No one sets out to make a terrible movie. Not even Michael Bay. In the long, collaborative process of filmmaking, everyone’s trying to pull together in the hope that, once all the scenes have been shot and edited into a coherent sequence, the results of all their efforts will be rewarded with critical acclaim, audience approval and an influx of lovely cash.
Take a careful look over the history of cinema, though, and it’s clear that there are certain things you should most definitely avoid as a filmmaker. To this end, we’ve dug deep through the movie archives to come up with eight signs that your movie is doomed to critical or financial failure…
1. It features a character dressed in a rabbit or bear costume
I’ve yet to discover whose idea it was to have Nic Cage bumbling around a remote island while wearing a bear suit in the ill-advised remake of The Wicker Man, but it’s one of the more bizarre sights in an already extremely strange film. At any rate, Cage’s bear suit marks the moment where what is surely intended as a suspenseful, eerie horror thriller descends into the environs of unintentional comedy for good.
The Wicker Man isn’t the only film to feature the curse of the animal costume. Mac And Me, which, as we’ve already confirmed, is a terrible film rich with alternate layers of meaning, has at its core a horrific song-and-dance routine in a branch of McDonalds. In it, the friendly, cuddly alien of the title gets up on the burger joint’s counter and begins gyrating hideously to 80s pop music. Forget the horrors of A Serbian Film. This is one sequence that, once seen, can never be forgotten.
Plumbing further into the mists of time, and into the earliest movies of weightlifting behemoth, Arnold Schwarzenegger, we find the 70s relic, Hercules In New York. The Austrian Oak may be lurking under the pseudonym Arnold Strong, but we can all spot the soon-to-be-famous bodybuilder a mile off.
As rich and successful as he now is, I wonder if Arnold still has nightmares about the film’s standout sequence in which he wrestles a bear (which is quite clearly a man in an ill-fitting suit) in the middle of a New York park. Another unintentionally funny scene in another awful film, the Governator can at least take solace in the fact that he’s not the only actor to fall foul of the animal suit curse.
In Rob Reiner’s 1994 North, Bruce Willis shows up in an Easter Bunny costume. North is among the most critically lambasted films ever made.
See also: Robot Monster
2. It’s set on Mars
To be fair to the red planet, there have been some great films set on its ochre surface, including Total Recall and Robinson Crusoe On Mars. Those movies are immediately balanced out by two Martian efforts from 2000, Red Planet and Mission To Mars.
Red Planet, in spite of the presence of a decent cast, including Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and the mighty Terence Stamp, not to mention a generous $70 million budget, wasn’t exactly a classic. Mission To Mars, in spite of the presence of a decent cast, including Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle, not to mention Brian De Palma in the director’s chair, was slightly worse. Both films had some good ideas and a few suspense-filled moments, but neither attracted much attention at the box office.
But then, a year later, along came Ghosts Of Mars, a film so unspeakably awful that it marked the beginning of a ten-year hiatus in director John Carpenter’s career.
As a final piece of evidence, we humbly submit to the jury this year’s Mars Needs Moms, a computer-animated feature about a small boy who attempts to rescue his mother from the clutches of kidnapping Martians. The reviews were bad, but the receipts were worse. It made just $6.9 million on its opening weekend which, considering the movie cost an estimated $150 million to put together, makes it one of the biggest box office failures in history.
Interestingly, the title is a passing reference to a 60s sci-fi TV movie called Mars Needs Women, which was also quite terrible. The lesson, therefore, is not to set your movie on Mars.
Even director Andrew Stanton has shortened the title of his forthcoming John Carter Of Mars to simply John Carter, possibly in an attempt to sidestep the terrible curse that befell the films mentioned above.
Notable exceptions: Total Recall, John Carter (we hope)
3. There’s been a gap of more than a decade between sequels
The cliché goes that time heals all wounds, but a long gulf of time certainly doesn’t improve the chances of a sequel (or, indeed, prequel) being a critical success. It took sixteen years for Francis Ford Coppola to return to his Godfather series with 1990’s Part III, and the results were not pretty. A period of almost twenty years lay between Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989) and the dismal Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
Other examples of the belated sequel curse include Psycho II, which came twenty-three years after Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, Basic Instinct 2 (fourteen years).
There are, of course, instances of late-arriving sequels that have done well (Rambo, Rocky Balboa, Tron: Legacy), but more often than not, returning to a franchise after a significant period of time is fraught with danger.
Notable exception: The Two Jakes, Toy Story 3
4. It’s the unnecessary sequel to an adaptation of a popular novel
Adapting a novel into a hit film isn’t an easy proposition for even the most skilled filmmaker, and while instances of classic films made from books aren’t exactly rare, the number of dismal failures is even higher.
There’s another area of filmmaking that’s even more fraught with danger, however, and that’s the unholy arena of the unnecessary sequel to an adapted novel. The most notable example that springs to mind is American Psycho II.
The original American Psycho, as brought to the screen by director Mary Harron, was about as good an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ fearsome novel as you could rightly expect. The movie toned down the violent excesses of its source, played up the book’s satirical and blackly comic elements, and wrung an amazing performance out of Christian Bale in the process.
Two years after American Psycho came a surprising and entirely superfluous sequel, subtitled All American Girl, and starring Mila Kunis as a student whose serial killing hobby is inspired by Patrick Bateman, the anti-hero of the original novel and movie.
William Shatner puts in a decent, entertaining performance, but American Psycho II‘s script was so bereft of its predecessor’s biting satire that it’s impossible to view it as anything but an ugly, needless cash-in. Fortunately, it wasn’t successful enough to justify the proposed films that would follow it, which were apparently called American Psycho In LA and American Psycho In Las Vegas.
For further evidence of the unnecessary novel adaptation sequel curse (or UNASC, for short), see the equally terrible The Rage: Carrie 2, Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace, and the two dismal Starship Troopers follow ups, Hero Of The Federation and Marauder.
Notable exception: Bride Of Frankenstein
5. It’s a sequel made without the involvement of the original’s main cast
The law of diminishing returns generally guarantees that, by the time of the second or third sequel, your lead star will be looking elsewhere for work. When this happens, it’s probably a good idea to wrap up your franchise for good, or do the really modern thing and simply reboot it.
In every instance we can think of, ploughing on with your sequel without the participation of your original cast always ends in disaster. In some instances, this is tragically unavoidable (see The Crow: City Of Angels), but in most instances, it’s simply because the series has been getting steadily worse, and the lead actor has wisely bailed while they still have a shred of integrity left.
Peter Weller wisely bailed before the embarrassment of RoboCop 3, with its flying law enforcer and robot ninjas. Similarly, Roy Scheider fled before the dreadful Jaws III and the even worse Jaws IV, by which time the franchise had well and truly jumped the shark.
See also: Red Scorpion 2, Universal Soldier II: Brothers In Arms
6. The executive producer or studio has top billing on the movie’s marketing
As a filmmaker or actor, there can be nothing more deflating than when, a few months after you’ve finished shooting, your movie’s marketing wizards have placed someone else’s name at the top of the poster. By that point, you probably know your financiers don’t have much faith in the film you’ve just made.
Last year’s romantic comedy, When In Rome, which starred Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel and Anjelica Huston, was billed as being “From the studio that brought you The Proposal“. That, surely, is the most faint praise you can possibly give a film. The studio that brought you one blandly watchable romcom has produced another one, with a slightly less bankable cast.
In some instances, the use of this technique can be quite mystifying. Take the excellent Thor, for example. A film with a respected director (Kenneth Branagh) and two Oscar winners among its cast (Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins), Thor was described as being “From the studio that brought you Iron Man 2.” Similarly, Ben Affleck’s superb The Town was “From the studio that brought you The Departed.”
Mostly, though, films that loudly trumpet their studio or producer are dismal affairs. The posters for soggy thriller, Sanctum, excitedly announced the presence of James Cameron as executive producer. Some other examples: Stan Helsing, (“from the executive producer of Scary Movie“), and EMR, (“from the executive producer of Snatch and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels“).
7. It’s an action star’s attempt at a family-friendly comedy
At some point in their careers, most action stars eventually become bored with hanging off the side of helicopters or pretending to shoot British character actors, and decide to strike out into the unfamiliar territory of a new genre. For some reason, that genre is almost always comedy.
Arnold Schwarzenegger made the transition fairly well with Twins and Kindergarten Cop, but he’d always shown an unsung aptitude for comic timing in any case. By the time he’d decided to get himself knocked up in Junior, though, the muse of comedy had begun to falter, and once the shrill Christmas monstrosity, Jingle All The Way, had rolled around in 1996, the curse of the family-friendly comedy had well and truly roosted on Arnie’s windowsill.
Compared to most other action stars, though, Arnie’s flirtation with comedy was quite successful.
Vin Diesel attempted to emulate Schwarzenegger’s career move in 2005’s The Pacifier, playing an ex-Navy Seal given the task of looking after a family of five brattish children of varying ages. It probably looked like a ringer for Arnold’s perfectly okay comedy, Kindergarten Cop, on paper, but the results, in practice, were closer to Hulk Hogan’s embarrassing Mr Nanny.
Diesel should have learned a lesson or two from Sylvester Stallone, whose own flirtations with action comedy (Oscar in1991, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot in 1992) were quite disastrous, and almost derailed his career for good.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s own comedic effort, Tooth Fairy, fared little better.
The message to all action stars is, surely, stay away from family comedies. Why not try a torture horror movie, an Australian soap opera, or a spot of Shakespearian tragedy instead?
8. The film’s poster features hideously Photoshopped heads
A poorly designed poster, which will almost certainly have been flung together by someone with a copy of Photoshop, is surely the movie industry’s equivalent of a circling colony of vultures. If a Hollywood marketing team can’t even summon up the creative energy to put together a decent poster, then it’s unlikely that audiences are going to be tempted to sit down and watch the movie itself.
Take a look at the piece of montage work for the thriller, Takers, helpfully placed above these words. Not a great film by most accounts (though horror guru, Stephen King, placed it in his top five thrillers of 2010), its poster looks as though it’s been compiled from a disparate selection of passport photographs. Each individual face has its own light source, and I can only assume whoever put the artwork together didn’t particularly like Hayden Christensen. How else do you explain that weird hat, which appears to be floating an inch above his head?
Speaking of heads, some movie posters look as though they’ve been created by cutting out an actor’s visage and applying it to the body of someone else entirely. This results in hideous posters like the ones below…
Add your own suggestions in the comments below…!