Eight of the worst films of the early 1990s.
When assorted by quality, the movies of any given period resemble a pyramid, or a mountain: the bottom is the part that’s hardest to get around or avoid. There are far more bad movies than good ones, and really, really awful films – films that can make you angry they even exist – outnumber the movies that deserve lasting notoriety. Yet our culture is mesmerized by irony (a trend that started – ironically – in the 90s), so as a bitter result many of these craptacular failures linger on, year after year.
The early 90s were not the best handful of years for American cinema, but they weren’t the worst, either. Earlier this week we mentioned seven good films from the period that deserved more recognition. Listed below, as threatened, are eight misfires from that same pocket of history. A couple of them are justly forgotten; some were notorious in their time and then forgotten later.
And we understand that every film is somebody’s favorite. We hope yours isn’t found below.
Highlander 2: The Quickening (1991) An early cable TV mainstay, the first Highlander was an overachieving B-movie about immortal humans fighting among themselves for the prize of omniscience. For the sequel, the creators made the immortals dissidents from the planet Zeist instead, exiled here by its dictator (Michael Ironside).
Also, this time around the noble immortal Conner MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) teams up with a freedom fighter (Virginia Madsen) to overthrow the corporation that’s keeping Earth locked in perpetual night. Overly violent, yet pompous thanks to a global warming subplot, the film buried the franchise for years, until the first film got a TV spinoff that jettisoned almost everything about the sequel.
Hudson Hawk (1991) The early 90s were also a time when studios were still working out the bugs of making ultra-expensive blockbusters that people would get excited about seeing. Hudson Hawk, a smart-assed caper comedy starring Bruce Willis and the last dregs of the Bruno shtick he’d worked through the 80s, goes nowhere while spending piles of cash on pretty much everything – sets, stars, special effects, the works.
Yet the film died hard, becoming a punchline and euphemism for “megaflop” until Battlefield Earth stole that dubious distinction in 2000. Not the absolute worst film of the era, except that Tri-Star expected people to line up for tickets. And play the video game. And collect the plastic cups, all to pay off its wretched excess.
The Vanishing (1993) We figure in his fifty-year career Jeff Bridges has only made maybe four or five really lousy films. This remake of the 1988 Dutch thriller Spoorloos, directed by that film’s Geroge Sluizer, can without doubt consider itself one of them. Cast somewhat against type as Machiavellian serial killer Barney Cousins, Bridges steamrolls over costar Kiefer Sutherland (playing a boyfriend obsessed with finding his girlfriend, one of Cousins’ victims) so completely that the psychological tug of war between the two collapses under its own lopsided weight.
The original film understood how to build ambient dread out of the unknown, and the fear of knowing something you have no choice but to learn; The Vanishing telegraphs everything rather than take its time or risk boring its audience, then changes the script to give the story a happy ending. Ah, Hollywood.
Threesome (1994) Like the similarly disingenuous Reality Bites released the same year, writer-director Andrew Fleming’s (Hamlet 2) romantic comedy attempted to cash in on Generation X’s coming of age with this pretentious soap opera about three Gen X’ers – two guys and a girl – sharing a college dorm suite. The script contains every indie trope that got beaten to death throughout the decade: the world-weary voiceover narration, the superficial sex, the self-consciously “witty” vulgarity, the abrupt and unearned emotional reversals.
Stars Josh Hamilton, Stephen Baldwin, and Lara Flynn Boyle are good-looking, vacant, and stiffly deliberate, as if they’re aware they’re in a movie “with a message.” Gen X’ers stayed away in droves, even while the demographic-targeted soundtrack became a hit on college radio stations.
There’s no trailer for the film on YouTube. Just searching the film’s title is awkward enough.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1992 and 94) We mention these two together because they were part of the era’s trend towards high-budget monster movies made by the era’s top talent. Francis Ford Coppola helmed the lush Dracula version, starring the reliably fearless Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight) as the titular count and Anthony Hopkins as his nemesis Van Helsing.
The film is flawed everywhere: Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves are as flat as ever portraying doomed lovers Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray, and Hopkins – the decade’s highest-paid scene chewer - hams away as usual. Oldman, in a scrotum-shaped wig and old lady nightgown, tries to keep up with the increasingly overheated proceedings. Coppola’s direction and production design are bloated and unconvincing, making fans of the novel take umbrage to its liberal additions of blood-drenched sex and violence.
The film made money anyway, and two years later Coppola produced a Frankenstein film directed by rising triple threat Kenneth Branagh, who cast himself as the mad doctor and Robert DeNiro as his creation. The result, somewhat surprisingly, was bleak, turgid, and opaque while struggling beneath the same middlebrow overreach that doomed Dracula. None of the actors are really bad, though DeNiro often seems uncomfortable in period dress, possibly because Branagh and co-star Helena Bonham-Carter (Fight Club) always seemed to be in movies about Victorian England.
Critics at the time wondered if Branagh was out of his element or in over his head, and the film’s box-office failure delivered his until-then wunderkind career trajectory a punishing blow that hasn’t truly recovered yet.
Jade (1995) A film seemingly assembled in studio committee for box office success, William Friedkin’s (The French Connection) Jade aimed to recreate the kinky titillation success of screenwriter Joe Eszterhaus’ previous Basic Instinct. Featuring emerging leading men David Caruso and Chazz Palminteri alongside rising screen vamps Linda Fiorentino and Angie Everhart, the story of a gruesome murder linked to a sex club among San Francisco’s political elite was nevertheless muddled, hard to follow, and surprisingly light on sex appeal.
Friedkin, known for his gritty ultra-realism, was a poor choice to realize the story’s stylish affluence, and Caruso and Palminteri failed to generate chemistry with their gorgeous co-stars. The result was a dull potboiler uncomfortable with itself.
Exit To Eden (1994) A “comedy” about an island of dominatrices and the love slaves they love, this notorious bomb film inexplicably stars Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell as New Orleans cops going undercover to catch a gang of jewel smugglers, and – and! – it’s directed by Gary Marshall, the creator of Happy Days. Not funny and aggressively unsexy despite Dana Delaney’s (Body of Proof) warm turn as a mistress learning to soften up, the all-over-the-place vibe isn’t helped by O’Donnell’s smarmy narration or the smutty jokes that seemed a cop-out from the issues that Anne Rice’s original novel eagerly confronted.
Even today, it’s hard to imagine the film’s target audience. Was it people who thought Julia Roberts should have worn more studded leather in Pretty Woman? Those who thought Aykroyd was sexy? Bondage enthusiasts who wanted to laugh at themselves? YouTube doesn’t have much of this film. Perhaps that’s just as well.
- Michael Kabel