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What are the best and worst movies ever made in the Wilmington area?

Ben Steelman

Work on the Iron Man 3 production along the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington had actors suspended from cables flying overhead on July 16, 2012. The movie, when released, may yet make a best or worst Wilmington movies list. StarNews file photo.

UPDATED: January 2013.

We put this question to our readers in 2012, and got the following responses:

Number 1 in the best-of-Wilmington category was  “Sleeping With the Enemy” (1991), starring Julia Roberts as a wife who fakes her own drowning to escape from her sadistic, domineering husband. She flees to a Midwestern college town to hide out — but he pursues her. Filmmakers built a 3,000-foot contemporary structure on Shell Island as the “dream house” from which Roberts escapes — only to demolish it and restore the dunes after filming. (The lumber and other materials were recycled to a Habitat for Humanity project.) Other scenes were shot at “The Cove” at Fort Fisher, Figure Eight Island and the old New Hanover County fairgrounds on Carolina Beach Road.

“Super Mario Bros” (1993), a hapless film version of the 1980s video game, starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, was voted the worst local movie in the same poll. (Hoskins told interviewers it was the worst movie of his career.)

In 2006,  Star-News staffers Allison Ballard (film reporter), Ben Steelman (film critic) and John Staton (Currents Editor) and a boad of five community members came up with a “best” and “worst” list. The five were Bo Webb (indie film director, camera operator), Ed Blakely (film industry veteran), Lou Criscuolo (film actor, founder and artistic director of Opera House Theatre Co.), Alisa Harris (actor, agent) and David Hardin (animator, film buff). Their consensus was the following:


1. ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986)

Notable Names: David Lynch (director), Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Kyle MacLachlan

As Star-News movie critic Ben Steelman put it, it’s “the only movie as truly warped as this town.” A freaky tale to be sure, but with seven of eight panelists putting this movie at the top of their lists, Blue Velvet – considered by many critics to be David Lynch’s best film – is a no-brainer for the top spot.

It’s the story of a young man (MacLachlan) who discovers a depraved underworld in his hometown. There are plenty of good local moments: The Carolina Apartments at 5th Avenue and Market Street are prominently featured, as is downtown bar The Barbary Coast, whose neon sign reading “this is it” references a line in the movie.

“The images of a naked Isabella Rossellini running down Market Street and Dennis Hopper in the Carolina Apartments huffing whatever that was … are unforgettable,” said panelist Ed Blakely.

2. ‘Crimes of the Heart’ (1986)

Notable Names: Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard

Filmed mostly in Southport, Crimes of the Heart is notable for being the first movie made locally to net serious award nominations. It’s about three Southern sisters who reunite after the youngest, Babe (Sissy Spacek), shoots her husband. Spacek won a Golden Globe for her performance, and was also nominated for an Oscar. Tess Harper, and the screenplay, were nominated for Academy Awards as well. Several Southport landmarks, including the old cemetery, get good screen time. Crimes of the Heart is a universally acclaimed film that has stood the test of time, and that’s what puts it at number two.

3. ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ (1994) Notable Names: Joel Coen (writer/director), Ethan Coen (writer/producer), Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman

This business-world satire in which Tim Robbins unwittingly rises to the top of a corporation isn’t generally considered one of Coen brothers’ best – and if you compare it to Fargo or Raising Arizona, it’s not. But then again, as one panelist pointed out, if Hudsucker is the worst Coen brothers film, what about Intolerable Cruelty? In any case, it’s the best Coen Brothers movie ever made in Wilmington, and that’s good enough for us. Plus, there was that cool series of shots where a hula hoop rolls through the streets of downtown Wilmington.

4. ‘The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys’ (2002)

Notable Names: Jodie Foster, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kieran Culkin

Although Altar Boys, which screened locally at the Cucalorus Film Festival, won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature in 2003, it mostly fell from awareness soon after – which was a disappointment to our judges. “I just really like this movie,” panelist Alisa Harris said. “I’m surprised it didn’t do better than it did.”

This offbeat film from Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures is about a group of Catholic schoolboys who decide to get back at one of the nuns, Sister Assumpta (Foster), when she confiscates some of their artwork. It features an unusual and engaging mix of live action and comic-book-style animation and that, along with its compelling coming-of-age story line, is enough to place it in the top 10.

5. ‘Manhunter’ (1986)

Notable Names: Michael Mann, William L. Peterson, Joan Allen, Brian Cox

Although it would ultimately be overshadowed by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter, the original film version of Red Dragon (the first book in the Hannibal Lechter series), is a highly serviceable thriller about an FBI specialist who tracks a serial killer.

One panelist cited it as a good example of how Wilmington effectively played a much larger city than it was, especially at the time, while another called it “very under-appreciated.”

6. ‘Rambling Rose’ (1991)

Notable Names: Laura Dern, Martha Coolidge (director), Robert Duvall, Diane Ladd

Both Dern and Ladd were nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes for their work in this 1930s period film. It’s about how the beautiful Rose (Dern) just can’t help falling for the wrong guys, even when she’s taken in by a family determined keep her morally grounded. “A great ensemble cast given the room to strut their stuff,” declared panelist Lou Criscuolo.

7. ‘Loggerheads’ (2005)

Notable Names: Bonnie Hunt, Tess Harper, Michael Learned

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance – and the first film made in Wilmington ever to appear in the prestigious festival – Loggerheads tells three overlapping stories of estranged North Carolina families. Some critics found the movie too slow and earnest, but most serious film watchers found the multi-layered plot engrossing, with an emotional payoff that rewarded those who committed to it.

Plus, a great soundtrack by Mark Geary and spectacular shots of Kure Beach make it impossible to leave Loggerheads off the local top 10.

8. ‘The Crow’ (1994)

Notable Names: Brandon Lee, Ernie Hudson

A controversial pick, to be sure. Some folks flat-out don’t like The Crow, which is about a murdered man (Brandon Lee) who comes back to life to seek revenge for his death.

The film is probably as well known as it is because of the notorious shooting death of star Lee (son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee) during an on-set accident.

But that doesn’t take away from “the overall artistic success of the film,” as one panelist put it, or its “creepy, atmospheric” style. Aside from Blue Velvet, the cultiest of all local cult classics.

9. ‘Household Saints’ (1993)

Notable Names: Tracy Ullman, Lili Taylor, Vincent D’Onofrio

This may be the most unexpected choice on the list, but its advocates wholeheartedly praised this film, about three generations of women in post-WWII Little Italy, the youngest of whom (Taylor, who won an Independent Spirit award for her role) wants to be a saint.

“A small, unappreciated miracle,” said Star-News critic Ben Steelman. “Not the least miraculous part: They turned Wilmington into NYC.”

10. ‘Lolita’ (1997)

Notable Names: Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella, Vladimir Nabokov (original novel)

Another telling of the perverted tale of Humbert Humbert (Irons), who romances a much younger adolescent girl (Dominique Swain). Disturbing and generally well-regarded – except, perhaps, by Nabakov purists – it didn’t get much screen time in the U.S. Much of the film was shot outside of Wilmington, but its notoriety – and solid direction from Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Jacob’s Ladder) – warrants it a spot on the list.

the 5 worst

According to panelist Bo Webb, we’ve got this whole thing backwards: “I think, unfortunately, that it’s easier to come up with 10 stinkers and five good films. Wilmington has a fine tradition of turning out crappy movies.”

With that in mind, here are the five worst features ever made in Wilmington, from worst (1) to fifth worst (5).

1. ‘Virus’ (1999)

Notable Names: Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin, Donald Sutherland

An electronic alien life form takes over a research vessel (created in Screen Gems Studios), and for the most part that’s all the sense that we can make out Virus, which was certainly a comedown for Curtis and Sutherland. Billy Baldwin, not so much. In a word, StarNews critic Ben Steelman found it “sickening.”

“Tens and tens and tens of millions wasted,” said panelist Ed Blakely.

2. ‘Cyborg’ (1989)

Notable Name:

Jean-Claude Van Damme

Martial arts went back to the future with the since-forgotten Jean-Claude Van-Damme in this movie with pointless violence and laugh-out-loud-bad dialogue. (One of the character’s names was “Fender Tremolo” if that gives you any idea.) The off-screen drama surrounding Cyborg was more interesting than anything that happened in the film: Van-Damme “clocked an extra so hard with one of his kicks that he almost put the guy’s eye out. Blood was spilled and lawsuits ensued,” said panelist Blakely. “Too bad it was not for the sake of art.”

3. ‘Date with an Angel’ (1987)

Notable Names: Phoebe Cates

The set-up for Angel is almost bad enough to qualify it for the worst list: Jim (Michael E. Knight) is soon to be married to Patty (Cates). But when he wakes up after a bachelor party thrown by his friends, he finds an injured angel (Emmanuelle Beart) in his pool and begins to wonder if he’s with the right girl.

“Truly cheap and smarmy,” said Star-News critic Ben Steelman.

4. ‘Black Knight’ (2001)

Notable Names: Martin Lawrence, Tom Wilkinson

Although his notoriously diva-ish on-set behavior could be safely described as “bad,” Martin Lawrence’s turn as Jamal, an employee in a Medieval-style amusement park who awakens to find himself in 14th century England after sustaining a blow to the head, is just plain awful.

As one wag put it, “It will make you long for the subtlety and wit of Big Momma’s House.” Notoriously unfunny.

5. ‘Dracula’s Widow’ (1989)

Notable Names: Christopher Coppola (Nicholas Cage’s brother) directed

Dracula’s widow Vanessa (Sylvia Kristel) gets loose in a Hollywood wax museum and commences to sucking – in more ways than one.

“Virtually the only movie in which Sylvia Kristel appeared that she kept all her clothes on,” StarNews critic Steelman said. “The bad guys in Hostel screened this one for their victims between torture sessions.”

Dishonorable mention:

‘King Kong Lives’ (1986)

Notable Name: Linda Hamilton

As noted in a StarNews article by Allison Ballard, KKL was a series of disasters, the last of which was the film itself.

While shooting on “Skull Island” (Airlie Gardens), crew members had to cover up thousands of blooming azaleas. Then there was the giant heart transplant scene (apparently, Kong didn’t die after his fall from the top of the World Trade Center after all).

Not to mention Lady Kong. And Baby Kong.

A review in The New York Times did note how lifelike the apes were … but only when compared to the actors.

“The only film I’ve ever seen that disproves my motto: ‘Everyone loves a monkey,’ ” wrote panelist Blakely. “Millions wasted.”

A few more local flicks worth mentioning


Also worth checking out is The Grave (1996) a low-budget indie with a decent cast (Anthony Michael Hall, Giovanni Ribisi, Eric Roberts, Craig Sheffer), a story co-written by a former Wilmingtonian (Michael Wexler) and two fellas who would return to Wilmington 10 years later with a much bigger project. Jonas Pate (director, co-writer) and Josh Pate (co-writer) of The Grave are two of the creative minds behind NBC series Surface, which just wrapped its first season of filming.

Southport is all up in I Know What You Did Last Summer, a competent slasher flick aimed at teens, who showed up to the tune of $72 million (and counting) to see Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Ryan Philippe try to elude a hook-toting maniac. Solid, but unremarkable.


Muppets From Space (1999) won’t go down in history as the best Muppet movie ever, but it did have a fairly awesome first 15 minutes or so.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), pairing Sandra Bulluck with an all-star cast (Ashley Judd, James Garner, Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, etc., etc.) in a Cjaun-flavored version of the Rebecca Wells bestseller.

Empire Records (1995), for which film crews turned a South Front Street bar into an exquisite version of a New York City indie record store. The all-star cast included Anthony LaPaglia, Renee Zellwegger, Liv Tyler, Debi Mazur and Robin Tunney.

’80s faves

Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) starred Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman as a couple of slackers who discover their boss (Terry Kiser) has been rubbed out by the Mob. For reasons too ridiculous to mention, they have to pretend he’s still alive — so they drag the corpse along for a weekend beach party, feeding him drinks and sitting him out to sunbathe. Not exactly PBS “Masterpiece” fare — but the slob comedy became a Top 10 hit when it went to video.

Dream a Little Dream (1989) was not a particularly wonderful movie but it was important to a certain age bracket blinded by hormones. It starred not only Corey Feldman, but also Corey Haim: “The Coreys,” as they were known, had some box office clout for a brief window there. It also starred Jason Robards, who in a Freaky Friday-like twist, somehow switched bodies with Feldman. New Hanover High School featured prominently, as did houses on Nun Street (Feldman’s girlfriend’s) and Princess Street (Robards’).

Also worth noting is Hiding Out (1987) starring Jon Cryer, best known for starring in a better known ’80s flick, Pretty in Pink. Cryer plays a yuppie who has to go into hiding, posing as a high school student, after he’s threatened by the mob. New Hanover High School gets lots of screen time in this one as well.


A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998), a Merchant-Ivory film starring Kris Kristofferson as writer James Jones, holds up pretty well, though some viewers might find it a bit slow.

Billy Bathgate (1991), the adaptation of the E.L. Doctorow novel about ’30s gangsters, brought Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman and Stanley Tucci to the area.


“I think of indie films as a separate category,” said panelist Bo Webb. He pointed out that, with tiny-budgeted local films, quality is of secondary importance to the fact that they get made at all, considering what a labor of love they are for the people behind them.

Two indies that made enough of an impression on our panelists to show up on some top 10 lists were Ding-A-Ling-Less and The Angel Doll.

On no other conceivable list would these two films ever appear together. Ding-A-Ling-Less, written and directed by Onur Tukel, was a profane but often funny movie about a man without a penis. The Angel Doll, directed by the late Sandy Johnston, is on the opposite end of the indie spectrum: a heart-warming family tale, based on the book of the same name.

Several films appeared on our panelists’ best and worst lists.

Maximum Overdrive (1986) is based on a story by Stephen King, who also directed. It’s about cars and other machines that come to life and begin threatening humans. It starred Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle and Yeardley Smith (voice of Lisa Simpson), and has a certain “so bad it’s good” appeal, much like other early Stephen King flicks.

Black Dog (1998), a trucker movie starring Meat Loaf and Randy Travis as bad guys hunting down Patrick Swayze, seemed to be of similar (unintentional) comedic value.

And while Firestarter (1984), the movie credited with kick-starting the local film industry, wound up on a few top 10 lists, it was telling that everyone who listed it made a point of basing its selection on its being first rather than on its worthiness as a film. Anyone who watches Firestarter with a critical eye will notice that almost none of the source material from Stephen King’s chilling novel translates to the screen, and much of what was intended to be scary is downright laughable. Kick-starting the local film industry may have been the only thing that saved this film from a place on the worst 5 list.


Notable films shot in the area since polling time include “The Secret Life of Bees” (2008), starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Paul Bettany, adapting the Sue Monk Kidd best seller; “Hounddog” (2007), starring Dakota Fanning and Piper Laurie, which drew controversy (and almost no viewers) from its sexual content: and “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” (2012), starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Michael Caine.

As-yet-unreleased featurs that might land on the best or worst list include “Iron Man 3″ (scheduled for May 2013), starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley; and “Safe Haven” (scheduled for Valentine’s Day 2013), starring Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough in a film version of the Nicholas Sparks best seller set in Southport.


How does the N.C. film incentive work?

What is the economic impact and number of jobs created by film productions?

What is the Cucalorus Film Festival

What do film crews do about air traffic noise during shoots?


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9 Responses to “ What are the best and worst movies ever made in the Wilmington area?”

  1. On October 14, 2009 at 8:35 am Chuck wrote:

    A list of best movies is always highly subjective, but its a mystery to me how “A Walk To Remember” can be left off the a list of 10 best films made in the Wilmington area.

  2. On October 16, 2009 at 7:18 am CP wrote:

    I am wondering how Empire Records was left off as well?

  3. On October 16, 2009 at 11:01 am Frank Diuguid wrote:

    A RE – CAP list of best & worst movies made in Wilm, NC
    would be great – – – beside each movie could be the leading actors/actresses. Most people do not have time
    to read this entire & well-written article. Frank

  4. On November 13, 2009 at 9:32 am PapPappy wrote:

    How could you not include any of the Schwarzenegger films…..they may not have been “Best” or “Worst” (though a couple qualify!), they did make a lot of money, which is how quite a few are judged now days!

    Still, it does make me proud to live here, when there are such varied movies being produced….some great….some not so great, but still a financial asset to the community.

  5. On March 20, 2010 at 10:35 am Jane Harrelson wrote:

    What happened to the movie filmed in Southport with Cloris Lechman? Around 1990-1991

  6. On November 13, 2010 at 9:02 pm darrell sheldon wrote:

    Wow not even a mention of ‘Weekend at Bernies’,, c’mon folks still a classic laugh riot!

  7. On January 12, 2011 at 11:35 am Brian Wilson wrote:

    The absolute WORST movie ever filmed in Wilmington was ‘Bruno,’ starring Shirley McClain, Gary Sinise, Kathy Bates, Jennifer Tilly and Brett Butler. It is one of those rare movies that you have to stop watching because it is just that bad.

  8. On January 13, 2012 at 7:15 am Brock wrote:

    The absolute worst: Super Mario Brothers
    Beyond awful, I’ve seen some of the bad indies that filmed here as well and this takes the cake. Not sure how you missed it on the worst. The Birds II TV movie may slightly edge it out though.

    Trick or Treat, Empire Records, A Walk To Remember, 28 Days. Worth a mention.

    Evil Dead II was partially filmed here, mostly in Wadesboro though.

  9. On March 4, 2012 at 9:17 pm Charla Allen wrote:

    You forgot the film “The Fix” which was written by a local and filmed in a lot of different locally owned homes and farm land. It starred Brian Cherry who was the fill in for John Schnieder when the Dukes from Dukes of Hazard went on strike. Needless to say it was a flop from the beginning but I enjoyed getting free bikinis for being on the set.

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