The appeal of bad movies has been, I’d say, a fairly consistent part of moviegoing culture. While the “midnight movie” in the Seventies made it more well-known, schadenfreude in the cinema has been around probably since the medium’s inception. Luis Buñuel’s 1933 documentary Land Without Bread presented openly false or exaggerated information in a Fishing With John-esque dissonance between footage and narrator. (it’s debatably the first “mockumentary”), implying a deliberately contentious relationship between filmmaker and audience. The latter have since taken up arms of their own, from the Razzies to Michael Medved’s “Golden Turkey Awards” to Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and its successors.
Watching a film with the deliberate aims of seeing something bad, whether out of genuine curiosity or mockery, is inherently a subversive act. It takes the expectations of what we want from the medium and reverses them. By extension, it’s an approach that discourages any kind of formalism beyond drinking games or common games in midnight screenings.
I don’t want to sound like the frumpy dad forcing everyone to stop playing, but I do think it’s valuable to address some specific elements of bad movies - or at least the best and most interesting. Deliberate shlock producers have steadily been trying to use the concept as something of a shield, justifying bad productions for a misunderstood conception of “irony.” I have no problem with camp or goofiness, but films that try to climb on it rarely are as fun to watch as they are to make.
One of their biggest problems, and the focus of tonight, is a lack of perspective. Too many movies really suffer from a lack of focus, intent, and position, which results in more acceptable but less exciting or specific movies. Many, if not all, of the best films all have a clear focus that galvanizes them, and without it a film often has a much harder time bridging its themes, visual style, and ethos. And while many of them lack much else, many of the best and most beloved bad movies also have a specific focus.
I once theorized that the chief appeal of the Room was less from its badness than its weirdness, although the two certainly mix extensively. It’s impossible to separate the bad technical and narrative and thematic decisions from the vision of Tommy Wiseau, which resulted in a film that looks and sounds unlike any other film in history.
It’s important to consider how singular Wiseau’s vision was, from the narrative dead-ends to the confusing references to the man’s own life clearly meant for himself alone, though he also clearly thinks they will enthrall everyone else. In other words, it’s this attitude and point of view around which the entire film rotates. The Room orbits around Wiseau, and his specific logic makes its universe work.
Of course, the man’s a huge cult icon, so let’s go with something less eternally-discussed. Troll 2 may not necessarily seem like a particularly auteurist work, but it’s power comes less from its bad troll goblin costumes than its odd ideas and themes. The movie is, improbably, a deliberate anti-vegetarian screed, presenting a meatless diet as conspiratorial and deadly. Having the climax of the film be a child eating a “double-decker bologna sandwich” to destroy Stonehenge really only exists in the mind of an auteur with no ability to translate confusing high concept ideas into anything remotely sensical.
It’s also filled with primo bad movie problems, like the lack of communication between its American cast and Italian crew that led to some truly inspired line readings. Things like specific lines seem to skirt the two, like the father’s comments about how “you don’t piss on hospitality,” or the odd interpretation of rural American life. But again, it’s a movie that can’t plausibly be faked, because it’s just so specific in its eccentricities.
Birdemic is also a movie that can’t be faked, and one that is a legitimate contender, but it’s a fundamentally weaker contender. Part of that is due to its atrocious cinematography and pacing, the kind more acceptable in amateur home movies than in anything that would reasonably be sold to the public. But despite being clearly from the mind of James Nguyen, it has little focus in its aims or ideas.
From the film, we know Nguyen is concerned about the environment, as well as other liberal or progressive causes (the man in the forest, the free promotion for Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace website, the distraught veteran). And as Wiseau loves Tennessee Williams, he adores Hitchcock. But partially due to the bird attack at the halfway point, and partially due to a total lack of coherence to any of the dialogue and audio, it’s not as endlessly fascinating. Alan Bagh as idiot protagonist Rod is strikingly incompetent, but his total lack of affect isn’t as exciting as the more hammy performances, which are only found in minor characters.
After the novelty of the animation wears off, the film just crawls to a slog. Outside of some truly brilliant moments, the bird fights are less engaging than, say, just hanging out with the family or random million dollar sales. In Nguyen’s attempt to ape mainstream films, he takes their most banal elements and makes the even less interesting - specifically, action scenes that wear out their welcome after the first scene and keep going. It’s almost the exact same runtime as the Room, but it’s not as consistent, which makes it less satisfying. But it’s still a strong example of a complete lack of self-awareness, which makes the idea of a self-aware comedy sequel less appetizing.
And it’s that idea of aping mainstream films that’s really central to not only these three, but really all bad movies: a failed ambition to be something they never could. It makes sense for filmmakers to focus on successes to follow, but in a way their failures are illuminating about the successes, not just in what they do right but what they do wrong. When Delgo or Foodfight! tried to copy the successes of contemporary animated films, the stunt-castings and puns of Dreamworks productions had aged atrociously, and their own attempts at the same were markedly worse. And of course, it’s not as though there aren’t giant, faux-blockbuster bombs that captured the imagination, like Battlefield Earth or Heaven’s Gate, but those are usually just as focused in their ideas.
Ultimately, the importance of a great bad movie, more than anything else, is a lack of realization into its badness, and an attempt at reaching for a peak that’s always out of reach. It’s why Troll 2 is more beloved than Saturday the 14th, and why Tommy Wiseau’s stint of cameos and follow-ups is more pathetic and dispiriting than fun. And a lot of that lack of self-awareness comes into play with a specific perspective, one that otherwise would never believe in the wonderful curiosities it created.