If you like insane filmmaking, then the 1990s was a Golden Age of cinema. In fact, that crazed decade gushed forth a motherlode of never-before-imaginable crackpot cinema. Low budget trash had permanently shifted away from theatrical releases, and the exploding direct-to-video field utilized its own vast new marketplace to keep pumping out product.
Nobody seemed to care if that product made any sense. Movies created specifically for VHS rentals (and off-hour cable viewing) made up for their low budgets and shoddy technology by bringing to life lunatic ideas with ongoing abandon. Better still, straight-to-tape titles typically aimed for specific audiences that were desperate for any entertainment gratification they could get: little kids, unpopular teens, horror geeks, sci-fi nerds, and late-night insomniacs looking for their next red-eyed movie kick.
The occasional odd demented gem did manage to make it to the big screen—and we have some amazing examples here—but a lot of those only limped into cinemas for one week to help promote a VHS feature as a theatrical release. And then there were major mishaps like Theodore Rex–which recently wow’d Reddit as a topic of discussion, since the big-budget movie with Whoopi Goldberg and her dinosaur sidekick went skidding into the VHS home market.
Theodore Rex is just part of a demented decade, though. Now let’s look at 19 batty classics from the 1990s–and don’t be embarrassed if a few captivated you as a kid…
Cool as Ice (1991)
One long year (culturally speaking) after scoring his one lone radio smash, “Ice Ice Baby” (“Ninja Rap” was more of a cult phenomenon than a legit hit), pale hip-hop flop Vanilla Ice leapt to the big screen only to find absolutely no audience there to catch him. He does voice one endlessly quotable line in Cool as Ice, though: “Drop that zero, and get with the hero.” When it came to a Vanilla Ice follow-up film, Hollywood followed their fallen hero’s own advice.
Captain America (1990)
In between two lackluster 1979 CBS TV-movies and his 2011 mega-blockbuster reboot, Captain America was the lone hero to get a movie released from exploitation studio Cannon Films after they purchased the rights to Marvel characters. Cap’s shield proved to be truly mighty since he managed to survive wearing rubber ears and doing a lot of tight-suited nothing in this sub-bargain-basement budget bomb.
Originally planned as a Kindgerten Cop sequel and directed by Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, Cop-and-a-Half‘s teaming of Burt Reynolds with a precocious eight-year-old police wannabe tanked with audiences, but oddly energized film critics. Leonard Maltin, for one, went especially vicious, calling the film “a hemmorhoid-and-a-half for anyone who sits through [it]”, while Gene Siskel penned a prank fan letter to Roger Ebert, pretending to be the kid in the movie. Other audiences were not so similarly inspired.
Matt LaBlanc, hotter than imaginable as a star on NBC’s Friends sitcom at the height of its popularity, stepped up to the cinematic batter’s box as a pro baseball player who teams with a chimpanzee. It’s not just a chimpanzee, though, it’s the clunkiest, most goofily obvious mechanical chimpanzee this side of those old monkey toys that clap cymbals and smile.
Evil Toons (1992)
The fright comedy Evil Toons teams up B-movie legends (John Carradine, Dick Miller), post-Love Boat downward-slope celebs (Arte Johnson), and a heady mix of horror flick scream queens (Michelle Bauer) and adult actresses going R-rated (Madison, Barbara Dare) against the lamest, cheapest animated cartoon monster to ever not be restricted to a fourth-grade kid’s homemade flip-book.
Ghosts Can’t Do It (1990)
Early ’80s cinematic sexbomb Bo Derek pulled off one final theatrical release (and, usual, her clothes) in this nonsensical supernatural comedy-drama-disaster. Anthony Quinn is the ghost of her much older husband and Donald Trump supplies a cameo. Boo!
A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990)
Anthony Michael Hall–no longer the likable nerd he was in those ’80s teen movies–co-stars as a cop who comes across the titular monstrosity, a yard-high, goat-faced, shaggy-all-over underworld creature with big, chilling eyes and horrifyingly expressive facial features. The overall genital-like nature exuded by Gnorm gets explicitly emphasized when a nurse removes the beast’s raggy pants and marvels at the massiveness that spills forth from therein. Gnorm smiles. You might not. [WARNING: That’s allegedly a mere trailer above–but it’s much, much more…]
Jack Frost (1997)
In the Child’s Play movies, a serial murderer dies and comes back in the form of killer doll Chucky. In Jack Frost, a serial murderer dies and comes back in the form of a killer snowman. Among his victims is a pre-surgically-enhanced Shannon Elizabeth, who falls prey to the carrot-nosed criminal in a shower before she has a chance to turn on the hot water and escape.
Jack Frost (1998)
Just a year after the straight-to-tape slasher flick Jack Frost, Michael Keaton starred in a big-screen Christmas release as a jazz musician dad who dies and returns in the body of a snowman in order to properly raise his son. The catch: the heartwarming family film Jack Frost creature is infinitely more terrifying than the horror version.
Theodore Rex (1995)
And here’s the one that started the conversation–and it’d be disappointing to not really see some of the thing.The $35 million Whoopi Goldberg-and-a-talking-dinosaur cop comedy Theodore Rex was shot for big screens and then dumped onto rental shelves. In the process, it shattered records as the most expensive direct-to-video production of its time. Whoopi wears a skintight black catsuit. The dinosaur is a guy in an animatronic costume. The action takes place in an alternate future where such things are normal.
Munchie is a foot-tall gremlin in a motorcycle jacket voiced by Dom Deluise who comes to the aid of a picked-on kid whose only friend is a mad scientist played by Arte Johnson (him again). Munchie’s “help” comes in the form of madcap pranks, all to the consternation and ultimate delight of co-stars Andrew Stevens, Loni Anderson, and, in her film debut, Jennifer Love Hewitt.
On Deadly Ground (1994)
After Under Siege (1992), Steven Seagal stood poised for Schwarzenegger-scaled Hollywood superstardom, and then made sure to destroy humanity’s good will toward him by directing and starring as an ass-kicking Eskimo in a ludicrous environmental adventure. The action includes an extended hallucinatory trip and a ten-minute lecture at the end on being kind to Mother Earth.
400-year-old vampire Stanley looks like a kunckledheaded teen and he plays guitar in an attempt to win the heart of the girl he’s been chasing throughout the centuries. She’s now an aspiring rock star. Be on the lookout for cameos from Bo Diddley and Thomas Dolby–who, when we once asked about his film career, replied, “Better not to bring that up.”
Shrunken Heads (1994)
Whacked-out filmmaker Richard Elfman’s long-delayed follow-up to his cult favorite Forbidden Zone (1980) concerns three young New York City who get decapitated by a local drug gang and then reanimated as by a voodoo priest as flying heads out for revenge. See it to believe it.
Jonathan Brandis plays a bullied youth who takes up martial arts and engages in imaginary conversations with his hero, the movie star Chuck Norris—played, naturally, by Chuck Norris. Joe Piscopo is the bad sensei. Throughout the ’80s, Aaron Norris collaborated with his brother Chuck Norris in a succession of popular bone-snapping action hits (Lone Wolf McQuade, Missing in Action). Sidekicks was the siblings attempt at a family film audience. That it failed didn’t stop them for trying again in 1995, via canine, by teeming Chuck with a shaggy hound in Top Dog.
Slappy and the Stinkers (1998)
B.D. Wong stars as a snooty private school principal who takes on an ersatz Little Rascals cadre of second-graders nicknamed “The Stinkers”. After pulling pranks on groundskeeper Bronson Pinchot, the Stinkers liberate Slappy the sea lion from a local zoo and keep him on campus. Eventually, this makes them heroes.
Street Fighter (1994)
Bedecked in garish outfist amidst tacky scenery that seems to be from an Eastern European Battlestar Galactica rip-off circa fifteen years earlier, Jean-Claude Van Damme hurls the popular arcade game to the big screen with a pointed PG-13 lack of panache. The sight of JCVD wailing on bad buy Raul Julia, who was in real life dying from cancer and very obviously looking like it on camera, is so painful it’s a challenge to look and not look at the same time.
Suburban Commando (1991)
Initially conceived as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, Suburban Commando finally saw life as a minor theatrical success with Hulk Hogan and Christopher Lloyd in the leads as, respectively, an intergalactic freedom fighter and the milquetoast earthling dad and husband who opens his home to the space visitor. We can only speculate as to which comedic duo would have ultimately handled the material more effectively.
Troll 2 (1990)
And we’re closing with a classic–but we don’t mind Troll 2 getting a lot of fame as a Best Worst Movie. In fact, that’s the title of the documentary made about Troll 2, which is one skull-smoking avalanche of across-the-board incompetence and unintentional hilarity about an innocent family trapped in a town called Nilbog (read it backwards) that’s overrun by goblins. A perennial afternoon cable TV favorite throughout the ’90s, a generation of cult film nuts has embraced Troll 2 as its own, and both they and the movie do one another proud.