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The Good, the Bad, the Unwatchable

[whitespace] movie The 50 Worst San Francisco Movies

By Richard von Busack

The fog, the towering heights. The aura of old, unforgiven sins and loneliness in Hitchcock's Vertigo. The electric jolt of Lee Marvin on the warpath in Point Blank. Jeannette MacDonald magically rebuilding our earthquake-ruined city with a song, an anthem that rouses an audience to cheers when pounded out on the Castro Theater's Wurlitzer on Saturday nights. All the moods of San Francisco are summed up in the movies--the good ones anyway.

But what of the other side of filmmaking in San Francisco? What of the real dogs sniffing our picturesque streets?

Too often, everyone's favorite city has become every moviegoer's worst nightmare. As a frame for stories of killer homosexuals, knife-wielding dykes and rapacious, spiral-eyed hippies, as a backdrop for sappy love stories about everyday people played by millionaire actors, San Francisco is getting a wee bit overexposed.

If you can't get the atmosphere right, why spend the money? Maybe someday producers will realize the old ways are the best. The San Francisco locations will be created in a shed in Burbank, with a rear-projection slide of Coit Tower and some half-wit grips banging on cable car bells and blowing smoke for fog.

Is it right to include some handmade folk-art action picture on the same list of shame with overproduced fluff like Pacific Heights? Is it fair to group some young artist's blood, sweat and tears with a $100 million theater-clearer? Yes. Unfairness is essential to this kind of list. Satisfyingly, most of the movies listed below were made with no greater vision than of the interior of the producer's safe-deposit box.

All the below are on the level, except for five fakes. Let's begin:

1. Pacific Heights (1990)
Take your mind off your 30-day notice with this chiller about some really nice San Francisco landlords--on Potrero Hill, yet, not Pacific Heights--misused by an evil tenant (Michael Keaton). The law handcuffs the aspiring squires (Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine), and then it's payback time! "Not a thriller--more like an executive decision to make a thriller."--Pauline Kael.

2. Quicksilver (1986)
The ever-present Kevin Bacon plays a stockbroker who gets fired and then becomes a happy-go-lucky San Francisco bike messenger with a loft that a cardiologist couldn't afford. Jami Gertz co-stars.

3. Basic Instinct (1992)
Sharon Stone shocked an easily shocked nation as a handcuff-wielding, ice-pick-juggling blonde killer hunted down by craggy--nay, friable--Michael Douglas. Enjoy Douglas calling his co-star "butch" after finding out that she's having a lesbian affair (which we don't even get to watch). The gyne-eye view of Stone uncrossing her legs during a police interrogation scene is the sales point. You'll need an atomic clock to time how long it lasts.

4. A View to a Kill (1985)
Roger Moore, 0057 years old, finishes his stint as James Bond in the installment that nearly killed off the series. Features: a stupid robot, a Nazi clone-master, a blimp and Tanya Roberts. Extra bonus points for local sensitivity: the villain shoots the mayor of San Francisco in his office.

5. City of Angels (1998)
Another goddamn angel movie. SF's own Nicolas Cage makes very large, very wet goo-goo eyes at Meg Ryan in the new Minimum Security Prison for Books (i.e. the San Francisco Main Library). It was Michael O'Donoghue who once wrote that the sentence "Suddenly, everyone got hit by a truck" was the quickest and most perfect ending for any work of fiction. At the end of City of Angels, suddenly, Ryan gets hit by a truck.


Good-Bad Movies about San Francisco.

Good San Francisco Movies.

Things you'll never see in a San Francisco movie.


6. Star Trek V (1989)
You've seen William Shatner act--now, watch him direct! Sequences at Star Fleet Headquarters in SF get this an honorary spot on the list. The matte painting of Yosemite looks like the side of someone's customized van.

7. Nina Takes a Lover (1996)
Stultifying romance about rich cafe women with too much time on their hands, starring Laura San Giacomo--a Karen Valentine for our generation.

8. The Telephone (1988)
Mostly improvisational movie credited to Terry Southern and Harry Nilsson (songwriter for No. 30, Skidoo) and directed by Rip Torn. Scene: a gloomy Market Street apartment building overhung by the freeway. Inside, a crazy woman (Whoopi Goldberg) rants into a disconnected telephone for an hour and a half. When the phone man comes to retrieve the equipment, she kills him with a knife. Very Polanskian; certainly more dramatically compelling than Clara's Heart. Goldberg sued to keep this film hidden. Strange, because The Telephone gives the viewer an excellent example of the kind of stand-up comedy Goldberg used to perform for free in Dolores Park--complete with the ladles of molasses-thick maudlinity: Here, it's an a cappella version of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." ("Hang up on this wrong number."--Leonard Maltin)

9. In memoriam
... of an SFAI student film known only to God.

10. Ground Zero (1975)
Mafia extortionists threaten to detonate a nuke on top of the Golden Gate bridge. As the DA, famed lawyer Melvin Belli gets chloroformed, slapped, thrown in the bay, hit with a cane and shot. Despite the fact that Ground Zero tries hard to give locals what we want to see, it was not a hit. Writer/director James T. Flocker deserves much credit for being nuts enough to shoot the climax of Ground Zero on location atop the bridge--the scenes are much more thrilling than the finale in View to a Kill. Otherwise, Ground Zero epitomizes the turtle-necked, ape-draped, bell-bottomed, wah-wah-pedal-squashing era of action movies, as derided in Angels Live in My Town, the film within the film of Boogie Nights. Everybody in San Francisco dies at the end, courtesy of crudely spliced-on stock footage of atom-bomb tests. Wouldn't a big truck clobbering the city have been more scary?

11. Slaughter in San Francisco, a.k.a. Karate Cop (1973/1981)
This Chuck Norris actioner spent eight years rotting in the vault and then was released when Norris started to become popular. A major disappointment to those who thought it completed a Jim Brown trilogy of Slaughter and Slaughter's Big Rip Off.

12. Flower Drum Song (1961)
A Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about arranged marriage in Chinatown. The film seems to have mysteriously vanished off the face of the earth. Featured tunes include "Chopy Suey" and "Fan Tan Fanny." Egregious Asian stereotyping. No kickboxing either.

13. Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (1981)
Great title, dude! Alan Arkin and Danny Glover co-star with funnywoman Ruth Buzzi. It's a briefcase-full-of-stolen-government-documents comedy, written by Arkin's wife.

movie 14. Crackers (1984)
Louis Malle's most neglected movie by his account, and his worst movie by everyone else's account.

15. Fulta Fisher's Boarding House (1922)
This San Francisco-made silent short film inaugurated the career of Frank Capra, whose submersion of his personal demons, whose selective memory about the American experience and whose insistence on simplistic, populist smarm created a golden tradition of corny, feel-good movies that persists today.

16. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Exemplifies the above. If we'd wanted to see an Angela Lansbury movie, we wouldn't have gone to see Robin Williams.

17. Night of the Quarter Moon (1959)
Hugo Haas is a figure who just doesn't get his due in bad-movie circles. This actor/producer/director created inexpensive melodramas with ripe silent-movie titles like Thy Neighbor's Wife, Strange Fascination and Edge of Hell. Here, Haas investigates the problem of miscegenation, with Julie London as a woman who discovers she has Negro blood. John Drew Barrymore, living link between John Barrymore and Drew Barrymore, co-stars.

18. Freebie and the Bean (1974)
Car-crash fiesta with James Caan and Alan Arkin playing a Chicano cop called "Bean"--as in "beaner," get it? If you'd actually driven some of those jerry-built, breakdown-prone, post-Tet Offensive American cars, you'd know why filmmakers could always get a good laugh by smashing them into walls.

19. Dirty Harry (1971)
Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) wants to clean up criminal scum, but liberal judges just let 'em run wild. This film inaugurated a long series of aggro-cop movies spawned in the justice-obstructed bowels of the Nixon regime. P.S. Where, exactly, do you find criminals who will beat you up for money so that you can take your bruises into court and sue the police for brutality? (This enterprise has to be below MLMs, even, as a way of making money.) Considered a classic by people who were high when they saw it, Dirty Harry spawned four sequels:

20. Magnum Force (1973). A long commercial for the .357; suburban mommy Liz Phair loves this one;

21. The Enforcer (1976), co-starring Crawford and Mitchum--John Crawford and John Mitchum;

22. Sudden Impact (1983), complete with lesbian-plotted rape scene, which must have been the spur for those eye-catching "I never thought a woman could rape" billboards on the MUNI. Lastly and leastly,

23. The Dead Pool (1988), with the famous Radio Shack toy/muscle-car chase sequence.

24. The Rock (1996). At this point, the best thing to do is to claim it's a spoof.

25. The Lonely Profession (made for television, c. 1969)
You want Frank Sinatra, you'll settle for Ben Gazzara, you get Harry Guardino. Detective Guardino seeks hippie runaways as Scott Mackenzie sings, "If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair."

movie 26. Eye of the Cat (1969)
Wealthy ailuraphobe Eleanor Parker is tormented by no-good nephew seeking to scare her to death with kitties. Stars Gayle Hunnicutt, Michael Sarrazin and a cast of many adorable fluffy pusskas.

27. More American Graffiti (1979)
A tragic follow-up to the hit movie, with Vietnam scenes of Terry the Toad trying to frag his officer with an exploding cake. Meanwhile, stateside, we ride with the least convincing van full of hippies this side of the Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine.

28. Punch Out! (1988)
Armand Assante is Lt. Rock Tanfoosian, a veteran San Francisco homicide inspector with only one week left before retirement. His new partner: "Turk" Ahmet (Arsenio Hall), whose hatred for Armenians is all-consuming. Will the two settle their ancestral rivalry and get down to catching perps? Produced by Don Simpson, who took his name off the picture in embarrassment.

29. Butterflies Are Free (1972)
Sensitive drama about San Francisco bohemian Goldie Hawn teaching a mom-pecked blind guy (Edward Albert, Eddie Albert fils) how to Braille-read her chest. Many adolescents went around with dark glasses and a white cane for weeks after seeing this.

30. Skidoo (1968)
A movie that straddles the line between bad-beautiful and bad-atrocious. On the bad-beautiful side: a Pynchonesque plot about a secret criminal organization called The Tree, led by a reclusive boss who calls himself "God" (Groucho Marx). Also: a cast chock full of producer/director Otto "Mr. Freeze" Preminger's fellow Batman villains: Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin and César Romero. An extensive LSD sequence includes singing, dancing trash cans. Now for the bad part: Carol Channing in a see-through bra and some princely fake-hippie banter: "I mean, like, that's why the establishment ain't making it. They're digging that 9-to-5 bag, the rush of the city--what's happening in the news, instead of what's happening in themselves, dig?"

31. Mangy Amy and Chokecherry John (1969)
This low-budget semidocumentary tells it like it was about the crash pads, love-ins and hippie orgies that made the Haight-Ashbury infamous. No one who's seen it forgets the sequence of Neville Brand shooting up into his own eyeball. Wait, I forgot--no one's seen it. Music by the Geese, Sassafras Doily, the Only Alternative, the Other Possibilities.

32. Yes, Giorgio (1982)
Luciano Pavarotti, pound for pound our finest opera singer, plays a rascally tenor with a wife in Italy and a girlfriend in Napa. Since he's famous and Italian, he refers to himself in the second person a lot: "You are a thirsty plant, Pamela. Giorgio will water you."

33. Can't Stop the Music (1980)
The worst of the worst. Producer Alan Carr's follow-up to Grease is the rags-to-riches story of the Village People, a quintet of heterosexual lads who daydream about girls, girls, girls! The finale was shot live at the Galleria in San Francisco. After photography was completed, the film was edited to show an audience of nice straight kids--not glitter-clad SF reprobates--swaying to the V.P.'s title tune: "You can't stop the music, people can't stop the music, you can't stop the music," repeated 900 times.

34. Nightmare In Blood (1978)
Directed by John Stanley, affable Creature Features host. An actor who plays a vampire turns out to be a real vampire. Mostly filmed at a sci-fi con, it is little seen, but long remembered. Kathleen Quinlan and Kerwin Mathews (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad) co-star.

35. Golden Gators (1932)
The forgotten vaudeville team of Dog and Katz (Roscoe "Doghouse" Reilly and Izzie Katz) made nearly a dozen Z-grade programmers for Poverty Row's Cultivated Studios. This, sadly, was one of them. Dog and Katz sign up as hard hats on the Golden Gate Bridge construction project, but their side-splitting mischief results in death for several fellow steelworkers. Then it's off to a Chinatown opium den where Katz gets baked and marries a gorilla. Songs: "Persimmons Are My Favorite Kinda Fruit, You Bet!" and "Hello, Sailor!"

36. Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)
Too much Jack Oakie and Alice Faye and not nearly enough Laird Cregar. Don't call it Frisco!

37. Howl! (1964)
"Based" on Allen Ginsberg's poem, this cheap-jack Albert Zugsmith beatnik exploitationer follows the adventures of a beret-wearing poet, Allen Ginsmountain (Sal Mineo), who gets in trouble with the law. Marie Windsor, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Mal Sharpe and Slappy White co-star. Bruno Ve Sota steals the picture as Sexy Rexy, Mineo's foppish landlord.

38. Kuffs (1992)
One of the movies that drove Christian Slater to drink. Slater plays a San Francisco patrol special (some kind of licensed security guard who keeps people from shoplifting in Cow Hollow, near as I can figure). Kuffs (Slater) has cold feet about marrying his pregnant girlfriend. Essentially, this is another one of those pro-family messages from Hollywood, the morality capital of America. Includes early role by Milla Jovovich, later famous as a gauze-bikined Teletubby in The Fifth Element.

39. When a Man Loves A Woman (1994)
Pacific Heights wife Meg Ryan gets drunk and out of line one too many times. Caring, understanding husband Andy Garcia signs her up for the cure at Trembling Hills. Now sober, she continues to badger him for patronizing her and not letting her make progress against her dreaded alcoholism on her own. Some have suggested that the phrase "the Me Decade" refers to the running time of this movie.

40. The Laughing Policeman (1973)
Mayhem on the MUNI. Cop Walter Matthau--looking like he could use some roughage in his diet--teams up with Bruce Dern. Their quarry: one of those serial-killing homosexual villains who were as endemic in '70s cinema as Gwyneth Paltrow is in '90s films.

41. The Presidio (1988)
If total screen excitement has a name, that name is Mark Harmon. Meg Ryan, yet again. Sean Connery hides the "Scotland Forever" tattoo on his arm as he goes into a sniffling monologue about how much the Statue of Liberty means to him.

42. Golden Gate (1993)
Matt Dillon started trying comedy shortly after he starred in this overwrought period drama about anticommunist persecution of the Chinese.

43. The Subterraneans (1960)
Jack Kerouac's novel of interracial love gets bleached by MGM. Mardou (Leslie Caron) is made French instead of black (well, isn't French exotic enough?). West Coast jazzmen Gerry Mulligan and Shelly Manne lend their music to this bowdlerization.

44. Foul Play (1978)
Meg Ryan-esque Goldie Hawn--unless Ryan is Hawn-esque--plays an eyewitness to a murder; private detective Chevy Chase is hired to do something about it. In the days before VCRs, sometimes you'd go out to see a movie just because there wasn't anything else to see. And this was one of those movies. Chase followed it up with Oh, Heavenly Dog!, second-billed to Benji.

45. Psych-Out (1968)
Bruce Dern plays an insane guru vamping a deaf runaway girl (Susan Strasberg). Produced by Dick Clark as a public-service message to his fellow teens.

46. The Ravagers (1971)
The fifth and last Matt Helm movie is set in San Francisco. The swinging, half-drunk secret agent (Dean Martin) matches wits with a foppish villain (Jerry Lewis) who steals a sonic device to shake California into the ocean. Cameos by Salt and Pepper (Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford), Keye Luke, Anthony Newley, Dahlia Lavi, a talking dolphin at Steinhart Aquarium named "Agent Bottlenose" and a bikini-clad Holly Near.

47. The Love-Ins (1967)
Cinema's answer to the famous brown acid. The Chocolate Watchband brings it to a boiling frenzy, as does Susan Oliver in her famous LSD sequence, complete with Alice in Wonderland imagery that probably inspired the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit"--or the other way around.

48. Another 48 Hrs. (1990)
Eddie Murphy gets in the Man's face; Nick Nolte suffers it. The amazing screen chemistry between these two convinces us that the stars chum around in real life, even when no one is paying them to drive down streets the wrong way yelling at each other.

49. Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)
Bill Murray (as Hunter S. Thompson) gets his biggest laugh peeing on professional Nixon impersonator Richard M. Dixon. It would have been funnier if it had been the other way around.

50. Howard the Duck (1986)
Still a legend. A vinyl-duck-masked actor stars as an alien wandering the streets of San Francisco (playing Cleveland). You'll see ducks in Clement Avenue meat-market windows treated with more respect than Howard was. Exec produced by George Lucas, the mogul behind The Phantom Empire, "the most eagerly anticipated movie of this, or any other, eon" (TM, all blurbing rights reserved).

Answer: #28, 31, 35, 37, 46

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From the March 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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