In a phenomenon peculiar to the movies, audience love to hate certain films. Even more perplexing, they actually enjoy watching bad movies for fun! What is it that fascinates moviegoers about failure? Why do the production stories about the horrors of Heaven’s Gate so preoccupy us? More to the point, why do showings of godawful movies like Showgirls sell out to avid audiences?
The reason: camp. The great cinephile Susan Sontag allowed for two definitions of camp: something intended to be taken seriously that totally fails, or something that goes so far over the top and becomes so outrageous that audiences are never supposed to. The films on this list fall into one category or the other, and regardless, still enjoy cult followings today. Audiences may not take them seriously, but viewers still find enough redeeming about the movies to consider them fun. Maybe that says something about good taste…
12. Rocky Horror Picture Show
The mother of all cult and midnight movies, Rocky Horror proved a big success in London and Los Angeles before Hollywood came knocking. A send-up of classic horror and sci-fi movies, it meditated on the sexual revolution of the 1970s with song and dance. Despite a good deal of deliberate camp, star Barry Bostwick said he and the rest of the cast approached the material as if it were The Sound of Music, rather than some kinky cult musical. Critics and audiences initially felt otherwise, and the film adaptation of the musical bombed on release.
Then, something curious happened: the movie found a following. Several months after the flop release, audiences began flocking to a theatre in New York in costume, and shouting lines at the screen. A flop movie suddenly became a social phenomenon, reflecting 70s counterculture: gay rights, free love, drug use and pure outrageousness. The cult of Rocky Horror continues to this day, regularly selling out live screenings featuring shadow casts.
11. The Adventures Priscilla Queen of the Desert
What’s campier than a drag queen? Try a movie about the campiness of drag queens!
Austrailian gem The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert hit theatres in the 1990s and became an international hit, and helped catapult Guy Pierce and Hugo Weaving to stardom. Weaving plays Mitzi, a drag queen in the midst of a midlife crisis. He enlists his two best friends for a cross-country drive aboard a bus called Priscilla to perform at his ex-wife’s casino (yes, really) and hijinks ensue. Aided by great performances from Weaving, Pierce and, of all people, Terrance Stamp (as a transgendered woman), Priscilla becomes an uproarious comedy as the queens stretch the bounds of credulity, good taste and fashion. In fact, the movie won an Oscar for best costume design, courtesy of a dress made entirely of flip-flops! Silly, strange and unexpectedly moving, showings of the film still attract crowd, most of whom come in drag. Some theatres also show the film in “DragORama;” that is, with a disco ball hanging over the audience.
10. Reefer Madness
When a film about a serious subject fails, it usually fails hard… and becomes outrageously funny. Case in point: Reefer Madness, a 1936 melodrama about a group of high school students who ruin their lives by smoking marijuana. The film played to glib audiences all over the country before falling into obscurity. Then, with recreational marijuana use on the rise in the 1970s, it suddenly found an audience as a camp classic! Pot legalization advocates began showing the film on college campuses to stoned viewers, who found it hilarious. When Robert Shaye, head of notorious grindhouse studio New Line, heard about the movie, he purchased it for wider distribution, making big bucks in the process. Today it still enjoys a large following on DVD and the internet, as the film has fallen into public domain. It was even adapted to a very successful stage musical, which did little to alter the story but played up the campier elements of the original film. The musical too became a success as a cable movie, with a cast that included Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell.
Olivia Newton-John enjoyed a big-screen success with the cheesy nostalgia piece Grease. With her star on the rise as an actress and recording star in the United States, she made a bid for solo stardom, opposite one of the great stars of film, Gene Kelley. Xanadu tried to capitalize on the fads of the moment and the strengths of its stars: a musical set in a roller rink, it featured numerous sequences of Kelley and Newton-John singing on skates with music performed by the popular band ELO. The result, a weird mix of animation, disco, roller-skating and Greek mythology bombed on release. A few hit songs from the soundtrack kept the film in the public consciousness, however, and today it sports a cult following attracted to its misbegotten sense of cinema. Like Reefer Madness, a stage version debuted in 2007 to a positive reception, with a few alterations to make the story comprehensible!
Filmmaker John Waters got his start on the midnight movie circuit of the 70s, making exploitation films to test the constitution of their viewers. Pink Flamingoes, Female Trouble and Desperate Living helped Waters earn a following for his campy, distasteful humor. By 1981 though, Waters decided to try to crossover into mainstream filmmaking… sorta.
Polyester took a cue from the overripe melodramas of 1950s director Douglas Sirk, and from the gimmicks of schlockmaster William Castle. A story of a middle-aged housewife in distress, Waters drafted his muse, 300lbs. drag queen Divine to play the lead role, opposite former heartthrob Tab Hunter. The movie also introduced a system of scratch-and-sniff cards called “Odorama” which would allow audiences to smell the same aromas as the characters, most of which were less than enjoyable. The mix of campy, dark humor, weird casting and Odorama worked: Polyester became a surprise success, earning positive reviews from critics and a strong box office take. Waters became a mainstream director, and the film still enjoys a following today on DVD, complete with Odorama cards!
7. The Apple
Israeli filmmaker Maneham Golan is probably best known to American audiences as the chairman of Canon Films, the studio behind such 1980s low budget schlock as Delta Force, Breakin’ and Masters of the Universe. Before he found his role as a producer, however, Golan tried to sell himself as a director, beginning with this film.
Golan intended The Apple as his answer to the popular rock musical Tommy. Set in the futuristic year of 1994 (cough), the musical tells of a world controlled by an evil recording company, and two young singers who resist the trappings of fame… or, something like that. When it debuted, audiences booed the movie off the screen, even throwing their complimentary LP soundtrack albums! A distraught Golan considered suicide before returning to work as a producer. The Apple then vanished for years until it began showing as a midnight movie in Los Angeles in the vein of Rocky Horror. The internet and positive word of mouth helped the forgotten movie become a camp classic which needs to be seen to be believed.
6. Flash Gordon
With the Star Wars phenomenon continuing into the 1980s, Italian superproducer Dino De Laurentiis decided to get in on the big-budget sci-fi game. For inspiration he turned to the matinee serials that had inspired George Lucas, Flash Gordon. De Laurentiis wanted an epic feel to the movie to match that of Star Wars, but he also wanted a somewhat funny tone to match that of the original comic strips. With a cast that included Max von Sydow, Brian Blessed, Timothy Dalton and a soundtrack by the rock band Queen, the bright and weird movie did decent business, though it failed to gain much of a loyal following. Today fans of sci-fi movies cite the film as a campfest which makes fun of familiar genre tropes. Star Sam J. Jones remains a popular figure on the convention circuit despite Flash Gordon being his only role as a leading man.
5. Basic Instinct 2
Sharon Stone took the world by storm in 1992 with her icy performance in the erotic thriller Basic Instinct. The film also became one of the biggest of the year, leaving the producers wanting more. One problem: Stone became a major star, and for years resisted offers to work on a sequel. She eventually relented, though a series of production issues delayed the film for more than 14 years. By that time, audience demand for the film had faded, and Stone no longer enjoyed the same amount of star power. The movie tried to emulate the same trashy tone of the original, but for contemporary audiences, it just seemed silly. Basic Instinct 2 quickly bombed at the box office, and almost immediately became a classic camp film. Stone’s over the top performance as a dirty talking, bisexual author became noted for its hilarity, as did lines of dialogue like “Even Oedipus didn’t see his mother coming.” Film critic Roger Ebert noted in his review that even though the movie was horrendous, people would probably still enjoy it thanks to its camp factor. Given all the nudity, it could have also been titled Leave it to Beaver!
Dino de Laurentiis recognized the coming popularity of sci-fi and comic book films long before anyone else. For proof, look no further than his 1968 production of Barbarella, starring future two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda. Do not, however, look to the film for a dose of serious sci-fi or comic book fare!
Barbarella follows an Earthling commando charged with defeating a mad scientist who has created a powerful death ray. As a citizen of Earth, Barbarella espouses love to all she meets… to the point of having wild sex with just about everyone! At one point, when captured, the heroine is also forced to endure a machine that will give her so much sexual pleasure, it will kill her. Fonda plays the role totally straight, and though the goofy tone of the film initially alienated audiences, it became a cult film owing to the camp and Fonda’s later popularity.
3. Batman: The Movie
Batman had already become a campy hit on television when DC Comics and 20th Century Fox decided to take the Dynamic Duo to the big screen. The film sported a much larger budget as well as four popular villains from the series, and adopted the same broad, comic tone for a cinematic campfest. Though many a Bat-fan would cringe at the movie today, it attracted a large audience and solid critical notice. The popularity of Batman in comics and film would have made it a cult film anyway, though frequent showings on television and the broad, campy tone have attracted a following of its own. Memorable sequences include the Joker, Catwoman, Riddler and Penguin riding on giant rocket umbrellas, and a notable sequence where Batman races up and down a waterfront trying to get rid of a bomb. The finale of The Dark Knight Rises can even be taken as an homage to the original, silly hit.
2. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Before becoming the most important film critic of all time, Roger Ebert tried his hand at screenwriting with this oddity. Collaborating with notorious exploitation director Russ Meyer, Ebert crafted a satire of Hollywood complete with musical numbers, a transvestite character and shocking violence. The title alludes to the notorious adaptation of Valley of the Dolls, itself a tale of the dark side of showbiz, and a camp classic in its own right.
When it debuted in theatres, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls did solid business, though it perplexed critics and viewers alike. Since then, owing in part to the reputations of Ebert and Meyer, the film enjoys a cult following, with some critics even naming it one of the best films of all time! Ebert, for his part, always insisted that he and director Meyer intended the campy tone of the film, though rival critics suggest otherwise.
Nobody who endured Showgirls could ever watch Saved by the Bell the same way again. For that matter, anyone who watched Showgirls could never look at Las Vegas the same way again!
Hot off the success of Basic Instinct, director Paul Verhoveen and writer Joe Esterhaus decided to one up themselves with an erotic drama set against the backdrop of a Las Vegas show. Saved by the Bell actress Elizabeth Berkley attempted to transition to adult film roles with the movie, which had a less-than-desired outcome. Loaded with graphic violence, nudity and endless sex scenes, Showgirls opened to disastrous reviews and bombed at the box office (the NC-17 rating didn’t help either). Since then, its become a top selling title on home media, and boasts an avid cult following today. Viewers find the overcoreographed sex scenes hilarious, and even Berkley has confessed that she finds her own performance dreadful—and funny.