by David Christopher Bell
When you boil it all down, it’s all subjective. Movie critics are really just people who are better at communicating their opinions clearly, but they aren’t perfect all of the time. Nor are they psychics in any way. Sometimes time (and audiences) won’t going to agree with them, and that’s okay.
As the following ten movies show us, there are times when a film isn’t an instant classic. Some require a bit more time to be broken in. Today’s trash might be tomorrow’s classic.
10. Fight Club
Don’t worry… There are actual “classic” films on this list. However I wanted to add some potential classics to this as well. Just don’t go freaking out.
Not the worst reviewed movie out there – but that’s actually what makes it interesting. What I mean is that this is the kind of movie you’d expect people to either hate or love – as Roger Ebert puts it in his October 1999 review of the film: “Fight Club is a thrill ride masquerading as philosophy – the kind of ride where some people puke and others can’t wait to get on again.” What’s interesting, however, is that even that review doesn’t love it or hate it. In fact most reviews for Fight Club aren’t polarized but rather so-so.
See for yourself. New York Daily News called it “hardly groundbreaking”, the Miami Herald referred to it as “a bit of a dud”, and the Boston Globe said that its “chic indictment of empty materialist values fizzles.” They were all just too cool for this film.
There were some great reviews out there as well – but it’s interesting that when the critics didn’t like it, it was because they were bored by it.
It’s not hard to imagine a movie about a giant nuclear lizard getting mixed to poor reviews if it were released today – but for 1954 it’s a pretty groundbreaking concept. He might not be the first of his kind, but Godzilla is certainly the Mickey Mouse of humongous city-hating monsters.
There was a very specific reason that critics gave the film a lot of crap when it first came out in Japan – in fact, anyone who knows their history can probably guess why – it had been less than ten years since the country had been attacked in a nuclear strike on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now they had a film about a giant ridiculous monster that resulted from nuclear testing. It just left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
If that weren’t bad enough – on March 1st of the very same year this film was released a Japanese tuna fishing boat had been exposed to nuclear fallout from the US test on Bikini Atoll – resulting in what was thought to be the first death resulted from a hydrogen bomb. So yeah.
Another film that’s probably on the line when it comes to defining it as a ‘classic’ film – personally though, I don’t go a Christmas without watching this. And boy – Bill Murray makes a great asshole. It’s funny how likable he is no matter how unlikeable he’s supposed to be.
Despite this, the critics freaking hated it. Like, really hated it. Variety called it an “appallingly unfunny comedy”, USA Today said it was a “monumental mess”, and the Los Angeles Times found it “as funny as a mugging.” Jesus. Most of the reviews seemed to think of it as some kind of ‘mess.’ As if the plot was somehow muddled.
Here’s a theory – perhaps everyone had been gauging this film all wrong when it first came out. Perhaps they expected it to be a true adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” If that were the case than it’s easy to imagine why critics hated it.
7. Now Voyager
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if an old black & white film is actually good in the way it’s often hard to tell if an elderly person is actually wise. Old people can be dumb too right? It would be prejudiced to think otherwise. And in that respect, old films can be bad as well. That being said – Now Voyager is not considered to be a bad film in the least, and has contributed quite a lot to the genre of romance, however it’s easy to see how time had a factor in this. Firstly – it’s a genre that not everyone enjoys and secondly it’s sappy as all hell. That’s why this 1942 review from the New York Times isn’t all that surprising:
“Now Voyager, either because of the Hays office or its own spurious logic, endlessly complicates an essentially simple theme. For all its emotional hair-splitting, it fails to resolve its problems as truthfully as it pretends. In fact, a little more truth would have made the film a good deal shorter.”
No, it’s not exactly a declaration of hate – and the film did get a few nominations that year and even won for its score – but it also didn’t seem to wow anyone. As the review goes on to say, the film “stars out bravely” but ends “exactly where it started – and after two lachrymose hours.” Which is a nice way of saying that it was really emotional and had no payoff.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger fights an outer-space monster in a third-world jungle. The monster never has a chance. Neither does the jungle. Neither does the audience.”
Hah! OK Christian Science Monitor – that’s pretty good. And while it’s true that a film about a bunch of strongmen trampling down a pristine jungle environment with guns n’ ammo doesn’t make for the most thought-inducing film, it wasn’t really supposed to. That seems like the issue with most of the reviews for this film at the time of its release: either they understood what the film was trying to be or they didn’t.
The New York Times called it “alternately grisly and dull, with few surprises”, but there wasn’t really a point in the film where surprises were the main focus. It’s true that nostalgia might be a large factor in the popularity of this film – but it seems like most critics simply missed the big picture. It was about the Predator, and how super sweet he was – nothing more and nothing less.
5. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas
Terry Gilliam’s work has never been particularly celebrated, which is pretty amazing when you think about how awesome it is. Really now – there isn’t a person on this planet who doesn’t like at least one of his films. If it isn’t Fear and Loathing then it’s Brazil, or perhaps Twelve Monkeys or failing that there is always good ol’ Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which he co-directed. And yet a film like Fear and Loathing comes out – a movie that can only be described as a celebration of the bizarre – and they freaking hate it!
San Francisco Chronicle called it “Disappointing, pointless and repetitive.”
And the Washington Post? They compared watching this film to “being forced to listen to bad heavy metal music turned up to 11 while fat guys in Bermuda shorts compete in a puking contest in the john.” Dude…
This probably has to be the film on this list that critics didn’t get the most. They went into it looking for a story – and had they read the book they would have known better. That being said – the book itself was considered to be a failure by Thompson – it only makes sense that the movie was seen as one as well.
4. The Shining
Kubrick is good at making movies that everyone dislikes, realizes that they were chumps for disliking it, and then pretends to have liked it all along. For example – Roger Ebert gave the movie a bad review, only to go back on it later.
Variety regarded the film as a destruction of everything that made the Stephen King book terrifying, and said that Shelley Duvall “transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric.” In fact – Shelley was nominated for a Razzie for worst actress for the role, along with – and I shit you not – Kubrick for worst director! Wow.
In fairness – the movie was probably the worst adaptation when you think about, and by ‘worst’ I mean least loyal. Hell – Jack doesn’t even have an ax in the book, but rather a mallet. But hey – can you imagine if Kubrick kept that in? Tom and Jerry use mallets – horror films, not so much.
3. The Third Man
This is kind of funny, but not in the ‘ha ha’ way. See – the film did great in both the States and the UK, but what’s the interesting part is where it bombed: Austria, the country that it was set in. In that country, specifically in the city of Vienna where the film takes place, critics were less than excited about the film. It’s not hard to imagine why either – the film takes place and was released not far after World War II. Basically the critics and the audience of the town went into the theater to escape the gloom that was their busted city only to be treated to the exact same goddamn gloom. Of course they hated the film.
As William Cook of The Guardian put it, “…they got a bleak foreign drama, filmed by the victorious Allies in the ruins of their hometown. ‘A city fearful of its present, uncertain of its future,’ declared the breathless trailer, but it wasn’t quite so thrilling if you actually had to live there.”
So yeah – funny, but not like… ‘ha ha’ funny.
The reviews for this movie, which weren’t all terrible but rather mixed, really shows how even if a film is deemed only so-so on a technical and artistic level, ultimately if it is loved it simply can’t be denied. The public loved this film despite the critics’ lukewarm reception of it, and in the end that’s really all that matters.
At the time though – the film was “plainly a gimmick movie”, and even a “blot on an honorable career.” In a particularly pretentiously written review, the New York Times said it had “not an abundance of subtlety” and was an “obviously low-budget job” whatever the hell that all means. No one hated it – but no one thought it to be anything all that special either.
Pretty sure they were wrong about that.
1. The Night Of The Hunter
No other film is as known for being so great and having such a poor reception than The Night Of The Hunter. The film itself is now played to every student churned out of film school and praised as being a masterpiece of both cinema and horror. The truth is that the film really is that good – it was simply made in the wrong era, as explained by Preston Neal Jones in his book “Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter”:
“Dorothy Manners’ review in the Los Angeles Examiner began by stating, ‘If it was Charles Laughton’s intention to scare the scalps off the watchers of Night Of The Hunter,… he succeeded where this non-paying customer is concerned. Seldom has an entire production sustained the nightmarish feeling of helpless terror as does this picturization of David Grubb’s symbolic novel.’ Not many people paid for the chance to have their scalps raised in 1955, however…”
That really says it all. The film was panned by both critics and ignored by audiences. The result was director Charles Laughton never directing another film ever again. Our loss.