I watched ‘Megaforce’ again tonight. I’ll admit, it was the Rifftrax version, which probably labels me as a mere dilettante in the world of terrible movie connoisseurs (although I did see ‘Troll 2′ unriffed all the way back in 1994, so I think I’ve got at least some street cred here). But it’s a perfect example of the kind of movie that is (as they say) so bad it’s good. It’s absolutely terrible–there’s not a single moment of it that’s even remotely coherent, it tries to make Barry Bostwick (Brad from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’) into an action hero, and it seems to have been written by a committee of 12-year-old boys for a target audience of 10-year-old boys. But it is mesmerizing.
Which is what people mean when they talk about “good bad movies”. They’re talking about movies that are awful, frequently indefensibly awful, but that are nonetheless magnetic in their fascination. They’re movies that you just can’t help watching again and again–watching ironically, perhaps, but nonetheless utterly captivated by the film. Why? What makes them absolutely gripping despite being irredeemably terrible, while a giant-budget monstrosity like ‘Green Lantern’ merely inspires tepid disdain and a desire to watch something else? (Or, for that matter, while a movie like ‘Sharknado’ or ‘Snakes on a Plane’ works hard at being terrible but never really manages to achieve the kind of cult status that ‘The Room’ attains without effort.)
The key to a really great bad movie, in my opinion, is that it has all of the elements of a truly great movie except for quality. That is to say, a good bad movie is a passion project by someone with a singular creative vision and an epic determination to bring it to the screen uncompromised by commercial concerns and Hollywood suits. Like a lot of genuine classics, the result is a reflection of the psyche of the filmmaker, almost entirely unfiltered. It’s a movie that nobody else could have made. Only David Lynch could have made ‘Blue Velvet’, only Werner Herzog could have made ‘Fitzcarraldo’, only Coppola could have made ‘Apocalypse Now’. And only Ed Wood could have made ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’. The fact that one of these is much, much worse than the others is by no means an indictment of it.
These films usually fail in one of two ways. No, that’s incorrect. These films usually fail in two ways simultaneously and spectacularly. The first and most obvious problem is the execution–these are films commonly made by people whose passion far outstrips their understanding of directing, screenwriting and acting (and let’s face it, you know you’re onto something special when the same person is doing all three in one movie) and whose vision is usually impossible to realize on the budget they have to work with. But because they’re true believers, they shoot the film anyway because it’s impossible for them not to make their movie, and trust that people will understand what they’re trying to achieve because it’s so clear to them in their head that they can’t imagine otherwise.
The second problem, and the one that really separates a good bad movie from a mere work of ineptitude, is that the vision of the filmmaker actually does come through in these movies, and it’s so completely and totally at odds with anything anyone else would ever have as a core concept for a creative endeavor that you feel like you’re experiencing a fever dream. At a recent panel at CONvergence on the subject, one of the panelists said that you know you’re watching a really good bad movie when you experience a moment that forces you to pause the film and simply try to process what you just saw, perhaps even rewinding it to watch it a time or two again. It’s the moment when you realize that you’re really watching someone’s unfiltered id put up there on the screen, a moment of almost telepathic connection to a mind so different from yours that the shock of it almost breaks you. If a good good movie conveys a universal truth about the human condition, a good bad movie conveys a very specific truth about the filmmaker that you probably aren’t sure you ever wanted to know.
This means, ironically, that it’s impossible to make a good bad movie by trying to make a good bad movie. The moment you deliberately choose to include elements you know are sub-par, you’re done for, because the key to making a great awful film is an utterly sincere belief in everything you’re putting up on-screen. The maker of ‘Blood Waters of Dr Z’ really thought he was making a compelling environmentalist thriller with a deep message about the danger humanity poses to its own biosphere. The fact that it’s utterly, transcendently bizarre (the opening sequence is simultaneously fascinating and hilarious) never even occurred to him. Tommy Wiseau really believed, despite what he might later claim, that he was making an epic tragedy in the vein of ‘Death of a Salesman’. Nobody can make something that funny without aiming for true tragedy.
Which is, by the way, the last thing that makes a good bad movie. It has to be aiming for seriousness. You can’t make a good bad comedy. Because ultimately, a good bad movie succeeds because it’s enjoyed on an ironic level–you are deriving satisfaction and meaning from something other than the filmmaker’s literal intention. In the case of pretty much every genre other than comedy, the ironic enjoyment is comedic enjoyment. Something that was intended to be horrifying becomes hilarious, something that was intended to be tragic becomes comic, something that was intended to evoke wonder evokes laughter. But a comedy that fails at being a comedy never succeeds at anything else. A bad horror movie is often funny, but a bad comedy is never scary. A comedy that fails simply fails, which may be why Adam Sandler is reviled while Ed Wood is, in his own way, celebrated. Because both of them make bad movies, but only one of them makes us happy we watched them.