Zen and the Art of Bad Movies


Our first BBQ of the summer this year ended with something different this time: a screening of the spectacularly bad fantasy film, Troll 2. The recent release of the making-of documentary, Best Worst Movie, has sparked renewed interest among cult fans. That it has generated headlines in major media goes to show you that the history of an utterly shitty movie can turn out to be even more entertaining than the movie itself. And this particular making-of documentary was directed by none other than Michael Paul Stephenson, the toothy, freckle-faced young star of Troll 2.

There’s something really intriguing about bad movies. Like that way that you pass a really bad car wreck and just can’t look away. Badly written, poorly acted, and shoddily designed, these movies are some kind of confounding testament to serious malfunctions in filmmaking, if not the human psyche altogether.

And yet, even the worst can, paradoxically, be the best…around. Their sole redeeming value is basically social cohesion. That they’re laughably horrible makes them ripee for riffing with a roomful of friends. And there’s certainly been far more cinematic stinkers than any “Worst Of” list can reasonably fit without being overwhelming. There’s plenty of obvious choices. Most any movie Ed Wood ever made. A slew of Japanese creature features from the 1950s. (The Japanese have come a long way, even inspiring American filmmakers who hunger for source material for sub-par remakes). There’s the over-hyped flops like The English Patient (elaborated on in a Seinfeld episode) and Battlefield Earth (which was labeled “Travolting”).The commercially-driven star vehicle like Cool as Ice.

With the Drive-In and late night movie marathons on cable television now being all but a thing of the past, obscure selections like Space MutinyMitchellSanta Clause Conquers the MartiansMonster A Go-Go, and a curious abundance of 1950s teenage rebel movies that overdid it on the slang were resurrected for Mystery Science Theater 3000. (Mike Nelson and the gang continued the tradition with the mp3-based Riff Trax). In addition to regular screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, the midnight movie circuit in various cities now run a small monopoly of so-bad-it’s-good fare. DC residents at least are also privy to the goodwill of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society, now with 20 years of real turkeys under their belt. Carl, the host, usually enlightens attendees of the free, weekly screenings with hilarious backstory. And I wonder,  if in time, Stephen Baldwin’s hammy Target, will join the list.

Some friends suggested adding Return of the Killer Tomatoes and Killer Clowns From Outer Space to the list of all-time terrible movies. But those movies are really comedies to begin with, considering one is about carnivorous vegetables and the other about scary clowns. Production studios like Troma made an entire catalog of uber-crude, low-budget fare such as Surf Nazis Must DieI Was a Teenage Zombie, and the more popular The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High. Intentionally bad from the start, they’re allowed a looser interpretation of what is god awful. The jury is still out on whether the elusive Birdemic really is unintentionally awful.

The Asylum, another production studio, was interviewed earlier this year in Wired Magazine after the trailer for their underwater epic, Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus, became one of the most widely circulated on the Internet. I’m sure that interest was sparked at the mere mention of it’s co-star, Debbie Gibson, but it probably had viewers scratching their head to figure out whether this was a real movie, which is how I felt upon watching the trailer for Repo Chick. (Debbie Gibson returns to face her former pop charts foe, Tiffany, in Mega Shark Versus Gigantosaurus). But, while you might expect The Aslyum’s catalog of studio commissioned low-budget knock-offs of big budget action flicks to be funny, they aren’t spoofs, which probably only makes those who mistakenly rented Transmorphers thinking it was Transformers much more  sorely disappointed that they didn’t even get to laugh. Well, much, because that particular one was pretty lame…

… although not horribly awful. And, that’s really the distinction. Because there are movies that are so ridiculous that you never want to see them (i.e. most any of the Howling sequels). And then there are those that are so comically bad, they become a new cult favorite.

And one of the things that can movie really god awful is when there is a serious lack of reasonable logic in a story otherwise trying to be sold as passable reality. Take Troll 2. It centers around an oblivious suburban family who decide that Nilbog (get it?), an unfriendly podunk town well stocked on expired dairy and harboring a very obvious “Goblin problem” would make the perfect family vacation destination. Amazingly, their youngest — who’s clearly too intelligent to be biologically related to the rest of the clan — and the ghost of his batty dead grandfather are their only hope for survival.

There ain’t no party like a Troll 2 party ‘cuz a Troll 2 party don’t got Trolls!

And as a nominal sequel, Troll 2 didn’t actually have anything to do with the 1986 Troll film, although they two are packaged together as a DVD Double Feature. The Italian filmmakers sought to ride the coattails of a less atrocious movie and so the title of the movie was changed accordingly. That this so-called sequel was originally called Goblin makes even more sense why there’s not a single utterance of the word Troll in the entire movie.

But Troll 2 only dates back to 1991 and before its resurrection (much of it very recent), another movie previously held — and arguably still does — the honor of being the Worst Movie of All Time. Back in the mid-60s, an insurance and fertilizer salesman in El Paso famously boasted to a location scout that making movies was easy. When Hal Warren bet the future screenwriter ofHeat of the Night, Stirling Silliphant, that he could make a successful horror film on a small budget,  more ironic words couldn’t have been spoken. For a long time, Warren’s Manos: Hands of Fate, which tells the story of a family that accidentally stumble upon a weird cult, claimed the number 1 spot of the Internet Movie Database’s user-ranked Bottom 100 list. (The never-mentioned 1966 movie, Night Train to Mundo Fine now sits at #1 on that list).

Manos! The Freshmaker!

It’s not surprising that Manos turned out as bad as it did. The making-of reads a lot like Ed Wood’s movies: it was carelessly created. With only a budget of $19 grand, the production was rushed with the expectation that a lot of mistakes would simply be fixed in post-production. They weren’t. And it was so bad that Warren and the cast were laughed out of the premiere.

On a side note: Ed Wood’s preachy and comically sexist grave robbing sci-fi travesty that was (unsuspectingly) financed by a Baptist church, Plan 9 From Outer Space and his semi-autobiographic transvestite tale, Glen or Glenda?, in which Wood starred, are both ranked in the Bottom 100, too. The making of both are well documented in Burton’s celebratory biopic which hailed Wood’s persistence despite never quite having the budget to match his imagination.

But let’s face it, a lot of crap falls into two particular categories; the horror and science fiction genres are chock full of hideous duds. But Tommy Wiseau, who really deserves the honor of King of  the Worst Movie of All Time, managed to muck up another genre entirely. And to such an embarrassing degree that the trailers were redone to sell the movie as a black comedy, and specifically in the vein of playwright Tennessee Williams. Not surprisingly, it made Wiseau look even more ridiculous, like discovering that someone claims they got a love letter, only to find out they wrote it to themselves. Oh, but that’s the least of the confusion when it comes The Room.

As bad as Troll 2, Manos, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and many of the rest are, they at least follow the traditional 3-Act narrative. You know, where the action is set up, played out, and then cleaned up. Basically, The Room is about a dissatisfied Future Wife (I don’t think Wiseau can pronounce fiancee, which may explain why he keeps using this phrase “future wife”) who wants to separate from her dull, unsuccessful, vaguely Eurofag husband (played by Wiseau). But, since she never leaves the house, nevermind her Future Husband, she settles instead for sleeping around with his best friend. In addition to that, the movie is loaded with subplots and supporting characters that creep up and disappear without warning. So much so, that I wonder when they finally decided to stop making the movie.

Oh, hai over-ahcting!

Wiseau improvised from the start, even simultaneously filming in 35mm film and digital video because he was uncertain of the distinctions. Even though there’s plenty of exterior footage of San Francisco locations, a green screen is used during scenes that take place on the roof top of an apartment building. And there’s lot of moments where Wiseau seems to feel compelled to assert his heterosexuality like the awkward sex scenes and many, many moments where he and his guy friends toss around a football. The acting is bad. The dialogue is baffling. There are pictures of spoons scattered around. The promotional poster looks like a mug shot of a man who was kicked in the face by a mule.

I could go on, but you get the point. And considering all of this, it’s not all that far fetched, as Patton Oswalt joked, that the movie was just a way of laundering the $7 million that Wiseau raised when the studios wouldn’t back the project. Even if he didn’t, he should still save face by sucking it up and admitting that he made a shitty product, and at least bask in the licensing fees he’s getting now that it has become the newest audience participation movie (which includes hurling plastic spoons at the screen).

And I could go on about movies, but outside of the ones most people recognize, even if just by name like Troll, Manos, Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room, and Birdemic, there’s too many to name. Obscured by their poor quality, they, too, may one day find a sudden revival. Especially on the Internets!

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One Response

  1. Philip Haldiman (The Room’s Denny) was awesome enough to get in front of the camera once again. He did some improvised scenes with my troupe. http://www.vimeo.com/13381406

    Please let me know what you think!

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