I got hooked on bad movies as a young teenager, anxiously waiting to see the bumpers for Movie Macabre, as much to enjoy the sight of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark in her revealing gown as to enjoy her wisecracks about the terrible, awful, bad, very not good horror movies featured on the show.
So now, Elvira may be off the air, but Bad Movie Night continues to be a tradition with several of my friends and I. We gather at someone’s home — usually a particular friend with an exceptionally good setup for watching movies — and use state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment to watch amazingly bad cinema. There’s potluck food, beer and wine, and usually some catcalling of the movie itself. It’s also a chance to exercise the thesaurus as one quickly depletes the available synonyms and superlatives for the word “bad”.
Recently, I saw what is surely a king among these, which is relevant to a movie hitting the theaters this very weekend. More about that in a few paragraphs. For now, know that among many of the stinkers I’ve enjoyed in this fashion include, in chronological order:
A Sampler Platter of Enjoyably Bad Cinema
Robot Monster In 3D (1953). Very much false advertising, because the movie was very definitely in 2D only. What’s more, this oddly Freudian tale’s purportedly “robot” monster is a guy in a gorilla suit with a diving bell’s helmet on top. The so-called “robot monster” is scouting ahead for an alien invasion which only the child star of the film can prevent, though he spends a lot of time mooning over a pretty blonde girl and for some reason there are dinosaurs involved. The entire movie seems to have been filmed near the quasi-famous Bronson Canyon cave near the Hollywood Bowl. An absolutely impenetrable plot, terrible dialogue, and very creepy brother-sister relations highlight an early example of Bad Cinema.
Frogs (1972). This deadly un-scary “horror” movie is distinguished as Sam Elliot’s first feature film, in which frogs appear to be the telepathic ringleaders but never the actual killers (they get insects and alligators to do their dirty work) of a family of deranged, wealthy, swamp-dwelling, croquet-playing, romper-wearing Louisianans. Elliot is nearly unrecognizable without his trademark cowboy facial hair though quite handsome. Cardboard cutout characters, a costume department that was obviously not told anything about the filming location before showing up, and a weirdly regressive take on race relations are standout facets of an otherwise prosaic “the real monsters are we humans” creature feature. Ray Millan is the character actor to watch if searching for a redeeming feature, for his seemingly sincere attempt to render an homage to Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny but cruelly, the writers deny him any good material to do it with. It won’t take you very long before you’re rooting for the gators instead of the humans.
Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976). One in a long tradition of early-to-mid 70’s “freedom means defying the Establishment and embracing your dark side” films. Carhop, country-music wannabe, and future Wonder Woman Lynda Carter teams up with some Random Blond Dude (the actor in real life was a child preacher) for a roll in the hay that without any real explanation morphs into an aimless tri-county killing spree. We watched this one for the one and only reason that it is the only movie in which Lynda Carter ever was filmed topless and if you’ll excuse me for being crude for a moment, we received the reward we’d hoped for. Ms. Carter can also sing quite enjoyably, as players of the video game Fallout 4 will attest, though the song she’s given here is not particularly memorable. I counted three boom mic sightings, and at least a dozen overexposed outdoor shots along with heavy reliance on the Inexcusably Stupid Police trope.
Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009). There’s a giant prehistoric octopus, and a giant prehistoric shark, frozen in an iceberg, you see. The Navy accidentally frees and revives them. So it’s up to Lorenzo Lamas and Deborah Gibson1 to save the California and Japanese coasts the only way possible: by getting them to fight each other! The production values are pretty good on this one and fortunately (?) most the cast can actually act with some degree of skill. The hilarity comes from the fact that neither sea monster has any sort of mass constancy throughout the film, so as the needs or whims of the SFX department vary, Mega Shark variously is the size of a school bus, a submarine, or a 747. It peaks, of course, when Mega Shark breaches the surface of the ocean to take a jetliner down for a snack. This became something of a cult favorite and I think there are four or five sequels to it, all featuring the adventures of Mega Shark.
Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010). I remain unconvinced that this wasn’t intended to be Bad Cinema all along.2 It hits so many of the marks of the genre — wooden acting, unstructured script with scattered ends of unused “B” plots strewn about, minutes-long pad shots of cars driving, Mary Sue protagonists, and a principal story that does not resolve so much as it merely ends because, one imagines, the producer simply ran out of film. But the standouts here are the sessile CGI “bird” monsters which are literally repeating image sprites of a 16-bit image of a vulture, such as one might find on a casual game on a cell phone, and the I-kid-you-not thrice-repeated sixty-second dialogue-free pan shots of the interior of a Vietnamese restaurant which I’m absolutely convinced was a condition of the producer’s parents paying money to make the movie. It’s not clear to me that Birdemic: Shock and Terror was intended to be a serious movie because it hit so many Bad Movie Tropes. Seriously, the bird monsters are laugh-out-loud bad.
Why Bad Cinema Is Fun
As you can gather, a Bad Cinema specimen almost always has a very bad script. The script usually relies heavily upon well-known tropes, cardboard cut-out characters, and hackneyed themes. Monster movies, for instance, always fall into easily-discernable and era-centric categories: Woe Arising From Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know in the 1950’s and 1960’s; Nature Fights Back Against Man’s Overreach was popular in the late 1960’s and most of the 1970’s; and then we got Humans Are The Real Monsters in the 1970’s and 1980’s.3
So it’s an exercise in storytelling: how did this story go wrong? That’s the real enjoyment of Bad Cinema for me: realizing that the people who made the movie were trying to make something worth watching, and something went wrong, and they did the best they could to see it through.
Often, it’s a bad story with bad film editing. Sometimes it’s not enough time or crew to do the scenes right. More often than seems excusable, it’s terrible acting. Or a lack of resources to do SFX or sound, or unskilled crew. But for whatever reason, somewhere in the course of making the movie, something bad happened but they have to come up with a product or else all that money just gets burned up with nothing to show. So in a way, it’s a riddle: you try to figure out just what went wrong (typically, “Oh, crap! We’re almost out of money!”) and how it is that the filmmakers wound up coming to market with whatever solution they could improvise.
But really, it’s reveling in something that was supremely poorly executed. Which can make you feel a little bit dirty and guilty if you stop to think about it. For instance, the acting is usually bad, though not always. In a way, you can’t know what good acting is until you see bad acting, but the bad acting itself is fascinating.
By analogy, you may recall three was a fellow named William Hung who attempted to audition with Ricky Martin’s “She Bang” on American Idol back in 2004:
I used to feel guilty about laughing at Hung’s audition, but I don’t anymore. Hung appeared, and to this day continues to appear, to have no concern whatsoever that his audition was simply terrible. He had fun with it, he took joy out of trying it, and that joyfulness alone propelled him to become a ladies’ man when he went back to school at UC Berkeley, to make not one but two albums that sold over 200,000 copies, and to spend seven years of his life pursuing a self-effacing career in entertainment.4 I no longer feel guilty about Hung because he caught a clue about the joke, became aware of what was going on, and decided to run with it and have fun for as long as it was fun. Now, I say, good for him.
That’s kind of what I think of with Bad Cinema. These are people who tried their best, really didn’t get it put all together (because, in fact, putting together a good movie is difficult) but saw it through anyway. So we can at once admire them for seeing it through, and at the same time marvel at just how risibly bad something got along the way to making that happen.
The New King of Bad Cinema
Nearly everyone has a favorite bad movie. Plan 9 From Outer Space enjoyed notoriety for a long time. Leonard Part 6 was execrable even before we learned all those icky things about Bill Cosby. IMDB periodically updates its “bottom 100” list, which includes the aforementioned Birdemic: Shock and Terror as well as its sequel. (Yes, I know.) It also includes the astonishingly awfully-written Gigli, the inspid, ill-conceived, and unfunny It’s Pat: The Movie, and the specially-dishonored Laserblast. Laserblast for some reason was the lead-in movie for all of the double-features at every cinema in town for at least a year and a half during my pre-teen years, so I’ve memories of repeatedly suffering through its inexplicably dialogue-free scenes of bad SFX, bad blocking, bad filming, and general tedious badness while waiting to get to the movie I’d actually wanted to see.5
Nothing I have seen yet compares to The Room (2003), a movie of truly abysmal awfulness. There are tribute pages and it’s a cult favorite, but perhaps nothing really captures the blissfully clueless spirit of the movie so well as its official home page, itself seemingly a throwback to the GeoCities era of web design. A glance at the page will show you a close-up of the producer, director, writer, actor, and pretty much every other production and crew role you can think of, Tommy Wiseau. Possessed of a vaguely eastern European accent he cannot shake and bizarrely long unkempt black locks of hair he refuses to trim (or, seemingly, groom) Wiseau’s film is visibly bad from the poorly-digitized, overly-long, and hilariously ponderous intro bumper.
The signature scene of the movie happens about halfway through its Betrayed-By-A-Lover plot, which distills Wiseau’s acting and writing abilities into forty-five agonizing seconds of random, tone-deaf dreck:
A relatively simple story of Romance Gone Bad is strewn with the remnants of B-plots and B-characters that would have all been better left cut out entirely. Will the B-plot be about breast cancer? Financial chicanery? The protagonist adopting a teenage boy as his son? The romance between two B-characters? No, none of these, and ultimately there is no B-plot at all. But there are lots of shots of male characters throwing a football at one another, well after it’s been established that they are friends. There are lots of establishing shots to remind the audience that the movie is set in San Francisco — three-quarters of the way through the film.
And more footballs. Wiseau uses that football prop until the leather is worn out.
If you’re familiar with the rule of Chekhov’s gun, just go ahead and set that lesson aside. Wiseau doesn’t have any use for no Chekhov. You’ll be looking at MacGuffins the whole time and wondering how they’re going to circle around the plot and get used again later. They’re not.
But another lesson Chekhov teaches aspiring writers is one Wiseau has taken very much to heart: repetition. Wiseau, however, crafting his script with blissful freedom from any understanding of how it was that Chekhov could make repetition work to enhance his narrative. The same points repeat in heavy-handed dialogue. “He’s my best friend!” “You’re my best friend.” “We are best friends, you and I!” “Let’s go play some football, we’re friends!” Or, as featured in this next scene, “What kind of money?” Just imagine, if you will, what kind of thought process went in to crafting dialogue like this:
As an aside, I’ll note that the drug dealer who was in the scene immediately before this was, by far, the most talented actor in the movie. I believed that he wanted his fucking money back. Here, finally, was a character whose motivations were understandable and projected with emotional conviction. Alas, we only get one scene with him because Wiseau abandons the B-plot about the drug deal gone bad after this scene and never addresses it again.
There are four sex scenes, none of which are in the least bit sexy, and three of which are set to the same very bad and anachronistically 80’s-sounding song.
The movie was shot with two cameras: one digital, and the other using film. The quality of the shots are visibly different from one another and sometimes show up even in different angles on the same scene, making something that really was shot at the same time look spliced together afterwards using body doubles.
Some of the audio got lost somewhere or somehow between principal photography and the final edit (as I recall, this included one of Wiseau’s barely comprehensible monologues) and was overdubbed later as best they could manage, but the sync just isn’t perfect. To the crew’s credit, this was the only technical flaw I could spot: there are no boom mics intruding on the shots and the green-screening of San Francisco scenery seems skillful. Why they needed to green-screen at all is beyond me — almost all the scenes are, or could easily have been, set in much more affordable-to-stage interior locations or better yet, cut entirely.
Oh, and the title of the movie has nothing to do with anything that happens in it. Wiseau’s explanation for choosing the title makes as little sense as the bulk of the movie’s dialogue.
This movie’s poor quality sort of… lingers. I was thinking about how seriously crappy this movie was for days afterwards. Like a persistent drip of phlegm in the back of the throat, the distressing awfulness of The Room just wouldn’t leave me and may well require antibiotics to fully resolve.
Filmmaking As Therapy Gone Very Wrong
I can’t help but think that The Room is autobiographical in some meaningful way. In an interview available as one of the DVD extras, Wiseau seems to deny this but his phrasing is weird and as with his acting, his interviews are kind of off. The movie shows all sorts of signs of being the product of having been intended to serve as Wiseau’s grand rebuke to a former lover. The protagonist, played by Wiseau, is a Mary Sue whose only “fault” is trusting his lover too much. The lover-cum-antagonist, in turn, is relentlessly deceptive, sociopathic, and uses the protagonist for his money.6 Wiseau very evidently poured huge amounts of his own money, effort, and willpower into delivering this unsubtle and clumsy rebuke of lovers who cheat.
Why would he do this to us? There simply must be something more here than Wiseau’s desire to “make it” in Hollywood. The pain of discovering one’s lover has cheated is deep and lasting. Wiseau engineered a way to elaborately expound illustrating being in that sort of emotional pain, positively wallowing in overly-long scenes acting out exactly those emotions to the full (but alas, limited) extent of his thespian abilities. “Performance as therapy” is itself something of a trope in Hollywood, and so The Room may be “performance and writing and direction and production and set design and prop placement and lighting as therapy.” This viewer’s heart goes out to him. But his writing lacks the focus to channel that pain to good dramatic use; his direction lacks the perspective of an audience that would see the story with fresh eyes; and his delivery of the character is so unconvincing that even if Wiseau really did live through a painful personal experience as depicted in The Room the viewer simply can’t believe it.
The man can’t even buy flowers for his girlfriend with emotional conviction or narrative focus:
And while you’re all still wondering “What the hell was that?”7 I’ll point out perhaps the most distressing detail, at least to anyone who has ever attempted to write fiction themselves. New characters are introduced during the climax. Writers, just savor that for a bit: no matter how bad you think your own fiction might have turned out, did you do that?
It’s pretty clear that the fundamental problem with the movie was Wiseau’s ego. The promotional poster of the movie is Wiseau’s head shot. Wiseau is in nearly three quarters of the scenes. He apparently self-financed the entire six million dollars that were somehow spent making this movie. Wiseau’s magnum opus is the subject of a book by his co-star Greg Sestero, The Disaster Artist. In this book, Sestero makes clear that everyone on the set (except for Wiseau) knew very well that the movie was going to be not just bad, but astonishingly so. However, paid work is paid, and Wiseau was paying for it all. He would not hear any criticism or suggestions from anyone, and envisioning himself the auteur whose singular vision would somehow craft a masterpiece, he disregarded suggestions to seek any sort of emotional continuity from moment to moment. Which is how we got scenes like this one:
The Disaster Artist: The Film
James Franco has made Sestero’s book into a movie of the same name, which is going to be in theaters this weekend. This promises to be at once absolutely hilarious and, at the same time, to offer a look into the heart of the filmmaker. Like “singer” William Hung, Wiseau appears is at once winkingly aware of, and simultaneously earnestly unable to admit, his utter lack of talent. But at least he seems to be in on the joke fashioned at his expense. He’s running with it because it’s still fun for him. Despite an ego that apparently ran out of control during the making of this movie, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Wiseau. Here, after all, is a man who wanted very very much to be someone of note, who wanted to make a movie — a movie sharing his deepest pain, if I’m right about why he made it — more than anything else in the world. And even if the movie utterly sucked (and make no mistake, this movie does indeed utterly suck), he saw it through. That’s admirable.
Wiseau is apparently still laughing along with everyone else at The Room. Which is good. I’d feel more than a little bit guilty about reveling in the festival of clumsy writing and wooden acting on top of deep personal pain if he weren’t in on the joke too. We can suspect this with a high degree of probability because he took a small part in the James Franco film about making it. That gives us license, as it does with William Hung’s audition, to gawk in slackjawed amazement at the assertively bad The Room, so I’m looking forward to the new movie about it quite a lot.
I’ll be particularly interested to see how well James Franco can imitate Tommy Wiseau’s impenetrable accent.
Image by daryl_mitchell
- You might remember her as Debbie Gibson if you’re old enough. If not, please think twice before clicking that link because you are NOT prepared for what you’re going to see. [↩]
- I don’t count Intentionally Bad Cinema for these events; it’s less enjoyable when you get something like Mars Attacks! or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes where it’s supposed to be campy and trope-reliant all along. [↩]
- Perhaps the actually best Humans Are The Real Monsters movie was Alien — you’ll recall that the crew was sent to be sacrificed by an evil corporation looking to weaponize the terrifying xenomorph. Except Alien was a good movie. [↩]
- For some reason there are rumors that he committed suicide, but they’re false: he is currently employed as a crime analyst for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. [↩]
- I’m assured by a colleague that Suicide Squad (2016) is very competitive in this league, but I’ve not seen it yet and so cannot attest to whether it’s just a not-good movie or can be relegated to the pantheon of Bad Cinema. [↩]
- Wiseau’s dialogue tells the audience this about her, repeatedly, explicitly, and using the same words and phrases, in a relentless repetition of near-identical scenes, well after we figured that out for ourselves. [↩]
- It was poorly dubbed, for one thing. [↩]