The Joy of Bad Films
You might think to enjoy bad films, and deliberately seeking them out is a bit strange. After all, no-one sits down to what they know will be a sub-standard meal when the more tantalising fare is available. But think of it in a different way, and you’ll realise that these aren’t really bad films, but unintentional comedies. And if you feel guilty about watching cheesy movies, why not revel in the knowledge that enjoying this stuff could be a sign of high intelligence (see this Huffington Post article)?
When you watch a terrible film, you’re laughing at it, not with it. Clichéd plots, appalling special effects, awful dialogue, paper-thin characterisation and atrocious acting are all the ingredients that make a deliciously disastrous soup of celluloid. And for the connoisseur, only the very worst will do. This is the difference between something that’s so bad it’s good and something that’s so bad, that it’s just bad. As an example of the latter, take ‘Gods of Egypt’, which features forgettable characters, disposable villains, overblown CGI action sequences, and Gerard Butler being Gerard Butler. It’s boring nonsense, but it’s not quite bad enough to go beyond being a predictable and sleep-inducingly dull affair.
Average and mediocre films, full of the usual rubbish – computer generated throwaway nonsense, macho posturing, damsels in distress – while tired and formulaic, can’t scratch the itch in the same way as the truly dismally dire. The worst of the worst exaggerate the traits that are present in most genre offerings, providing ironic enjoyment, showing up their slightly more polished cousins for what they are, and revealing the absurdity at the heart of Hollywood. These are parodies and satires that aren’t self-aware enough to realise their true nature.
Films don’t have a monopoly on this; there are variations in other media. A badly written book can be enjoyable, although it obviously lacks the visual element. But again, it has to be unintentional. When it was suggested that the legendarily bad Harry Potter fanfiction ‘My Immortal’ might have been written as a joke, for example, it somewhat spoiled the fun.
So you’re new to the fun; which to begin? Well, you can’t go far wrong starting with the 2003 seminal masterpiece of the genre, ‘The Room’. This dazzling train wreck of a film – written, starring and directed by the crazily compelling figure that is Tommy Wiseau, a man I still struggle to believe actually exists – is a cinematic masterpiece. Side-plots that don’t go anywhere, 180 degree turns in mood that leaves the viewer with whiplash, inappropriate laughter, endless and pointless games of pass the American football, framed stock-photos of spoons, mind-bogglingly weird dialogue, excruciatingly long unnecessary footage of Tommy’s buttocks – this film has it all. Featuring actors in only the very loosest definition of the word, my words can never do it justice. This is one you have to see for yourself.
For older films of this type, anything directed by Ed Wood is usually a safe bet, such as ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’. Written, directed and produced by Wood (noticing a theme here?) the plot involves aliens raising the dead to take over the earth, not that it really matters. Watch out for wobbly tombstones, the shadow of the boom mic, spaceships that look like cheap toys (because they are), and a stand-in for Bela Lugosi (famous for playing Dracula) clumsily cut together with actual footage of the man. Wood tried to disguise the physical differences between the two men by having the stand-in put his cape in front of his face and hunch over.
The TV show Mystery Science Theatre 3000 often features shlock B-movies of this type as the subject of its mockery, along with a few cheaply made 80s sci-fi flicks. Many of these are worth a watch to revel in their woefulness, particularly the unbelievably bad ‘Manos, The Hands of Fate’. Barely qualifying as a film at all, featuring a cast that aren’t actors and endless pointless footage, this is another comedy that was intended as horror.
For the 90s and modern offerings, virtually anything with Nicholas Cage in it is invariably hilariously bad, featuring his trademark overacting and over the top freakouts. Marvel as he turns ‘The Wicker Man’ from chilling cult classic into ridiculous farce, in this pointless and unnecessary remake, by screaming ‘How did it get burned?!’ over and over again, followed by endlessly screeching “No! Not the bees!” Not to mention the baffling scene where he punches a woman while dressed in a bear costume.
There’s not much that’s positive you can say about the Star Wars prequels without mentioning ‘Duel of the Fates’, the amazing score composed and conducted by John Williams. These films are packed with bad scenes, but in the main, they are just gut-wrenchingly boring. This all changes when you watch ‘The Third Gathers: Backstroke of the West’, a bootleg version of ‘Revenge of the Sith’ poorly translated from Chinese back into English. You can watch the highlights from the dubbed version here (fair warning – a few naughty words):
Some films are made to be deliberately bad, which I feel is cheating. ‘Sharknado’ for example, smells like a cynical ploy to cash in on the phenomena by deliberately casting faded 90s actors in a stupid creature-feature. It is silly and bad but feels false, and this makes it fall flat.
Batman and Robin, on the other hand, is legitimately in the cream of the crop of bad films. Made to sell toys, and never exactly sure what it is supposed to be, there’s a lot to laugh at here; bat-nipples, the bat-credit card, Robin shouting ‘cowabunga’ while he surfs down to earth using the door of an exploding rocket ship, watching George Clooney’s head bounces around like a nodding dog whenever he’s on screen. And that’s to say nothing of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s endless barrage of cold-related puns. The plot doesn’t make any sense at all, and physics seems to have taken the week off. It was intended to be a bit campy and goofy, but it’s hard to believe that the S&M homoerotic vibe wasn’t intentional. There is plenty of similarly silly superhero fodder, but this is the Citizen Kane of bad superhero films, in the same league as those weirdly awkward emo-Spiderman dance numbers from Spiderman 3.
How about the sub-genre of stupid animal films? There’s the American ‘Air Bud’ series about a dog who plays basketball, but how about ‘Spymate’, a film which looks like it was made in the 1980s, but was actually made in the early 2000s? It features a chimp super-spy called Minkey (yes, that’s right) who skateboards, does kung-fu, flies with a jetpack, and disarms a bomb. To be fair it was intended as a comedy, but it pushes the boundaries so far it turns into self-parody. It’s just so terribly lame that you can’t help but enjoy it. Featuring a very young Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts’ niece) and Pat Morita (Mr .Miyagi from The Karate Kid), it’s the film that one IMDB reviewer called ‘One of the worst movies I have ever had to sit through’. Millions were spent making this travesty. You’ll either laugh or cry.
In the end, that’s the point underlying all these turkeys; the absurdity of it all. Humanity throws tons of money bringing the vision of a skateboarding chimp to life, but can’t seem to find enough money to feed and house everyone. George Carlin understood it and invited us to laugh at it. Watching the worst of the worst can help you understand people, and laugh at ourselves. Good films can take themselves far too seriously.
Also, go and read some tongue in cheek reviews of terrible films on IMDB. It’s a joy in and of itself.