Bad cinema goes gold

In February and March, just before the Academy Awards, all sorts of critics start talking about the great movies of today and yesterday. The Turner Classic Movies channel has its “31 Days of Oscar” month, during which they show 346 Oscar winners and nominees. Premiere magazine just came out with an issue listing the best movie moments of all time.

But amid all this celebration, I have grown concerned that these lists and movie festivals are problematic. In fact, they are downright elitist. What about the truly awful movies that by the sheer power of their atrociousness manage to linger in our minds and haunt us for years? What about the movies that are so awful the only euphemisms we find for them are “underrated gems” or “cult favorites”?

In this column, I seek to redeem some of these cinematic travesties by compiling five of the best moments in the worst movies ever made. Of course, this list of all-stars is hardly comprehensive; while some movie fans suggested I include films like “Glitter” and “Santa with Muscles,” there was (unfortunately) no room for them. So although there may be some glaring omissions, I hope the list will stand as a reminder that even the most disposable of movies have some moments that transcend film and find a way into our hearts and minds.

5: “Revenge of the Nerds”

Memorable quote: “I’m a Nerd.”

The Alpha-Beta fraternity has just trashed the Nerds’ house, and this time Gilbert Lowell (Anthony Edwards) decides that he won’t take it anymore. In the poignant final scene, he walks up to the homecoming bonfire at Adams College and addresses the students with a fervor last seen in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Then, his friend, Louis (Robert Carradine), joins him and says, “I have a message for all the beautiful people – there’s a lot more of us than there are of you, so watch out.” They both call to the students for support and group together in front of the frazzled members of Alpha-Beta, as Queen’s “We Are The Champions” begins to play, bringing the audience to tears.

4: “Kindergarten Cop”

Memorable quote: “Who is your daddy, and what does he do?”

Arnold Schwarznegger plays Detective John Kimble, a tough cop who has to go undercover in a small town as a kindergarten teacher. His mission: locate the estranged wife and son of a dangerous criminal and warn them that they might be in danger. In order to find out more about his pupils and possibly find who he is looking for, he gets his class to play the “Who is your daddy, and what does he do?” game. The answers that follow are classic: “My dad’s a gynecologist. He looks at vaginas all day long” and “our mom says our dad is a real sex machine,” making this one of Schwarznegger’s finest comic scenes (I realize that is not saying much).

3: “The Gate”

Memorable feature: Poorly made, ridiculous-looking little demons.

Three teenagers find out that a gaping hole in their backyard, left after a tree was uprooted by lightning (hey, it could happen), is actually the gate to hell after listening to a hidden message in a heavy metal album. Best ever premise for a horror movie? Possibly. And that premise is turned to cinematic gold by the little demons that don’t die; instead they break apart and reform, a scene blatantly ripped off years later by James Cameron in “Terminator 2.”

2: “Wrongfully Accused”

Memorable quote: “Freeze, Harrison!”

Despite my love for this movie, I have to admit that it’s a bottom-feeder in the great scheme of things. Comic god Leslie Nielsen plays Ryan Harrison, a man who has been wrongfully accused of a murder and escapes from prison, vowing to bring the real killer – a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed man – to justice. Besides the classic Nielsen one-liners (“Your lies are like bananas: They come in big, yellow bunches”), the movie features a parody of “The Usual Suspects” – Harrison, in a fishing supplies store, comes up with a story based solely on the items in display behind the counter. A piece of perfect parody, it even features John Walsh as the suspicious law-enforcer who lets Harrison slip from his fingers.

1: “Invasion U.S.A.”

Memorable quote: “It’s time. . .”

No article dealing with mediocrity in film would be complete without mentioning action superstar Chuck Norris. “Invasion U.S.A.,” a movie Leonard Maltin deemed to be “repellent in the extreme,” stands as one of his finest achievements, along with “Delta Force” and the “Missing in Action” series. In this 1985 bomb, a communist terrorist group invades the U.S., and only retired CIA agent Max Hunter (Norris) can stop them. So many scenes of this film could be mentioned here: the incredibly exploitative scene where an idyllic, happy family finishes putting up a giant Christmas tree on their lawn only to have their house hit by a bazooka blast seconds later; the scene of terrorists attacking a shopping mall and killing Santa; or any of Norris’ catchphrases (“Send me a postcard,” “It’s time to die”). But the most amazing scene is the end of the film, where Hunter and Rostov, the terrorist leader, face off in an office building. In a moment that redefines all that we thought we knew about the bad guy/good guy relationship, Hunter and Rostov engage in a classic shootout – with bazookas. It is one of those moments that walks the fine line between “genre-transcending” and “mind-numbingly gratuitous violence” – a line that, unfortunately, so few producers dare walk these days.