Columns / Discourse / November 2, 2011

Check the Reel: Appreciating a good bad movie

You just came back from a great movie. It blew your mind in every way: direction, acting, cinematography, you name it. For two days you rave to your friends about the film. You go see it several more times, then buy it on DVD. At that point, you stop mentioning it around friends, outside the occasional inside joke and movie night.

Imagine a similar scenario, only now the movie was merely average.

It gave you an excuse to not do homework for two hours and then vanished from your mind. If a friend asks about it, you say, “Eh,” and leave it at that. Eighty-five percent of your film experiences probably fall under this heading.

One last variation: same scenario, only the movie was atrocious. Incompetent. Laughable. You wonder how a group of professional filmmakers could have assembled such a monstrosity. For weeks, you and friends spend sleepless nights asking yourselves: Why? You watch the movie several more times to determine the answer, and find nothing. Yet you keep watching, debating, wondering.

It’s an odd tendency of humans, in all areas of culture, to marvel and be fascinated by trash, the cinematic disasters that succeed on the strength of their failure. Why has “The Hurt Locker,” 2010’s Best Picture winner, disappeared from the public eye, but Neil Labute’s “Wicker Man” and Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” continuously excite online discussions and pack midnight screenings? Why will you hear more references in your daily life to “Troll 2” instead of, say, “Casablanca?”

The simple answer: they fascinate us. The long answer: horrible films have been around since the dawn of the silver screen, but the first filmmaker to build a career around his ineptness was Ed Wood.

Inspired by “Citizen Kane,” Wood embodied all of Orson Welles’s auteur aspirations and none of his talent. He recruited the film industry’s down-and-outs, including an aging, heroin-addicted Bela Lugosi, and cut millions of corners to complete his films. These include the sci-fi zombie groaner “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and the autobiographical transvestite tale “Glen or Glenda,” both comically awful and a source of amusement to this day.

Ed Wood has been immortalized posthumously as a plucky, sympathetic outsider living the dream, thanks in part to a Tim Burton biopic starring Johnny Depp. He would not be the last filmmaker to become associated with schlock.

Today, we have Uwe Boll, a German director of awful video game adaptations like “Alone in the Dark” and “Bloodrayne,” who famously challenged critics of his films to a boxing match; Seltzer and Friedberg, the questionable geniuses behind “Epic Movie” and “Vampires Suck,” whose ostensible comedies inspire nary a laugh and, of course, the enigmatic “blunderkind” Tommy Wiseau and his magnum opus “The Room.” Their products define these individuals, inspiring both love and hatred amongst viewers.

Horrible movies aren’t always the works of low budget, consistently bad filmmakers. Kevin Costner, coming off the breakthrough success of “Dancing With Wolves,” dug his grave when he made “Waterworld,” a global warming morality tale crossbreed with cheesy, swashbuckling adventure, and the most expensive, disastrous film of its time at $175 million (note this was before CGI allowed costs to balloon into the $200-300 range).

Likewise, Michael Cimino, Rob Reiner and Ben Affleck all stunted their careers by being associated with mainstream duds “Heaven’s Gate,” “North” and “Gigli,” respectively.

Through a combination of aggressive amateurism, YouTube-friendly snippets of corny dialogue, hammy acting and a pervading aura of badness that covers the whole production, these horrible films stand the ranks of time alongside real masterpieces. They’ve inspired legitimately good movies, like Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” Peter Jackson’s “Bad Taste” and “Piranha 3D” which have emulated the schlock aesthetic for humorous, nostalgic purposes. The hilarious and timeless television show, “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” ran over 10 years on the sole premise of mocking cheesy B-movies.

The best of the worst can be found in theatres nationwide, playing regularly and still attracting audiences. And, just like their friends on the opposite end of the spectrum, they are a rarity in a field of bland, forgettable fare.

So next time you’re at home with a date, searching for a movie to pass away the evening, you might consider, instead of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” the equally appropriate “Titanic: The Animated Musical.” You can thank me later.

Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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