Hyped as a cult classic on the original release, Warhol’s imitation of John Waters is now mostly unseen and unregarded.
In an interesting turnabout, the final film to have Andy Warhol’s name attached to it was very much under the influence of John Waters, who of course was inspired by the pioneering films of Warhol and Paul Morrissey when he began his career. In fact, the 1977 movie Bad sometimes seems like the film Waters would’ve made had he shot a movie with a slightly starrier cast between Polyester and Hairspray. That said, the film ultimately fails to match the gleeful bad taste of Waters’ work – while cheerfully offensive, Waters was rarely mean-spirited, and the nastiness in Bad sometimes seems rather too cynical and grim to be entertaining. It might be for this reason that Bad has never quite managed to maintain the sort of cult reputation of the other films that had Warhol’s name spuriously attached them – from Flesh to Flesh for Frankenstein, all of which were the creative output of Morrissey rather than Warhol, but which were sold internationally as though they were the output of the latter artist (understandably, Morrissey was known to walk out of interviews if some referred to Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein as Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, even though both films had been released in the US under those titles. Warhol, of course, had no involvement in either movie). Bad was heavily hyped at the time of release and a major effort was made to turn it into a cult hit – but in the end, the T-shirt worn by Debbie Harry on the free poster included in The Best of Blondie LP was probably seen by more people than the movie ever was. While rights issues kept the Morrissey films out of circulation for several years and the actual Warhol movies have been jealously guarded by the rights holders and so have become increasingly difficult to see as the perceived worth of the films clashes with the actual commercial potential of any home video release, Bad seems to have simply slipped through the cracks. I obtained a copy on DVD that was released by Cheezy Flicks, a company that specialises in public domain movies and other titles of legally dubious copyright status, but of course, this was not exactly a remastered, extras-laden disc. other DVDs seem equally questionable in their copyright status and the absence of the film from one of the bigger niche market labels – who you would think would be keen to release a film with this sort of in-built cult status from people who simply haven’t been able to see it – suggests that it exists in some sort of hellish copyright limbo where no one can either find the owners, find the master copy or afford the asking price. What an odd ending for a film that opened with big names like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson in attendance.
Carroll Baker, fresh from a run of impressive Umberto Lenzi thrillers in Italy, plays Hazel Aiken, a beauty therapist who runs a sideline in hit jobs carried out by women – anything from petty vandalism to murder. When L.T. (Perry King, standing in for Joe Dallesandro)) arrives looking for work, she is reluctant but finally agrees to take him on, setting him up with a job killing a metally-handicapped child whose mother has grown tired of looking after. As L.T. waits for the go-ahead on his job, other employees carry out assorted tasks, while Hazel’s daughter Mary (Susan Tyrell) struggles with her Downs Syndrome baby and a corrupt cop puts the squeeze on Hazel.
Ostensibly directed by Warhol’s boyfriend Jed Johnson, Bad was allegedly shot mostly by Warhol himself – another amusing turnaround given the number of films credited to him that he had no involvement in. Johnson was an interior designer who moved to film editing when he began his relationship with Warhol, but by all accounts knew nothing about how to make a movie. Warhol, of course, was not exactly known for his narrative productions and inevitably, the film’s screenplay was quickly tossed out of the window – much like the baby in the film’s most notorious scene – and the cast, who thought that they had signed on for something that was at least reasonably structured, had to make things up as they went along. This proved to be a struggle for those like Baker and King, who were used to more conventional filmmaking. The result is an odd mess that mixes solid production values and strong performances from the leads with the weird, flat, emotionless acting you might expect from Warhol’s films by everyone else. It’s a curious result, though one that generally works if you are familiar with those early films and have an affinity for that style of movie-making. The culture clash might be one reason why the film has never quite found its audience though – it is ultimately neither fish nor fowl. For instance, King is a passable Joe Dallasandro substitute (and has a tame sex scene with Dallasandro’s real-life girlfriend Stefania Casini), but although a better actor, simply doesn’t have the striking screen presence of Little Joe. The impact of actors like Dallasandro was always due to their charisma, and this film feels – despite its attempts to be outrageous and the chaotic production – very straight compared to the Morrissey movies.
And those attempts to shock just feel too contrived and self-conscious. The infamous scene of a woman tossing a baby out of the window of a high rise, the infant splattering on the pavement on screen, is certainly shocking and offensive, but it has no real connection to anything else happening in the film and seems there just for shock value – a moment that every outraged critic would reliably mention and so pull in a crowd looking for sensationalism. It’s a prime example of the difference between this and John Waters’ work – I can’t think of anything so mean-spirited or contrived in the whole of his oeuvre. Equally, the kicking and beating of a dog seems there just for the sake of it. Moments like this take it close to the cynical and mean-spirited offensiveness of a Troma movie than the gleeful and sincere bad taste of Waters. The result is that the film seems to be trying too hard, which is a pity, as the grubby, sleazy story was enough in itself, without these self-conscious distractions. Sometimes, less is more – but then, Warhol had probably dug himself into a hole by this point, with audiences expecting more and more outrage and taboo-challenging with each movie. No wonder he decided to abandon his filmmaking ambitions after this and return to the rather safer and more lucrative art world, where his name meant high prices and respectability.
If you are attracted by the shock reputation of Bad, you might well be disappointed. For all the outrage, and the scenes mentioned about, it’s surprisingly tame in the end – there’s no nudity, no sex, little violence and characters who are not as wildly outrageous as you might hope. It seems to have been rated X in America on the basis of that one scene and the expectations of the censors rather than for any actual extreme content. The resulting film is a mixed bag of restrained excess and awkward edginess. Still, if you bear that in mind, then there is much to admire in the film, which seems damned by its own undeserved reputation. Perhaps one day, it’ll be finally given a new lease of life.
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