On watching bad films on purpose…

by Jacqueline Valencia

There are staples when it comes to bad film. I mean, flops that were a flop for a reason and they’re fascinating to watch. Not everyone loved Ishtar, Glitter, or Lawnmower Man 2. Yet there are film lovers who also happen to be masochists with the films they’ve seen. I’ve trudged through Ishtar because I was a kid who watched too much 1980s Entertainment Tonight (you know, when they actually did probing interviews)  and I was curious about the hoopla. I’ve laughed through Glitter because it kept me from drowning in a pool of tears during an intense break up. And I don’t have any excuses for Lawnmower Man 2; no excuses. I’ve never been an aficionado of bad film until I fell in love with a man with good tastes in bad film. To clarify, he’s a fellow film lover whose movie watching palette goes from the high brow to very low brow. He’s an incredibly smart fellow who researches his film watching experience and in turn gives many films a chance.

To delight in the panoply of films that exist in the world, you must take a gamble every time you buy a movie ticket, rent a film, or buy a blu-ray. Even if you subscribe to film critique, ratings sites, or box office numbers, you’re never fully guaranteed a film will be to your tastes. And if you’ve ever seen a documentary like The Story of Film: An Odyssey, you may come to the heartbreaking conclusion that there will never be enough hours in a lifetime to view the essentials of cinema, let alone the ones you might truly enjoy. Why would you dedicate any of those hours to bad film? For the same reason you would watch a much loved film: for pure entertainment.

So what would count as a horrible film? For me, it would depend on whether the plot holds up and if it keeps me watching or challenged to the very end. There are too many genres to pinpoint, but like all storytelling, you have to captivate your audience. While I must consider that one person’s awful film may be someone else’s treasure, some films are just universally awful. Put in one hand Ishtar, Glitter, and Lawnmower Man 2 and place something like Tommy Wiseau‘s The Room, James Nguyen‘s Birdemic: Shock And Terror, and Harold P. Warren‘s Manos: The Hands Of Fate on the other. These films are legendarily bad, but there’s more to these films than the viewing.

 

It’s without hesitation that I say Manos: The Hands Of Fate is a terrible little film. Fertilizer salesman/producer Harold P. Warren had quite a bit of money and made a bet with screenwriter Sterling Silliphant whom he hung out with in the Sixties. Warren claimed that anybody could make a horror film, profit off of it, and he was the man that could make that happen. It ended up as a complete disaster. Luckily, many years later, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 gave it the rifftrax treatment and the film became a cult phenomena. Take a look at the trailer.

 

I highly recommend getting the restored Blu-ray edition simply because the film looks incredibly crisp in its restoration and there’s quite an informative documentary in the special features. Neat facts include that post-production dubbing for all of the females in the film (including the child) was done by one solitary actress, and there’s also the tragic story of the man who played the centaur-like creep named Torgo (John Reynolds).

Another horrible, but worth it film is Birdemic which was made with a budget under $10,000, financed mostly by the director, Nguyen, himself. His fascination with Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Birds (even down to his directorial style). The film is an experience to say the least. It has useless scenes, the special effects are dismal, and the acting is appalling. Take a small look:

 

For me, the appeal is how did this get made? How did it get released? Why did these actors agree to be in it? Honestly, the story behind the making of it and the “why for’s” is far more fascinating so I will point you to a favourite podcast if you’d like to know more.: http://www.earwolf.com/episode/birdemic-shock-and-terror-live/

The common thread for these bad films is the really low production value and the lack of any kind of direction. Wiseau’s The Room is notorious for both of these things.

The Room is probably the worst film I’ve ever seen bar none. It’s hyper misogynistic, the writing is way below sub-par, but most of all, the acting is abysmal. But I dare you to watch the above clips without busting a gut laughing. Interested in more of it? Check out The Disaster Artist co-written by George Sistero who played the cheating friend in it. So many juicy horrors to be read.

Is it unfair these horrible films get made and get much coveted distribution? Hell yes it’s unfair! It’s quite the miracle, actually. However, it pinpoints the fact that the public never gets to see most of the finer (and bad films) made out there. While working film festivals in Toronto, I’ve been exposed to the other underground festivals that run parallel to them: the industry hustle. You can have a gem of a film and do your best to promote it, but if you don’t get picked up by a distribution company, you lose out on any exposure. Your film will get shelved. The bad films I’ve mentioned above got their chance purely by word of mouth and their fascinating backstories. It’s a problem within the film making machine and it’s up to us the viewer to be aware of these things by going out to independent films and film festivals. It bolsters the craftier films and filters out the bad (or makes them both legends on equal ground).

Then there are the films made with amazing constraints and artistic purpose. Not all of them live up to their potential and while they can be bad films you end up saying to yourself, “I see what they were trying to do. Too bad none of it worked.”

Harry Bromley Davenport‘s Xtro has an intriguing premise.

A man gets abducted by aliens and comes back three years later. It also stars Bond girl Maryam d’Abo (dayum). Sounds a bit compelling, eh? Well, it’s first of all a gross watch. Body horror can be integral in alien films for it establishes the otherness of an invader, but in this film, the body horror is random and serves no purpose but to gross out its audience. Somehow the film fits in circus folk and exotic animals too that don’t fit into the basis of the film. This takes away from the much needed and unexplored tension that is crucial to the film. The man has to deal with his wife being remarried and the wife has to deal with juggling her concern for her once missing husband and the jealousy of her current one. The child must navigate being having an alien dad while also being involved in a intergalactic custody battle of sorts. It’s depressing and despairing. I couldn’t help, but try to analyze the questions of what one would do in such a situation, not that there’s a remote chance I’d find myself in that position. But the point is, the film made me think.

Another film that elicited analyzation despite its badness is Tobe Hooper‘s Lifeforce.

It’s the tale of an alien woman who’s space vampire (think of an 1980s Under The Skin). She possesses men with her sexuality, but ingests their “lifeforce” through very visceral ways. Production values here are pretty good here, but the film lacks a cohesive timeline which is a shame because I could so break this film down as a campy feminist treatise despite it being produced by the schlocky and sexist Canon Films.

 

I loved this documentary and that is why this is one of my favourite scenes of all time in film.

 

These films are such a gamble though. On the one hand you don’t want waste your time on something so badly made when you could be watching strong blockbusters like Rogue One or the high calibre art films by Éric Rohmer. I saw thought-provoking films like Moonlight or Arrival  recently. They challenged my expectations as a film critic and bring about discussion of the cinema that exists in the mind. However, there have been times that I just want to sit back, not have to think, and laugh with someone I love to watch the sui generis of a bad film.

I’ll leave you with a great excerpt of Roger Ebert reviewing Highlander 2: The Quickening (one of the few movies I’ve fallen asleep to). Ebert calls it the worst film of 1991. His detailing of it is so fine that it just goes to show he hated it, but revelled in its epic atrociousness.

 

**********

jackie1

Just a few more bad film recommendations:

Bad films forever.

 

 

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