female Nazi Stalag Kommandant and the kinky pleasures she derives from her work. The ever-resourceful Friedman made a deal with the producers of the just-canceled Hogan’s Heroes to use their set, which had been earmarked for demolition, for a small fee and the promise of destroying it afterwards. But the ghosts of Hogan and Klink are a million miles from this grim and seedy, yet oddly fascinating cult hit.
The Toxic Avenger
Ah, Troma. Any discussion of the merits of trashy cinema must include at least a couple of entries from Lloyd Kaufman’s New York-based house of chintzy, goofy exploitation flicks. And any discussion of Troma must begin with The Toxic Avenger, the 1985 superhero spoof that firmly pivoted the company from cheap sex comedies (I mean, seriously) to the kind of bizarre cornball camp — with a dash of social commentary! — that would become their bread and butter.
The Class of Nuke ‘Em High
Kaufman and company followed up The Toxic Avenger with this 1986 sci-fi/horror/comedy, set at “Tromaville High School” in New Jersey, right next to (wouldn’t you know it) a nuclear power plant. As per usual with the company, particularly early on, the acting is terrible, the effects are laughable, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense. But if you’re looking for nuclear monsters and high school destruction, it’s just the ticket.
Troma may have only been the distributor for this 1996 German-made horror comedy (original title: Kondom des Grauens), but it sure feels like their own handiwork — the comic horror story (with a touch of romance!) of “the rubber that rubs you out,” it’s the kind of movie that you almost have to see to believe actually exists.
Originally released as Tell Your Children, this solemn tale of “marihuana” addiction from director Louis J. Gasnier worked on the level of all “scourge of the nation” propaganda exploitation: to convey the horrors of such activities, but first to dramatize them in lingering detail. The “drug-crazed abandon” of those wild drug orgies (they’re listening to jazz!) helped the film land its better-known title years later, and its best audience: couches full of giggling stoners.
Which brings us to this 1982 TV movie, the Reefer Madness of the “Just Say No” years, set at a high school where kids pass joints at pep rallies, make PCP in the science lab, and shotgun in the girls’ bathroom. Sam Bottoms, a mere three years removed from Apocalypse Now, plays a dirtbag drug dealer (his on-screen high does not appear to be acting); a young Helen Hunt snorts PCP and dives out of a second story window, writhing on the ground below, pawning for broken glass to cut herself. It’s all preposterously overdone and removed from even the realm of soap opera reality, but hey, it does have a title song by Rick Springfield.
As long as we’re on the topic of anti-drug screeds, mention must be made (again) of the tireless efforts of Tucker Williams (Rudy Ray Moore), aka the “Disco Godfather,” to keep angel dust (or, as he calls it, “aaaangel dust”) off the streets — and to encourage the patrons of his Blueberry Hill Disco to continue, at all costs, to “put your weight on it.”
Black Snake Moan
Director Craig Brewer’s Hustle and Flow follow-up concerns a bluesman who chains a trashy young thing with “that sickness” (the movie’s polite euphemism for nymphomania) to his radiator until he can “cure” her of her “wickedness.” It’s a gritty, sexy, thick slab of Southern Gothic melodrama; it is also (arguably) misogynistic, stereotypical, or just plain goofy. It’s all in how you approach the thing, I suppose, but if you’re willing to go along with it, this steamy tale of sex, redemption, and the blues is downright riveting.
Really, just about any Pam Grier movie will do in a pinch — I’m equally partial to the zippy Coffy, the scuzzy Big Bird Cage, and the sunny Friday Foster. But this is her most iconic role and film, playing a “whole lotta woman” who infiltrates a prostitution ring to avenge the death of her boyfriend at the hands of gangsters. Writer/director Jack Hill presents this revenge fantasy with his customary high style and dark wit, and Grier is, let’s face it, everything in the title role.
Death Race 2000
Inexplicably employable hack Paul W.S. Anderson tried to remake it back in 2008, but the studio sheen and (comparatively) big budget suffocated what was great about Paul Bartel’s $300K original: its scrappy enthusiasm, its cheapo vision of a dystopian future, and the subversive humor that hinted at a filmmaker well on his way to the likes of Eating Raoul.
Which is not to say that you can’t do all of those things with a big budget: take, as Exhibit A, Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel. Seemingly a mindless tale of military recruits taking on giant insectoid killing machines, it’s actually a sly and knowing satire on propaganda films, American militarism, and combinations of the two (like Top Gun).
Q: The Winged Serpent
Roger Ebert loved to tell the story of the conversation he overheard, after the Cannes premiere of this giant-lizard-atop-the-Chrysler-building film, between legendary producer Samuel Z. Arkoff and critic Rex Reed. “I just saw The Winged Serpent!,” Reed told Arkoff. “What a surprise! All that dreck — and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” To which Arkoff reportedly replied, “The dreck was my idea.” But Reed was right (wow, when was the last time anyone uttered that sentiment?); Moriarty is utterly electrifying as the crook with a line on the lizard’s lair. But Arkoff’s no villain — the dreck is pretty great too.
Similarly, Terry O’Quinn’s scarily convincing turn in this 1987 horror thriller brings it well above the level of the standard slasher flick; as a serial killer hunting for the “perfect” family, and then killing them all when they fail to meet his high standards, O’Quinn burrows into the scary psyche of this nutjob, while director Joseph Ruben still delivers the slice-and-dice goods.
This 1984 horror film concerns the transformation of humans, via radioactive waste, into flesh-eating monsters who live under New York City and come up through manhole covers to eat people. Not sure what else you’re looking for in terms of sales pitch on this one.
Things Alive in the Sewers was apparently a popular early-‘80s subgenre. This 1980 monster flick took a popular urban legend — the one about tourists bringing home baby alligators from Florida as pets, then flushing them down their toilets into the sewers — and turned it into the story of a giant subterranean alligator chomping down humans in Chicago. The good news is, you don’t have to feel too lowbrow for watching it; the script was co-written by none other than indie stalwart John Sayles.
Though transplanted to an urban setting, Alligator was also, when you get down to it, a low-budget riff on the 1975 mega-hit Jaws. That film inspired a whole rash of rip-offs, but the most entertaining of the bunch is easily this 1978 copycat/spoof from good ol’ Roger Corman, directed by future Gremlins helmer Joe Dante, and again penned by John Sayles.
The spirit of Alligator and Piranha lives on in this 1997 adventure flick from director Luis Llosa, featuring the “sure, why not” ensemble of Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, Owen Wilson, and Danny Trejo. But the star of the film — aside from the laughably bad CG title creature — and the reason for its inclusion on this list is the great Jon Voight, mouthing the most ridiculous Latino accent in movie history, matching the anaconda’s character actor-chomping with generous scenery chewing, and acting out, gamely, the silliest wink in movie history.
Tango & Cash
The production of Buddy Cop Movies was actually one of the primary drivers of the American economy in the 1980s, as they were apparently turned out at a rate of one every 1.3 days. Few of them are as cravenly formulaic as Tango & Cash, the 1989 team-up of Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell — but, like Bad Boys II 14 years later, it’s so patently absurd as to almost (almost) seem a sly bit of self-parody. Not buying it? Okay, fine: Kurt Russell in drag!
Here’s all you need to know about Rocky IV: it opens with the image of a US-flag boxing glove and a Russian-flag boxing glove colliding, and then exploding. And there you have it — the single most accurate and all-encompassing visual metaphor for 1980s popular cinema. (That, and all of the rock video montage sequences.)
That same year, Chuck Norris decided he was going to up his commie-killing game by not only starring in, but co-writing this mindless action extravaganza. Former CIA agent Matt Hunter (dig that naming subtext: he’s Hunting some Reds!) is initially reluctant to come out of retirement to battle a team of Communist guerrillas, but once he does, he takes them out all but single-handedly — as you’d certainly expect from good ol’ Chuck.
But the gold standard of ridiculous ‘80s action flicks is and always will be Road House, in which director Rowdy Herrington (yes, it’s directed by a man named “Rowdy”) tells the story of the world’s greatest bouncer, James Dalton (Patrick Swayze), and how he ends Ben Gazzara’s reign of Missouri terror. Did I mention Sam Elliot and Red West, card-carrying member of Elvis’s “Memphis Mafia,” are also in it? Sam Elliot and Red West are also in it.
And as long as we’re singing the praises of Mr. Swayze’s junkier efforts, let us pause and acknowledge Point Break, the greatest American dramatization of bank-robbing surfers and the undercover cops who both pursue and idolize them ever made. It is, as advertised, 100 percent pure adrenaline. (With generous helpings of Gary Busey yelling thrown in for good measure.)
I know, I know, Hudson Hawk is still, over 20 years later, Hollywood shorthand for overpriced movie star vanity project run amok. But if you can resist the notion of a cat burglar who choreographs his jobs to the running times of pop songs and sings them instead of using a stopwatch (like a boss), well, you’re made of stronger stuff than I.
Like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, this was a searing look at the dark side of the music industry — but set in the futuristic world of 1994, and somehow even campier than the Meyers film. This 1980 sci-fi disco musical from director Menahem Golan (half of Golan-Globus, whose output could frankly fill this entire list) isn’t just set in an alternate reality; it’s like it was made in one, where the understood rules of narrative simply don’t apply. It’s the kind of movie you watch in slack-jawed awe, unsure of how such a thing even came to be, but glad that somehow, someway, it did.
Everybody sing it with me now: “FLASH! AHH-AHHHHHHHHH!”
Buck Henry, hot off The Graduate, wrote the screenplay adaptation of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s satirical novel; director Christian Marquand put together a bizarre cast, including such sex comedy stalwarts as Walter Matthau, John Huston, James Coburn, Ringo Starr, Richard Burton, and (in one of the roles that made his Godfather comeback necessary) Marlon Brando, all providing excuses to get leading lady (and former Miss Teen Sweeden) Ewa Aulin into various states of undress. But at least Candy has a sense of humor about itself, and it’s another in the proud Beyond the Valley/Pretty Maids tradition of movies you just can’t imagine a major studio putting out again.
With all the talk of once-promising writer/director Andrew Bergman’s jarring inability to nail the tone of Carl Hiassen’s crime novel, two things about this notorious bomb weren’t really mentioned. First, it offered viewers hoping to see Demi Moore naked plenty of opportunity to do just that. But second, it presented a hysterically funny and admirably game Burt Reynolds the chance to do a full-on great bit of comic acting, more than a year before his more recognized comeback in Boogie Nights. Striptease isn’t great moviemaking, but you gotta give it this: it ain’t boring.
Take that last sentiment, double it, and multiply it by ten, and you’ve got Showgirls, director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ sleekly slimy paean to all those hard-working girls who come to Las Vegas with a spring in their step and a switchblade in their purse, to cut, screw, and push their way to the top. Its creators have, in recent years, tried to reposition the picture as purposeful camp, but those of us old enough to remember its original, controversial release know the real truth: they were dead serious about this nonsense, and God bless them for that.
Because of Angelina Jolie’s justifiably acclaimed performance and its “based on a true, tragic story” narrative, Gia’s never quite been given its trashy due — it is, after all, the story of a live-fast-die-young bisexual supermodel, featuring enough drug use, lingering nude scenes, and hubba-hubba girl-on-girl action to satisfy any ‘70s exploitation purveyor. But it’s also got a smart screenplay by Bright Lights, Big City author Jay McInerney and director Michael Cristofer, and that aforementioned breakthrough work by the notorious Ms. Jolie.
This 2002 Brian De Palma film, on the other hand, was properly appraised as truly exquisite trash from the moment of its release. De Palma is, indeed, a master of that form, and this was his bounce-back from the atypical (and atypically dull) Mission to Mars. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos can’t act her way out of a paper bag; Antonio Banderas usually can, but spends the film in a fog that makes you wonder if he’s seen the screenplay. But they’re just pawns on De Palma’s big, gaudy chess board, and the film clicks into place, scene after scene, both improbably and satisfactorily.
Director John McNaughton knows how to present searing reality onscreen — after all, this is the guy who directed Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. He’s not doing reality here; this sun-baked Florida neo-noir luxuriates in its genre trappings, its pulpy double-crosses, and its borderline ridiculous Sapphic sex. They’re not taking any of this seriously, and for you to do so would be a crime. Some consider this the silliest movie in the ‘90s erotic thriller boomlet…
Color of Night
…but they clearly haven’t seen Richard Rush’s 1994 entry, which gets the edge for treating its pseudo-Basic Instinct narrative with such a straight face. Bruce Willis is a tortured psychologist (sure, OK) whose best therapist buddy is brutally murdered, so he takes over his nutty group. (“Nutty” may seem insensitive, but that’s how they’re treated, complete with cuckoo-clock music.) Meanwhile, he meets the almost-always nude Jane Marsh, and they have lots of sex. That’s fun for a while — and for those interested, you do get to see Bruce’s yippee-ki-yay — but when those plots converge in a shocking surprise twist ending, it’s trash cinema at its absolute finest.
Of course, not all erotic thrillers have to be dopey and laughable; take, for example, Alan Parker’s deliciously pulpy 1987 psychological horror film starring Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, and Lisa Bonet, the Cosby Show ingénue whose very naked appearance in the film somewhat overshadowed what a moody, atmospheric, and memorably stylish picture it is.
So there was this weird moment in the late ‘90s when Hollywood was pretty much adapting any classic story it could think of into a teen vehicle, and that’s how we ended up with a Les Liaisons dangereuses riff starring Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Reese Witherspooon. Neither Phillippe nor Gellar are terribly convincing in their vampy roles; they look more like kids playing dress-up with mommy and daddy’s lines. But the movie is a hoot, filled with dirty/soapy dialogue (Gellar closes the deal on their bet with the promise, “You can put it anywhere”), a terrific comic turn by Selma Blair, and a girl-on-girl makeout scene as sexy as it is pandering.
The Girl Next Door
The premise of Luke Greenfield’s 2004 comedy is pure dirty fantasy: a horny teenager discovers that his new neighbor and crush object is, in fact, a former porn star. But the subtext is actually kind of sweet — no matter how ridiculous the central situations are (and there are many, and they are ridiculous), our protagonists handle them simply and matter-of-factly, because they like each other and take care of each other. So it’s a surprisingly nice movie, considering what it’s about, but with plenty of opportunities to ogle star Elisha Cuthbert, a gloriously gonzo Timothy Olyphant performance, and James Remar in the role he was born to play: porn kingpin.
Look, this dopey 1966 melodrama is a barrel of laughs, but you don’t have to take my word for it. It’s been championed by no less an intellectual than Woody Allen, who calls it “conceivably the worst movie ever made. It’s so rich in aesthetic incorrectness. There’s an unselfconscious badness about it.”
I’m willing to bet that if you did a survey of people who were between eight and 20 in the 1980s, you’d find more of them had seen The Beastmaster than, say, Citizen Kane or Casablanca. You simply couldn’t avoid it. It was so ubiquitous on HBO that some snickeringly called the network “Hey, Beastmaster is On,” while others dubbed TBS “The Beastmaster Station.” But it’s kind of the perfect ‘80s cable movie: harmless background, unapologetically silly, and good for a laugh. Hell, Rip Torn’s braids alone are funnier than an entire season of Two and a Half Men.
And speaking of cable ubiquity, let us not forget Ron Underwood’s 1990 horror/comedy tale of a giant worm creature burrowing around a Western town, killing people with its tongues. It inspired three direct-to-video follow-ups and a short-lived TV series, but this is the genuine article, and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Kevin Bacon get chased to the edge of a cliff by a worm creature.
A Bucket of Blood
Thanks to its musical comedy staging and film remake, Little Shop of Horrors tends to be the Roger Corman horror/comedy that gets the most respect. But it’s nowhere near as fun as its predecessor in the Corman canon, this spiffy spoof of Beatnik culture, which boasted the same screenwriter, some of the same actors, and (Corman being the spendthrift that he was) many of the same sets.
Director Stuart Gordon combined the storytelling of H.P. Lovecraft, the extreme gore of Herschell Gordon Lewis, and the comic sensibility of Bucket-era Corman to create this fast-paced, crowd-pleasing, laugh-out-loud funny post-modern Frankenstein tale.
Nicolas Cage plays a mentally ill literary agent who gets turned into a vampire and eats (in an unfaked scene) a live cockroach. This is a real movie that exists, and that you can see. In fact, it’s embedded above. Go ahead, watch it. My work is done here.