October 27, 2010 by abbyo
In today’s cynical culture, it’s so much easier to tear things down than it is to build them up. Think about it: how many times have you tried to explain to your friends why you love your favorite movie, but failed because you just can’t describe it in words? Conversely, how often have you completely bashed a movie you hate (or love to hate) and found exactly the right things to say?
It’s my belief that in art, appreciation is a personal, unique experience. You may love a book, movie or piece of music for completely different reasons than the person next to you. That’s what makes art great, and also what makes it hard to describe. Dislike, on the other hand, is a unifier. While, like every good piece of art, every bad piece of art is bad in its own way, it’s easy for people to agree that it is, in fact, awful.
This is why we love movies that are laughably bad. They bring us together through agreement that we’re watching something of poor quality, but also evoke feelings of enjoyment because the film is uniquely and ridiculously terrible. The viewing experience is always fun, but differs depending on when and where the movie is viewed. Audiences get the best of both worlds.
So, here on “No More Popcorn,” I’m devoting one of my rotating regular topics to what I call “Plan 9 Cinema” (in honor of Ed Wood’s famously terrible “Plan 9 from Outer Space): movies that are truly and wonderfully awful, so bad they’re good.
Our first pick is 1969’s “Hercules in New York,” starring loads of people you’ve probably never heard of, but one person I’m sure you have, because he’s…well…
That’s right. “Hercules in New York” stars a post- Mr. Universe, pre- “Pumping Iron” Arnold Schwarzenegger (here billed as “Arnold Strong”) as the titular demigod who takes a quick vay-kay from Mt. Olympus to mingle with mortals in the Big Apple. During his trip, he falls in love with a professor’s daughter (appropriately named Helen), becomes a successful pro wrestler, and makes friends with a pathetic-but-sweet alcoholic pretzel vendor called Pretzie (Arnold Stang, who should have sued Schwarzenegger over name rights). It’s a ridiculous premise but, surprisingly, I think it could have made for an entertaining family film, except for a few major obstacles: the script, Schwarzenegger’s acting, and the god awful production values. Basically, it was a decent idea, horribly carried out. The result is a jaw-dropping train wreck of a movie.
We’ll start with the star. This was Schwarzenegger’s first-ever acting gig. He’s given the most basic of basic lines, akin to “Yes” “No” and “Hulk smash.” This is because a) Arnie can’t act his way out of a paper bag and b) at this point, his Austrian accent was still so thick that he was barely intelligible. It would probably be appropriate to note here that there are two versions of “Hercules in New York:” one with Schwarzenegger’s original accent (the better one) and one with his lines dubbed (the lamer one). Due to Arnold’s total lack of ability to make his lines do anything but fall out of his mouth like lead, bits that would have been clever are completely lost. This is a problem that plagues the film only in its first few scenes, so I imagine director Arthur Siedelman arranged for some rewrites once he figured out any potential for witty repartee was lost on his leading man.
Arnold’s acting also creates a weird dichotomy between the scenes among the gods on Mt. Olympus and Hercules and his friends on Earth. In the New York scenes, the actors seem to be well aware that Schwarzenegger is wooden (when they can understand him), and just kind of go with it. But the actors in the Mt. Olympus scenes, many of which are Arnie-free, behave like they’re in an entirely different movie. These guys seem to think this movie is something like “Jason and the Argonauts,” except for Pluto, who’s under the impression that it’s a Bob Fosse production:
Of course, it doesn’t help that the script is ridiculous and the production values are just slightly better than a home movie. In the Mt. Olympus scenes, you can clearly hear traffic going by in the background. There are continuity issues by the busload. And then, of course, we have this gem:
This is scene is a perfect little snippet of “Hercules in New York” because it captures just about everything that’s wrong with the movie. From the lighting, this scene apparently took place simultaneously at night and mid-afternoon. A supposedly 600-pound grizzly bear is played by a man in an animal suit. Helen (who’s an exceptional screamer, by the way) shouts not for her man to escape the bear’s clutches, but to beat him up as though the animal were a pervy drunk that had just tried to goose her at a bar. It’s classically bad.
But you want to know the one thing that’s not wrong about “Hercules in New York?” Pretzie, Hercules’ loser pretzel-vending best buddy. Despite his kooky name, Pretzie’s actually capable of some pathos. There’s an alternate version of “Hercules in New York” in my head that stars Pretzie as the main character. It’s all about how Hercules comes to Earth and changes his life for a few glorious weeks before taking off without warning and leaving his friend to resume his lonely life. This version, my version, is an entertaining but somewhat-deep exploration of the banality of life, and the existence of people for whom life is a series of disappointments.
But of course, the actual film barely even hints at poor old Pretzie’s hidden depths. There are two scenes that look like they could go somewhere, then just…end. Watch for the one after Hercules abandons Pretzie at the Empire State Building. What starts off as a surprisingly touching monologue (given the nature of everything that’s come before it) trails off and ends with quite possibly the weirdest closing line I have ever heard.
So, that’s “Hercules in New York,” the little movie that couldn’t. It’s really kind of amazing that Arnold Schwarzenegger managed to have a career after this. Who’d have thought that the guy nobody could understand in a worthless movie would eventually become Governor of California? It just goes to show you that some folks always manage to land on their feet.
While it may be a little tough to find a DVD copy of this movie, both versions are easily available online: