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Praise, Vilification and Sexual Innuendo or, How to Be a Critic, by Abby WassermanPraise, Vilification and Sexual Innuendo or, How to Be a Critic: The Selected Writings of John L. Wasserman, 1964-1979
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 5, "Movies That Suck."

A couple of weeks ago I received an irate letter from a couple who had gone to see "The Car" on my recommendation that it was the worst movie in history. "Sure, it was terrible," the letter said, "but it was just dull and stupid--no style, no pretensions, no fun." Well, as I said in my reply, "Please suck a parakeet," but that, of course, resolved nothing.

John was best known for his reviews of "movies that suck." People couldn't help going to films he panned because the reviews were so much fun they were convinced the movies must be, too. They usually were not, and he received occasional indignant letters from readers claiming he'd misled them. His bad-movie reviews aren't really reviews; they are humorous essays, satirical songs.

Throughout the city readers Xeroxed them for friends and passed them around their offices on gloomy Monday mornings. John received countless thank-you letters, a few expressing sympathy that he had to sit through such turkeys even though it was for a good cause.

John wanted movies to be good. When they had something to say and said it well, he was laudatory and thoughtful. But if a movie was bad, no matter how sensitive the subject, he sharpened his carving instruments.

He irritated a lot of directors, especially Russ Meyer, who once stormed into the newsroom demanding that he retract his review, or better yet, be fired. John had taken a group of friends and two bottles of champagne to Meyer's "Faster, Pussycat--Kill Kill" and they hooted and hollered through the screening. John's rationalization to the Managing Editor, Gordon Pates, was that "you don't have to pay close attention to a Russ Meyer film, just sort of keep an eye on it." As for the champagne, it was split among eight people so he couldn't possibly have been drunk. Pates believed him but forbade any more friends at screenings. "That was the end of our fun," says Joel Pimsleur, one of the revelers.

Director Mark Lester, on the other hand, wrote to thank John for his hilarious pan of "Truck-Stop Women," claiming he understood the spirit of the movie. That film starred Claudia Jennings, "Queen of the B's." Clint Eastwood remembers John loved a Claudia Jennings movie: "The movie was trash but she was always a little above quality. She was his mystery woman."

John told Alan Farley on KALW-Radio, "The hardest film to review is a mediocre one, 43 or 38 on a zero to 100 scale. Then one is just sort of helpless. Only when the film is insulting can it be repaid in kind, with a sledgehammer or stiletto, whichever mood strikes me."

You'd Scream, Too
November 21, 1974

"The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre" is only as strong as its weakest kink.

That, it turns out, is screaming. Marilyn Burns, the heroine, screams without surcease for the last 45 minutes of the picture, thereby setting a modern record. Of course, this is understandable. For, during that memorable period, she is attacked by a Texas chain-saw massacre person, bound and gagged, beaten with a stick, put in a canvas bag, frightened by corpses, chased through the orchard by a monster, injured by jumping through a second-story window, forced to supply blood to a thumb-sucking dead person, obliged to sit in an armchair, the arms of which are really arms, beaten about the head and shoulders with a hammer, sliced with a razor blade and addressed in a rude fashion.

You'd scream, too. As did the audience, which was composed of a lot of weird people come to see what all the flap was about.

The flap, of course, occurred a week or so ago when "The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre" had a sneak preview at the Empire. The preview audience, apparently expecting a Walt Disney movie, was outraged, and demanded their money back. "Ugh, what a disgusting movie," they said, having no clue whatsoever from the title.

To be sure, it's not a fun movie. As a matter of fact, it's pretty gruesome and grotesque and sadistic and ugly. But I survived and, to show my contempt, ate two hot dogs and some popcorn, to boot.

If you've seen one chain-saw massacre, you've seen them all.

Worms Weren't Promised a Rose Garden
August 27, 1976

It had to happen. Rats had their day in "Food of the Gods." Bugs ran amok in "The Bug." Now it's the worm's turn.

"Squirm" is the most distinguished worm film of 1976. Set on the Georgia coast during an electrical storm late last year, "Squirm" tells the story of 27 million worms and the difficulties they face when power lines, snapped by powerful winds, shoot current into the contemporary worm cities that lie just below the surface of the ground.

The worms do what they have to do, which is to creep out of the ground and eat all the people for 50 miles around. This does not resolve the problem of electricity crackling into the earth, of course, but the worms resolve this dilemma by moving into the now-empty houses, having the cable-TV hooked up and enrolling their tiny worm children in the local bait shops.

"Squirm" was written and directed by Jeff Lieberman, who did all the painstaking research necessary at the Circle "O" Worm Ranch in Pleasanton, but has denied in interviews that he is into worm-lib. There is substantial evidence that he is being too modest.

For one thing, the previously all-but-ignored Worm Extras Guild has a field day in "Squirm," with better than 200 of its members being flown out from Los Angeles to Georgia to take key roles as stuntworms, stand-in worms and, as they are known in the trade, "atmosphere worms."

Still other of the slimy little creatures worked on sound effects, rushing pell-mell about on sheets of tin in order to create the patter of tiny worm feet. But this probably won't be enough for some people. There are always going to be those who claim that this is token wormism, that only three percent of the worms employed were Spanish-speaking, that more than 26 million of the little devils were scab-worms and, from the Society for Decent Wormism, that all the worms used in "Squirm" were bisexual.

True enough, perhaps, but in my mind, irrelevant. We are talking here about progress, not about solutions. There are hundreds of worm-ghettos spread across this great nation and a lot of talent is going to waste. Sure, "Squirm" is not the whole worm story, but what is? Huckleberry Finn? Trout Fishing in America? I think not.

Give worms a chance. Get plenty of rest, eat right and put some of them in your coffee. I think you'll be surprised.

© 1993 by Abby Wasserman. All rights reserved. Articles courtesy of The San Francisco Chronicle. Cover photograph by Sydney Goldstein.

All text and images © 2005-2016 Abby Wasserman unless otherwise stated