I have a problem.
You see, I’ve developed an irrational affinity for terrible movies. Not just any terrible movies — obscure B-movies by no-name directors with big ambitions, painfully small budgets and in-over-their-head actors who are just doing their best with what they’re given. The gems among this craptacular crop of films all share the same tragicomic sincerity and lack of awareness, and they’re typically torpedoed by horrible artistic choices, simple inexperience or a plain ol’ lack of talent. Hey, no one said making movies was easy.
With the help of my trusty roommate Zach, I’ve been combing through secondhand video stores and thrift store bargain bins for well over a year now in pursuit of the most fascinating film fails I can find. We’re starting to fill out our VHS shelf quite nicely, but recently, we turned to our motley mix of streaming apps to see how the selection is online.
Hulu? Just about nothing of note.
Amazon Prime Video? Pay dirt!
Amazon wouldn’t comment on its content curation strategy when I asked about it, but for whatever reason — probably an earnest desperation to boast as many titles as possible, regardless of quality — the Prime Video catalog includes an amazing selection of cheap, terrible cinema otherwise lost to the ages. They aren’t well categorized, but with a little digging, it never takes long to find something head-scratching and hilarious.
To that end, here’s a quick sampling of some of the best titles we’ve stumbled across on Amazon’s streaming service, all of which are free for Prime subscribers to watch right now.
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Skyscraper (1996): 1 hour, 35 minutes
This summer gave us, the latest in a long, storied history of ripoffs, but did you know it’s actually the second Die Hard ripoff with that name? The first was a straight-to-video trainwreck from 1996, and you won’t find Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson saving the day.
Instead, the John McClane role goes to, I kid you not, the late Anna Nicole Smith, who stars as an unassuming helicopter pilot who lands on an LA skyscraper during a routine charter flight, only to realize that the building has been taken over by violent terrorists who’ve taken hostages.
Why it’s great
This one has it all. The acting is god-awful (I have a special soft spot for Deron McBee’s especially campy turn as a terrorist — you might know him as Motaro from Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, or as Malibu, one of the original American Gladiators). The script is laughably hackneyed (at one point, Smith rappels down the side of the building and kicks through a window, ripping Die Hard off almost shot for shot). And while it doesn’t quite qualify as a softcore porn, you should still put the kids to bed before watching, because the film includes a cringeworthy handful of jarringly out-of-place sex scenes, including a flashback sequence that literally starts in the middle of a gunfight.
For these reasons and so, so many more, Skyscraper belongs right at the top of your hall of shame.
Powderburn (1995): 1 hour, 22 minutes
“It started out as a routine wife-spying job…” is how the description of Powderburn begins on Amazon. Unfortunately, words really can’t do justice to this baffling masterwork of awful cinema. Suffice it to say there’s really nothing routine about the script’s confusingly bad attempt at neo-noir (think Chinatown, if they only filmed about 30 percent of what they needed and had to try and make it work in editing).
Why it’s great
This film is an enigma of bad moviemaking, and filled to the brim with botched line deliveries, strange cuts and incomprehensible plot twists that’ll have you saying “huh?” more times than you can count. It makes for one of the more demanding watches on this list, but stick it out, if only for the utterly bizarre sequence 58 minutes in where our naked hero gets into a gunfight in the desert with a trio of snakes. At least, I think that’s what happens? With Powderburn, it’s a little hard to be sure.
Hawkeye, aka Karate Cops (1988): 1 hour, 25 minutes
The ’80s gave us a veritable bounty of bad kung fu movies, but few gave us better schlock than Leo Fong, a Chinese American martial artist, actor, filmmaker and Bruce Lee contemporary who, at 89 years old, is still kicking today. Many will point to his starring turn in the 1986 cult classic Low Blow as a tour de force head-scratcher of a performance, but his turn behind the camera directing the 1988 buddy cop flick Hawkeye (also known as Karate Cops, at least according to our VHS copy) is an absolute must-see, too.
Why it’s great
Let’s start with our titular hero, Alexander Hawkimoto, played by George Chung. He’s a cocksure, karate-kicking cop personified by horrible one-liners, terrible judgment and flat-out wacky Texas cowboy machismo. His partner? A completely shameless (and at times, surprisingly convincing) ripoff of Eddie Murphy from Beverly Hills Cop. The production value? Flimsy at best. The plot? Too ridiculous to describe. The end result? Pure gold.
Deathstalker 2 (1987): 1 hour, 28 minutes
The rogueish, casually misogynistic swordsman Deathstalker (yep, that’s really what he calls himself) becomes a reluctant hero when a princess on the run enlists his help in defeating Jarek, the evil ruler who replaced her with an evil twin.
The duo journeys to confront the villains, but not before a tribe of Amazonian huntresses captures them and forces Deathstalker into a fight to the death as punishment for his womanizing ways (relax, it’s just a WWF-style wrestling match in the middle of the forest, complete with the ring, and that sound you hear is me slapping my forehead just thinking about it).
Why it’s great
First off, a huge shoutout to the team at RedLetterMedia — they’re the ones who first turned me on to Deathstalker 2 when they featured it on their “Best of the Worst” YouTube series, which I highly recommend if these sorts of films suit your fancy. That said, Deathstalker 2 merits a full viewing of its own. From the brutally bad pun that opens the film to the final, climactic bout of unconvincing swordplay, everything about this movie is just the best kind of bananas. And don’t worry if you missed the first Deathstalker — it’s available to stream on Amazon, too!
Circus Island (2006): 1 hour, 44 minutes
Fun fact: Feel-good family flicks can be so bad they’re good, too! Case in point, Circus Island, in which an out-of-work trapeze artist slash deadbeat dad falls in love with and marries his ex-wife’s twin sister without realizing who she is before reconnecting with his estranged daughter while fixing up a run-down tropical island as a summer circus camp, wherein an angsty and vaguely homicidal mean girl threatens to ruin everything unless a ghostly circus legend can save the day from beyond the grave. No, it didn’t make much sense when I typed that either (or when I watched it, for that matter).
Why it’s great
The Awakening (2005): 1 hour, 38 minutes
A scientist almost comically devoid of personality (and played by the director) gets more than he bargained for when he uses the experimental treatment he’s working on for the military to treat his wife’s cancer. In doing so, he transforms her into a super irritable costumed supervillain with no real motivation aside from smashing through walls, decapitating armed commandos and being an all-around jerk to everyone she comes across. Hijinks ensue.
Why it’s great
From the terrible acting to the terrible visual effects to the terrible everything else, there’s no sugarcoating this flick as far as quality is concerned. (The “military complex” where two thirds of the action takes place is literally built out of bare plywood.) That said, as a bad idea badly executed by enthusiastic amateurs, it still falls squarely into the so-bad-it’s-good category (think Threat Level Midnight, the movie Michael Scott made with his co-workers during season seven of The Office). Cringe your way through this one and you won’t regret it.
Like I said, the Prime Video catalog is filled with flicks like these, and that means there’s a lot more where these came from. I didn’t even have room to mention campy classics like Death Spa and Chopping Mall!
I’m not planning on stopping my search anytime soon, so expect updates to this post if I find any new gems. In the meantime, feel free to share any recommendations for my watchlist in the comments section.
: Streaming service? Screaming service.
Why Annihilation didn’t get a wider release.