Question: With all the best- and worst-of-2005 lists I've seen, I've been wondering about the worst movies of all time. But though I've seen dozens of lists, with the exception of Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, the movies on the lists all seem to have been made between 1980 and the present. Are there any bad-movie lists that go back to the early days of film, or is it just that movies started getting really bad in the 1980s?
Answer: I'll answer the second part of your question first: It's not that movies have gotten worse but that smarty-pants treasuring of "worst movies of all time" lists is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that I blame on Harry and Michael Medved and their condescending Golden Turkey Awards. I'm not saying that there aren't terrible movies out there, only that squandering energy that could be better used in any of a hundred ways on hunting down and cataloging movies for no reason except the privilege of having seen the worst of the worst is pointless.
More importantly, badness is the flipside of quality, and just as there are many kinds of good and great movies, there are many kinds of bad and abysmal ones. There are cheap, cynical movies that try to exploit some salable element — nudity, a timely topic, gore, the presence in a bit part of some poor actor who went on to do better things — and megabudget fiascos born of the same impulses. There are movies in which good ideas are undermined by shabby execution, like 1979's Parts: The Clonus Horror (2005's The Island, which repurposed much of Clonus' story without credit is, on the other hand, a cynical megabudget botch). There are naive movies and elliptical movies some people think are pretentious (Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1961 Last Year at Marienbad isn't a bad movie just because you don't get it) and ambitious movies that went horribly wrong, like David Lynch's Dune (1984). There are movies undone by unconvincing acting or inept direction, and there are just plain stupid movies, like pretty much anything with "Beach Party" in the title — which isn't to say that beach-party movies can't be fun on their own light, shallow terms. That's why I won't get behind the wholesale condemnation of From Justin to Kelly (2003): Not my thing and dumb as they come, but too harmless and sweet-natured to go after with an elephant gun. There are movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), in which a vacationing family runs afoul of a devil worshipper, made by amateurs far from Hollywood with no money and few resources; it's terrible, but why slap it on a list with big-budget, thoroughly professional stink bombs like The Conqueror (1956), Gigli (2003), Ishtar (1987), Howard the Duck (1987) or Waterworld (1995)? There are movies like Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), each awful in its own way and each hugely entertaining in its own way, and not just in the "so bad it's good" way.
There are mind-boggling movies like midget Western The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), which manages to exploit physical misfortune and be stultifyingly dull at the same time; it belongs somewhere in the same bad-taste corner of the world as movies like the slave-era sexploitation pictures Mandingo (1975) and Drum (1976), and all those Italian movies about Nazi love camps. That said, those love-camp movies were all inspired by frequent worst-movie list title The Night Porter (1973), which I would argue is provocative, unpleasant and not for all tastes, none of which adds up to the same thing as bad. There are sleazy movies like Butterfly (1982), a vanity project designed to make a star of fat-faced strumpet Pia Zadora (coincidentally, one of the child stars of 1964's universally derided Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which I find sort of sweet and cute) and paid for by her obscenely wealthy husband. And I'm sick to death of the cult of Ed Wood, "Worst Filmmaker of All Time." Yes, Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) are pretty terrible movies… but what distinguishes them, and most of Wood's other films is how hard he tried, against all odds (many self-created), out of sheer love for the dream of movies. Wood wasn't lazy or cynical or stupid, though he was self-destructive, impractical and had some terrible luck — and yet he kept on trying. I love Tim Burton's Ed Wood and the book on which it was based, Rudolph Gray's Nightmare of Ecstasy, because that's what they're about — not how crappy Wood's movies were. OK, I'm all done now. As to lists, there's an eclectic list of the 50 worst films of all time on Wikipedia, and IMDb's bottom 100 is relatively diverse. I'm not really recommending them, but they do contain titles that range farther afield than the last two decades.