Strutting into theaters and on VOD this Tuesday, You Don’t Nomi dazzles audiences with a riveting re-evaluation of Showgirls. That 1995 drama reunited screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven, the team behind the hit Basic Instinct, for a big-budget dream project about erotic dancer Nomi Malone (Saved By The Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley) whose ruthless ambition makes her a big star in Las Vegas. For all the filmmakers’ grand designs, this NC-17 film flopped hard, crippling careers like a sharp shove down some stairs.
But was Showgirls just misunderstood?
Documentarian Jeffrey McHale interviews film critics, professors and the star of the unauthorized parody stage-show Showgirls! The Musical! to expose how the Razzies’ Worst Picture of the Decade became a cult classic worthy of reconsideration, celebration and song.
To toast You Don’t Nomi, we’re shining a spotlight on the best docs about once-misunderstood movies. Of course, there are great behind-the-scenes documentaries for unabashedly successful movies, like Jaws (The Shark Is Still Working) and Apocalypse Now (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse). But those championed below are the docs that dig deep into movies that weren’t initially embraced. Some were besieged by production nightmares, some were maligned and misunderstood, some never got made at all. Nonetheless, the docs made about them are phenomenal.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014)
You may have seen the 1996 Val Kilmer/Marlon Brando vehicle The Island of Dr. Moreau, but do you know the wild story of its creation? The adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel was supposed to be helmed by Richard Stanley, a South African filmmaker who’d caught Hollywood’s eye with his visually striking horror-thrillers, Hardware and Dust Devil. However, Stanley’s bold creativity came with some major quirks that contributed to the production devolving into an absolute mess. He was fired from the set, but that didn’t mean he left it. Documentarian David Gregory delves into all of this in Lost Soul.
This true story is stranger than fiction, told through jaw-droppingly bizarre archival footage and photographs as well as talking head interviews that buzz with excitement. Critics and historians set up Stanley’s reputation and what was anticipated from this daring director taking on a big studio budget and a bonkers tale of human-animal hybrids. Then insiders and Stanley himself share behind-the-scenes stories that are hilarious, heartbreaking and just downright weird. Big stars pulling outlandish power plays, a helmer driven to the brink of madness and a bit of witchcraft, Lost Soul has it all.
Room 237 (2012)
It might seem strange to include Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — now regarded as perhaps the all-time horror classic — on this list, but upon its initial release in 1980, the ambitious adaptation of Stephen King’s popular novel received pretty mixed reviews. King himself sneered at the film’s deviations from his book. Over the years, critics and audiences have re-evaluated this twisted tale of a family man driven mad by isolation in a haunted hotel. Named for a spooky set piece in this chilling film, Room 237 explores what The Shining has meant to its audience by sharing fan theories about its labyrinth of symbols and messages.
Director Rodney Ascher pours over every inch of the Overlook and every frame of The Shining to show the film as its theorists see it. Forget talking heads — like You Don’t Nomi, Room 237 is told exclusively through voiceover that walks us through scenes iconic and surprisingly mundane, but no less rich in meaning. Did Kubrick intend this haunted hotel story to be a metaphor for the horrors of cultural assimilation? Was it intended as a retelling of the myth of the Minotaur? Or was this director of 2001: A Space Odyssey confessing to faking the moon landing? To find out, all viewers need to do is open their minds and the door to Room 237.
Lost in La Mancha (2002)
With fascinating and fucked-up films like Time Bandits, Brazil and 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam earned a reputation as a visionary writer/director. Nonetheless, he struggled to secure funding to complete his dream project, an inventive adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century novel Don Quixote. Gilliam’s concept was to have a modern man fall into the adventure of the windmill-battling knight. It was a project that would take a few false starts and 29 years to complete: In 2018, Gilliam finally released The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which starred Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce. This doc is about the harried helmer’s first attempt, though, a plagued production that boasted a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean Johnny Depp.
Documentarians Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were on location with Gilliam and company in 2000, lensing what was supposed to be a behind-the-scenes doc. However, from the first day of shooting, Gilliam and his crew were beset by problems that threatened their schedule and budget. By day two, a flash flood hit, destroying their location. From there, Lost In La Mancha becomes a portrait of the madness of making movies and a celebration of one of cinema’s most determined auteurs.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)
Years before Star Wars broke the mold of how Hollywood saw sci-fi films, Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky pitched a breathtakingly ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. It was a movie unlike the studio execs had ever seen. So, Jodorowsky hired comic book and book jacket artists to help him create a comprehensive tome of storyboards and concept art to display how these extraordinary sets, insane special effects and gruesome violence would be done. The execs still didn’t get it, the project lost momentum and the project was eventually handed off to American director David Lynch, who made a mad movie that flopped with audiences and critics alike.
Documentarian Frank Pavich takes audiences back to the 1970s to wonder what might have been. Talking head interviews with film critics, Jodorowsky’s colleagues and filmmakers he’s influenced (Nicolas Winding Refn, Richard Stanley) give context to the cinema landscape this visionary helmer of the Western El Topo and the mind-snapping fantasy The Holy Mountain hoped to disrupt. Jodorowsky’s Dune also cracks open that legendary pitch book, exhibiting elaborate concept art for spaceships and costumes as well as panel-by-panel breakdowns of torture sequences and epic battles.
On top of all this, Jodorowsky, then in his 80s, shares his undying passion for this could-have-been project. With jolting enthusiasm, he unfurls his vision, which included a soundtrack from Pink Floyd, designs by H.R. Giger (who’d go on to create the iconic beasts of Alien) and a cast that boasted rock star Mick Jagger, storied film director Orson Welles, Andy Warhol collaborator Udo Kier, and the legendary surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí. If your mind is quaking with the collision of all that, you’re going to want to savor the spice of this doc.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018)
Welles would relate to Jodorowsky’s struggles. At 25, he was the toast of Hollywood because of his landmark 1941 film Citizen Kane. But by the 1970s, Wells couldn’t get a movie funded. Still, there was a fire within him, so he plotted a comeback with a feature the likes of which the world had never seen before. Combining a film-within-a-film with a faux behind-the-scenes documentary, The Other Side of the Wind would unfurl the story of a past-his-prime director making one final film. Welles insisted it wasn’t autobiographical, but the parallels are so undeniable that this doc explores his biography in conjunction with the making of the masterpiece he never completed.
Named for how the heavyweight helmer felt about the Tinsel Town that betrayed him, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead features a slew of archival footage of Welles, from the films he made and the interviews he gave over his long career. Director Morgan Neville even gets playful with this footage, breathing fresh life into it by putting the late Welles’ reactions in a simulated conversation with his surviving colleagues. Peter Bogdanovich, John Huston, Oja Kodar and cinematographer Gary Graver recount the genius, bravado and hunger of Wells, the “prototypical independent filmmaker” who craved perfection and innovation over all else.
Welles wanted to employ improvisation, erotic and prolonged sex scenes and an intensive montage style. However, he faced an avalanche of problems personal and professional, then died before he could get to that crucial final cut. From what he left behind, Neville joins Welles’ loyal friends to resurrect The Other Side of Wind like a phoenix rising from the ashes in this touching tribute.
In the summer of 1992, Sandi Tan was a cinema-loving teen in Singapore, determined to make her own film. She wrote and starred in Shirkers, a road movie about a young serial killer. She teamed with a motley crew of her peers and her film teacher/mentor Georges Cardona, who encouraged Tan’s dreams only to snatch them away, along with all the footage. For decades, he and the would-be movie were gone without a trace. Then, in 2017, Cardona’s widow sent what reels remained to Tan, spurring an exploration of what happened and what might have been.
Through contemplative narration and talking head interviews with her former crew, Tan ushers audiences on a bittersweet journey through ambition, betrayal and closure. She shares photos from her girlhood in Singapore, her journal entries, drawings and selections from the recovered Shirkers footage. It’s a journey deeply personal, yet far from navel-gazing. Tan probes the mystery of her former mentor as a means to understand the exploitation of young, naïve and inspired creators. Yet this doc is buoyant, boasting a quirky sense of humor and vibrancy that displays Tan’s panache as a storyteller.
Best Worst Movie (2009)
You know that thing where a movie is so bad it’s good? That’s the appeal of Troll 2, a creature-feature sequel that was chock-full of goopy gore, bizarre plot twists and some comically horrible acting. On top of all that, it in no way ties back to the original Troll, and doesn’t even feature trolls! (The creepy critters here are goblins.) Yet, this absolutely awful movie became a cult classic among horror fans, not despite its flaws but because of them. This doc explores this phenomenon from a surprisingly poignant perspective.
As a child, Michael Paul Stephenson was the screaming star of Troll 2. All grown-up, he was intrigued by the revival screenings and clamoring cult that evolved around the movie. So, he decided to make his own. Stephenson directs Best Worst Movie, interviewing fans of the film and reuniting with the cast and crew that made this mess possible. There is a gnarly pleasure in watching Troll 2 director, Claudio Fragasso, defend his artistic intentions. However, the heart of this gleefully humorous horror doc is George Hardy, a cheery dentist who made one silly movie and now is delightfully tickled to be an odd icon. Even if you’ve never known the pleasures of Troll 2, you’ll relish the weird story of redemption offered in Best Worst Movie.
An incredible companion piece to Best Worst Movie is this extraordinary doc, which focuses on the long-maligned slasher sequel Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. That 1985 film shook up the subgenre, replacing its scream queen with a teen boy (Mark Patton) who was intimidated by sex and plagued by the knife-fingered killer, Freddy Krueger. The film was widely mocked and reviled for its campiness and none-too-subtle queer subtext, which included a bondage bar, a boys’ locker room shower scene, bare male behinds and a provocative private dance with a lot of crotch thrusting. Though it slayed at the box office, Freddy’s Revenge crushed the career of its closeted star, who then steered clear of the spotlight for decades. However, Scream, Queen! proves to be Patton’s glorious second act.
Co-directors Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen teamed with Patton not only to explore how Freddy 2 has come to be embraced by the LGBTQ+ community, but also to shed a light on how the film impacted his life. What begins as a Best Worst Movie-style doc about the cinematic infamy and cult reclamation evolves into a thought-provoking, poignant and personal history of gay men in Hollywood and horror. Patton shares stories outrageous (like when David Bowie kissed him) and heartbreaking, like auditions that called for blood tests because of AIDS paranoia. With an inspiring resilience and unstoppable charm, Patton rewrites his narrative, displaying his journey from mocked to marvelous, actor to activist and reclaiming his scream queen crown with a fabulous flourish.