“Heaven’s Gate” (1980)
A production fiasco that was dead-on-arrival at the box office and almost sank its studio, “Heaven’s Gate” holds the unenviable title as being the final nail in the coffin of New Hollywood auteur cinema. Following up his Oscar-winning “The Deer Hunter,” Michael Cimino was lambasted for making another indulgent epic. In “Heaven’s Gate,” rather than providing a linear narrative or clear character motivations, Cimino proves more interested in weaving an all-encompassing story that consistently challenges its viewer and subverts the genre’s expectations by presenting an alternative vision of the American West. For all the fierce critical backlash that tainted its initial release, the director’s cut of “Heaven’s Gate” has recently enjoyed one of the strongest critical reappraisals of all turkeys, celebrated as a flawed masterpiece for its staggering visuals and unorthodox ambition.
Upon its 1995 release, Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls” became instantly infamous for its excessive trashiness. Despite being a financial fiasco, “Showgirls” quickly grew into a cult classic. The marvelous misfire stars Elizabeth Berkley, desperately trying to escape her “Saved By the Bell” adolescent image, as a stripper named Nomi. The film follows Nomi as she tries to ascend the ranks of the Las Vegas entertainment scene, from stripper at the sleazy Cheetah nightclub to star showgirl on the “Goddess” stage. As Nomi, Berkley is woefully over-the-top, yet she is earnest and so clearly determined in her acting. While critics remain divided whether the film is so-bad-it’s-good or so-bad-it’s-bad, “Showgirls” is full of unforgettable lines of dialogue and a swimming pool sex scene that is impossible to look away from. To this day, “Showgirls” has a strong contingent of diehard fans that defend the cringe-worthy and anti-erotic film at all costs.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
According to the Library of Congress, “The Wizard of Oz” is the most-watched film of all time. Yet, believe it or not, the cherished musical was actually a box office flop that saw an initial loss of $1,145,000 upon its first release in 1939. Based on the fantasy novel by L. Frank Baum, the film struggled through numerous directors and a troubled production, marred by several accidents, on its way to becoming MGM’s costliest picture yet. It was only when it was re-released a decade later in 1949 that Victor Fleming’s magical adventure finally took off and turned a profit. As we all know, “The Wizard of Oz” eventually became a Technicolor treasure that won the hearts of audiences around the world, but the early box office hardships of the movie only go to show that today’s turkey might become tomorrow’s masterpiece.
Up until this year, when Drafthouse Films rediscovered this bat-shit crazy gem and turned it into a midnight movie sensation by touring it around the country, Noel Marshall’s “Roar” was one of the most ridiculous and ill-conceived turkeys of all time. Starring Marshall opposite his wife Tippi Hedren and their daughter Melanie Griffith, “Roar” is an anti-poaching movie about a family held hostage at an African bungalow by a hoard of lions. The plot is relatively simple, but the harrowing production is anything but routine. Shot for over 11 years on location, Marshall used real animals on set, including four tiger cubs, two elephants, and 110 tigers, lions, jaguars and cheetahs. The results were as devastating in real life (multiple actors and crew members were injured, including cinematographer Jan de Bont, who received 220 stitches after his scalp was mauled) as they are to watch unfold on the big screen. At the time of its release in 1981, the film only grossed $2 million worldwide opposite its $17 million, making “Roar” a tragic passion project for all parties involved.
“The Room” (2003)
When you’re talking turkey, don’t stop gobbling until you get to Tommy Wiseau’s almost unfathomable “The Room.” The truly independent — and possibly even truly insane — filmmaker took a DIY approach to his film about love, loss, cancer, betrayal, friendship and football, serving as director, producer, writer and romantic lead. The film’s logline is hilariously inept at delivering the true power of the feature, as the story of “The Room” (basically, a romantic triangle gone bad) is so much less interesting than the story about “The Room.” Wiseau famously advertised the film himself using a single billboard in Hollywood, a curiosity that eventually helped spawn monthly midnight screenings that eventually caught on with the LA cinephile crowd, who ate up the film’s unintentional hilarity (perhaps with a spoon?), turning it into an unlikely cultural touchstone.
“Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven” (2011)
What, you didn’t know there was a sequel to “Showgirls”? Fair enough, because the film never had a full theatrical release and barely made a dent in the theaters that did show it for fun at very, very select midnight screenings in late 2011. Half parody, half spiritual cousin to Paul Verhoeven’s original film, the film bravely resurrects Penny, a minor character from the first film, and dives deep into her own obsessive, dance-heavy, champagne-soaked world. Written, directed, produced, edited by and starring Rena Riffel (the original Penny, thankyouverymuch), “Showgirls 2” is less preoccupied with Las Vegas than the first film (most of it takes place in a backwoods town that feels pulled out of “Twin Peaks,” of all things), but it’s just as consumed with bloating runtimes: The film clocks in at 143 minutes of utterly inexplicable smut.
“The Details” (2011)
Consider this one a cautionary turkey. Jacob Aaron Estes’ pitch black domestic comedy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, where it was quickly snapped up by The Weinstein Company for $7.5 million (a hefty Sundance buy by any measure). And then it just…languished. The film, starring Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks as a disaffected suburban couple, wasn’t released until late 2012, where it made $63,595 and was pulled after 10 days in release.
“Death to Smoochy” (2002)
A nasty and blacker-than-black comedy about the underside of children’s entertainment, Danny DeVito’s “Death to Smoochy” was predictably tough to embrace upon its release, registering as a box office bomb and receiving rotten reviews by critics. While Robin Williams’ extensive filmography was already full of clunkers, “Death to Smoochy” saw the oft-sentimental actor at his most cynical as a disgraced former kids entertainer, Rainbow Randolph. Williams’ performance is typically manic, but it is also laced with a surprising amount of anger and sadness. Edward Norton is a perfect foil as Smoochy, his sweet and hopelessly optimistic replacement, complete with his fluffy, purple rhinoceros costume. The comedy’s violence and twisted sense of humor certainly left a bad taste in many mouths, but its biting satire is unconventional enough to find a niche audience and stage a comeback. “Death to Smoochy” has yet to be subject to any major critical reappraisal, but stranger things have happened. For now, chalk it up as Robin Williams’ darkest dud.
“Steve Jobs” (2015)
Months after Sony email leaks revealed a fair amount of pre-production discord, “Steve Jobs” arrived to much fanfare at the Telluride Film Festival and soon thereafter as the Centerpiece of the New York Film Festival. Despite earning stellar reviews almost across the board, the Aaron Sorkin-Danny Boyle collaboration curiously landed in theaters with a thud when it expanded nationwide. “Steve Jobs” might have survived the nightmare Sony Hack scandal in terms of its critical response, but it was victim to a release strategy that saw the film disappear almost as soon as it came out in nationwide. As it stands now, the drama is only on track to make slightly more at the box office than the universally derided Ashton Kutcher vehicle, “Jobs.” While “Steve Jobs” is holding out hopes that it will be resuscitated come awards season, it looks more and more likely that the film will be just another box office turkey, underseen by an audience oversaturated with the late icon.
“Boondock Saints” (1999)
Love it or hate it, “The Boondock Saints” has come a long way from box office boondoggle to cult classic. Yet another product of the post-“Pulp Fiction” wave of ultra-violent crime thrillers, “The Boondock Saints” tells the story of two Irish-American twin vigilantes who find faith-based justice by slaying countless criminals. In many ways, it’s a miracle the movie was ever even released. What once was an expensive Miramax production, “The Boondock Saints” went through numerous production and pre-production setbacks, eventually losing all of its Weinstein money and getting only a weeklong theatrical release that mustered a measly $30,471. Despite dreadful reviews that unilaterally considered the film to be a pointless and indulgent mess, “The Boondock Saints” persevered through strong word-of-mouth to become a home video sensation.
Michael Lehmann’s 1988 dark comedy about a ruthless clique is a staple of the high school movie genre, though it wasn’t always such a well-respected and beloved classic. Though it now ranks on nearly every list of the best high school movies of all time, “Heathers” grossed under $2 million during its initial theatrical release, becoming a huge commercial failure despite the involvement of actors like Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. Perhaps such a vicious deconstruction of American high school life was too much for audiences to handle, but considering Ryder was coming off the massive success of Tim Burton’s blockbuster “Beetlejuice,” it’s a little surprising audiences rejected the movie entirely. Luckily history has been kind to the film, and over the years “Heathers” has become a standout of the genre and one of the most biting satires ever made.
“Southland Tales” (2006)
Richard Kelly became something of a cult film god after the success of his 2001 psychological sci-fi thriller “Donnie Darko,” and while following up such a beloved title would’ve been a daunting task for any filmmaker, Kelly seemingly stacked the odds against himself by spending the next five years trying to mount an ambitious sci-fi drama that ended up not making a lick of sense. Starring an impressive ensemble cast, including Dwayne Johnson, Sean William Scott, Mandy Moore, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Justin Timberlake, “Southland Tales” is set in an alternate history where the Third World War has plunged America into hysteria and Los Angeles is being overtaken by an underground neo-Marxist organization. Kelly tries to juggle the stories of characters ranging from an amnesia-stricken actor to a psychic ex-porn star, but all he manages to do is create one hallow political statement after the next. The film gets a lot of visual mileage out of its $17 million budget, though it bombed hard at both its Cannes premiere (Roger Ebert famously called it “disastrous”) and during its theatrical release, mustering up a paltry $374,743.
“Only God Forgives” (2013)
It’s impossible to deny the visionary auteur skills of Nicolas Winding Refn, so we consider “Only God Forgives” a rare fluke in his largely dynamic filmography. Perhaps expectations were too high after the international acclaim over “Drive,” or maybe audiences were expecting something similar to that genre reinvention based on the reunion between the director and star Ryan Gosling; whatever the reason, “Only God Forgives” is an extremely cold and one-note revenge thriller with so much visual provocations that it leaves almost no room for character development or thematic exploration. For all of its sensual images, “Only God Forgives” is about as empty and crass as an exploitation picture. Audiences seemed to agree, as the film was not only booed at Cannes but also relegated to a day-and-date theater release, proving to be a severe critical turkey on Refn’s legacy.
“Son of Rambow” (2007)
Garth Jennings’ coming-of-age comedy-drama was one of the biggest sensations at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, earning rapturous praise and landing the knockout deal of the festival courtesy of Paramount Vantage, who dropped $7 million on the title. Starring Bill Milner and Will Poulter, the movie is quite the cinephile love letter as it tracks the efforts of two young boys who set out to make an amateur version of the classic Sylvester Stallone vehicle “First Blood.” Capitalizing on movie history and infectiously painting a genuine bond of friendship, “Son of Rambow” seemed like the kind of Sundance crowdpleaser that would ignite the box office, making Paramount Vantage’s lofty deal seam more then sensical. Unfortunately, the film only grossed just under $2 million, forever damaging Paramount’s reputation and earning it a spot as one of the biggest Sundance bombs of all time.
“All the Kings Men” (2006)
Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was turned into a Best Picture winner in 1949, though that didn’t stop Hollywood from tackling the source for what could have been a promising remake in 2006. Everything on paper sounded good, particularly the involvement of writer-director Steven Zaillian and a cast that included Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, James Gandolfini, Patricia Clarkson, Mark Ruffalo, Kathy Baker and Jackie Earle Haley, so no one could have predicted just how cluttered and boring the final product would be. Equally overwrought and cloyingly tedious, the movie plays like desperate Oscar bait. Critics and audiences responded by ignoring the movie all together, leaving the $55 million production stranded with a gross of under $10 million. In the history of turkeys, this might just be the most star-studded.