Not every film can be the Citizen Kane of its day. For every high-budget “A movie” that commands significant promotion and funding from its studio, there are piles of B movies that scratch and claw their way into existence without the benefit of things like “a budget” or “a script” in some cases. To compare them with A movies in terms of resources and immersiveness isn’t a fair proposition. Instead, discerning film fans are able to simply appreciate them for what they are.
But what does “best” mean when we’re talking about films often famous for their shoddy construction? It certainly doesn’t mean “best-made.” It also doesn’t mean “worst-made,” or else films like Manos: The Hands of Fate and The Beast of Yucca Flats would make prominent appearances. They’re not on this list because the meaning of “best” here is “most entertaining,” and I defy you to be entertained by Manos without its MST3k commentary or a pound of medical-grade marijuana. If these films are painful, they’re also equally fun.
Whenever possible, I tried to keep the list to more obscure titles. Although John Carpenter’s Halloween is a great example of a superbly made “B movie” in terms of budget, any film fan has most likely seen it already. Gathered here is a collection of some of the most entertainingly cheap and endearingly bad movies ever made.
100. The Giant Claw
Director: Fred F. Sears
The Giant Claw is not the most captivating of the classic 1950s “giant monster running amok” movies, but it must be seen exclusively for the fact that it features the goofiest-looking movie monster of all time. This thing—this “antimatter space buzzard,” as it is eventually called—is so laughably stupid that it’s hard to believe they actually chose to feature it so extensively in the trailer rather than hiding it from sight. The poor actors weren’t even aware of how incredibly lame the monster would be until they saw the completed film, and by then it was too late. The Giant Claw stands as a classic example of 1950s drive-in cheese.
99. Hercules in New York
Director: Arthur Allen Seidelman
Remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger burst into the public consciousness with Conan the Barbarian and late night hosts mocked his stilted English? Well, that movie was made in 1982, after Arnold had been studying the language for more than a decade. Hercules in New York was his first feature film, credited as “Arnold Strong, Mr. Universe” because “Schwarzenegger” was too long. A massive 22-year-old with zero acting experience or charisma, he’s absolutely lost in this thing, casually strolling around New York and competing as a pro wrestler. His line delivery was so unintelligible he had to be completely dubbed, but evidence of the original can still be found. The words are so flat and vapid, he’s like a muscle-bound Lennie Small. It’s captivatingly bad because there’s so little evidence of the fun, campy actor he later became.
98. The Big Doll House
Director: Jack Hill
There are certain genres you have to check off in a list like this, and the “women in prison” film is a classic sub-type of the larger 1970s exploitation genre. You know what you’re getting here: Nudity, abusive guards, a plethora of shower scenes and a daring escape. It’s pure sleaze all the way. Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat is a bit better known, but The Big Doll House is more sincere and less satirical. It’s also one of the earliest appearances of blaxploitation legend, Pam Grier, who will recur on this list. Director Jack Hill clearly saw something in her (or at least liked seeing her naked), as he went on to direct several of Grier’s blaxploitation classics, such as Coffy and Foxy Brown. So really, this is one form of exploitation movie giving birth to another.
97. I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle
Director: Dirk Campbell
If I gave you three guesses, do you think you could suss out the basic gist of this film? If you ventured “guy buys a motorcycle that is also a vampire,” then you would be correct. This trashy British horror-comedy is partially successful in its satire of American cheapo horror schlock in the style of Troma Entertainment, but it’s also got plenty of sincere badness of its own. It’s that rare sort of film that is amusing both in its intentional corniness and its unintentional badness, which is not a common combination. It’s just a gloomy, bizarre film, with scenes that include a dream sequence featuring a talking turd in the hero’s toilet. You probably don’t want to see that, but if you do, I won’t judge. It’s exactly what the trailer implies from the first lines: “Most good motorcycles run on gasoline. This is a bad motorcycle. It runs on blood.”
96. Iron Sky
Director: Timo Vuorensola
This movie isn’t nearly as funny or clever as it thinks it is, but damn if it doesn’t earn a spot on the list just through strength of premise alone. In the annals of great premises for B movies, “Nazis from the dark side of the moon invading Earth” is an instant classic. It helps that the movie looks great for an entry in the straight-to-video segment, and the acting is serviceably campy. The political humor is a bit much and the Sarah Palin-esque American president quickly grows grating, but it’s no worse than you’d see in your average mockbuster from The Asylum, coupled with much higher production values. It’s a premise that could have been an all-time classic, but even as is, it’s tough not to enjoy Iron Sky as gleefully stupid entertainment.
95. Mazes and Monsters
Director: Steven Hilliard Stern
File this one into the “before they were famous” category. Starring a 26-year-old Tom Hanks in his first feature film lead, six years before Big, this movie is the perfect encapsulation of the early 1980s D&D moral panic. Its “research” is hilariously poor, painting a D&D-style roleplaying game as a life-devouring descent into the depths of Satanism and mental illness. Hanks plays the resident psycho of the group, who falls so deeply into his cleric character that he takes to wandering the streets of New York, murdering hoboes he mistakes for orcs. It’s incredibly dour, tackling its subject matter in the same blind, contextless way that Reefer Madness handled pot 50 years earlier, and in the process proving how little we’ve learned. This is the kind of film you find in a pawn shop today in a hand-printed DVD case with a 40-year-old Tom Hanks’ face plastered on it. “You like Tom Hanks, right? Sure you do. You should buy this exciting movie starring Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks.”
Year: 2012 (technically)
Director: Larry Kasanoff
The saga of Foodfight! is the story of its development, not its actual plot. Conceived from the very beginning as an experiment in product branding and consumerism, this animated adventure features dozens of household brands and mascots such as Mr. Clean as characters. Taking place in a supermarket for good brand access, it stars the voices of Charlie Sheen as talking dog/super spy Dex Dogtective and Hilary Duff as “Sunshine Goodness,” his cat-faced love interest. Also attached to this turd: Eva Longoria, Christopher Lloyd, Jerry Stiller and Chris Kattan, among others. The reason you’ve probably never heard of it is because it was originally intended for release all the way back in 2003, before the hard drives containing all the animation were stolen. The near-complete film had to be restarted all over again, the animation style was changed and extreme cost-saving measures were brought in. The result is absolutely the most nightmarishly bad-looking film ever made for a budget of $45 million. The entire time you’re watching this feature-length commercial, you’ll simply be wondering where all that money could possibly have gone.
Director: John Frankenheimer
I have no idea why this film was named Prophecy, except that “15-foot mutant bipedal bear” was sort of a clunky title. Regardless, that’s exactly what it’s about: A bear monster mutated by a combination of man’s hubris and some industrial-strength industrial waste. The movie wants to have a serious message about pollution and the rape of the natural world, but it’s impossible to get past how bizarre the monster looks. The highlight is one of the silliest death scenes ever, when a small kid in a banana-yellow sleeping bag gets swatted through the air by the bear, striking a rock and exploding into a rain of goose down. I can’t see how this could ever have drawn any reaction but laughter in a theater.
92. Death Bed: The Bed That Eats
Director: George Barry
Immortalized in an incredible stand-up routine from Patton Oswalt, this is one of those great, lost films that finally found its way onto DVD a few years ago and was embraced by bad movie lovers around the world. The plot couldn’t be more simple: There’s a bed, and it’s evil! It eats stuff! What kind of stuff? Well, the bed’s not picky, just about anything will do: Teens, criminals, buckets of fried chicken and a bottle of wine are all on the menu. At one point, the freaking DEATH BED even gets indigestion, but thankfully there’s a bottle of Pepto Bismol lying on it at the time. Admit it, that’s a far better sponsorship tie-in than anything in the Transformers series.
91. King Kong Lives
Director: John Guillermin
Until Peter Jackson’s passable remake, American King Kong movies were a little bit like the Jaws series, growing progressively cheaper, uglier and more ridiculous with every installment. This ill-fated 1986 effort picks up where the better-known 1976 remake left off, with Kong having seemingly plummeted to his death off the World Trade Centers. But hey, turns out he’s fine! And not only is he fine, but scientists have located a female giant ape of his species for a necessary blood transfusion. They soon break out and go on the lam, pursued by the military. That might sound exciting, but this film is primarily amusing for how badly it butchers the legacy of one of screendom’s most iconic characters. The special effects are beyond awful, somehow managing to look less dynamic than the 1933 original. Even the Japanese portrayals of Kong fighting monsters like Godzilla manage to have more dignity than this piece of garbage.