There are tons of bad films that are completely unwatchable, and then there are the special few you can’t take your eyes off: the ‘so bad they’re good’ ones that merit repeated viewings because they’re so awful you have to periodically remind yourself just how bad bad can be. These films are frequently also the ones I want to share with relatives and close friends, which probably explains why I don’t have many of either.
Classic examples of the genre include Fox’s tedious and treacly riposte to MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, The Blue Bird, a Technicolor disaster that primarily served to remind 1940 audiences that Shirley Temple was no longer the cute little moppet she’d been a few years prior, and The Conqueror, Howard Hughes’ infamous Genghis Khan biopic starring John Wayne as the legendary Mongol warlord whose declaiming “I feel this Tartar woman is for me” reputedly sent 1956 viewers into gales of laughter.
And then there’s Showgirls, director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas’s Las Vegas-set camp classic. Originally released in 1995 to terrible reviews and heavy criticism for its less than enlightened depictions of its female characters (to be fair, its male characters are even worse), Showgirls has now spawned You Don’t Nomi, a semi-revisionist documentary currently screening at the Virtual Roxie Cinema.
Taking its title from Showgirls’ lead character, You Don’t Nomi collects contemporaneous and contemporary commentary from a range of critics, including author Adam Nayman, whose book ‘It Doesn’t Suck’ argues that the film is an, ahem, “masterpiece of shit.” Former San Francisco Examiner critic Barbara Schulgasser is on the other side of the fence, describing Showgirls as “formulaic as (any) movie made for the Lifetime Channel.” Her original 1995 review is even less flattering.
The film is blamed for destroying headliner Elizabeth Berkley’s career, and indeed the former star of television’s ‘Saved By the Bell’ hasn’t had a great deal of work in the quarter century since. Happily, she’s a good sport about it: in You Don’t Nomi, we see her gamely attending a screening with 4,000 rabid Showgirls enthusiasts.
Director Jeffrey McHale dives deep into his subject, locating the film firmly within the Verhoeven canon. Featuring clips from such features as Starship Troopers, Keetje Tippel and Spetters, McHale establishes the director’s obsessions with dog food, women’s nails, and people talking about being naked while themselves being naked. Showgirls, as it turns out, is no thematic outlier.
So where do I stand on the film? In my opinion, Showgirls is every bit as dreadful as its reputation, with Berkley delivering Eszterhas’s risible dialogue with an exhausting nervous energy while the rest of the cast gamely overact in a failed attempt to keep up with her. There’s no denying the film’s strange appeal, however, which extends far beyond its unforgettable “I used to love doggie chow” scene. If you’ve ever been mesmerized by this atrocious piece of cinematic swill, you really do need to see You Don’t Nomi.