Editorial: When is a film so bad…it’s good?

Posted on August 25, 2012 by Keri 12 Comments


By Keri O’Shea

Here at Brutal as Hell, it’s not all fun and games. As much as we spend time reviewing movies, comics and books, we occasionally like to grapple with profound philosophical questions. Yes, it’s true; today, for instance, I’ve been pondering a very important distinction – one which affects us all, and one we’ve probably all talked about at one time or another. Namely; how do we differentiate between those films which are simply bad, and films which are simply so bad, they’re good? What separates one ‘bad film’ from another, and what makes one movie worthy of wanting to share it with others?

In trying to get all this straight in my head, earlier today I asked people on Twitter to name some of their favourite godawful great movies. I wanted to compare them to my own choices, first and foremost, and then to think about any common traits these movies may have. And, wow. There are lots of you out there with some serious love for films you gladly admit are terrible! The most obvious connection between them seems to be that, for all the ways that they entertain us, these bad-good movies do not work as horror movies – in the sense that, although there’s plenty of scope for feeling repelled, they tend to fail at being scary. There has to be enough on offer to allow the viewer to forgive that fact. And there are plenty of films which definitely deliver on that score.

So, without further ado, here are some characteristics which I believe help to define the bad films which we so love.

1: Forget realism

I’ve found it very difficult to identify a ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ movie which deals at all in serious, realistic threat and serious consequences – or at least, succeeds whatsoever at this. If the filmmaker goes for a hard-hitting theme and then absolutely fails on all scores, then there is an outside chance that we’ll get a reluctant classic. However, a lot of the best-loved bad films seem to stick with the completely unreal. In so doing, they’ll probably dive in headlong with the following…

2: Surpriiiiiise!

Whether it’s one scene so extravagant and batshit insane that you just can’t believe your eyes, threat or an OTT response to that threat, or a laugh-out-loud story arc, it really pays to pull something unexpected out of the bag. A film can coast a long way on that. Films which are just bad often lack the full homage to WTFery which genre film fans love so much: we all like a strong calling card, and for that very thing we can forgive a hell of a lot. That is, as long as the ‘surprise’ motif doesn’t wind up being a complete cop out; it can feel like a cheat when the punchline is ‘this never happened’. I call it the Bobby Ewing clause, and it sucks.

3: Crap monsters and bad SFX

There seems to be something quite heart-warming about the appearance on-screen of a genuinely shit monster or ludicrous bad guy – doubly so, when the actors respond to it by actually running away or showing any concern whatsoever for what it’s doing. Heh! The response from viewers is usually like this – you switch immediately to mirth, and even start rooting for the monster – such an inadequate threat deserves our affection, after all, as do the filmmakers who get in there and have a go despite their obvious lack of materials. Observe, for instance, The Deathless Devil, made in Turkey in 1973: tell me you don’t adore that robot?

4: Gleeful excess + sense of fun

That is, going completely over the top on several fronts – be it more nudity than you can shake a stick at (though it’s not as though you would), ridiculous, anatomy-defying levels of gore, a huge body count or similar – but, and this is vital, doing it out of a sense of play, rather than any sense of obligation or perish the thought, cynicism. If a filmmaker shoves a load of crude gore into his or her movie because they think it’ll be a sales point or just because they feel beholden to shock, there’s a risk it could all miss the mark. Sure, your average horror fan will happily sit through boobs and blood in most contexts, but I maintain that most fans can differentiate between organic OTT and the stuff crowbarred in. Being organic – even if it’s organically deranged – is so, so important.

A phenomenon we’ve seen a lot of lately is filmmakers self-consciously trying to make cult films. They can try, sure, but there’s a real danger of shooting oneself in the foot; better to just make the damn movie, and if it garners a cult following, it does so organically and so much the better. (Of course there’s also a chance of making a truly great cult film, but that’s not our concern here!)

5: Vision

…And, of course, I don’t mean the sort of vision you’d associate with an auteur, the type of game-changing clarity of thought which revolutionises cinema. No, I am referring to that pigheadedness which gets shit done – somehow, and that which resides squarely in the ‘what were they thinking?’ category. Some filmmakers have ambition which can blatantly never be fully realised, but they proceed regardless. Their struggle can manifest itself in many ways – as a cold disregard for continuity (which is nearly always fun), as many, small, equally endearing mistakes, or in a pleasing illogicality. To be fair, many filmmakers are up against time and budgetary restraints which are always going to put a crimp on their plans, but we can still love the end result if it delivers on the entertainment front. In fact, the entertainment to be had can often be something quite other to what was intended, but that’s by the by.

Don’t forget, anything or everything mentioned above, when refracted through time and distance, increases exponentially in the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ scale. It’s all always so much better with retro clothes and hair to look at, especially if those with the retro clothes and hair are being pursued through the oeuvre of bad film luminaries like, say, Vincent Dawn, and any culture shock to be had from a movie being foreign also helps its appeal tremendously.

The last point is definitely important…

6: Knowing when to STFU

Overstaying its welcome is always a bad thing for any film to do, but for a so-bad-it’s-good film, it can undo all of the ‘good work’ that we’ve discussed so far. Anyone’s enthusiasm for wild, improbably story arcs, scenery-chewing performances and underwhelming SFX can begin to wane when it’s prolonged past the point of novelty, and as conventional as it is, that tends to be around the ninety minute mark for me. Much longer than that and you start to get tired, whatever the set-up is. It pays never to let a story get boring, and if that means winding everything up in a non-convincing way, do you really think we are going to mind all that much?

With all of that said, I’ll leave you now with some awful, wonderful movie choices of my own. I never intended this to be the final word on the matter; I’d love to hear some of your bad film choices, and why you love them. But without further ado, here are some beauties…

Blades (1989)

Terror on the golf course as a sentient, pissed off lawnmower runs amok. Laugh! Swoon! Revel in the 80s knitwear! Troma gets it wrong for me a lot of the time, but here they get it right. ‘Right’ being a relative term, of course. You can, if you so wish, watch the entire movie on Youtube, courtesy of Troma.

Zombie Lake (1981)

Zombie Lake has to be seen to be believed. Why, it’s just your common-or-garden tale of Nazis who emerge from a lake in France, with their faces painted green, their uniforms oddly dry as soon as they stagger to their feet, and – hang on – the underwater shots are in a swimming pool. And you can see the camera crew reflected in mirrors multiple times. There are lots of fun drinking games you can play with this – take a shot every time you see a mistake, for instance, and you’ll be under the table by twenty minutes in. A fine piece of entertainment, and no lie.

Demons 3: The Ogre (a.k.a. The Ogre) 1988

The Ogre! Linking to Troll 2 seemed to be a bit obvious, so, instead, here’s another movie referencing a mythical creature which has nothing to do with the mythical creatures in the early films it attaches itself to by way of its title. The Ogre sometimes gets linked to Demons and Demons 2, see, although it doesn’t have anything in common with them save the involvement of Lamberto Bava – who can be a bit touch and go, let’s be honest. See Graveyard Disturbance for further details. Anyway, sure, you get a bit of atmosphere in The Ogre, but a flimsy plot (nervous woman rents out a castle while she writes a horror novel and is surprised that it’s a bit creepy) and a dismally brilliant monster who marches around dressed like a dandy in pursuit of the smell of orchids, and you have a winner… of sorts.

12 comments

  • Ryan says:

    How about The Nights of Terror (Burial Ground)?
    The Toxic Avenger
    House by the Cemetery
    TCM 2
    Ebola Syndrome
    Zombie

  • Keri says:

    Yep, a few of those would fit the bill! I’m really fond of Burial Ground. It definitely has one of those WTF scenes…

  • Billy Baroo says:

    It doesn’t get much better than Pieces.

    I also nominate Superstition and later flagrant Eye-talian rip-off of it; Ghosthouse.

    Also mentioning a few of Fulci’s most well-known probably begs the 64,000 dollar question: how exactly does one differentiate good Eye-talian from “so bad it’s good” Eye-talian? (Excluding Giallos, even though to me, stupid old slashers still have infinitely more replay value whereas Giallo’s are too tedious to sit through again and again.)

    I mean what’s good about Inferno is what’s good about any of Argento’s other movies; great imaginative one-of-a-kind setpieces, (even if I’ve always felt Fulci’s best nailed down legitimate atmosphere alot better than Argento’s artsy fartsy setpieces and color schemes.) But the kills are utter fucking nonsense; a lady done in by flying kitty cats and some other old creep ate by rats even though it’s so shoddily done that it’s not stomach-turning at all. Not to mention the cheap ass halloween grim reaper costume on big bad; oh yeah, Ghosthouse ripped that off too.

    I think Eye-talian should easily have it’s own wing in the hallowed halls of “so bad it’s good.” Hell, the two real Demons movies haven’t aged well themselves. Even the first one kind of grinds to a halt around the time the “punks” are introduced.

  • Keri says:

    Pieces is brilliant good fun. It’s one goodbad movie I can watch over and over, though it helps to have new people to inflict…..sorry, share it with.

    I am not a big fan of gialli at all. I can appreciate impromptu nudity and blood as much as the next person, and the humble giallo has at least made putting on black leather gloves when it’s colder feel nicely anchored to a horror tradition. But I always find the exposition too ludicrous to be believed. The pay-off never fits the build-up.

    I’ll admit, I had a lot of Italian horror in mind when I talked about the effect of time/distance on appreciation of so-bad-it’s-good films. The dubbing alone makes most movies seem oddly unreal; add to that the plot development and, yeah, often times it falls apart quite fast. In Argento’s case, I love Suspiria, but can’t help wondering if a lot of his best work was borne out of budgetary restriction and time/money issues.We’ve seen what he issues when he has less time and money restraints, and it ain’t great. Going back to his earlier stuff, though, and Phenomena is squarely in the ‘just bad’ category for me. Not badgood, just bad.

    I saw Demons in the cinema recently. I agree that there are definitely lulls, but with a group of friends I think it holds up pretty well. I’d completely forgotten the helicopter, and that lunatic scene alone reinvigorated it for me!

  • William says:

    I’d agree about PIECES, as well. In thinking about my nominees, I tried to keep in mind that sheer outrageousness didn’t quantify a movie as “so bad, it’s good”, which nudged a few off my list. Some sort of incompetence needed to hold sway, either terrible judgment behind the camera, terrible performances before the camera or that lightning in a bottle quality that graces a select few shitsterpieces we come to love. I hope no one minds, but at the end of my list I’m going to also name some non-horror films that I think deserve to be shared with everyone. Ok, here goes…

    APPOINTMENT WITH FEAR
    THE BEING
    BOARDINGHOUSE
    DON’T OPEN ‘TIL CHRISTMAS
    ELVES
    GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS
    NIGHTMARE CTY
    WEASELS RIP MY FLESH
    WINTERBEAST
    WITCHERY

    There are so many more, but those come somewhat immediately to mind. Almost any 1980’s sov horror is guaranteed gold, as are Nathan Schiff’s 16mm wonders. There are some I own, but have yet to watch, like THE DEVIL MASTER, so I do not feel I can include ones I’ve not experienced firsthand, otherwise some of those would be on this list.

    Ok, please keep your minds open & feel free to reach out a hand to these fantastic hunks o’ junk that don’t fit the confines of most horror movie sites, yet may still terrify you, nonetheless. Snicker at your peril!

    FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY
    LADY STREET FIGHTER
    MAC AND ME
    ROLLER BOOGIE
    THE ROOM
    THE STABILIZER
    VIVA KNIEVEL!

    How many enemies did I just make? -William.

    • Keri says:

      Actually, William, a lot of your choices are completely unknown to me! I have work yet to do, and you may have started something. But I can wholeheartedly second a recommendation for For Your Height Only; any movie with a double agent midget using an umbrella as a parachute gets my vote.

  • William says:

    Keri, if there are any specifics you wish to have on any of those movies, I might be able to provide them.
    -William.

  • Keri says:

    Well, Weasels Rip My Flesh sounds like a complete winner. Does it have a DVD release? Winterbeast sounds like a complete mess. Shot over different decades? This I must see.

  • William says:

    WINTERBEAST began filming around the end of ’85 and was finally released direct to video in ’92. The dvd can be purchased directly from the makers of the film themselves at Winterbeast.com, as well as on Amazon. Authentically macho mustaches, hair-trigger freakout lodge owners, stop-motion monsters and more(!) await you.

    WEASELS RIP MY FLESH (’79), LONG ISLAND CANNIBAL MASSACRE (’80) and THEY DON’T CUT THE GRASS ANYMORE (’85) can all be found on dvd from Image Entertainment. Nathan Schiff, the director of these films, also did one called VERMILLION EYES, which is pretty damn hard to find. I want it.

    All of these dvds come with some nice extras, including filmmaker/actor commentaries, short films, deleted scenes & behind-the-scenes stuff. For me, these films are Heaven, and definite must-haves for bad-film lovers.

    -William.

  • Keri says:

    Thankyou WIlliam! I will definitely try to track as many of those down as I can! Consider my passion for badgood movies furthered.

  • Tristan says:

    WHY HAD I NOT HEARD OF DEATHLESS DEVIL BEFORE?????

    Oh man, I could go on for days about this stuff, but suffice to say anything with Bruno Mattei or Claudio Fragrasso’s names attached is always a winner for me.

  • Richard says:

    Must add: Chopping Mall & Deathstalker 2.

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