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

Posted on August 25, 2012 by editor


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.