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10 Famously Bad Movies You Didn’t Know Were Secret Masterpieces

by Morris M.
fact checked by Jamie Frater

There are two kinds of bad movies. The kind that are instantly forgotten and the kind that live on forever in your nightmares. Films like Battlefield Earth, Heaven’s Gate, and Speed 2. Together, they form the benchmark of bad, the yardstick by which all future failures must be judged. They are films with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Or are they? Turns out some seriously well-qualified people disagree with how we judge our movies. By their count, the following turkeys aren’t even turkeys at all. They’re secretly masterpieces. See what you think.

10 The Happening Is A Misunderstood Parable

mark wahlberg talks to a tree

The Bad Movie

M. Night Shyamalan’s film about a family on the run from suicide-inducing plants is so awful its lead actor publicly apologized for it. Aside from being full of unintentional comedy, it features a script where nothing happens. Once the creepy suicides at the start are over, there’s no character development, no build-up of tension, no climax. The entire film just fizzles out. Badly.

The Masterpiece

The critics at Den of Geek see things differently. They argue The Happening’s flaws are the result of M. Night Shyamalan deliberately structuring the movie backward.

Instead of following a traditional plot of slow start, build-up, action, and climax, The Happening starts with its climax: the mass suicides. From there it slows down and keeps getting slower until the pace is nearly glacial. Mark Wahlberg’s character also goes backward. Starting with an act of heroism (trying to save his wife), he then becomes slowly less heroic and more detached from the world around him. By the end, he’s lonely and lost—the sort of character a blockbuster might start with and build into a hero.

The Den of Geek critics claim this structure shows the movie is really about suicide. Wahlberg’s journey from normal family man to someone cut off from everyone around him mirrors a journey into depression. He also exhibits other signs, such as lack of control and inability to express joy.

Although few agree with their take, they are at least in good company. Roger Ebert praised the film’s realism and called it an “oddly touching” parable.

9 Armageddon And The Rock Are The Work Of An Auteur

Armageddon – Official® Trailer [HD]

The Bad Movie

A pair of Michael Bay blockbusters, Armageddon and The Rock are considered brainless action movies at best, and downright trash at worst. Both suffer from one-dimensional characters, flat scripts, and badly choreographed fight scenes.

The Masterpiece

In 2008, brainy art house DVD publisher Criterion caused a stir when they released Armageddon between Tokyo Drifter and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. A couple of years later, they also released The Rock. Many assumed Criterion was doing Michael Bay a favor in return for some art house movie rights he owned. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the official essay to accompany the Armageddon release, film historian Jeanine Basinger called it “a work of art by a cutting-edge artist who is a master of movement, light, color, and shape.” She also praised Bay’s “amazing eye for composition,” and his ability to nearly dispense with narrative, telling his story in a nonverbal way. In her opinion, the film is little short of a technical master class.

Others have echoed these sentiments. Sound On Sight magazine noted how The Rock’s “badly choreographed” fight scenes actually communicated key facts about the mental state of the characters. They also think the cliched dialogue comes from the characters being deliberate archetypes. Instead of a brash populist, they argue Bay is really a brilliant auteur.

8Showgirls Is A Genius Satire

Everything Wrong With Showgirls In Many Minutes

The Bad Movie

An NC-17 drama about a Vegas dancer who strips her way to fame, Showgirls is the epitome of schlock. Rotten Tomatoes awards it 19 percent. One film historian has even said “Showgirls bad” is a culturally recognizable adjective.

The Masterpiece

Experts say the detractors are all making a big mistake. Showgirls was never meant to be a drama. It’s a deliberately bonkers satire on cinema.

The film steals heavily from pictures like All About Eve and 42nd Street, and stuffs its cast with stereotypes from “a star is born”–style stories. It also plays out like a typical “rags to riches” tale, but in a nasty way. According to Slant Magazine, this is because director Paul Verhoeven is intentionally attacking “morally bankrupt” plots that convince ordinary people they want to be celebrities. By making sure the main character never learns any lesson, he’s showing how the myth of celebrity will never die, no matter how disgusting and perverted it’s revealed to be.

Others share this opinion. Critics for the super-respectable Film Quarterly called Showgirls “extraordinarily complex” and argued that it was really an indictment of American capitalist values, as well as impossible to categorize. While some still admitted it was camp, they nonetheless found it much more layered than its reputation would suggest.

7 Revenge Of The Sith Is An Important Work Of Art

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – Trailer

The Bad Movie

Although it’s generally considered the best of a bad trilogy, Revenge of the Sith is still derided for being an overly CGI-reliant snoozefest. Awful dialogue and a crappy plot don’t help either.

The Masterpiece

For respected art critic Camille Paglia, none of these considerations come into it. She’s publicly declared Revenge of the Sith the greatest work of art produced in any medium in the last 30 years.

According to Paglia, George Lucas has combined art and technology better than anyone else. Aside from creating “a vast, original, self-referential mythology like that of James Macpherson’s pseudo-Celtic Ossian poems,” he managed to mix multiple art forms together in a totally unique way. The final duel in Sith combines choreography, special effects, documentary footage of an erupting volcano, and allegorical references to Dante and Blake. The lava planet setting also mirrors Annakin’s psychological state. He’s mentally and physically in Hell.

Other references also enrich the film. The destruction of the Senate by the evil Emperor takes inspiration from J.W. Turner’s picture of London’s Parliament burning. The music score is meant to bring to mind a Black Mass. For Paglia, these intertwining ideas elevate Episode III from entertainment into truly great art.

6 Evil Dead II Is Better Than Seven Samurai

Evil Dead 2 : Dead by Dawn Original Theatrical Trailer

The Bad Movie

Sam Raimi’s enjoyable, blood-splattered horror/comedy Evil Dead II is in no way a bad movie. It’s also not a great one. No one would claim it was better than The Graduate or Annie Hall or 8 ½.

The Masterpiece

Empire did exactly that. In 2008, the magazine selected its 500 greatest movies of all time. Evil Dead II was placed at No. 49, ahead of the films above, plus The Shining and Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai. Their reason was it was more influential, experimental, and unique than any of those films.

It’s the sort of assertion that would have most cinephiles howling in rage, but Empire is far from alone. Roger Ebert called Evil Dead II a sophisticated satire and claimed the first 45 minutes were “inspired genius.” The New York Times said it was “essential viewing among connoisseurs of truly demented cinema.”

This is largely due to Raimi’s decision to script the film as a horror and film it as a comedy. Instead of being nauseating, the blood becomes surrealistic. The rapid-fire gags give the plot a uniquely off-kilter atmosphere. The camerawork is so impressive Roger Ebert called its long-take sequence “some kind of masterpiece.” It may not be a traditional masterpiece, but Evil Dead II is still a masterpiece all the same.

5 The Room Is The Ultimate Outsider Art

Best of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room

The Bad Movie

Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has been called the Citizen Kane of bad movies. Its dialogue is awful. Its plot doesn’t make sense. The camerawork is appalling, and it’s filled with creepy soft-core sex scenes.

The Masterpiece

Nobody’s trying to claim The Room is great cinema. It’s technically awful. But The Atlantic thinks that might not matter. According to them, The Room might be a glorious example of “outsider art.”

Traditionally, outsider art is considered to be art made for its own sake, away from the influence of professionals and purely so its creator can express himself or herself. It tends to be raw, sincere, and heavily at odds with mainstream taste. It also tends to be deeply personal. The Room fulfills every single one of those criteria.

With Wiseau acting as producer, director, writer, financier, and lead actor, every frame of The Room bears the stamp of his vision. Rather than just shoot his movie quick and cheap like most bad directors, Wiseau spent a stupidly long time getting everything just as he wanted it. The script alone took six years. That it’s still considered awful by the mainstream only adds to its outsider art credentials.

4 The Brown Bunny Is A Sad And Tender Masterwork

The Bad Movie

The Brown Bunny is infamous for two things: an explicit oral sex scene and Roger Ebert calling it the worst movie ever shown at Cannes. Critical consensus is that it’s the most pretentious and boring film ever put to screen.

The Masterpiece

The part that always gets left out from the Ebert story is that he later retracted his accusations. After Cannes, Vincent Gallo trimmed out roughly a quarter of his movie, cutting scenes like an eight-minute shot out a car window. The new edit then made it into cinemas, where Ebert promptly awarded the film the best review it ever had.

In his revised review, Ebert claimed Gallo’s editing “set free the good film inside.” According to him, it had now become a tender and sad study of loneliness and need, with Gallo giving a defenseless performance “not one actor in a hundred would have the nerve to imitate.” He also praised the infamous blowjob scene, saying it repurposed the materials of pornography in such a way as to make the film itself more emotionally complex. Although he didn’t award it a full four stars, he still declared it a good film—a far cry from its popular reputation.

3 Uwe Boll’s Auschwitz Is Genuinely Moving

Auschwitz – an Uwe Boll Film (First Teaser)

The Bad Movie

Uwe Boll has a reputation for making trashy movies in poor taste. So when he announced he was making a film about Auschwitz, people got seriously upset. The film currently has a score of 3.3 (out of 10) on IMDB.

The Masterpiece

Unlikely as it seems, the few critics who actually saw it disagree. They claim Auschwitz isn’t just a good Uwe Boll film. It’s a good film, period.

Boll’s technique was to try and portray Auschwitz life exactly as it happened. This means no heroes, no identifiable characters, and no mercy. The effects of the gas chambers were filmed dispassionately and brutally, and the murder of children was depicted onscreen. The result was effective, to say the least. The critic for Mic said it showed perfectly the banality of evil and how ordinary people can commit atrocious acts. He also praised its sober direction, which stopped short of sensationalizing the Holocaust.

Indie-loving film magazine Little White Lies concurred. Their reviewer called Auschwitz “an unexpectedly serious, sober and sensitive history lesson” and highlighted how its Gestapo guards are depicted as ordinary working men caught up in extraordinary evil.

2 Speed 2 Is The Ultimate Summer Movie

Speed 2 Cruise Control (1998) | Movie Trailer | Sandra Bullock, Williem Dafoe

The Bad Movie

An evil villain driven mad by electromagnets. A boat that can’t slow down. A chainsaw hidden on a Caribbean cruise ship. Speed 2 has all the elements of a fantastically awful film. Rotten Tomatoes has its score at an unbelievable 3 percent.

The Masterpiece

We’ve heard from Roger Ebert a few times in this article, with good reason. He was one of the most respected critics the USA ever produced, with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. And with all these incredible films swimming around his head, he still found time for Speed 2.

Calling it the ultimate summer movie, Ebert picked out the special effects when the cruise ship crashes into the harbor as being especially noteworthy. Ebert website blogger Gerardo Valero took things even further. In an exhaustive analysis of the film, he pointed out how unique it is in letting its villain essentially win. Although Willem Defoe’s bad guy gets killed and loses his diamonds, he still manages to blow up an oil tanker in the middle of the ocean, an act that would lead to environmental catastrophe. He even claimed the movie’s many goofs work in its favor. Like the disaster movies of old, the star is the event itself.

1 Ed Wood Was An Underappreciated Artist

plan 9 from outer space (trailer)

The Bad Movie

The director of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Ed Wood is frequently called the worst director in history. His plots made no sense, his films were full of goofs, and his stories devoted an enormous amount of time to cross-dressing and kinky sex. By the end of his career, he was making pornography to keep the repo men at bay.

The Masterpiece

There are serious academics and scholars out there who think Ed Wood wasn’t a hack. They think he deserves a place alongside directors like Luis Brunel and Jean Luc Goddard.

In 2009, Rob Craig published the first serious, scholarly text on Ed Wood. He made the case that the absurdities of Wood’s films could fall under the category of Brechtian device. The wobbly sets, the ridiculous dialogue, and scenes flicking between day and night are meant to call attention to the absurd nature of film itself. Others agree. According to their interpretation, Wood’s best films are stuffed with symbolism and are intentionally surreal, to the point of appearing like a contemporary experimental film.

A writer for the magazine Cult Movies maintains even Wood’s pornographic films have sequences so engagingly weird they likely qualify as high art. Slamdance Festival considers him a hero. Far from being a failure, Ed Wood may have been the greatest kitsch artist of the century.

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Morris M.

Morris M. is Listverse's official news human, trawling the depths of the media so you don't have to. He avoids Facebook and Twitter like the plague.