As you grow older, it's common to reflect back on your life and revisit the big turning points. Sometimes you find turning points that you didn't even know were there. And sometimes those turning points are movies! For me that turning point movie is It Came From Hollywood. This odd, discursive little Paramount gem stripmined bad Hollywood (and a few Japanese) films for laughs so effectively that it influenced the comedy behavior of millions, me included. Sure, the brothers Medved gave us THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS in the bookstore, and we enjoyed its sneering takedown of tinsel-town failures, only later to notice the right-wing talking points percolating through the text. But books can only offer text and publicity stills, and that’s where ICFH triumphs, showing us the actual bad films themselves. In the early 1980s this was merely a dream. Either they ran in your city's UHF station in some late night slot, or they simply weren't seen. In 1982, VCRs cost $1000, pre-recorded films didn't exist in any home-video format, and might never if the courts had had their way. If you wanted to see Battle in Outer Space or Glen or Glenda or Night of the Gorilla, you were plain out of luck.
Cue the summer of 1982; the TV ads for It Came From Hollywood promised us Godzilla, apes, giant grasshoppers, Ed Wood in drag, super-monsters, two-headed creatures, blobs, kooks, potheads, and teens gone wild, all introduced by John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and Cheech & Chong. I was shocked -SHOCKED to see how empty the theater was. Didn't everybody love to laugh at terrible movies? Apparently not. But for the few of us smart enough to take quick action, It Came From Hollywood was a revelatory experience. Clips of terrible old movies introduced by skits starring our favorite comic actors? What’s not to love? ICFH enjoyed a VHS and a Laserdisc release - my VHS copy wore itself out - but so far hasn't received a proper DVD release.
And this is a crime. Apart from fine performances by Stars No Longer With Us Gilda Radner and John Candy, It Came From Hollywood is a time capsule of amazing badfilm. These days everybody knows who Ed Wood is and laughs at Prince of Space; years of home video availability, of MST3K style riffing, of the media's hunger to constantly devour itself have created a world where even the most obscure references have their own fan websites, where if you look hard enough the most terrible films have their devotees. But where did this culture of self-referential mockery come from? It came from this movie right here, this It Came From Hollywood. This is where we all learned to laugh at ineptitude, to look for strings and boom mikes, to check for cardboard gravestones, Robot Monsters, and Tor Johnson.
It Came From Hollywood is indeed an historical document, not just of terrible movies, but as a snapshot of some of America’s most talented comics at their peak. Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd were freshly escaped from their groundbreaking work on SNL, John Candy was at the peak of his SCTV creativity, Cheech and Chong hadn’t been beaten down by overexposure and the law. At the time, they were all people we saw on television every week, old friends we’d come to take for granted. 25 years later we miss them still.
A film like ICFH was greater than the sum of its parts - its parts being amusing out-of -context clips from sci-fi shit-piles like Evil Brain From Outer Space or Mars Invades Puerto Rico, an amazing racist blackface tap-dancing Heaven, or a Korean King Kong ripoff - separately forgotten bits of fail but collectively a rich, fecund stew that both entertains and enlightens. It’s important to reflect on the massive undertaking a clip-show movie must have been in the pre-digital age – edited by Bert “Amazon Women On The Moon” Lovitt,” It Came From Hollywood must have been a Herculean task of good old fashioned sweat-box editing.
The movie is a representation of a whole new generation of pop-culture referential comedy that was only beginning to percolate into the mass culture – Pee Wee Herman’s throwback insanity, the late night UHF sitcom nightmare world of Drew Friedman’s illustrations, the hyperactive TV preacher aesthetic of the Church Of The Subgenius, the clip-art collages of Dead Kennedys sleeve artist Winston Smith, the Firesign Theater feature film J-Men Forever wholly constructed out of 1940s adventure serial clips, which was itself screened on USA Cable’s NIGHT FLIGHT, itself a mix of campy educational films, music videos, and other video detritus. Sure, these days the self-referential media barrage style of humor is old hat, but at the time cultural awareness itself wasn’t a cliché.
Sure, there’s kind of a sneering hipness to the comedy, a smug, let’s-laff-at-the-squares mindset that you’ll find in any revival-house screening of Reefer Madness. But ICFH manages to overcome its superiority complex, chiefly through a long Ed Wood career retrospective that proves you can admire the troubled filmmaker’s moxie while simultaneously laughing at the finished product. Also, Dan Aykroyd proves he can walk the walk in an angora sweater and Maidenform bra.
At heart It Came From Hollywood is sentimental, a fond gaze back at drive-ins and fuzzy B&W movies all night on your local UHF station. Here in the new world, obscure cult films are available instantly through ever-expanding delivery systems – forgotten Japanese monster movies in three languages can be yours in seconds via the internet – but what we lack is the collective experience of being part of that matinee audience, of the neighborhood full of kids talking about seeing The Brainiac late last night, of goofing on various Colossal Beasts in the drive-in. Movies like ICFH remind us that even terrible movies can bring us together.
-review by Dave Merrill