Keith: In high school and college, my friends and I watched a lot of movies, which more or less fell into three categories: films we thought would be good, films we thought would be weird, and films we thought would be so bad, they were good. Looking back, there was a lot of blurring between those categories. I think we picked up TNT Jackson, my first exposure to the blaxploitation genre, because it looked weird. But by the time the movie was over, we felt like we’d seen something kind of awesome, and that kicked us off on a long stretch of watching blaxploitation films. (A lot of them made TNT Jackson look lame in retrospect, but that’s getting off the topic.) Then there are films like Troma’s offerings and Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes, which looked like they’d be weird, but were actually just hollow attempts at cult oddness. But a lot of stuff fell into the so-bad-it’s-good column for us back then: putrid comedies like Ghost Fever, the cat-and-dog-have-adventures movie Milo & Otis (we imagined the Japanese production company responsible for it went through a lot of Milos and Otises during its making, and sadly, we might have been right), and one dreadful horror film after another. Good was good, but oftentimes, bad was even better.
I never thought I’d lose my appetite for bad movies, and in many ways, I haven’t. I kind of like it when I get the chance to review something that looks intriguingly poor. But a lot of times, when I’m seeking out less-challenging fare in my free time, I want films that aren’t necessarily bad so much as pitched at the lizard-brain part of me that wants to see Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx shoot rocket launchers on the lawn of the White House, or Keanu Reeves inform people that they owe him a life. Maybe that’s a professional hazard. I see plenty of bad movies over the course of the year. But it also feels like watching bad movies by choice—unless they’re a rare, transcendently bad movie like The Room—is something most people age out of after a certain point.
One of my favorite podcasts, The Flop House, looks at films the hosts imagine will be bad, and grades them on a scale of “bad-bad movie, good-bad movie, or movie you kind of liked.” Not many get the “good-bad” movie stamp, and I think that has a lot to do with the scarcity of films that are truly so bad they’re good, or so bad they demand to be seen. From recent years, the Nicolas Cage-starring remake of The Wicker Man comes immediately to mind, and not much else. So am I just getting too old for this shit? Or am I turning my back on a whole world of unintended hilarity by not seeking out more bad movies for pleasure?
Tasha: It’s possible you’re getting too old for this shit, like the man profiled in one of my all-time favorite Onion stories, “Aging Gen-Xer Doesn’t Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore.” It’s a great piece because while it’s telling a story, it’s also surreptitiously outlining the different perspectives on hate-watching. People who still enjoy watching bad movies for ironic fun can chuckle at the old stick-in-the-mud fogey who can’t muster the joy to laugh at Xanadu, while people who think hate-watching is a waste of time (whether they grew into that attitude, or held it all along) can chuckle just as much at those suckers blowing their lives on The Boy In The Plastic Bubble—or at the pitiful dismay of the guy who’s come around to only liking things he actually likes.
But as the piece implies, calendar age isn’t necessarily what makes people “too old” for bad films. Appreciation for awful stuff has more to do with how much time you have free to spend on it—and possibly more importantly, how easy it is to schedule time with your friends, which gets harder as people acquire spouses, jobs, homes, and kids. There are a lot of factors that make a terrible film fun to watch, but I’d argue that the primary one is the company in which you see it: For most people, bad-movie watching just isn’t as much fun as a solo activity. It’s a shared experience in “Can you believe what we’re seeing here?” So maybe the problem isn’t that you’re old, Keith, it’s that you’re having a harder time getting together with a bunch of people in the right mood, with the right mood-enhancers (alcohol is a big one), and with the right amount of obligation-free time.
Here’s my evidence that it isn’t just age: When I was in college, I had no interest in deliberately watching schlock. College was where I discovered great cinema, and I bonded with other film fans over our self-piloted film education. We were Serious Business, and we didn’t have time to waste on crap. But as I’ve gotten older, that sense of youthful urgency over seeing all the great films has faded somewhat, and I’ve come to appreciate the joys of terrible movies as party fuel. Over the past few years, I’ve even had a little Crap Cinema Club spontaneously form around me, to my surprise. (Hi, Kevin, Noah, and Sarah! CCC for life!) With that in mind, I’ll say that yes, you are missing out on some glorious bad movies of recent vintage: One of my favorite “watch this with friends” experiences of the last decade was M. Night Shyamalan’s profoundly awful The Happening. 2013’s Upside Down was an amazing experience in bad-movie watching. The second Twilight movie is hysterical with the right group. (The others, not so much.) I heartily recommend the Korean-American hybrid Dragon Wars for impenetrable exposition (delivered by poor, game Robert Forster) and giant screaming snakes. The Jessica Alba vehicle An Invisible Sign, in which Alba makes animated numbers fall out of things by knocking on them, and brings a gift-wrapped axe to a grade-school classroom, is an immense hoot. There are many more, and I have some theories about what unites them. But first, Matt, what about you? Do you think Keith is, like, really old? More importantly, how much do you think time of life matters in what makes a good bad movie, as opposed to any other factors?
Matt: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Tasha (not about Keith; he isn’t that old): A bad movie is only as entertaining as the people you’re watching it with. My particular bad-movie habits jibe more with Keith’s—I watched a ton of terrible movies in my early 20s, and watch a whole lot less now—but I wouldn’t blame it on getting older or more mature (my wife confirms; I have not), but rather on drifting apart from my own bad-movie buddies. For the most part, we’ve stayed friends, but we’ve dispersed to different locations all over the country. Bad Movie Night with Chris and Mo and all my pals was a party. Watching all but the most egregiously bad movies by myself is kind of a chore.
For example, part of this conversation was sparked by the new movie I, Frankenstein, which I haven’t seen because it didn’t screen for critics. But it looks particularly bad, even by the standards of the dreck regularly dumped into theaters in January and February. (Feast your eyes on this hilariously awful clip.) Would I go see this movie alone? Hell no; you’d have to kill me, then reanimate my corpse to get me in the theater. But if a bunch of friends were interested in coming with me? I’d be there faster than you could say, “Wait, is Frankenstein’s monster wearing a hoodie?”
This is surely why a list of bad movies that became cult classics (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Road House, The Room) is also a list of midnight-movie favorites; because midnight movies, no matter their quality, are a communal experience. Nobody’s favorite midnight movie is the one they saw alone in a quiet, reverent theater; it’s the crazy oddity they enjoyed while passing around a bottle of cheap champagne someone smuggled into the theater.
As for the movies themselves, what do you guys think are the essential qualities that define something so bad, it’s worth watching? Besides Frankenstein’s monster in a hoodie, obviously.
Keith: Quotability has to figure into it, right? Not to dwell on Ghost Fever—though I could—but a line from that remains currency among the people I saw it with, from the moment when a female character (possibly one of the Landers sisters) dances with the spirit of one of her ancestors: “Why, great-great-granddaddy, you’re a great, great dancer.” Cheapness doesn’t hurt. A film where the seams show is innately more hilarious than one a slick one. (Now, even the worst films that see wide release more often feel deadeningly professional rather than endearingly slapped-together, which has made this sort of film something of an endangered species of late.) Outré performances certainly don’t hurt. Without the over-the-top acting of Judge Reinhold, Nicolas Cage, Marissa Tomei, and others, Zandalee is just another early-’90s erotic thriller. But with it, it’s something special. Flat-out bad acting doesn’t hurt, either: Jane March’s work in Color Of Night has been seared in my brain for reasons beyond her copious nudity. (To explain why would spoil a delightfully overheated bad movie.) What else?
Tasha: Self-importance and deep-seated earnestness are often important aspects of a really classic bad movie. Movies that are trying too hard to be cult hits often don’t take themselves seriously enough: They wink at the audience, or elbow it in the ribs with a tone of “We’re all having fun, right? Look at this wacky thing we just gave you to laugh at!” My favorite bad movies don’t wink: They stare at the audience with Nicolas Cage intensity. Plan 9 From Outer Space, the Wicker Man remake, Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park—they all drip with a seriousness that suggests the filmmakers thought they were creating masterpieces. A lot of bad films have a noticeable gap between their ambition and their execution, but in a really great bad film, that gap is immense, and the creators often don’t seem to realize that they didn’t bridge it. The more ambition a bad film has—the more the filmmakers are trying to do something really huge and daring—the more likely that it’ll be daring enough to be entertaining.
Also, I don’t necessarily require my bad movies to be completely batshit insane, but it certainly helps. Films like The Apple, The Forbidden Zone, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, Zardoz, The Room—they’re all so much fun because they’re so phenomenally weird, with nothing following logically or sensibly from what came before. An ordinary bad film is boring and draggy; a great one keeps surprising the viewers.
Matt: I’m not sure anyone has ever described a good-bad movie better than Susan Sontag’s definition of camp from her famous 1964 essay on the subject. “The essential element,” she said, “is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” To Sontag, only movies that had the right blend of “the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve” could achieve what she called “pure camp,” and we might call a “good-bad movie.”
Anyone can churn out mediocre trash; Hollywood aims low dozens of times a year, and most of the results are not worth wasting time on. As Tasha says, it’s ambition that separates the wheat from the chaff. The thing that guys like Edward D. Wood Jr. and Tommy Wiseau have in common (besides embarrassing filmographies) is that passion to communicate something profound. Okay, so maybe their execution leaves something to be desired. They’re still trying really hard.
The filmmakers who reach for something far beyond their grasp are the ones that wind up producing bad movies that exceed their flaws. In doing so, they arguably achieve their goals, albeit in a roundabout way. These men and women strove for greatness. In failing so spectacularly to get there, they achieved a different kind of greatness.
Keith: I’ve never quite gotten my head around that Sontag essay, which I recall contradicting itself quite a bit. But maybe your distillation of it works for our purposes, Matt, since the truly, transcendently bad movies I know do have lofty ambitions of which they fall far, far short. (Which is why I don’t think Forbidden Zone fits the definition, even if Zardoz does, if you think it’s a bad movie. I don’t. But I also promised not to derail this piece arguing what’s bad and what isn’t on a title-by-title basis. Even if I just kind of did.)
On the other hand, with that definition, could a failed comedy somehow qualify as a good-bad movie? Or if a film, good or bad, gets a laugh out of viewers, does that laugh “count” no matter what? Similarly, if I get scared during a “bad” horror film, one that’s otherwise been entertaining for all the wrong reasons, is it still “bad”? Are we narrowing the definition too much when we eliminate all but those undone by their own ambition?
Tasha: Well, the ambition to be funny is still an ambition. In theory, what makes a film “bad” is the gap between intention and execution, so I’d like to think a comedy can be so bad at what it does that it becomes hilarious. (And no, that doesn’t wrap it all the way back around to good. I think we all have some idea of the line between unintentional and intentional comedy.) But at the same time, I can’t think of a single pure comedy that hits the great-bad-movie sweet spot. There are plenty of wonderfully, enjoyably awful romantic comedies—When In Rome, Camille, and Valentine’s Day come to mind—but when I think about what makes them funny, it’s more how they utterly fail at drama and romance than how they fail at comedy. Can either of you think of a great-bad comedy? Because the more I think about it, the more I think a great-bad film is one that fails so much at doing whatever it’s trying to do that it perfectly becomes its own opposite. My absolute favorite terrible films (The Happening, for instance) are failing so hard at being serious and scary that they become laughable. But a film that fails really hard at being funny is more likely to be boring than accidentally grave and serious.
This may speak to the same point from a different angle: I was talking to my partner about this Conversation this morning, and he suggested that a movie can be bad enough to be campy fun even if it does one thing well, as long as that one thing is action, comedy, or suspense. (Dragon Wars is a hilariously fun terrible movie with some fairly well-managed dinosaurs-vs.-the-army action, for instance.) But a film can’t do tragedy well without deflating the mood entirely. Real, believable suffering takes the fun out of laughing at a bad film. The experience of laughing at a bad movie is predicated on schadenfreude and contempt, both of which are hard to maintain in the face of characters you actually care about, or feel for. That suggests to me that seriousness—whether it comes from competent drama direction, or incompetent comedy direction—is more than the fragile great-bad movie experience can sustain.
Matt: If a horror film scares you, isn’t that a “good” horror film? In my mind, even if that horror movie is “entertaining for all the wrong reasons,” but it also gives you nightmares, that qualifies it as a good horror movie—or at least a middling one. I’d have a hard time saying a horror film that terrified me is so bad it’s good.
The question of so-bad-they’re-good comedies is a tougher one. I’m racking my brain trying to think of one, but nothing’s jumping out. Maybe it is the fact that comedies rarely have the sort of grand ambition that defines most camp classics. Their aims are smaller, and their failures are too. Tasha’s formulation that good-bad movies attain greatness by achieving the opposite of their intended effect seems plausible to me in this context, because there’s nothing more tragic than an unfunny comedy. Truly awful comedies—something like, say, The Internship from last year—never make me laugh at their incompetence. They just bum me out.
Keith: And yet, like Tasha, I’ve more than once turned turned to a subpar rom-com for my bad-movie needs, which tend to be either hardened in their clichés to the point of self-parody (may I recommend Leap Year?) or whacked-out in a way that makes them queasily compelling. (May I recommend Simply Irresistible, magic crab and all?) So maybe at the end of all this, it really does come back to company, and maybe any bad movie, even one that would be soul-deadening taken solo, can be fun as a communal experience. So carry on mocking, bad-movie fans. And enjoy your time together. I would only caution that you choose your targets well. There’s no need to take on movies that do half the work for you by trying to be bad—your Sharkanados and such. And please be open to the possibility that even a film that looks terrible might have something genuinely worthwhile to offer. There is plenty of true awfulness in the world of movies that only laughter can defeat. Learn to recognize it.