As Mardi Gras festivities set their place onto my calendar I always save some space to hold my annual “camp” film festival. Camp films are an integral part of LGBTQI culture, and while “camp” films are often mistaken as bad films, this isn’t entirely correct. 

Many “camp” films (including some on this list) are excellent but are considered camp due to highly exaggerated elements, particularly in the script or performances. However, a great number of other camp films are undoubtedly awfully bad…and awfully fun. Thus, can I suggest the following films to create a fabulous camp classic film fest to thrill your family and friends this Mardi Gras weekend? Sit back and enjoy!

Showgirls (1995)

The notorious bomb, which won a record number of Razzies when it was released in 1995, is essentially a remake of All About Eve except with T&A, and none of the class. It’s raucous and ridiculous…and perhaps one of the most subversive comedies ever made.

The fault of the film lies primarily in the excessive direction of Verhoeven (a director never known for subtlety) who took every element of the film to a completely manic level. Joe Eszterhas’s script is undeniably juvenile, but honestly, that’s what makes it so much fun. He is strangely obsessed with women’s fingernails and constant hunger for potato chips.

Gina Gershon as Crystal gives an outrageously fun performance. Gershon told Jezebel, “I decided to make a character that the drag queens would want to perform. I started having fun with it. I thought it was the only way to get through it.” 

The film is filled with one jaw-dropping scene after another, and honestly, has anyone ever eaten a hamburger, or had sex, with such wild abandon as Elizabeth Berkely? Her performance is utterly insane but you cannot take your eyes off of her. Lesbian subtext abounds in the film, with Crystal and Nomi engaging in the ultimate “I love you, I hate you” relationship, with Crystal mocking Nomi saying, “I don’t know how good you are, darlin’, and I don’t know what it is you’re good at, but if it’s at the Cheetah, it’s not dancing, I know that much.” Sample Dialogue: “It must be weird, not having anybody cum on you.”

Mommie Dearest (1981)

Another film that shows up on pretty much every list of essential camp films is also actually brilliant. Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford is simply astonishing. She inhabits the role with complete abandon, and a ferocity (“No … wire … hangers! Ever!”), that has rarely been seen before or since. She’s like a steamroller. Every other person in the film is mowed down by her caged lion performance. It’s a joy to behold. When Faye bellows, “Why can’t you give me the respect that I’m entitled to?!” you have to wonder just how many cups of coffee she drank prior to shooting. She is seething and it’s spellbinding.

Diana Scarwid, an actress who has since developed a sizeable LGBTQ fan following, plays the hapless Christina, and is equally terrific. While Scarwid is unsuccessful in hiding her natural Southern accent, she brings a delicious languidness to the role. When she slowly drawls “I am NOT one of your fans,” to an enraged Faye, the wrestling match that follows is one for the cinematic history books.

And when Faye barks at the board of PepsiCo,“don’t fuck with me fellas. This ain’t my first time at the rodeo,” you just can’t help but fall in love with this ridiculous film. 

It’s so, so bad, but it’s so, so good. 

Valley of the Dolls (1967)

Is it terrible? Oh my yes, you bet! Is it fun? Oh, absolutely!  A film that was dated even when it was released in 1967, the “mod” touches (the insane Gilmour makeup commercial, Jennifer’s ‘nudie’ film, the crazy cinematography), are simply hysterical. 

What puts this film as a perennial entry onto the camp list is the magnetically terrible performance of Patty Duke as “NEELY O’HARA!!” a truly fine actor when given the right role. You really need to see it to believe it.

Barbara Parkins, is beautiful as Anne but she barely moves an eyebrow, and the “leading men” are a who’s-who of “who the heck is that”? Paul Burke? Tony Scotti? Martin Milner? Are they truly the best, most charismatic actors 20th Century Fox could actually hire? 

The astonishingly beautiful Sharon Tate emerges relatively unscathed from this heinous train wreck, delivering decent work, even a line as utterly insane as “You know how bitchy fags can be.”

And just wait until you watch Susan Hayward as Helen Lawson, lip-synch to I’ll Plant My Own Tree. It’s spellbindingly bad. Hayward also has one of the funniest lines when she tells Neely, “They drummed you right outta Hollywood! So ya’ come crawlin’ back to Broadway. Well, Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope!”

Die! Die! My Darling! (1965)

This seldom seen Tallulah Bankhead chiller from 1965 is a must-see and worth tracking down, based solely on the performance of legendary Queer icon Bankhead, in her final screen appearance. Bankhead chews the scenery and spits it out as she terrorises the winsome Stephanie Powers. Powers plays “the darling” wife of Bankhead’s recently deceased son, whom Bankhead believes is responsible for her beloved son’s death.  This Hammer studios thriller is grand campy fun.

Carrie (1976)

Brian DePalma created a classic horror film that still retains its visceral power, however, camp elements abound in the film, most particularly in the performance of the incredible Piper Laurie, playing Carrie’s religious fanatic mother, Margaret White. 

Laurie’s full-throttle performance is simply astonishing, particularly towards the climax of the film, where she has a stunning monologue. “Then he took me. He took me, with the stink of filthy roadhouse whiskey on his breath, and I liked it. I liked it! With all that dirty touching of his hands all over me.”

How Laurie lost the Oscar for best supporting actress to Beatrice Straight for her six-minute role in Network remains one of Oscar’s biggest mysteries.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte  (1962)

When Bette Davis was good she was great; when she was bad she was even better. Bette has an absolute field day in this chiller, which was one of the best entries in the 1960s genre film fad of aging leading ladies in ghoulish horror films, a genre which began with Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Davis plays a mad aging Southern belle (is there any other kind?), who lives in her crumbling antebellum mansion with her crotchety old maid (is there any other kind?), played by Agnes Moorehead in a hugely entertaining role. When sweet-as-pie cousin Miriam shows up, (played by Olivia De Havilland, in a rare “evil” role), things start to get really nasty. Olivia has great fun spitting out deliciously vengeful dialogue like “Why wouldn’t I tell him that his pure, darling little girl was having a dirty little affair with a married man?”

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Make no mistake, Sunset Boulevard is absolutely brilliant but again filled with massive camp elements, particularly in the truly iconic performance by the legendary Gloria Swanson. Recognizing that this role was likely to be the pinnacle of her illustrious career, Swanson devours the screen. As Norma Desmond, the former movie star now living as a recluse in her Hollywood mansion, Swanson is spectacular and richly deserved the Oscar nomination she received for it (in fact she should have won). When Norma bemoans the fact “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small,” you know there is more than just a bit of real-life truth coming into play in Swanson’s delivery.

It is the final shot of this remarkable film that cements its place in camp history when Swanson, fills the frame, uttering the classic line, “All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” It’s camp in its finest form.

Suddenly, Last Summer  (1959)

Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor (never more beautiful) and Katherine Hepburn star in this adaptation of one of Tennessee William’s finest (and strangest plays). Three of the greatest actors of this or any day have a field day in this deeply disturbing southern melodrama.

Taylor plays Catherine, a young beautiful girl who is used by her homosexual cousin Sebastian to attract boys for him (”We procured for him!”), a relationship which comes to an end when Sebastian falls prey to a pack of cannibals. Tennessee William’s hated the finished film, saying that he only meant cannibalism as a metaphor and not as a literal event. Sample dialogue: “You won’t believe, nobody has believed it, nobody could believe it, nobody, nobody on earth could possibly believe it, and I don’t blame them!— They had devoured parts of him.” 

Johnny Guitar (1954)

One of the best “camp” films ever, Johnny Guitar is actually brilliantly made. Joan Crawford is magnetic as Vienna, a tough-as-nails saloon keeper in a dusty Arizona town who makes some serious enemies out of the townsfolk who want nothing more than Vienna to be lying under 10 feet of dirt.

When Crawford goes toe-to-toe with her arch-nemesis Emma Small (played by the always unnerving Mercedes McCambridge) all hell breaks loose. This feminist 1954 Western is a terrific film, which goes to prove “campy” doesn’t always mean “bad.” Sample Dialogue: “There’s only two things in this world that a ‘real man’ needs: a cup of coffee and a good smoke.”

The Sentinel  (1977)

One of my favourite horror films of all time, The Sentinel is jaw-droppingly bad and also terribly fun. A young model (Cristina Raines), moves into a brownstone on the Brooklyn waterfront, unaware she has been chosen to be the next sentinel guarding the entrance to hell! A cast of old pros (Burgess Meredith, Ava Gardner, Jose Ferrer) are fun to watch but it’s Beverly D’Angelo and Sylvia Miles as a mysterious lesbian couple who steal the film, especially in a completely outrageous scene where Beverly D’Angelo madly masturbates in front of Raines.  It’s a crazy, crazy film. 

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