On a recent podcast recording (coming soon!) one of my co-podders posited a nice question: “what’s your favorite bad movie?” It’s a fun question, and as I thought about it after the podcast, my mind started wandering to the question of what makes some bad movies so fun. With the recent release of The Disaster Artist, The Room has been made mainstream as the apotheosis of “good bad movies,” but not all bad movies that are incredibly fun operate in the same way. There are, however, some key qualifiers.
First of all, a bad movie’s watchability is a curve. In fact, I’m going to steal from economics here and say that it’s much like a supply and demand curve.
PLEASE DON’T STOP READING. THIS WON’T BE BORING.
I’M SERIOUS. WE WON’T DABBLE ON ECONOMICS TOO LONG.
Thanks for sticking with me here. So a supply and demand curve tracks the demand and supply of a product (duh). The intersection of the two curves is where the price should be. Too much supply and the demand goes down, thereby lowering the price, and too much demand with a smaller supply heightens the price. Simplistically speaking, you want to get right in the sweet spot where the supply and demand is just right. This is how a bad movie’s watchability works. You want it to be bad, but if it’s incoherently bad the enjoyment plunges (NEIL BREEN IS A NOTABLE EXCEPTION). If the movie’s not bad enough and bleeding into mediocrity, it’s also going to be a chore to watch. What you want is a bad movie that hits that sweet spot, where you watch something real bad and have fun doing it. But what, exactly, makes something bad fun to watch? I have a few ideas. I want to note that this list of three things should not be used as gospel, because I’m sure there are notable exceptions to it.
There was a lot of talk a few years ago about Kung Fury, an intentionally bad short film that was dripping with 80’s references and reverence. I didn’t much care for that movie because it was trying too hard to be “Bad good”. Every joke that it made or comment about something’s absurdity called attention to the fact that everything was intentional. It’s the equivalent of a comedy sketch without a straight man, where everything gets more and more absurd because there’s nothing else to really play off of.
What’s interesting, at least to me, about watchable bad movies is that the people making them were emotionally invested in making an important film that said important things. The most famous example of this is Plan 9 from Outer Space, Ed Wood’s masterpiece. Ed Wood had actual sociopolitical statements he wanted to make within the movie regarding the creation of the atomic bomb, and dammit, he tried his hardest to put them in there. It’s just that his logic was so crazy and flawed that none of it makes any sense. Actors go on tangents about a fictional bomb called Solarinite that makes about as much sense as a toddler explaining the sun to you, and they do so without a shred of sarcasm or winking to the audience. It’s all dead serious, and that’s what separates Plan 9 from intentionally bad movies: The earnestness of it all.
The Room has similar earnestness and lofty goals, and the makers of Troll 2 thought that their movie was an art film. The wonderful part of these movies is that you sit on your couch watching them and think to yourself, somebody thought this was a good idea. Somebody said, “yes” to this. The ideas are crazy but you know that somehow, somewhere, a person had a dream, and with incredible amounts of incompetence, they created their vision. Which leads us to…
2: Layered incompetence.
If The Room had just been Tommy Wiseau’s performance, that movie would not have been watchable. You would’ve said to yourself, “Well that’s a freakin’ weird performance, but this sucks,” and turned the whole thing off 10 minutes in. What keeps you watching is seeing just how far this incompetence goes and how absurd it gets. In Plan 9, not only does everybody give horrible performances (that woman’s waistline can’t be real), but the set design is abysmal, there’s a weird overreliance on stock footage, and there’s a number of terrible contrivances in the plot. That’s what makes it interesting, too. It’s like Shrek: it’s got layers. Every scene adds something else that’s so mind-bendingly lazy or incompetent that it just gets you further invested in the movie itself.
Plenty of bad movies are bad on only a couple of levels, but like previously stated, those with non-layered badness often cause the curve to slide more into mediocrity, which is not acceptable. What you want is something that will surprise you from scene to scene, and have the sincerity to go along with it.
So let’s say that we have a movie that’s ambitious but incredibly bad, has layered incompetence, and fails at almost every level. Does this automatically make it a fun bad movie to watch? No, because there’s another piece to this puzzle, and that’s a movie’s likeability, or charm. For example, Zaat (also shown on MST3K as The Blood Waters of Dr. Z) is bad on almost every level, but it doesn’t really grab me the way something like Miami Connection does. There’s a charming nature to Miami Connection, in its innate child-like positivity contradicted by brutal violence, which Zaat doesn’t have. It’s not as likeable to me, which in turn lowers the movie’s enjoyment point. This is, however, the most subjective of the points. What bad movie speaks to you more is of your own taste, and there’s no question that both of those movies are incredibly bad. It’s about finding the types of movies you’ll be drawn to, as I’m sure many people wouldn’t get as much enjoyment out of Plan 9 as I do.
So, in conclusion, remember the curve, don’t be afraid to bail on movies that just aren’t speaking to you, and happy hunting.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.