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Why Bad Movies?

Download Word document of this articleMost people have a hobby of some sort, an activity that they engage in purely for the satisfaction it brings them. As with friends, we can’t really explain why we pick the ones we do, other than they just seem to fit.

I can think of three general types of hobbies (though they can certainly overlap). There’s the kind of hobbies you actually perform, like gardening, or being on a bowling team, or painting. The other two kinds are more collection oriented. You can physically collect something, like stamps, or Barbie dolls, or record albums.

The last kind you collect more on the order of specialized knowledge, or trivia, or whatever you want to call it. People who have an passionate interest in politics, or a professional sports team, or Star Trek, fall into this last group. The idea is to accumulate a depth of knowledge in your chosen field of interest that transcends any really practical application. Yet, when you meet someone else with the same interest, you share something with them on a level that you do with few others. You can argue with them, trade facts and jargon, and try to one-up them in some obscure way that, to an outsider, seems anything from pointless, to weird, to slightly (or not so slightly) pathetic.

The thing about hobbies is that by definition, none of them "make sense". You either enjoy one, or you don’t. In spite of this self evident fact, people continue to try to pass on to others the passion they feel for their hobbies (Why don’t they get it? Are they blind?!), while shaking their heads at the useless things other people waste their time with. Of course, there’s still strength in numbers. Professional sports, for instance, are a more "respectable" hobby (so much so that fans don’t even necessarily think of themselves as engaging in a hobby) for an adult, than, say, collecting comic books.

So let me explain the reasons I get such a kick out of watching "Bad" Movies. If these reasons resonate with you, if they "make sense", then maybe you enjoy or would enjoy watching Bad Movies, too. If not, well, why are you reading this?

First of all, I find that when most people hear I like watching Bad Movies, and ask me why, I usually find they aren’t asking me "Why don’t you watch Great Movies instead? Wouldn’t that make more sense?". Indeed, in a lot of ways, it would. However, usually the people asking this question aren’t any more interested in watching "Great" films than they are "Bad" ones. Like most people, they will go to see, not Showgirls, or Demi Moore’s The Scarlet Letter, but neither do they go to see, say, Fargo, or the Red, White & Blue trilogy. What do they see? Independence Day. The Nutty Professor. Mission Impossible. In other words, normal movies. Well crafted, maybe, but not great.

So it seems that what they’re really asking is "Why do you watch such weird movies?". Why watch films from such an extreme end of the cinema Bell Curve, instead of normal movies, the ones "everybody" sees. Without even the fig leaf of saying that the films you like are "better" than the ones everybody else sees (and thus, implying that, on some level, you’re smarter than the average bear).

I guess this is why I get more understanding from people who are interested in seeing only the best films, whether American independent films or foreign ones. Perhaps because they are interested in films on one extreme end of the Bell Curve, they have more understanding for those interested in the other end, than for people who like the comfortable middle.

Films at the extremes share a totality that movies in the middle don’t. A really great film, a Citizen Kane for an obvious example, can be watched endless times. You can focus on its greatness in many different areas (acting, scripting, direction, cinematography, etc.), and finally in the way that all these elements integrate. However, its opposite number, Plan Nine from Outer Space (by reputation the worst film ever, as Citizen Kane is the greatest), can be watched and appreciated on as many levels, only in the opposite direction. Both are perfect. It’s just that one is perfectly great, and the other perfectly awful.

It remains, however, that both have achieved a level of perfection rarely approached by other films. Maybe Ed Wood never set out to make Plan 9 the worst film ever, but it remains that he "achieved" it anyway: a film that would be considered by many to be the worst films ever, rising above (or sinking below) thousands of other lame, stupid and inept movies. Plan 9 remains famous and beloved in a way that an endless number of better films, including some great ones, never will. Ed Wood has achieved immortality, and in his own way, is one the most famous motion picture directors who ever lived.

So what characteristics are handy for one interested in becoming a Bad Movie fanatic? A good sense of humor, of course, heavily shaded towards sarcasm if possible. An eye and ear for detail, in performances, dialogue, and plot implausibilities. An ability to endure boredom is essential. In fact, to become a true connoisseur, it’s necessary to come to actually appreciate boredom.

Recently, I saw a Japanese film called Last Days of Planet Earth, dealing with the end of the world as supposedly predicted by Nostradamus. Here was a movie, under ninety minutes long, that had earthquakes, freezing oceans, hurricanes, giant slugs and bats, living vines attacking subway trains, holes in the ozone causing people to fry under solar radiation, a miles long stretch of traffic jammed cars exploding, mutating humans, and much more besides. And what was the overwhelming characteristic of this film? It was BORING!! I mean, the struggling to stay awake kind of boring. It’s the type of film where you wonder if it’s making no sense because it just makes no sense to begin with, or if the ability to mentally grasp it, like grabbing onto a greased pig, is just beyond your brain’s capabilities.

Given all that this movie entails, how is it possible for it to be so dull? Surely, its ability to resist being interesting no matter what calamities it presents is a triumph of some sort, isn’t it? Some negative genius must be at work here, and thus should be acknowledged, and, on some level, appreciated.

Right?

The last thing needed is affection. After all, these movies supply pleasure. No matter how much you make fun of them, you love them too. There’s nothing like the endorphin rush when, after stalking the video aisles for hours, you finally find that Pia Zadora or Richard Burton classic you’ve never seen before. In return, you give them life, for films live as long as they are watched and remembered. And who else would watch these films, much less give them a place in their hearts?

 

In the Beginning…

 

I can remember the exact moment that watching Bad Movies became a part of my life.

The seeds, of course, were planted in childhood. As a nerdy child I spent many hours, as many as possible, watching horror and science fiction movies and TV shows. Although I would have described my interest as being in "monster movies". I’d didn’t draw any distinctions between The Wolf Man, the giant ants of Them!, or the fighting skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts.

I watched everything. As a kid, I was, of course, pretty undiscriminating. Adding a sense of urgency were the technologies of the time. There were no VCRs, no cable TV or satellite dishes. You could never be sure when, or if, you would ever get the chance to see any certain movie again. It was entirely up to the scheduling gods. I would watch classics like King Kong or The Invisible Man, likely to be telecast fairly often, because they were so great. However, it was all the more important to catch the Billy the Kid vs. Dracula’s, because they were more likely not to be shown again.

Thus, I grew up watching a lot of crappy movies. Yet, they were monster movies, and they wormed their way into my heart too. Why not? If you loved Bela Lugosi, and I did, you were aware that there weren’t too many Dracula’s or The Black Cat’s in his filmography. I knew, even as a kid, that The Ape Man and Voodoo Man and Bowery After Midnight weren’t that hot. Still, though, the great Lugosi was in them, and so they were as worth watching as his Universal classics. The same for Karloff, of course, but he really didn’t make nearly as many cheapies as Lugosi, so it didn’t come up as often. This same logic worked for bad monster movies of all stripes. Some were better than others, but they were all great.

So the first major seed of my coming love for Bad Movies had been planted. As I grew up, love for even the worst monster flicks turned into nostalgia. I still loved them, but could at the same time acknowledge that some of them were pretty poor. As, like many of my generation, my sense of humor skewed towards the ironic and the sarcastic, I was pretty well primed to become a Bad Movie maven. Three factors then ensured I did.

The first took place at the Maine West high school library. Going randomly through the film books, as I was (and am) wont to do, I found one of the great treasures of my life: Harry and Michael Medved’s The Fifty Worst Films of All Times. Here fifty films of all types; cheapies and blockbusters, obscure and famous, made by unknowns or the most famous stars and directors Hollywood had to offer, were subjected to the knife. The Medveds’ unmercifully and hilariously dissected every plot flaw, silly line of dialogue and hammy performance these very rich films had to offer. They also quoted harsh reviews from newspapers and magazines. One film, I think Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown, was reviewed this way, "This is a movie so bad that insulting it is like tripping a dwarf". I had never, nor have I again, found so funny a book. I literally cried at almost each paragraph.

While few in Hollywood or the national media will give the Medveds any credit (for film critic Michael, it turned out, was revealed as that most unforgivable of all things: a conservative), the entire mini-industry of Bad Movie fandom was born with their books. Indeed, it was their second book, The Golden Turkey Awards, that started the whole "Worst Ever" fame for director/writer Ed Wood, Jr. and his classic Plan 9 From Outer Space. If not for the Medveds, not only would books like Bad Movies We Love or The Worst Films Ever not have been written, but certainly Tim Burton’s movie Ed Wood would probably not have been made. Their influence continues here as well.

The kindling was provided by the book. The spark soon appeared. Late one Saturday night, my mother called up the stairs to where I was ensconced in my room. She called me downstairs, saying that if I was looking for bad movies, she had a doozy. There, on her TV screen, ran a movie that I immediately recognized as "the one". It was a simply awful flick about some high school kids and their adventure with Bigfoot. As the remaining half hour ran, I sat mesmerized. The next day, I looked in the TV Guide to find that the title of the movie was Curse of Bigfoot. I never looked back.

The fire was kept alive in part due to a comrade-in-arms to share this odd hobby with. I had met Andrew Muchony in high school as part of a group of people who hung out together. Among his various occupations, Andrew had a background similar to mine in terms of monster movies and sarcasm. I excitedly described Curse of Bigfoot to him. Luckily, by keeping an eye on the TV listings, I was able to find a repeat showing, and garnered an early video recording. His viewing of my copy resulted in a similar enthusiasm. Shortly after, we hooked another classic, Larry Buchanan’s It’s Alive (not to confused with Larry Cohen’s "mutant baby" flick).

We were teenagers, and so brought a certain passion to our new hobby. We would watch Curse of Bigfoot (and later It’s Alive) over and over and over again. Amazed at how slow segments of either film were, we would time sequences by watching them again. Then forgetting how long exactly the scenes were, we would conduct the experiment again. Sometimes, operating under a "Chicken" principal, to see who would surrender to common sense first (the loser), we would watch the films repeatedly over the course of an evening. We’ve between us seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Bad Movies in the decade and a half since. None, though, with the fervor and detailed preoccupation with which we gawked at those two. They were, in terms of the hobby, our first loves.

Over the years, I’ve managed to infect only one other person, Jeff Witham, with a love for Bad Movies on the scale of mine or Muchony’s. Unfortunately, Jeff moved to Arizona, so we share our mania on a rather less regular basis now. My other friends occasionally let me badger them into watching one, but it’s got to be a real zinger, like the Mexican horror opus The Brainiac or the Village People flick Can’t Stop the Music. Once a year I attend B-Fest, a straight twenty four hours of B-movies held at Northwestern University, where I commune with my kind. Like the lonely cat-people in STEPHEN KING’S SLEEPWALKERS, I know there are more of us out there, somewhere. Maybe this magazine will help me find some of them.

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