The good, the bad, and the so-bad-they’re-good

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“That movie is so bad, it’s good.”

We’ve all heard this saying, so much so that it’s almost become a cliche. Many films enjoy cult classic reputations strictly based on the fact that they’re bad-but-entertaining. Frequently, these films have a niche-market value to them which the filmmakers can use to their advantage, marketing it in an effort to win over people with ironic senses of humor. More often, the cult classic status happens completely by accident. These movies are also frequently low-budget affairs that are inadvertently sabotaged by their writer or director’s lack of experience, talent, or money.

At the end of the day, these audiences recognize that these films lack any value or substance. Most so-bad-they’re-good films become classics well after the fact, once they develop an underground DVD/Blu-Ray following. A lot of them belong in their own sub-category, specifically for the variety of hilarious movies starring, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Nicolas Cage.

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Arguably the best known so-bad-they’re-good films are Troll 2 (1990) and The Room (2003). I’m not going to get super in-depth about the plot (or lack thereof) in these movies, as that information is readily available online and has been hashed and rehashed by numerous critics (especially on YouTube). Still, I’ll go over the basics of these films and include as much relevant information as I can without spoilers.

To me, there are three types of so-bad-they’re-good movies:

THE ENTERTAINING ONES

Troll 2 and The Room both work for me, because their plots are incredibly nonsensical and nothing in the movie is realistic. The Room is, ostensibly, a romantic drama/love-triangle tragedy about San Francisco banker Johnny, his fiancee Lisa, and his best friend Mark.

Troll 2 is an even stranger movie, featuring no trolls (they’re goblins), having no connection to the original Troll film, and being made in America by a crew that spoke Italian exclusively. Also, the film’s poster has nothing to do with the film itself. (Confused yet?)

There are two separate reasons for why these two films are the way they are, and both are related to cultural differences.

  • The writer/director/producer/star of The Room, Tommy Wiseau, has gone to great lengths to hide where he is from in various interviews. None of his co-stars had the slightest clue as to where his bizarre accent originated, where he grew up, or even how he got the $6 million to finance the making of The Room. But Wiseau’s enigmatic nature helps lift The Room to larger-than-life bad movie status. The Room works so well because of Wiseau’s broken English and his complete lack of understanding of how Western culture works. It’s the perfect example of a movie that fails miserably in what it’s trying to do, but does so in a blissfully unaware and almost innocent way. It’s the perfect storm of awkward, confusing insanity.
  • Troll 2‘s filmmakers aren’t quite as beloved, because their motive for making the film was genuinely confusing. Husband-and-wife team Claudio Fragasso and Rossella Drudi, both Italian nationals, shot the film in rural Utah. The entire crew, except for the production designer, spoke little to no English, and the inexperienced actors had very little idea of what was actually going on and how they were supposed to say the words on the page. Since Troll 2 is ludicrous in nearly every way, one would expect that the filmmakers would have a tongue-in-cheek attitude about it and take the so-bad-it’s-good status to heart. But Fragasso and Drudi have never gone back and admitted that the film was – for lack of a better word – trolling (obvious joke is obvious). Infamously, Fragasso even crashed a cast reunion for Troll 2 after the movie achieved cult classic status; he heckled the cast members and hurled insults at them before security removed him from the venue. It’s also worth mentioning that the movie’s producer, Joe D’Amato, was notorious for making poor quality exploitation movies purely for a paycheck.

Still, in spite of the motive for making them, both Troll 2 and The Room work on nearly level, particularly in plot holes, over-the-top acting, nonsensical dialogue, and general WTF moments.

THE BAD ONES

Two other notable movies that have attained cult classic status are Foodfight and Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

  • Foodfight was made on a $65 million budget. The film was directed by Lawrence Kasanoff and was originally supposed to be released in 2002. Foodfight was intended to be a satirical parody with anthropomorphic food icons representing such brands as StarKist Tuna, Mr. Clean, Count Chocula, etc. But the film hit numerous snags in securing the licensing for the product placement, and at one point, the entire film’s animated assets were stolen from the studio. Foodfight lumbered around in production hell before getting released in 2012, when many of its stars (Eva Longoria, Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd, Hilary Duff) were either washed-up or irrelevant.
  • Meanwhile, Birdemic: Shock and Terror was an indie film released in 2010 by writer/director James Nguyen. A Vietnamese immigrant who was long fascinated by Hitchcock films, Nguyen could only shoot the film on weekends due to his day job and many of his actors being unavailable. The result is an appallingly-bad film that is frequently listed as one of the worst ever made.

Quite a few people ironically enjoy and appreciate these films; I hate them. Why is that?

For a film on a $65 million budget (slightly above average for a studio film), Foodfight‘s animation is atrocious in every way. The characters are beyond obnoxious, and nearly every joke misses its target. In addition to the obvious product placement, Foodfight also has genuinely creepy moments, highlighted by a bizarre amount of sexual innuendos and references to Nazism. Yes, this was intended to be an animated children’s movie.

Birdemic might be the most technically incompetent film ever made. It features the bad movie staples of a lousy script, lousier acting, and gigantic plot holes, but the film is a completely different nightmare on a technical level. Sound comes in and out of scenes like a punch to the face, the camerawork is incredibly amateur, and the visual effects are so laughable that I’m convinced a 13-year-old could do better on Adobe AfterEffects. The film is also rife with preachiness about environmentalism, as the killer birds of the film’s title are said to have been caused by global warming and fossil fuels. No, I’m not joking.

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I’m not going to fault anyone for liking these films ironically. But both Foodfight and Birdemic, to me, represent the worst, most cynical level of moviemaking. I don’t know Larry Kasanoff or James Nguyen personally, but based upon their reputations and the interviews I’ve seen with them, they’re unprofessional people who don’t have the personality or the skills to make successful movies. Both men’s entire reaction to their films and their lackluster defending of them show them to be lazy, cynical, or like they made their movies for a prank or because they lost a bet.

It shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that in order to make films, you have to be passionate about making them. I’ve made short films in the past, and I can guarantee you that it’s not all sunshine and roses; Murphy’s law always applies, and everyone has to be on top of their game every day of shooting.

Even if you aren’t a filmmaker, as an audience member, you should be willing to watch films that are made with the proper effort. There’s certainly a time and place for bad movies, but it really irks me when I see directors and writers who seem cynical, lazy, and defeatist from the get-go.

THE BAD/ENTERTAINING ONES

There are many films that fall in the bad AND entertaining category. Here are two:

  • The 2006 remake of the 1973 horror classic The Wicker Man looked good on paper, starring Oscar winner Nicolas Cage and being directed by Neil LaBute, a filmmaker known for making unsettling and harsh thriller movies. But in the end, the film was a massive box office bomb and received extremely negative reviews from audiences and critics alike.
  • Samurai Cop was released in 1989 and was almost instantly forgotten. A micro-budget film made by the late Iranian director Amir Shervan, the film wasn’t even released theatrically and generated a cult following on its later VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray editions. Samurai Cop is essentially piggybacking off of genre tropes of the day, most notably Beverly Hills Cop and the Lethal Weapon franchise.

Samurai Cop and The Wicker Man are very different films. The former was a misguided low-budget adventure of an Iranian national trying to replicate American action movie success. The film is known for its terrible editing and audio dubbing, and has some ludicrously choreographed action scenes. But it works for me, because it’s insanely entertaining and funny, even though the technical flaws are blatantly obvious.

Meanwhile, The Wicker Man was an ambitious effort to adapt a bona fide horror classic into the modern day. While the movie is poorly plotted and the characters in it make baffling decisions, it is lifted by – who else? – Nicolas Cage.

Cage has made many good movies and many horrible movies in his career. But he seems to have a unique level of staying power for someone who has starred in box office bomb after box office bomb. Very few actors can be consistently entertaining while acting in bad movies, and The Wicker Man is a prime example of this effect. Even in an otherwise terrible film, Cage entertains you and makes you cry with laughter.

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Bad movies are basically a tutorial for anyone interested in making or critiquing films. And normally, it’s nothing too intricate or complicated. Most bad films are bad for fairly simple reasons – an unfocused script, a complicated plot, bad acting, stilted dialogue, or simply a director who is inexperienced, unaccountable, or both.

I have a very basic rule of thumb when it comes to evaluating films: don’t be a hater unnecessarily. I’m definitely not the only one who hates the Star Wars prequels, but I doubt I’ll just say “they suck because they suck.” I could earn lots of points from fanboys and fangirls by criticizing specific things or spending too much time on something that people love to hate, but I usually won’t.

Does that mean that some films don’t deserve to be ripped to shreds? No. But I feel like a lot of people don’t actually bother to explain their rationale for not liking a movie. You can chalk that up to people having knee-jerk emotional reactions in general, but as serious film-goers, we need to be the best critical thinkers there are. That doesn’t mean we have to go into a feature film and break down the good and bad in every frame, but it’s still a useful guide for anyone who loves movies and how they’re made.

I hope this blog has helped you, not just to evaluate and appreciate so-bad-they’re good movies (and the different types thereof), but also to approach any film with a slightly different mindset. Cheers!

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