10 Trash Cinema Masterpieces


The next time someone criticizes your love of Dolemite, Galaxy of Terror, Ninja III: The Domination, and Burial Ground, show them this study published by the journal Poetics earlier this week — which links a love of trash films to high intelligence. And as if right on cue, John Waters underground masterpiece Multiple Maniacs, about a deranged sideshow act, has been restored by the Criterion Collection/Janus Films and is being given a theatrical run. We collected ten other trash film favorites to bookmark for viewing — sleazy, silly, and (occasionally) surprisingly sophisticated despite their low-budget antics.

Two Thousand Maniacs!

Herschell Gordon Lewis’ savage Southern-fried splatter film is the granddaddy of all Northerner-faces-horrible-fate-in-rural-South tales, set during a Centennial celebration that goes bonkers. The filmmaker considers it the best of his gore trilogy: “First of all, Two Thousand Maniacs! has respectable acting in it. It has a different kind of horror. It has mounting horror; it’s not just mindless gore. And I wrote the script, and it’s my voice on the soundtrack doing the sing-song opening theme. Not that I’d ever felt like an auteur, I don’t dare take that posture with movies that were that cheap.” And in case it didn’t hit you by now, John Waters paid homage to Lewis’ 1964 film with the title of his underground classic Multiple Maniacs.

Sins of the Fleshapoids

The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray on Mike Kuchar’s lo-fi sci-fi film about a robot infatuated with a human woman:

Style more than subject matter distinguishes the film. Shot in high-contrast color on a cobbled-together set, Sins Of The Fleshapoids is meta-phony, a handmade piece of art designed to look like a tawdry, underfinanced fantasy epic. Kuchar lets an overexcited narrator explain the action, while he scratches dialogue into the frame in the form of comic-book word balloons. The movie is less about plot than about watching a supine shirtless guy eat a Clark Bar, but that image alone carries meaning for any gay teen who ever watched Fire Maidens From Outer Space and wished the astronauts would find a colony of men for a change.

Forbidden Zone

From critic Zev Toledano on Richard Elfman’s lunatic alt-universe midnight movie:

Forget Rocky Horror Picture Show. This incredibly offbeat cult musical is much more bizarre and creative, and even quite amusing at times. Try to imagine very quirky comic-book characters mixed with John Waters trashy acting, costumes that look like someone collected every item in cheap leftover wardrobes and put them together randomly, sets made of cardboard and sketches, some stop motion animation, very unpredictable behaviour and plot development, and campy dialog. The story isn’t the star of the movie but it involves a door to a sixth dimension via a large intestine, where a midget king rules while a tuxedo wearing frog waits and a human chandelier swings. Other characters include a machine-gun toting schoolteacher, Satan, chicken boy, and a trio of prostitutes who get humped by passers-by. This one makes you wonder whether someone slipped you a drug in your drink.

Manos: The Hands of Fate

Mystery Science Theater 3000 helped bring Manos: The Hands of Fate reeling into the public consciousness, but cult cinema fans were already familiar with Harold P. Warren’s trashy opus. When a vacationing family gets lost in the Texas desert, they stumble upon a devilish cult. Perhaps more fearsome than the “Master” and his servant Torgo is the absurd acting, confusing editing, and nonsensical inserts that have nothing to do with the “plot.” But Manos lives on in infamy as an endurance test for cult cinema fans who are eternally searching for the best worst movies ever made.

The Sinful Dwarf

From Rodney Perkins on Vidal Raski’s offensive and delirious 1973 film The Sinful Dwarf:

The Sinful Dwarf is fundamentally a cheap, crude sex movie but it has two exceptional features. As previously mentioned, the main attraction of this film is Torben Bille. He ambles and skulks around like an evil kid. The way the camera often focuses tightly on his twitching, slobbering face is a funny as it is sickening. The other interesting aspect of the film is the way its is edited. Innocuous moments, usually involving toys or bad humor, are consistently juxtaposed with loathsome or offensive acts. It is a dubious but effective way to link the filthy scenes to the rest of the movie.

It’s Alive

A mutant baby kills, threatening to tear a family apart in Larry Cohen’s 1974 film — which features a score from Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann and special effects makeup from the great Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London). From Sound on Sight:

Although not his first feature, It’s Alive helped establish Larry Cohen’s reputation as a director of ingenious low-budget genre films, which come with unexpected twists, conflicted anti-heroes, dark humour, and sympathy for monsters, both human and non-human. . . . Scratching under the surface is a few issues that perhaps Cohen didn’t fully address including abortion, but It’s Alive still remains provocative and leaves one with much to think about regarding unconditional love, parental responsibility, guilt, intolerance and institutional care. The script also hints that the mutation was a result of either environmental pollution or inadequately tested fertility drugs, a concept later explored more fully in the sequels It Lives Again and Island of the Alive – neither however, has deeply terrifying as this.

Meet the Feebles

Before he gave us The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson showed us the sleazy side of puppets in his 1989 black comedy Meet the Feebles, featuring obscene Jim Henson-esque characters doing terrible things to each other. From Nick Cramp’s BBC review:

It could be argued that Meet the Feebles is a satirical take on the monster of showbusiness. It could equally be argued that the director’s intention was simply to be as offensive as possible. With its wilful grotesquery and soap opera storyline this is novelty trash, but nevertheless succeeds in rising above itself. Potential viewers will either love or hate it.

The Toxic Avenger

Low-budget indie label Troma found its mascot with 1985’s The Toxic Avenger, which saw success on the midnight movie circuit thanks to the classic zero-to-hero story behind its mutant protagonist, born from a vat of toxic waste. The A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps gives his assessment of the Lloyd Kaufman gem:

The Toxic Avenger was one of the first titles to prove that a film could build an audience without much theatrical play. If it weren’t for junior-high sleepovers and The USA Network, chances are good that you would never have heard of The Toxic Avenger. Chances are also good that, without Troma to lead the charge, the video industry would have taken several more years to discover that you can skip the hassle of theaters and convince the yokels to take your luridly advertised exploitation film directly home with them. Confused by the proliferation of erotic thrillers and low-budget horror films on the video shelf? Blame Troma. As for the movie itself, it’s still a piece of trash, if a marginally entertaining one: It’s too self-consciously parodic to be good kitsch, and too gross to be all that fun. Someone had to pick up the exploitation film torch.

Black Devil Doll from Hell

We celebrated Black Devil Doll From Hell in our list of the greatest midnight movies of all time:

Chester Novell Turner directed only two films, but found cult status amongst VHS acolytes with this insane, essential movie about a perverted ventriloquist’s dummy. The movie succeeded on midnight screens in large part due to the fans’ love, but also a myth that the director had been tragically killed. Read about the fascinating history of Black Devil Doll from Hell in the New York Times.


A medical student pulls a Frankenstein and rebuilds his dead fiancée from the parts of New York City prostitutes. From Slant on director Frank Henenlotter’s gross-out horror-comedy:

After producer James (The Exterminator) Glickenhaus shot down his first script idea mid-pitch, Henenlotter concocted Frankenhooker on the spot as a mix-n’-match of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and Universal’s Frankenstein films. Henenlotter has done his fair share to dodge guilt by association with the horror genre, preferring the self-description ‘exploitation filmmaker,’ and Frankenhooker certainly bears this out by abstaining from the gonzo go-for-gross that highlighted Henenlotter’s first two films, Basket Case and Brain Damage, and placing the emphasis squarely on absurdist humor. The aforementioned deathless brain, for instance, makes a guest appearance in the opening scenes, floating in an aquarium full of purple water, one lone eyeball rolling in the middle of its gray matter, as our mad scientist in residence, Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz), delicately taps surgical scalpels into various lobes and cortexes with a ball-peen hammer.