Calling a film one of the“worst films’ ever is a loaded statement, usually because it comes from the mouth of someone who most assuredly has not seen the large majority of the library in the gods’ hall of bad cinema. In some cases though, or perhaps only this one case, the descriptor of “worst film” is a misnomer for a very different reason. When you have a puzzle piece like Hercules in New York, you cannot merely append descriptors to the word “film” to describe its unholiness, for that itself relies on the false given that the descriptor of “film” applies to everything that is released under the moniker. Case in point, Arnold Schwarzenegger running around New York, flexing muscles and fighting bears, and a work that almost exists outside of descriptors entirely. Certainly, we should be cautious to use the word “film” to articulate its unaccountable, freakish milieu, and we should be even more cautious of implying that anyone “worked” toward it at all.
Which is not a slight against its laziness, mind you. Hercules in New York is a lazy film, undoubtedly so, but no one having “worked” on it is not a question of its craft. Rather, it is a question of its existence. I am guilty of describing questionable films as magnetic in their existence and dreamlike in their mere presence, as though they could not exist in reality and must have phased in from some other oblique land. Take Hercules in New York as both evidence to the claim and an apology for having utilized such phrases for mere mortals of the inept film world. Hercules in New York takes the cake, wiping away any other considerations of quality, and for that matter, wiping away the very idea of “film” at all. Very literally, it does not seem like a group of people with a movie camera could produce this. Assume no script, no actors, no director. Just a bunch of frat bros lost on a drunken weekend in the woods. It seems, by sheer happenstance and law of elimination, that something better would result than Hercules in New York. It has the luster of something that was simply willed into existence, yet I would defy anyone to imply the act of “willing” could take place anywhere near this film. It is frighteningly, brazenly bad.
But what is “it” in this case? Although “dream” seems the optimal word, let us excavate a little more. We begin in a country club Olympus if ever there was one, at which point Hercules (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his first screen role) is stricken from the home of the gods for his presumed insolence to his father Zeus. He lands in the water, after a death-defying interlude with two elderly women on a plane as he passes by in the sky. With Hercules finding temporary residence on a ship, things go awry when the camera wanders into a fight between him and the entire rest of the crew. For what reason, we do not know. Maybe Hercules is just that kind of guy? Soon enough, he ends up in New York, at which point we are prey to some sort of inconsolable third grader’s variation on the de facto theme of 1960s cinema,“fish-out-of-water adventure comedy”. With the adventure on hold. And the comedy. In fact, everything is on hold except the fish.
A word on Schwarzenegger, the primary claim to the film’s infamy. The strain on his face to pronounce the most basic levels of the English language is not only visible, but palpable, and the vestiges of personality are scrubbed clean under the knife of his Austrian accent colliding with words like “the” and “a”, to name a few of the more elusive challenges of the language. At one point, he wears a box of a suit that struggles to stay on top of his bulging skin and pervasive discomfort. It is, quite legitimately, a stressful performance, with the stress on Arnold’s face matched only by the stress of the camera in watching him. The lens is visibly afraid.
Speaking of cameras, director Arthur Allan Seidelman found his first screen credit in Hercules in New York, and it must have taken Zeus himself to ensure he received future work. This variant of slow-going comedy was a dollar-a-day in the 1960s, with the chill-out anti-narrative qualities very much the flavor of the decade. Seidelman directs to the form, or directs down to it, but with a screenplay of this cosmic ineptitude, this technique of holding on the moment couldn’t be more damaging. Nothing Aubrey Weisberg’s screenplay attempts is within spitting distance of humanity or even noise. Very little happens outside of the larger framework of “hanging out with Arnold in New York”, but the film makes a perfect storm of mistakes as to its idea of hanging out.
The worst mistake, incidentally, is to make Schwarzenegger’s hang-out buddy one Arnold Stang, supposedly a comedian in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Which is evidence to nothing but the fact that these Middle Ages were years of great, insurmountable darkness. Even more perplexing is the possibility that the two were put on a screen together only so they could be credited as “Arnold Stang and Arnold Strong”. The similarity in names (Schwarzenegger came to be known as Arnold Strong in America for a while) is difficult to take, for it implies that the film stumbled into something intentional, when intention does not seem to be an appropriate word for anything going on here. Either way, Stang’s work, and his character, is an absolute schlepp in every possible way, dancing around the very worst tendencies of mid-century comic relief. Which says nothing of Schwarzenegger’s female companion, who is never treated as anything more than one by the screenplay and who is an absolutely insipid, panderingly broad idea of what female humanity is.
All of which feels like it is only just scratching the surface, but any further down, and I expect a serious cab fare back (the only further specific statement: the bizarre anti-tribute to the famed zither score of The Third Man may be the single worst element of the whole feature). No matter how you define it, there is a blistering quality to the badness. This is not diaphanous bargain-bin idiocy but heavenly incompetence. It is a work of blissful, enticing ignorance to not only respectable technique but the one-would-assume daycare knowledge of how to point a camera at an object and sit there quietly. Hannah Arendt was dead-wrong; evil, it seems, is not banal in the slightest. It is Hercules in New York, and while I do not know what adjectives to give unto the film, banal is the last in a long, desperate, cold and lonely line. Calling it “unwatchable” is too easy. So is “so watchable because you cannot look away”. Watching doesn’t apply in any magnitude, in either direction. Verbs are not allowed at all.
So how good is it really?: 0/5 (if scores could go lower…)
But how “good” is it?: 4/5 (it loses two points for Arnold Stang, but without him it would spill over into at least a 6)