In 2004, I found out completely third-hand that my horror thriller Claustrophobia was being released under the title "Serial Slayer" by Lionsgate. I felt like a character in a movie: the poor indie filmmaker who finally lands a deal and is then told by the studio, "We love your movie, baby. That's why we're giving it the most embarrassing title of all time." Lots of comedies employ ludicrous titles for fictitious films referenced in their plots: think of "The Flower That Drank the Moon" from Ghost World, "Chubby Rain" from Bowfinger, or "Home for Purim" from Christopher Guests's For Your Consideration. Parodic as they sound, however, the following nine titles are very real – some of them for major releases.
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008). The Holocaust drama is a tireless genre that seemingly every Western filmmaker has to take a crack at. Mark Herman, a British director of no great renown, helmed The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but blame John Boyne for coining the cringeworthy title for his 2006 novel. Of course the story concerns a little German boy who befriends a little Jewish boy stuck behind a concentration camp fence in World War II Poland. "Vhy can't he come out to play, Mama? He iss a child, chust like me!" This is not actual dialogue from the film, but it may as well be.
- Where the Crawdads Sing (2022). Still in theaters as I type this, Where the Crawdads Sing is another novel adaptation and so it is author Delia Owens who deserves our scorn for the most clichéd Southern Gothic title ever. I'm surprised the main character isn't named Dumplin' or Catfish or Boo.
- Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021). Imagine a Borat-like character pitching his broken English title to bemused Hollywood financiers: "I couldn't decide what to call my sexy-time movie: Bad Luck Banging? Or Loony Porn? Each is a perfect title – so I went with both! High-five!" In reality, this Romanian feature is a Brechtian satire about a schoolteacher whose sex video accidentally hits the Internet. It's an unclassifiable film, certainly not for all tastes, but I found it very timely – most of the cast wears Covid-era face masks – and clever.
- Santa with Muscles (1996). In Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers' dark sendup of 1930s Hollywood, producer Tony Shalhoub tells frustrated screenwriter John Turturro: "Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a road map?" And so it must have gone in real life with Santa with Muscles, released five years later: "Hulk Hogan! Christmas picture! What do you need, a road map?" I have actually seen Santa with Muscles. It is as lame as it sounds.
- The Hottie and the Nottie (2008). You could picture some sleazy 2008-era idiot on the HBO series Entourage trying to package a Paris Hilton vehicle called "The Hottie and the Nottie". Well, it really happened, and unsurprisingly it was a critical and commercial disaster.
- Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975). Something for everyone with this title! Many Italian giallo (horror-thriller) films from the 1970s had ridiculous titles that might – might – have sounded better in their native Italian. (Runner-up: The House with Laughing Windows.) As I understand it, this film concerns a serial killer at a modeling agency.
- Death Laid an Egg (1968). This early giallo entry stands out for its A-list stars Gina Lollobrigida and Jean-Lous Trintignant. And yes, "Death Laid an Egg" is the literal translation of its Italian title La Morte Ha Fatto l'Uovo. (Presumably the distributors were unaware that "laying an egg" is American slang for making a stinker.) Apparently this curio has a lot of surrealist elements. And the story takes place on a boneless chicken farm!
- Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Yes, it won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and so on. And most people know it only as Birdman, which is – actually a pretty stupid title when you think about it, but in context it makes sense. Yet cowriter/director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who himself embodies the pretentious artiste character you'd find in a showbiz satire, just had to tack on that ridiculous subtitle, misused parentheses and all.
- The Bye Bye Man (2017). Here I'm reminded of a subplot in The Sopranos in which mobster Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) dreams of producing a slasher flick called "Cleaver", and of Mark Borchardt, the subject of the 1999 documentary American Movie, trying to shoot his occult thriller "Coven" (which he insists rhymes with "woven", not "oven"). Both men are depicted as dimwits whose movies are bound to be garbage. The Bye Bye Man – yes, a horror film, not a kiddie movie – was shot at a much higher budget, but the title alone suggests the same "you can't be serious" cluelessness of its makers.