The most hilarious low-budget films ever

It ain't easy making a movie. Just convincing all those actors, extras, and camerapersons to turn up in the right place at the right time is hard enough. Doing all that when you've got zero money or studio backing is damn-near heroic. But while we salute any budding no-budget director making the next Clerks or Evil Dead or Primer, not every cheap movie is worth celebrating. Unless you mean for their services to unintentional hilarity, in which case the following should probably get all the Oscars.

The Horror of Party Beach (1964)

It's 1964. Trashy monster movies and films about teens having beach parties are (inexplicably) all the rage. So B-movie maestro Del Tenny decides to combine the two, on the assumption that his mash-up will prove a surefire hit. The results prove something all right: that there is no bad film that can't be made 1,000 times more enjoyable by sticking in an extra in a boss-eyed fish suit.

Despite its working title being Invasion of the Zombies, the bad guys in Horror at Party Beach are bloodthirsty mutant fish created by radioactive waste falling onto a sailor's skull off the coast of Connecticut. Go on, read that sentence back. We promise it won't ever make any more sense. Since the budget was so low, Tenny could only afford three monster suits, and boy are they the sorriest-looking monster suits you'll ever set eyes on. The creatures look like the love child of HP Lovecraft's fish god Dagon and the Cookie Monster. One of them shrank so much in the water, it could no longer fit the stuntman.

The best part of Horror at Party Beach? The filmmakers couldn't afford to clear the beaches they were filming on. Pretty much every scene features a gaggle of onlookers hanging out, like watching a fish-man dismember a bather is just something you do for fun in Connecticut.

Manos the Hands of Fate (1966)

Harold P. Warren was a fertilizer salesman with a dream. A dream that involved blowing his fertilizer fortune on a glorious mess of a movie and becoming renowned as the worst director ever. At least, we hope that was his goal, 'cause that was totally what happened. Manos was shot on $19,000 outside El Paso, Texas, with a crew that worked for free and designed their own costumes. Yet even these savings weren't enough to keep it from becoming the 99¢ store of horror movies.

The cheapness of Manos is legendary. Warren shot the whole thing on 16mm, using a hand-cranked camera that could only run for 32 seconds at a time. All the dialogue had to be dubbed (badly) at a later date. The "hell hound" was played by a puppy. With no experienced crew, stuff reached Ed Wood–levels of incompetence. There are a whole bunch of shots where you can see Warren yelling "cut!" and a whole other bunch of shots where the actors miss "action!" and just stand around gormlessly, staring into camera and picking their noses.

It gets weirder. The plot ostensibly involves a pagan cult yet keeps switching away to random stuff like two girls fighting in the sand, a couple making out in a car, and two women trying to "massage" a satyr to death. The whole thing is so gloriously bad that even the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 claimed they couldn't make anything worthwhile out of it.

Blood Freak (1972)

Occasionally, a film comes along that is so outright weird that there's really no need for us to comment on it amusingly. Blood Freak is that film. An early '70s sleaze-fest about a "weed-addicted" biker who turns into a bird-headed monster after eating genetically modified turkey, it's possibly the only film in history to feature a scene where a turkey-man hybrid has sex with a woman, while making gobbling noises, and the woman somehow doesn't notice.

Everything about Blood Freak is cheap, and cheap is how you'll feel after watching it. Cheap, and used, and in need of a nice sit down with a calming cup of herbal tea. The biker-turkey-man thing is supposedly a vampire that needs to drink the blood of "weed addicts" to survive. But the costume budget was so low that, in reality, it's just a dude in a turkey mask making insane gobbling noises while a bunch of scantily clad women scream at him. Honestly, it's like these actresses have just realized what sort of film they're starring in and are shrieking at the thought of what it's gonna do to their long-term career prospects.

To add to the general WTF-ery, the flick's director, Brad Grinter, occasionally stops proceedings to walk on camera and explain that what we're seeing is a serious fable about the dangers of doing drugs. We can't help but think Brad may have misjudged Blood Freak's potential audience a bit.

The Lift (1983)

You've got almost no money and less than a month to make a semi-decent horror film. What do you do? The sensible answer would probably be to find something normal and everyday that creeps out most people and create a tight little movie around that. But then you could make that normal thing an elevator and watch as any whiff of sensibility goes flying out the window. In 1983, Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas did exactly that. The results go so far beyond ridiculous they almost loop all the way back round to being sane again.

The Lift features—you guessed it—a killer lift that may or may not have been driven homicidally mad by "experimental microchips" or a lightning strike. Over the course of nearly 90 minutes, it closes its doors on people's heads, lets other people fall down elevator shafts, and generally kills people in all the possible ways an elevator could kill people, which is to say "not many." The contortions the film goes through to get multiple characters into a situation where an elevator could plausibly murder them are hilarious. Add in the inexplicable urge nubile young women keep having to screw their boyfriends in an elevator and the result is a camp classic.

The Killer Shrews (1959)

In 1959, Ray Kellogg had a problem. He was a first-time director charged with making a horror film about killer shrews, ambiguously titled The Killer Shews. Trouble was, he didn't have the budget for decent effects, and real-life shrews are notoriously not-scary. Luckily, Kellogg had spent the last decade as the head of 20th Century Fox's special effects department. Less luckily, he was apparently terrible at his job, because his solution involved taping a load of carpet and plastic masks to Boston terriers and calling them monsters.

If you've never seen a Boston terrier, rest assured that they are so small and so adorable that no amount of makeup would ever stop you from wanting to cuddle their cute little brains out. Watching grown humans act scared of adorable dogs with carpet stuck to them is just about the most glorious thing ever committed to celluloid. Imagine if Night of the Living Dead had used puppies instead of zombies, and you'll be 90 percent of the way to picturing The Killer Shews.

To top it all off, the script contains some spectacular clunkers. Sample dialogue: "Now look, I don't ask questions because it's against my principles. But would you mind explaining that?"

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Superman IV wasn't a truly low-budget film by any stretch of the imagination. It had $17 million at its disposal, easily enough to make a high-quality small film. But producers Canon Films clearly went to the "go big or go home" school of filmmaking. They didn't want small. They wanted Smallville. Superman. Lex Luthor. Nuclear armageddon. They wanted New York City and exploding suns. Radiation-soaked villains and a dramatic space rescue. In short, they wanted a movie $50 million could've barely covered … and the result was cinematic overreaching on a truly hilarious scale.

To start with, Superman IV couldn't afford to shoot in NYC. They had to shoot in Britain's Milton Keynes instead. If you're from the UK, you're already in hysterics. If you're from elsewhere in the world, rest assured that Milton Keynes does not look like NYC. It's low rise. It's suburban. It's heavily pedestrianized. Its most distinctive feature is a squat, glass-fronted shopping mall, which Superman IV used as the United Nations building. You might as well try and pass off Delaware as the Grand Canyon. The film's addition of a Noo-York accented hotdog seller and a red fire hydrant prop only make the contrast more absurd.

The rest of the film is just as spectacularly cheap. Supes in space now looks like a photo being dragged over another photo. But it's the locations that truly turn this into a chuckle-fest. They're so bad that even the official Milton Keynes tourist site makes no mention of Superman IV once being shot there.

The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson was once one of director Ed Wood's many muses. That alone should tell you all you need to know about the Beast of Yucca Flats, a movie so blissfully demented it makes even Wood's efforts look sane in comparison.

The plot revolves around a Russian scientist (Johnson) who defects to the US. Running from the KGB, he stumbles on to a nuclear testing range just as—surprise!—an atomic test is carried out. The radiation transforms him into a nuclear-powered sex-and-death-obsessed man-beast, which in practical terms means the prop department sticks some putty to Tor's face while the director has him scream a lot. Within the first five minutes, he's strangling attractive girls and having off-camera sex with their bodies, just to really signal how sleazy this film is gonna be.

We could go on about the delightfully low-budget action sequences, which frequently seem to involve Tor stumbling after children while waving a medium-sized stick. Or we could highlight how the only dialogue occurs when characters are covering their mouths, to save money on syncing the dubbed voices later. But it's the film's attempts at pathos that really stand out. The final scene features the dying beast watching as a bunny rabbit hops closer. With his last ounce of strength, he hoists himself up … and gives the bunny a final, tender kiss. And that, wanabee filmmakers, is how you end a monster movie (badly).

Horrors of Spider Island (1960)

"Beautiful girls became his prey!" The tagline for Horrors of Spider Island is perhaps the most succinct summing up in the whole of cinema. A plane full of badly dubbed dancing girls crash-lands on a desert island that is home to a mutated half-man, half-spider that tries to eat them. And that's it. It's just an hour and a half of a topless guy in a rubber mask chasing attractive blondes around a beach while demented porn-shoot jazz music throbs in the background.

Hilariously for a film that already has such a thin plot, the writers seem to forget halfway through what the setup they've created is. Somewhere around the midpoint, Horrors of Spider Island drops both spiders and horrors and settles down into a kind of wacky sex comedy where the girls keep stripping off for a variety of improbable reasons. There's a naked beach party. Nude swimming. Girls going au-natural as it's too hot to sleep with clothes on. By the time the monster shows back up, everyone onscreen is far too busy partying with two new male arrivals to even care.

Speaking of men, one of the other delights of Spider Island is seeing just how much breathtaking sexism it can get away with. The film's women fall over themselves to cook and clean for any guy who makes it to the island, all while the camera leers over their backsides like this is misogyny's last stand against the coming tide of feminism. The whole package is so strange, Greek filmmaker/critic Ado Kyrou once called it an accidental "Dadaist film."

Message From Space (1978)

Message From Space had a decent-enough budget, somewhere around the $6 million mark. That's roughly half of what it took George Lucas to make Star Wars and could've easily served a film half the size. But director Kinji Fukasaku didn't want to make pint-sized Star Wars. He wanted to make Star Wars, but even bigger. So he tried to outdo George Lucas with only a fraction of the money. The result is so technically shoddy it transcends its limitations and becomes a kind of monument to the joys of tacky cheesefests.

The model work looks like some grown up guy playing with toys in his momma's basement. Although some sequences are better, some are even worse. The scene where the space teenagers go out into space to catch space fireflies (you'll notice the word "space" gets aired a lot in this film) is accomplished by dangling actors in front of back projection so unconvincing it feels like the SFX guys have just given up and gone home by this point.

As for the plot, you really don't need us to recount it. Not if you've seen Star Wars. Message From Space so openly rips it off, it's tempting to think this is just Japan's revenge for George Lucas brazenly stealing elements of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Plan 9 From Outer Space is legendary. It's the Citizen Kane of bad movies, the inspiration for unlimited voyages into "so bad it's good" cinema. But does it live up to its reputation? Dear God, yes. It lives up so well that watching it for the first time is like rediscovering what it's like to laugh. Not only was director Ed Wood passionate about making movies, he was so blind to his own foibles that every frame becomes an instant camp classic.

Where to start? There's the hubcap flying saucers. There's the narrator who utters magnificently abstruse statements like "remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future." There's Bela Lugosi dying halfway through and being replaced by a look-alike who looks nothing like him. There's the cop who scratches his head with his pistol, the flamboyant space aliens, the incomprehensible solaranite bomb, and the scenery that insists on shaking and falling over with endearing regularity. It's almost a masterpiece.

The tales behind the badness are almost as wonderful. Wood raised the paltry budget from a church group by telling them Plan 9's success would allow them to finance their planned biopic of evangelical minister Billy Sunday (this, uh, didn't happen). He ran out of money so regularly, he had to get most of his actors to work for free. And yet, everyone involved seems to be having a rollicking good time. We think there's a lesson in there somewhere, but we're too busy chuckling by this point to care.

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