The joys of terrible movies

Written by james holloway Google
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Why we love the films that hurt us

The joys of terrible movies
The joys of rotten tomatoes (Getty Premium images)

"It's like, there's a guy in a gorilla suit, and there's— he's got a robot head, and inside he's got kind of a bunch of clay… I mean, I've seen Dali paintings that make more sense than this movie does."

— Joel Hodgson, "Mystery Science Theater 3000"

Agreat film can change your life, teach you to see the world in a new way or show you images you'd never imagined before. A mediocre movie can while away an empty afternoon or provide a great shared experience with friends. But a really bad movie stays with you in a way that a merely average one never does.

The genuine bad movie experience

There are a lot of bad films in the world -- in fact, most movies aren't very good. But when lovers of bad movies talk about their passion, they're referring not to some forgettable, everyday failure but to those collisions at the intersection of grand ambitions, misguided ideas and lack of expertise that pockmark the artistic landscape like shell craters strewn with the shattered remains of acting and directing careers.

The same thing that makes a genuinely bad movie terrible is what makes it enjoyable. There are two major factors that can make a movie dreadful.

The first kind of bad movie, the ambitious failure, is possibly the most interesting. The ambitious failure is typified by the work of American director Edward D. Wood, Jr. Ed Wood's films include "Bride of the Monster," "Glen or Glenda," and "Plan 9 From Outer Space," widely agreed to be the worst film ever made (although real bad movie connoisseurs dispute this, each claiming to have seen something that "makes Plan 9 look like Citizen Kane").

What makes Wood's films so interesting is the way in which they expose the myth of the visionary artist. Wood burned with passion for his work, ignoring naysayers who told him he didn't have what it took. His films are ramshackle constructions of implausible plots, Z-list celebrities, leaden acting and shockingly crude special effects. Wood's demented determination shines through in every frame. It is this quirky, outsider sensibility that led Tim Burton to make a film of Ed Wood's life in 1994. Burton's movie is a typical Hollywood underdog story, but leaves out the sad ending. Depressed, penniless and unable to shake his dependence on alcohol, Wood died in 1978, never having achieved the success he craved.

By contrast, the films of Roger Corman -- with the exception of a few labours of love -- are driven by sheer mercenary pragmatism. Corman, an inventive and insightful businessman, made films so efficiently that they were bound to be financially successful no matter how little money they made. From "Swamp Women" to "Attack of the Crab Monsters," "The Wasp Woman" and "Teenage Cave Man," Corman's various companies have churned out hundreds of films which, when they work, as ludicrous as they sound. Corman directed four films in 1960 alone, including the original "Little Shop of Horrors." His autobiography, "How I Made A Hundred Movies in Hollywood And Never Lost a Dime," is as much a monument to his business acumen as it is to his skills as a filmmaker.

Corman's cheap schlock, banged out in weeks to exacting budgets, is sometimes dull. But when it works, it has a cheerful, knockabout creativity that comes from low budgets and lower expectations. Because Corman's company produced films at such high speed, many Hollywood greats got their start working for Corman; Corman directed several of Jack Nicholson's early films, and the directorial talents of a young Francis Ford Coppola make 1963's "Dementia 13" genuinely eerie.

Bad movies -- the early years

The bad movie subculture primarily developed in the US in the late 20th century. Prior to the availability of video cassettes, cheaply-made horror, science fiction and "exploitation" movies were found only in inexpensive "grindhouse" cinemas and on late-night television. Hardcore sci-fi fans and the kind of people who watched old movies at three in the morning began to develop networks of shared enthusiasm, keeping track of their favourite actors.

The foundational text of the bad movie movement was Michael Weldon's small-press magazine, "Psychotronic Video," which led to the 1983 "Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film." The developing subculture of bad movie fans learned the joys of sharing an awful movie with friends.

The most visible manifestation of the love of bad movies, however, was Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K for short), in which host Joel Hodgson and a pair of robot puppets quipped their way through terrible films -- many of them from the catalogues of directors like Corman and Wood. The show brought the experience of sharing a bad movie with your friends onto the screen -- if your friends were witty, erudite and included robots made from junk. Hodgson's kindly slacker and successor Mike Nelson's befuddled everyman spoke for fans everywhere as they grappled with the worst films Hollywood had to offer.

One of MST3K's great contributions to the bad movie canon was "Manos: the Hands of Fate," a forgotten horror film written by, directed by, produced by and starring Texas fertiliser salesman Harold P. Warren. As baffling as it is disturbing, "Manos" has been catapulted by MST3K to new heights of popularity, unseating "Plan 9" for the crown of the generally-accepted worst movie ever made. It's even the subject of a documentary, "Hotel Torgo."

Like all truly bad movies, "Manos" simply can't be explained. It has to be experienced; people who've been through it together share a certain knowing, haunted look, like veterans who've fought in the same surreal, menacing foxhole. Thanks to the internet, however, movies as horrible as "Manos" are no longer only the preserve of late-night television and obscure cable programmes.

The digital revolution

Even after the spread of home video made it easier for fans to get their hands on terrible films, they were still comparatively rare. With online streaming services such as Netflix and Lovefilm, however, movie lovers are faced with a very wide selection of bad movies. It's a time of both opportunity and danger. How does the prospective bad-movie fan find the film that's hilariously bad rather than merely awful?

The increased popularity of bad movies has led to a boom in the production of so-called "mockbusters," films which superficially resemble major Hollywood productions but lack their production values, stars or rudimentary plots. A mockbuster can be an enjoyable way to pass an evening with friends, but usually lacks the kind of true madness that marks an inspired bad movie choice.

Fortunately, the internet also provides more resources than ever for the true bad-movie lover. Bad movie communities, review sites, podcasts and more provide more information than you'll ever want on these lesser products of the movie industry. There are even sites that specialise in one particular type of bad film, such as movies starring wrestlers or films based on video games -- both categories that can be counted on to produce films that are bewilderingly awful.

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