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The titular Nukie (1987)Courtesy of IMDB

‘The worst film ever’: the story behind Nukie, the forgotten ET knock-off

Earlier this year, a VHS of the ‘awful’ 1987 film sold for $80,600, making it one of the most expensive videotapes of all time. But why?

It all began a few weeks ago. YouTube channel Red Letter Media – best known for a scathing, 70-minute review of Star Wars: Episode I that went viral in 2009 – were investigating the bizarre rise in VHS collectors’ markets. The company wanted to know why so many people were prepared to spend thousands of dollars on sealed or limited edition videotapes (one copy of Back to the Future, for example, had been able to sell for $75,000 in June 2022). What was the appeal? Who was behind it? They decided to try an experiment, destroying 100 copies of an obscure 1987 South African film called Nukie and selling the one remaining copy on eBay for charity, claiming that it was now rare and therefore valuable. It sold for $80,600 on January 6 2023 – making it one of the most expensive videotapes of all time. 

While the investigation was clearly tongue-in-cheek (they did it for the clicks!!), the sale was genuine, resulting in a massive donation split between St Jude’s Hospital and the Wisconsin Humane Society. It marks an unlikely moment of retribution for a film that Wikipedia describes as “one of the worst movies ever made”. Intrigued by Nukie’s newfound identity as a respectable fundraising article, Dazed decided to break the news to its co-director, Michael Pakleppa, who recalls the comedy of errors behind the film’s production like it was yesterday. “It’s something you remember like a trauma,” he tells us. “‘Oh God, Nukie!’”

A bizarre knock-off of Steven Spielberg’s ET, Nukie is a light-hearted children’s fantasy about a pair of gremlin-like extraterrestrials who visit Earth, becoming separated from one another in the process. While the titular Nukie lands in South Africa, befriending a pair of tribal children (Siphiwe and Sipho Mlangeni) and a talking chimpanzee in the process, his partner, Miko, is captured and monitored by ‘The Space Foundation’ in the United States. It’s then up to American helicopter pilot Dr Eric Harvey (former B-movie giant Steve Railsback, Lifeforce; The X-Files) to try and reunite them. It’s a film that Letterboxd user ‘James (Schaffrillas)’ describes as “genuinely so awful that I started crying at the end.”

Pakleppa meets Dazed at a café near Notting Hill. He was – and still is – a producer, director and distributor of films, with a storied career. In 2016, his feature Angels in Notting Hill marked the final film appearance of acting veteran Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings), for example – it’s described as a mixture of “Disney and David Lynch” on the DVD cover. In the 80s, though, he was distributing works by Peter Greenaway and the Monty Python collective, alongside animated children’s films in his native Germany. The business eventually drew him towards an oddity from South Africa that looked like it could be a decent acquisition. 

“We optioned Nukie without knowing what it was,” he says, visibly cringing. “It was long before it was shot, and nobody had ever read the script. There was just this fantastic poster. It looked a bit like ET in Africa.”

You have to make sure you have an enormous amount of space for breathing [with animatronics], but they didn’t know any of that. They’d just built something and put a little child inside. The child would suffocate after three or four minutes’ – Michael Pakleppa

The oversight, unsurprisingly, would come back to bite him – and the day they got to see the film, “we thought we’d all die.” He continues: “There was no South Africa. There were hardly any extraterrestrials. We basically just saw discussions between a nun and a helicopter pilot, who were going on and on about how stupid Black people are, or something. Imagine that again and again and again, at extreme length, and nothing else.”

Pakleppa divulged his concerns to the film’s executive producer, Gregory Cascante, who asked if he could fix the issues. But Pakleppa was unwilling to mess with the work of South African writer-director Sias Odendaal, who would surely resent him for such sabotage. The compromise, then, was to make a new edit of the film: by removing unusable scenes, a new narrative could be salvaged from whatever was left over. The goal was “to make it less racist”, says Pakleppa, but the plan didn’t quite work out. “When we cut the original footage down, there were about 40 minutes left.”

Pakleppa was convinced to assemble a small crew and visit South Africa, on what would be the first of several trips in which he became the film’s informal repairman. Their arrival was unexpectedly welcomed by the local filmmaking team – including Odendaal – who had high hopes for what they could achieve. Pakleppa agreed to shoot additional footage for the film despite the scarce budget available. “It’s something I’d never done before,” he says. “And I’ll never do it again.”

The first issue they encountered was with the animatronics, which had been used to bring the film’s forbiddingly ugly aliens to life. “We did a couple of test shots,” says Pakleppa. “But they were too small, and completely wrongly built. I’ve worked with animatronics in Shepperton, and inside are always very well-trained puppeteers, who use specialised yoga breathing training. You have to make sure you have an enormous amount of space for breathing. But they didn’t know any of that. They’d just built something and put a little child inside. The child would suffocate after three or four minutes.”

More footage of the South African outback was also needed, so Pakleppa and his crew took to driving around in a caravan to capture interesting scenery. At the same time, they shot new dialogue with the film’s most relatable stars: local siblings Siphiwe and Sipho, now two-and-a-half years older than when the initial footage was shot. “We spent about a week going through South Africa day and night to shoot,” Pakleppa recalls. “But we got ill several times because we were overworking. The DOP got a 40-degrees fever.”

Post-production was no better, with special effects causing a major headache. “The studio overestimated their power by a 1000 per cent. All we got from them was a couple of glowing rocks – which we used – a shot of the Earth, and a kind of comet, or something. The next day, the whole studio was gone, in the physical sense. They couldn’t do it, and they got so afraid that we would sue them that they disappeared without a trace. Our special effects budget was gone, and we had no special effects.”

The rest of the money was soon gone, too – and the film wasn’t even nearly finished. They still needed exterior shots of the Space Foundation headquarters, as it was a major part of the plot. “I called Gregory in America and said ‘can’t you get me a couple of skyscrapers?’ I got the first reel back, and everything was out of focus. The second reel? Everything black. The third reel didn’t exist.” In the end, Pakleppa had no choice but to develop the film in Berlin with 12 key shots still missing. Luckily, he happened upon an enthusiastic cameraman at the lab who managed to find a location at the last minute, while the film was already being processed. He was back with the shots in three hours. “I never met him before or after again,” Pakleppa says.

In the end, the fix-up job took nine months, when they’d only calculated for three. “I thought we’d made the worst film on Earth,” Pakleppa says. “My own distribution company refused to release it, and it went straight to television. It was supposedly sold to 26 countries thereafter.”

Pakleppa claims to have largely forgotten about Nukie as he went on with life after its release. But he did get a reminder when a group of fans in LA reached out a few years ago to let him know about a club that would meet up regularly to watch the film. It was the first he’d heard of it becoming some sort of cult subject – and, indeed, similar sorts would soon make a habit of mailing Nukie videotapes to Red Letter Media as a long-running joke.

But for all its trials and tribulations, it seems that the big spenders on eBay may care little for the film itself. Garry Newman bid around $80,000 on the latter group’s VHS listing, but was pipped to the post at the end. “I thought it would be funny to buy it,” he tells Dazed. “I make a lot of money and don’t relatively give enough to charity, so I always look for fun opportunities like this.” Likewise, Stephen Gutowski, who tweeted “Does anyone have $85k I can borrow?”, did so because he was amused and fascinated by the experiment. “I wouldn’t actually pay $85k for a copy of Nukie… the whole situation is hilarious.”

But someone did – and whether or not they’re a fan of the film is moot. Speaking to Dazed, the Wisconsin Humane Society confirmed that on January 13 the organisation had received $40,000 as a donation from Red Letter Media, adding that: “It’s the largest gift we’ve received from a third-party fundraiser of this kind. We’re so honoured.”

As for Pakleppa, who thought that Nukie was “the most wrong-gone thing I’d ever done in my life,” perhaps the whole journey marks a kind of retribution. “It’s funny, it’s nice,” he says of the film’s fund-raising fervour. “Why anyone would pay a fortune for Nukie is a mystery… But at least it was good for something.”

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