Jeffrey McHale remembers well the balmy California night in 2015 when actor Elizabeth Berkley took to the stage at an outdoor film festival.

"People were screaming and cheering her on. It was the closest thing I'd had to a religious experience; just that wave that goes through the crowd when the whole audience gets to their feet," he told news.com.au from Los Angeles, reports News.com.au.

"You would never imagine Elizabeth Berkley would be there, introducing Showgirls."

In fact, Berkeley had spent the previous 20 years desperately trying to get as far away from Showgirls as possible.

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That's because, if you haven't heard of Berkley, well, the 1995 flop Showgirls is the reason.

The reviews were excruciating. It was "tawdry", "an exercise in excess," "sleazy and forgettable" with a "consistently talentless" cast.

"$40 million of voyeurism," said one critic.

The publicity for Showgirls made no secret of its raunchiness or its restricted rating. It was seen as a bonus to get adults through cinema doors. Photo / Supplied
The publicity for Showgirls made no secret of its raunchiness or its restricted rating. It was seen as a bonus to get adults through cinema doors. Photo / Supplied

"When chimps invade the dressing room and all they do is defecate, the film enjoys a rare moment of good taste," the New York Times wrote.

To add further insult, it was awarded the title "worst film of the 1990s".

It wasn't supposed to be this way, says Mr McHale, whose documentary about the film, You Don't Nomi, will screen at Sydney's QueerScreen Film Festival on September 21, exactly 24 years to the day after the Showgirls premiere in 1995.

Costing A$100m in today's money, Showgirls was the biggest budget movie with an over 17 age rating in history. It had bankable stars and a sultry plot of warring strippers and dancers and the dastardly men that orbit them.

The erotic drama, written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven — who had brought the world Total Recall, Robocop and Basic Instinct — was the big movie that would take Berkley from teen star to Hollywood legend.

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It was her first major role after teen sitcom Saved by the Bell, where she played the outspoken Jessie Spano.

She was treading a well-worn path, said Mr McHale.

"This was the trend for young teen actors; they thought they had to shed all that in order to step into more adult roles.

"She probably saw what Basic Instinct had done for Sharon Stone."

Director Paul Verhoeven had helped make Sharon Stone a star through Basic Instinct three years before Showgirls. Photo / AP
Director Paul Verhoeven had helped make Sharon Stone a star through Basic Instinct three years before Showgirls. Photo / AP

But Showgirls was no Basic Instinct.

Rarely in the history of Hollywood has a film and the vast majority of its cast been so panned by the critics.

And much of the criticism came to land on a single sex scene guffawed at as "ludicrous" with Berkley writhing so much it looked like she was "caught in an electrical fence".

WORST FILM OF THE DECADE

Showgirls

was a box office bomb. That year it won the Razzie, a kind of anti-Oscars, for the year's worst film. Five years later it won the Razzie for worst film of the entire 1990s.

In the film, Berkley plays Nomi Malone, a young drifter who wants to make it big as a scantily clad showgirl in Las Vegas and doesn't care who she harms on the way up, including the current queen of the catwalk Cristal Connors played by Gina Gershon.

The Washington Post said the Nomi character, "was a tarty blonde with the brains of an appliance bulb."

As for Berkley's acting, the San Francisco Chronicle was scathing: "When she's not trying to be nude, unpleasant or both, she's tries hard to act, but she's about as convincing as Joan Crawford".

What annoyed reviewers most was the film makers' insistence it was an erotic, but artistic masterpiece. Many papers gave it one or half a star. Canada's Globe and Mail gave Showgirls no stars at all.

After the savaging, Berkley retreated from sight. She was dropped by her then agent and her dreams of Hollywood stardom were dashed.

"The film was made fun of and her acting was ridiculed. It was definitely a hard at the time and she's been open about that," said Mr McHale.

"It halted what career momentum she hoped to have."

Yet, almost 25 years after Showgirls failed to get bums on seats, it now packs out cinemas with audiences eager to cheer and boo along to the film.

But despite its cult status, isn't it still just a bad film?

Elizabeth Berkley starred as Nomi Malone, a dancer trying to make it in big in Las Vegas. Photo / AP
Elizabeth Berkley starred as Nomi Malone, a dancer trying to make it in big in Las Vegas. Photo / AP

"It's a hard question to answer. I glean towards it being a 'masterpiece of sh*t' (a term coined by author Adam Nayman who wrote the book It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls).

"It's a bad film with masterpiece like qualities."

Fans of the film point out that if you can get beyond the script and moments of intense overacting, it is well put together.

They point to the liberal use of mirrors in the film, to suggest a constant distorted reality; the accomplished choreography in the dance numbers aping classic musicals; subtle imagery in the background signalling a character's true motives; knowing nods to Verhoeven's other films and even a scene of Nomi and Cristal talking where the camera swaps sides suggesting a growing equality in their relationship.

Mr McHale said an issue with the film may have been that US audiences mostly knew Verhoeven's work from his blockbusters like Total Recall. However, the director had made far more confronting films in his native Netherlands.

"Showgirls put sex in the foreground and people didn't know how to respond to it. US audiences see Showgirls like the outlier but it's Verhoeven at his purest."

THAT SEX SCENE

However, the sex scenes are still something to behold.

The one few can forget involves Berkley and Kyle McLachlan in a pool, lit by gaudy neon palm trees. McLachlan is practically motionless while Berkley writhes, almost possessed, with frantic, ever increasing speed in a position that a) couldn't possibly enable you to have sex, and b) would likely end up in a drowning.

"It's an insane scene. There's no way there is anything in reality that comes near to that scene. The performances are just so camp," said Mr McHale.

But, as the documentary points out, the pool scene is a mirror of an earlier lap dancing scene, yet the power dynamic has changed.

Some critics remain to be convinced about Showgirls' virtues. The San Francisco Examiner's Barbara Shulgasser-Parker thought it was bad in 1995, and she feels the same.

Don't be fooled. Within minutes Nomi Malone would be writhing in this pool in one of Hollywood's most panned sex scenes. Photo / Supplied
Don't be fooled. Within minutes Nomi Malone would be writhing in this pool in one of Hollywood's most panned sex scenes. Photo / Supplied

"Showgirls is drearily pedestrian and insipid kind of film. Pathetic," she says in the doco.

The film's drubbing was easier on the other actors, said Mr McHale.

"Kyle McLachlan and Gina Gershon were able to weather the storm. Whereas for Berkley, because it was her first major role, and it was so big and so violently rejected, I can't imagine how hard it was for her.

"But now she is embracing Showgirls publicly, and that's great to see."

Berkley eventually dusted herself off from the Showgirls' debacle.

She had a role in the film First Wives' Club and starred in several TV movies and appeared in major drams NYPD Blue and CSI: Miami. In 2013 was a finalist on US Dancing with the Stars. She is married with a son.

And while the film scrapped just $20m at the US box office, the ongoing fascination with it has made it one of studio MGM's most successful productions.

Mr McHale said many films that were acclaimed on their release, such as Forrest Gump and American Beauty, are held in lower esteem now.

"We should allow ourselves a little flexibility about what makes a bad film. Showgirls has now come full circle on how you measure failure and success. It was a box office bomb but now it's very profitable."

Verhoeven seemed to take the bad reviews in his stride, even turning up in 1995 to the Razzies to pick up his many gongs.

"If you make a movie that everyone considers as bad and it disappears into no man's land, that's much worse than being glorified for worst film of the year."

Little did he know, a quarter of a century later, people would still be talking about his famous film and his lead actor who thought she was then on the cusp of becoming a star.