disreputable art

A Forgotten Chapter in the Rowdy History of Bad-movie Lovers

Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Cheech & Chong, and Gilda Radner in It Came From Hollywood (1982). Photo: Paramount Pictures

When Paramount Pictures released It Came From Hollywood, a cinematic tribute to the worst movies ever made, it was barely received with more enthusiasm than the pictures excerpted within it. The film, which hit theaters 40 years ago, was a compilation of low-budget genre and exploitation films of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, broken up into subgenre segments (“Gorillas,” “Aliens,” “Troubled Teenagers,” “The Animal Kingdom Goes Berserk,” etc.); those segments were accompanied by introductions and commentary by comedy stars Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Cheech & Chong, and Gilda Radner.

Yet in spite of those big names, It Came From Hollywood grossed a mere $2 million in its theatrical release, a significant loss on its $5 million budget. “It Came … and Went,” cracked Variety, and the film is now all but forgotten. It was never released on home media, beyond VHS and laserdisc; a DVD release was announced in 2002 and subsequently canceled, presumably due to the cost and difficulty of clip licensing; and it is not available on any streaming services or even for digital rental or purchase, perhaps for the same reason. (It can only be seen online, at least for the time being, via YouTube.)

But for a time in the mid-1980s, it was fairly ubiquitous on HBO and Cinemax, where a number of budding young film and comedy fans (including this one) came for the big names and instead discovered the limitless pleasures of terrible movies. It Came From Hollywood may be long forgotten and hard to see, but it helped shape much of film culture and film criticism today. Bad movies are now often celebrated unironically as earnest expressions of fringe sensibilities. Many receive lavish 4K restorations and high-minded analytical essays. Meanwhile, the likes of CinemaSins and Honest Trailers treat big-budget, mainstream movies with the cynicism once reserved for low-budget Z movies.

Odd as it sounds, It Came From Hollywood was originally conceived as an adaptation of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time and The Golden Turkey Awards, two bad-movie reference books by the brothers Harry and Michael Medved. They were introduced to the movies within by local television affiliates’ self-produced late-night film showcases, where an (often elaborately costumed) actor or local TV personality would take on a creepy persona and introduce cheapo horror and sci-fi films from the station’s library. (Elvira, Mistress of the Dark was the Ur-example of the form.)

Harry Medved’s introduction to bad movies came via Los Angeles late-night host Larry “Seymour” Vincent. Michael, his older brother, “would come home after a date or something, and I was 9 years old, up till 2 in the morning watching Seymour, watching The Horror of Party Beach, and he could not understand why I was missing school because I was staying up so late watching these movies,” Harry recalls. “I think he was so inspired by my passion for bad movies as a kid that he thought, maybe there’s something there.” In a meeting with his literary agent, pressed to come up with pitches he could sell, Michael tossed out the idea of a movie about the worst movies ever made. His agent took it out and sold it immediately.

From left: Photo: HarperCollins PublishersPhoto: Angus & Robertson
From left: Photo: HarperCollins PublishersPhoto: Angus & Robertson

The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (1978) and The Golden Turkey Awards (1980) were shockingly big sellers, especially for niche film books. But the success was understandable — written in a hip, snappy style, they were entertaining reads, goofing on the clear shortcomings of these works with a mixture of smart-aleck wit and sheer disbelief. Offbeat cinema was also having a bit of a moment; Danny Peary’s seminal Cult Movies was published in 1980, and Michael J. Weldon photocopied his first issues of Psychotronic TV that year (The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film appeared three years later), while the Golden Raspberry Awards announced their first winners in March 1981. J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essential book Midnight Movies hit shelves in 1983, the year after It Came From Hollywood’s release.

“I was there for it,” recalls Bill Corbett, who would go on to co-host Mystery Science Theater 3000. “I remember thinking, yeah, I really love it when it’s good, and I love it when it’s bad, you know?”

Fellow MST3K alum Frank Conniff cites the impact of The 50 Worst Films and Golden Turkey Awards too: “I remember those guys, the Medved brothers. They were on mainstream talk shows and television shows promoting the books.” At the same time, he recalls, the possibilities for bad movie exploration were expanding. “Home video really opened up the idea that you could watch way more movies at home than you could when I was a kid, and it was just the three local channels and that was it. I think that kind of cemented the idea of people having their friends over, and the idea that watching a movie that’s kind of cheesy with your friends can be a lot of fun.”

And so, ironically enough, Hollywood called on the Medveds. Michael hosted a TV miniseries for Britain’s Channel 4 called The Worst of Hollywood and worked with super-producer Ray Stark on a (still unmade) narrative film titled The Worst Movie Ever Made. Then Paramount called, Michael recalls, with an offer: “We’d like to buy the rights to your book.”

The studio’s idea was simple, if somewhat derivative. MGM had a surprise hit in 1974 with That’s Entertainment!, a compilation film that packaged the best songs and dances from its vast library into one slick package; it was so profitable, MGM made a sequel two years later. Paramount also had a large library, with a lot of the films featured in the Medveds’ books. What if it made the That’s Entertainment of bad movies?

“They wanted us to be the research directors on this project,” Harry recalls. “Michael said, ‘Look, I don’t really have time to get involved.’ So he pitched the idea, ‘Take my brother to New York,’ where they were editing the film, ‘and let him learn about filmmaking. He wants to be a filmmaker.’ So I had a year and a half in New York, where I worked on this film as its ‘research director.’ I was 19 years old.” Harry spent the time viewing (and discovering) more movies, suggesting clips, clearing rights, and watching the film’s original director, Jeff Stein, piece together a very different version of It Came From Hollywood than the one that was released.

“The original cut of the film, I thought, was brilliant,” Harry says. “It had no narration. It started off with monsters from outer space, you know, invading your local theater. And then you see the Blob coming out of the projection booth and the guy saying, ‘Don’t go in there, Jim, it’s the most horrible thing you’ve seen in your life.’ And then all these cheesy superheroes like Commando Cody would go off and try to fight them.” What Harry, Stein, and the editors assembled was something like a supercut, ingeniously assembling and juxtaposing archival materials to tell a story of its own (and, in doing so, slyly commenting on the clichés, conventions, and commonalities of these lowbrow offerings).

Paramount executives were, to put it mildly, not as taken with the picture as Harry was. Stein screened the rough cut for an audience of four: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barry Diller, Frank Mancuso, and Michael Eisner. They were all of a breed of hands-on super-exec, which would take over the industry in the ’80s, and they were not exactly likely to engage with a valentine to trash cinema. Unfortunately, they weren’t the only ones. Paramount previewed the film in Goleta, California, in 1981, for the kind of middlebrow suburban audience that studios crave, while the filmmakers had made their movie for the cult and midnight crowd.

“It just didn’t work for the audience,” Harry recalls. The studio, of course, had a solution: “People cannot understand what this movie is about. If it is a That’s Entertainment–style movie, what made That’s Entertainment work? You got to see Liz Taylor and Gene Kelly, so let’s bring out comedians. Get them to tell people this is funny, because people didn’t know that they could laugh at this.”

The Paramount brass proposed this idea, of a narration and framework to “spell it out for them a little bit,” to Stein – who flatly refused. “And they said, ‘Okay, good-bye, Jeff,’” Harry recalls. “And then they went looking for a team that could do this quickly, because they wanted to just get this out and done already.” The studio landed on the team of Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo, who’d just had a hit with the documentary feature This Is Elvis. 

“These guys were guns for hire,” Harry says. “Let’s face it, they weren’t known for their love of bad movies. They weren’t. And they were competent documentary filmmakers, but I think they were just brought in because it was a job. It was not like this was something where, you know, it was in their blood. The original team, we lived and breathed bad movies for a year and a half in New York.”

Solt and Leo were working out of Los Angeles, so Harry returned to the West Coast and tried to assist in the rescue job as best he could. But it was frustrating. “They added a lot of good movies to the mix,” he says. “I said, ‘You guys. Please don’t put in The Incredible Shrinking Man. It’s not a bad movie.’ And they’re saying, ‘Harry? The Incredible Shrinking Man is a good movie? What? Have you seen it?’” (The Incredible Shrinking Man, by the way, was recently added to the Criterion Collection.)

Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, literally talking back at the screen. Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

But the bigger problem, as far as the Medveds were concerned, was the host segments, penned by young screenwriter Dana Olsen (who would go on to write Candy’s Going Berserk and Joe Dante’s The ’Burbs). The comedy stars tried their best, but their material was not up to their talent — and since they were playing only to a camera, with no audience, the results could be dire. “It was basically like a bunch of stand-up comedians were bombing,” says Michael. “And the fact is, the films themselves are inherently funny. [The comedians] upstage the movies and you cannot upstage Robot Monster. It is a classic on its own. I think that part of our approach always has been, let the awfulness speak for itself; you don’t have to explain why it’s a ridiculous idea to costume invaders from the moon in gorilla suits and deep-sea-diving helmets.”

To add insult to injury, the studio attempted to minimize the Medveds’ contributions to It Came From Hollywood. They’re mentioned nowhere in the film’s press notes, and are only credited in the film as “special consultants,” though they were supposed to have been acknowledged for writing the source books. “That was in the contract that we signed,” Harry says. “And we thought, okay, this will really help sell those books. That’s great.” But at the eleventh hour, studio lawyers asked Michael if they could change the credit, because (as Harry recalls), “‘We really think if the credit’s out there, people are going to think, like, this is just bad movies. Why would I pay money?’ They still were afraid of it.” The brothers reluctantly agreed (“We were trying to be nice guys. We thought it would help the movie”). But when it flopped, the brothers had their revenge — they included It Came From Hollywood two years later in another of their compendiums of bad movies, The Hollywood Hall of Shame.

It’s worth reiterating that whatever It Came From Hollywood could have been, this young viewer found the final product to be a very funny introduction to the world of trash cinema. I also found another point of interest when I tracked it down a few years ago: In several scenes, the comedy stars comment on the action in the clips via jokey voice-over. Those scenes now play like an early iteration of the “riffing” that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would popularize a few years later and which that show and its spin-offs — including Rifftrax and The Mads Are Back, featuring Bill Corbett and Frank Conniff, respectively — carry on to this day. (It’s especially striking in Cheech & Chong’s segments. They’re set entirely in a movie theater, where the pair quite literally talk back to the screen.)

Hollywood certainly didn’t introduce the idea — if anything, talking back started in the audience. “My first exposure to it was in the ’70s,” Conniff says. “I would go to see, you know, like, triple bills of kung fu movies in Times Square. Those audiences could be very vocal, and in a really funny way that added to the entertainment value.”

Corbett saw It Came From Hollywood in its original release (“I saw it in college, so I was probably a little stoned, honestly”) and revisited it before our interview. “I had forgotten or I just didn’t log the fact that there was proto-riffing in it. Honestly, it was so tentative and shy and sort of adorable — there’s just a couple, and they didn’t really go for it. It has that sort of formal, should-I-be-doing-this quality, and it’s like, we settled that question a long time ago. We just act like apes over it.”

But there’s a fine line when it comes to riffing. When the Medveds made the It Came From Hollywood deal, Michael hoped that Harry’s attachment would ensure the film would be “an affectionate tribute to bad movies. Which I think comes across in our books — I hope comes across in our books.” Yet that spirit can be hard to translate. One can make the case that the point-and-laugh philosophy some ascribe to the Medved books or It Came From Hollywood or Mystery Science Theater 3000 (whatever their creators’ intentions) has led to a curdled snarkiness among the podcasts and YouTube videos that are among their most direct offspring — or even in contemporary film criticism.

“I do feel like we have learned over the years,” Corbett says. “Don’t just go with your knee-jerk complaint about the movie. No one’s forcing you to be here! You’re here to be funny. And no one wants to hear three old men throwing brickbats at the TV.”

Conniff, for his part, delineates riffing from conventional critique. “I enjoy good film criticism. I enjoy reading Pauline Kael and Manny Farber.” But critics should never take cues from shows like MST3K, he says. “I think that kind of criticism, where it’s just snarky put-downs, is the worst kind. We look at it as, you know, the filmmakers did their part, they made the movie, and then we’re adding a layer onto it, creating a third form of entertainment.”

The standards of what make a movie “bad” have changed over time, too, further complicating the question of what is sneered at and what is celebrated. There are movies in It Came From Hollywood that MST3K would subsequently target: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Rocket Attack USA, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies. But The Incredible Melting Man, which appears in Hollywood and on MST3K, just got a pristine, fully restored 4K Blu-ray release of its own. Severin Films just released a deluxe box set, compiling the works of Incredibly Strange Creatures auteur Ray Dennis Steckler; it has bestowed similar lavish treatments on the collected works of such less-than-celebrated trash auteurs as Al Adamson and Andy Milligan. Some of this is the result of the increasing splintering and niche-ifying of culture; with a plethora of boutique labels and streaming services, those with odder appetites can have them more easily met.

But there’s also clearly a different standard for “good” and “bad” art than there was 40 years ago — or, if nothing else, less of a sense of black and white. Have tastes just changed? Why do movies that used to be accepted as objectively bad now have such genuine, enthusiastic fans?

“I think the ultimate critic weighs in, which is history,” Conniff says. “For a long time, European culture was considered real culture, and anything out of America was just low-life, whether it was vaudeville or musical comedy or animation or jazz, comic books. … Theater was respected, opera was respected, and movies were the low form. I think all of the great entertainment and art out of America began as disreputable. And if something is disreputable, you gotta pay attention to it.”

Some of film culture’s recent embrace of bad movies boils down to nostalgia, Corbett supposes: “Some of it is like, Oh, that thing that I saw as a kid, therefore it’s kind of good; it brings me back these warm fuzzies.” At its core, though, bad-movie appreciation is a salute to “these scrappy weirdos who made movies against the odds.”

Michael Medved, who now hosts a radio program and writes more traditional reviews of current films, agrees with the latter point. “The golden age for bad movies was the 1950s, because it was possible for people who were way under the mainstream to actually throw some things together and make The Creeping Terror, you know?” he says. “That, of course, is kind of lacking today. One of the films I’m going to be reviewing is Black Adam. And yeah, I don’t think it’s a very good film.”

And that’s the point: There are still plenty of bad movies, but so many share a crushing, soulless, generic badness. At Rifftrax, Corbett explains, they would create .mp3 riffs for current blockbusters, and “by the time we got to, like, the third Transformers movie, we were all ready to stick our heads in the oven. Like, this is bad in a whole different way. It’s not a fun way!” Hence why disreputable cinema of the past now plays like idiosyncratic outsider art; the washed-out gruel that passes for mainstream moviemaking today is so frequently devoid of flavor and personality that these movies, at the very least, offer a sense style and a point of view, even if it is wrapped in a layer of technical incompetence.

“People realize no one sets out to make a bad movie,” Harry Medved says, shrugging. “But when it happens, let’s celebrate and have fun with it. You know, it makes us all feel human. We all make mistakes! But it’s kind of fun to see the demigods of Hollywood brought down to our size.”

“I’ll just say that I never thought the bad-movie craze would get this big,” he continues. “But I don’t regret a thing. I’m just happy to see that people are still taking an interest in this.”

A Forgotten Chapter in the History of Bad-movie Lovers