Best & Worst: Movie Debuts

This week, a little film called Paranormal Activity hits screens directed by a complete unknown and made on a G-string budget.

It’s already taken $100 million Stateside, and its director, one Oren Peli, is being touted as the next big thing.

Yes, it’s Blair Witch all over again, nigh on a decade later.

But with newbies taking up the reins every day, is Peli’s success just a case of beginners’ luck?

Have other first-time filmmakers had similar success? And if not, why? We investigate...


The Best: Sam Raimi – Evil Dead

Why It Rocks: Two words: Bruce Campbell.

Hard to believe that before transforming into a one-man army (and, later, a one-armed man), The Chin was a total unknown.

Sam Raimi’s staggeringly effective micro-budget horror debut put paid to that.

Positioning Campbell as both the go-to guy for cameos (he has almost 100 films/television series under his utility belt) and the Coolest Dude In Horror(TM), Evil Dead stinks of horrific genius.

Its Rotten Tomatometer speaks for itself: yep, this baby’s 100% fresh.

The Worst: James Cameron – Piranha 2

Why It Sucks: Filmic baptism by fire for James Cameron with this dud.

Originally hired as a special effects hand, Cameron replaced the flick’s original director when he jumped ship (presumably not into awaiting Piranha jaws, but you never know considering the damp squib this was quickly turning into).

The resultant hack job, replete with rubber fish, is an utter embarrassment.

Not even Lance Henriksen can save it from a watery grave.

Needless to say Cameron now refers to The Terminator as his first feature film. Just keep telling yourself that, Jim.

Next: Comedy [page-break]


The Best: Kevin Smith – Clerks

Why It Rocks: Shot by Mr Smith in the very store where he worked (during closing hours, hence the running shutters joke), Clerks strikes both a chord and a funny bone with the disillusioned masses whose lives it effortlessly reflects.

Rough and ready on a budget of just $27,000, its characters’ lengthy discussions are little polished gemstones of filmic wisdom.

No wonder the hallowed halls of Total Film voted it the 16th greatest movie ever made back in 2000. Classic.

The Worst: Damien Dante Wayans – Dance Flick

Why It Sucks: To call this a comedy would be shoving a forthright knee into the groin of Father Funny.

The Wayans Brothers return after the atrocities that were Scary Movie and White Chicks to rip into other (better) movies once more.

And most of them aren’t even dance flicks.

This time around, though, the Wayans couldn’t find a director – so they roped in their nephew to steer the camera. The result? Shoddy, vulgar, immature and criminally unfunny.

Next: Gangster films [page-break]

Gangster films

The Best: Quentin Tarantino - Reservoir Dogs

Why It Rocks: The perfect example of Tarantino’s effortless ability to marry rapid-fire dialogue, bloody violence and quirky humour with a hell of a killer soundtrack.

As a first movie, it oozes confidence.

Slow-burn tension gives way to some of the most shocking imagery then seen on screen, and Tarantino’s ear for dialogue is second only to the horror of Michael Madsen slicing off of that very same appendage.

All together now... “Stuck in the middle with you...”

The Worst: Warren Beatty - Dick Tracy

Why It Sucks: Oh, Warren, you tried. We can see that. Dick Tracy is not without its merits, boasting some snazzy stylings.

But the flat, disinteresting hero and the easily-conquered villains just don’t hold the excitement they should.

As two dimensional as the comics it attempted to do justice to. Even Madonna fans turned off.

Next: Science Fiction [page-break]

Science Fiction

The Best: Duncan Jones – Moon

Why It Rocks: As much an ode to the cardboard space operas of the '70s as it is a dark, dreamy squint into one man’s fractured mind, Moon is equal parts gripping and unnerving.

Credit goes to Sam Rockwell, whose passionate, fearless performance gives Moon its heart and its head.

Not bad considering it’s the directorial debut of a certain Zowie Bowie.

The Worst: Rupert Harvey – Critters 4

Why It Sucks: At least Critters 3 had a young Leo DiCaprio.

This fourth instalment in the wannabe- Gremlins franchise blasts off into space, and leaves behind even the cheap thrills that its three Earth-bound predecessors boasted.

Made in the early ‘90s, Critters 4 resembles something from the ‘60s.

Terrible over-laid ‘special effects’ and officially the most annoying hero ever in Don Keith Opper mean this is one for late night booze sessions only.

Harvey hasn’t directed anything since; we can’t help but wonder why.

Next: Family flicks [page-break]

Family flicks

The Best: Barry Sonnenfeld – The Addams Family

Why It Rocks: An ambitious first project for Sonnenfeld, what with bodyless hands scuttling about, and all manner of elaborate set designs demanding attention.

A script stuffed with zingers helps (“Don't torture yourself, Gomez. That's my job,” murmurs Morticia), while impeccable casting means that Angelica Huston and Christina Ricci are now forever bound to their iconic roles.

Sonnenfeld, meanwhile, proves himself a dab hand at that directing thing.

The Worst: Gore Verbinski – Mousehunt

Why It Sucks: Yes we know it’s made for the kiddies, but Sonnenfeld showed above that even family flicks can retain some bite.

And, really, watching Lee Evans mug his way through a man vs mouse tussle (a mussle, if you will) for 90 minutes is just a bit too much.

Frankly this slightly less lame Saw -style trailer for the film is funnier...

Next: Gender Benders [page-break]

Gender Benders

The Best: John Cameron Mitchell – Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Why It Rocks: There’s more than just giant hair, glittery cherry lipstick, and dicks dressing as chicks to John Cameron Mitchell’s first filmic bow.

Reductive movie types might say it’s the new Rocky Horror Picture Show , but Hedwig has a poignancy about it that can’t help but grab you where it hurts.

Glossy as anything propagated by Hollywood, but with a distinctly underground vibe, Hedwig is all heart and hair. And boy does it rock.

The Worst: Ed Wood – Glen or Glenda?

Why It Sucks: It’s almost a bit naff to take a dig at poor Ed Wood these days – everybody’s got there before you.

But there’s no denying he set out as he meant to go on with his debut talkie.

Though surprisingly progressive for its time (it’s about a cross-dresser), it hangs together like a pair of tattered net curtains that could really do with a good seeing to.

Almost so bad/odd/frustrating that it’s good. Except not.

Next: Thrillers [page-break]


The Best: David Slade – Hard Candy

Why It Rocks: Tapping into present day fears, Slade’s stylish, white-knuckle face-off is a good old-fashioned hurricane in a tea cup upgraded with flashy, heavily filtered visuals.

Ellen Page turns in a star-making performance as a young girl who meets an older man on the internet, and then makes him really regret it.

A certain scene guaranteed to make every man in the vicinity cross his legs balances on a tripwire of ridiculousness and horror.

Slade’s filming the next Twilight film as we speak; can’t imagine Bella’s revenge on Edward will be quite as ballistic.

The Worst: Marcel Langenegger – Deception

Why It Sucks: When you’ve got a cast that includes Michelle Williams, Ewan McGregor and Hugh Jackman, you’re onto a winner, right? WRONG.

Crammed with the corniest dialogue this side of Sesame Street , this dire first effort is equally as predictable and watered down (that episode where Bert loses Ernie is scarier.)

Next: Romance [page-break]


The Best: Marc Webb – (500) Days of Summer

Why It Rocks: Channelling a young Woody Allen, this relationship deconstructor has it all – arty black-and-white segments in French, split-screen cleverness, witty, realistic banter... even a neat little musical number (see below).

It’s also insanely well-observed, funny, and has the ever-charming, ever-dependable Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead.

Sound like we’re just listing cool things? How about... amazing soundtrack, Zooey Deschanel, not to mention Ikea... We could go on...

The Worst: Richard Curtis – Love Actually

Why It Sucks: When your film score is used in The X Factor to punctuate an emotional sob story, you know you’re in the shitter.

Throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, Richard Curtis attempts to make the granddaddy of romantic comedies by intertwining nine over-the-top Hollywood love yarns.

It’s a mess. Case in point: Hugh Grant as prime minister. Nuff said.

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Josh Winning has worn a lot of hats over the years. Contributing Editor at Total Film, writer for SFX, and senior film writer at the Radio Times. Josh has also penned a novel about mysteries and monsters, is the co-host of a movie podcast, and has a library of pretty phenomenal stories from visiting some of the biggest TV and film sets in the world. He would also like you to know that he "lives for cat videos..." Don't we all, Josh. Don't we all.