To this day, 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides still stands as the most expensive film ever made with a truly baffling $379 million budget. The average studio movie costs $65 million, not including marketing. Even the average bare bones, no frills, just out of film school indie movie will cost between $10,000 and $25,000. So from top to bottom, moviemaking is not a cheap hobby or career. Which is why something really has to go off the rails for a movie to be made and then never released.
What could make a studio or filmmaker sacrifice all that money, not to mention time, and never let a film see the light of day? Well, it’s rarely anything good. Let’s take a look at ten of the most remarkable yet unseen movies ever made.
10. Empires of the Deep
This would-be blockbuster began filming all the way back in 2010 in China and was advertised as China’s response to Avatar. The release was anticipated for the following year. With a budget that cracked $140 million, it was certainly on track to be a massive special effects spectacle. But the word “spectacle” doesn’t always mean something good.
An official trailer was released in 2012, a year late for release, and it was something else. Above all else, it promised a 2013 release. That never happened. Scores of talent fled the movie as though it were a sinking ship. Back in the beginning, Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci were both attached to star as some mermaid queen. Several directors signed on and then later bowed out as the production became more and more mired in delays and poor decisions.
Director Pitof was set to make the film with Empire Strikes Back’s Ivan Kershner producing. Both men quit. Second director Johnathan Lawrence wasted five or six months, then also quit reportedly due to poor planning and unsafe conditions for cast and crew. Two more directors took over after that.
The script had repeatedly gone through 40 drafts at the hands of 10 screenwriters. The end result was still considered laughable. This was all the work of the movie’s backer Jon Jiang, who wrote the original script and story. He had no film making experience at all and was instead a billionaire who made his money in real estate, though he claimed to have seen 4,000 movies and wanted to make his own.
In a blog posting, a merman extra in the film detailed dangerous conditions that included falling rocks in an abandoned quarry, costumes that were literally glued to human skin with glue not meant to be used on humans, and dangerous treatment for animals on set.
By 2016, the movie had burned through $140 million and as of 2022 it has still not seen the light of day, though there are rumors it still may appear one day.
9. Big Bug Man
Few actors will ever have a legacy quite like that of Marlon Brando. The man is regarded both as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors and also one of its most enigmatic. Many of his later performances were marred by his quirky, disruptive, or just plain baffling off-screen behavior such as doing his own makeup on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau or not wearing pants so he had to be filmed from the waist up.
Brando’s final performance was a voice role in the animated film Big Bug Man, also starring Brendan Fraser.With a $20 million budget, the 2004 film had talent from both The Simpsons and Family Guy behind it and it should have been a big release but it never saw the light of day.
Brando was tapped to play a character named Nicholas Dunderbeck. But after reading the script, he wanted to play Mrs. Sour, the elderly female founder of the company. As part of his voice role, Brando wore a dress, wig and makeup to get into character despite doing the voice work in his own home. The director noted that Brando, who was on oxygen at the time, seemed to really be enjoying himself and described it as the most fun he’d had since “Julius Caesar.”
The movie was set to be released in 2006 and then 2007 and even 2008. The exact reason for its delay and subsequent cancellation has never been made clear and there’s no word on if the movie was even fully completed.
8. All American Massacre
If you wanted to watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise from start to finish, you’d be committing to 9 different movies. But technically 10. The franchise, which started in 1974 and saw its latest release on Netflix in 2022, also features one infamous non-entry called All American Massacre from the year 2000. It was never released. Although you can still watch the trailer.
A website for the film still exists where the trailer first debuted decades ago. It was directed by William Hooper, son of the original director Tobe Hooper, and it’s based on a short he created that he decided to turn into a feature film.
The quality resembles something from cable access, which is oddly appropriate for the franchise. It featured the character Chop Top from Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, played by the same actor Bill Moseley. But in All American Massacre he wasn’t called Chop Top because, it’s been speculated, Hooper didn’t have the rights to make the film using the characters of Chop Top or Leatherface. That may be why it was never released.
The other issue was funding. Hooper ran a crowdfunding campaign to try to get the money to finish the project, but it wasn’t successful. As a result, the film never existed as anything more than a trailer.
In 2002, Roger Avary released The Rules of Attraction based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. What few people knew was that, at the same time, Avary was making a second movie that came to be known as Glitterati.
Glitterati was made from extra footage from the first movie and involved the character of Victor Ward traveling Europe, except none of the people he met knew he was an actor playing a character in a movie.
Avary finished the movie but notes it will never be seen except at private screenings he conducts himself. This is partially because the movie features actor Kip Pardue, in character as Ward, seducing European women without letting them in on the fact he’s an actor in character. As you can imagine, people have accused this of being ethically dubious.
6. Humor Risk
The Marx Brothers were pioneers in the comedy genre and while they are credited with 13 films, it was their very first film that none of us have ever seen in part because of how much Groucho Marx himself hated it.
Humor Risk was made in 1921, some years before most of their more famous films were made. It was also silent, which undoubtedly took some of the edge off of the humor that the brothers could or would have provided, and all four of them appear in it. Word is they even funded it with money from friends.
There are two stories to explain why the film is lost and remains unseen. One claims that someone accidentally trashed the movie. The other is that Groucho just hated it. After a single screening in the Bronx to an audience of children who hated it, it was rumored that Groucho burned the only copy.
5. Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales
Richard Pryor remains one of the biggest names in comedy, years after his death. His work in the 70s and 80s is still revered, and he’s considered a maverick and a genius. But his early career took some time to get its footing and in 1968, just as he was making his name, he starred in a film called Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales: The Movie for Homosexuals.
The plot of Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales involved a wealthy white man being abducted by Black Panther-type militants to be put on trial for racial crimes throughout US history. Even today, that would push a lot of people’s buttons. Who knows how people in 1969 might have taken it?
Pryor himself was thought to have destroyed the film after a disagreement with his own wife. She wasn’t happy with the time he spent working on the movie, so, in a rage, he tore it apart. The director pieced about 40 minutes back together, but for years it was assumed Pryor had taken it and trashed it until 2005 when footage provided by director Penelope Spheeris was shown at an awards show. Pryor’s widow sued Spheeris and Pryor’s own daughter Rain as a result.
4. 100 Years
For a twist on the theme, the movie 100 Years was directed by Robert Rodriguez and stars John Malkovich and no one has seen it because you’re not supposed to. Not in our lifetime, anyway. The point of 100 years is that it’s meant to wait 100 years before it is released. That means the 2015 movie will hit theaters if they still exist in 2115. It’ll probably end up streaming.
The movie was shown at Cannes, in the sense that people could look at the film reel but not the movie itself. It’s stored in a safe which features a time lock set to open when the century has passed. The full, official title of the movie is 100 Years – The Movie You Will Never See.
The movie is supposed to be a vision of the world in 100 years’ time, so when that safe does open, audiences can compare how Malkovich and Rodriguez pictured things to how they are.
The tales of Dau read like fiction. The movie, filmed in Ukraine, involved a seemingly mad director paying people in Soviet money and making them eat Soviet-era canned food, despite it being 2006. Unless everyone was working for free because they were all in a cult. Or they were all in prison and it was an experiment. This from extras and production assistants who quit to escape it.
Director Ilya Khrzhanovsky was not to be called director. Signs on set (which was called the Institute), indicated he was to be called Head of the Institute or Boss. The Institute is built to scale, a massive replica of a Soviet city where people stay in character 24/7 even though no one is filming. People were fined for leaving character.
The movie was supposed to be about Russian physicist Lev Landau. The director demanded a real genius play the role, not an actor. He also demanded real people, not extras, so the crew processed 210,000 regular citizens and went through costuming and photographing 50 of them a day.
After filming, the director spent at least 6 years editing the movie. In 2019, it was released in 12 parts in Paris. To this day, only two parts have ever been made available for streaming, though there are plans to one day show it all.
2. Andy Warhol’s Batman vs Dracula
The idea of an Andy Warhol Batman movie is certainly unexpected, but it does exist. Unfortunately for fans of the Dark Knight or modern art, Warhol never asked anyone’s permission to make his film and you can’t just make a Batman movie.
Dating back to 1964, the silent, black and white film was an hour long. DC Comics never signed off on it and though Warhol showed it at some art exhibits it seems to have all but disappeared. Clips can still be found, but the film in its entirety may have been lost.
1. The Day the Clown Cried
Jerry Lewis, famous for his comedy films like The Nutty Professor in the 60s,directed and starred in one of the most infamous “lost” movies ever back in 1972. The Day the Clown Cried is about a clown in a Nazi concentration camp who entertains the children, even as they enter the gas chambers. It was meant to be his first dramatic role.
Copies of the film do exist, but they are generally only known to have been shown in exclusive and rare screenings. Harry Shearer, who saw the movie in 1979, described it as “perfectly wrong.” Others have had the opposite reaction, claiming the film was actually brilliant and dealt with a terrible subject in a remarkable way.
Lewis himself long wanted the movie hidden away but before the end of his life he donated a copy to the Library of Congress with the request it not be viewed until 2024. So perhaps one day we will see it. Just not yet.