Bad Movies

Epic failures can still be epic


I never really liked "serious" films; two hours without levity is not how I want to spend my time. Sure, my attention span was gutted in adolescence by cartoons and toy commercials, but the fact remains I've always found revisionist period pieces or political dramas go down like medicine.

Thus I was the asshole sitting alone in the theater for The Hottie & the Nottie (starring Paris Hilton) or making my friends watch Orca, a film about a killer whale intent on killing the sea captain who murdered his whale-wife and unborn calf. You'd think a whale bent on revenge is an easy problem to solve (avoid the ocean); you'd also think Ennio Morricone wouldn't compose a haunting score for an absurd Jaws knockoff featuring whale miscarriage, but you'd be wrong. Twice.

Over the years I've gotten in a lot of arguments about preferring “bad” movies to “good” ones. Luckily, going to bat for Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid led me to conclude that "good" and "bad" are moving targets. And "good" often just means "fashionable." This is why great films—those that best express a creator's vision—tend to be less commercially successful but age better than whatever wins awards. Instead, I realized, the most reliable way to judge a film's merits is to try and measure them against its own ambitions.

And this is when bad movies really started to sing for me.

1993's Body of Evidence concerns a lawyer (Willem Dafoe) who gets involved with his client, a houseboat-dwelling femme fatale (Madonna!) whose former lover died by "erotic asphyxiation" mid-coitus. Yes, as one character has the audacity to explain: Madonna is the murder weapon—her body is the body of evidence. This is either bad or "bad", but mostly it's illuminating in that someone thought we actually needed the explanation.

Consider the amount of decisions on display in any given shot of a movie: every second is the culmination of efforts by a small army working 12+ hour days for months. That's when you appreciate that bad movies are not necessarily just byproducts of ineptitude, but that they, too, reflect a specific filmmaker's vision and values. Though good art can still succeed if inscrutable, bad art is often more compelling because it's so the opposite: a painfully intimate glimpse into its creator's weird little soul.

The Room, of course, is a preposterously good example of this. Forgettable indie chamber dramas get churned out every year and, in many ways, it's indistinguishable: bogged down by narrative inconsistencies and full of abandoned plot points and scenes that don't intuitively follow from anywhere. But what The Room has over your average unremarkable indie is, of course, Tommy Wiseau. It endures not because it's straightforwardly bad but because its badness reflects what Wiseau sincerely believes to be good. Since Wiseau is genuinely bizarre, the film captivates.

For this reason we might distinguish between "bad" as in "sublime catastrophe" and "bad" as merely "hacky," "rote," or "unoriginal" (i.e., most movies worth ignoring). Hacks conform to market demands and make little effort to surpass them; their fourth installments in horror franchises seldom reflect a specific point of view.

But, then again, there's room for magic even in the rote. That Anaconda sequel, for one, is impossibly lifted by its absurd premise: pharmaceutical researchers looking for an immortality flower in the jungle get impeded by snake orgies.

With ridiculous like that, who needs sublime?

Ashley Cardiff is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. Her first essay collection, Night Terrors, was published by Penguin.