Geoffrey Macnab: Why a critical mauling can be good for a bad film

Voice of the reviewer

Film critics might not admit it but they do lick their lips when a prize turkey hoves into view. There is something cathartic about savaging a bad movie as it unspools in front of you.

And there are several ways to attack a turkey. Some skewer it in a short review (although rarely as brief as Walter Kerr's famous "Me no Leica" demolition of I Am A Camera). Others go to war, as Walter Kerr did in the LA Times when he said Titanic was so bad "it almost makes you want to weep in frustration," prompting a letter from James Cameron, the director, that was every bit as vicious.

Titanic steamed on regardless but when The New York Times' Vincent Canby called Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate an "unqualified disaster", Cimino's film was yanked out of theatres, re-cut and never recovered. (Many Europeans thought it a masterpiece.)

Sometimes bad reviews can provide excellent publicity as long as they're really, really bad. No Orchids For Miss Blandish (1948) would surely long since have disappeared into oblivion if The Monthly Film Bulletin hadn't described it as "the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen."

Similarly, Ed Wood's wonderfully awful B-movies are cherished today Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) is often called the worst film of all time and is loved as a result.

Critics who've been unduly beastly to films are invariably reminded by producers that no one sets out to make a bad film. But in the "churn and earn" days of the British film industry a decade or so ago, when movies provided substantial tax write-offs for investors regardless of whether they were seen in cinemas, we were treated to movies about 7ft-tall boxing shrimps and endless cheap gangster flicks.

Even so, when readers are confronted with particularly hostile reviews, they should realise that axes may well be grinding. The critics have agendas. Certain reviewers used to hate the idea of any lottery money being invested in the British film industry and excoriate lottery-funded movies as a matter of habit. (Was Sex Lives Of The Potato Men really "one of the two most nauseous films ever made" or could the opprobrium that it attracted have been a result of the large chunks of public money invested in its making?)

The Golden Raspberries have done a sterling job in identifying and celebrating the worst films that Hollywood makes. Meanwhile, extreme negative reviews can catapult a film toward cult status. The irony now is that truly bad movies aren't forgotten: they're cherished.

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