So on the topic of horror movies, one thing we love is the awful horror flick that is only shown on TV at three in the morning and has a title like “The Bloodthirsty Beast From The Black Lagoon” and other such titles. As much as we appreciate actual core films of the genre, universally recognised as pioneers or just good films, like say The Shining or Alien, what we also enjoy are films so terrible you can’t help laughing – I’m going to be putting what I hope to be a review of a similar film on here this Saturday but basically as fun as genuine scares and psychological thrillers are, there is something enjoyable about watching horror films about mutant rabbits gone amok (Night of the Lepus, look it up) or low budget indie projects about exploding birds causing widespread chaos (Birdemic). However, what’s the difference between enjoyably bad films and just… shit films, by all accounts, unredeemable tripe? Here’s my attempt to clarify, using some examples of my own film history.
Around this time last year I uploaded a review of the film Dog Soldiers, heartily suggesting you all get a copy and watch it – if you have done, well done to you for doing your homework for today but if not, the film in brief is about a military training exercise gone awry when it turns out there is an honest to god family of lycanthropes running loose in the forest the soldiers are training in. Our protagonist and his comrades hole themselves up in a farm cottage and we get to watch some proper British ‘lads’ face off against giant hairy monsters. The film is a masterpiece for many different reasons but if you honestly think it scary, you’re about as well-acquainted with horror films as a slug is with particle physics. Whilst the film plays itself up for laughs at some points, what is important to note is the film was pitched in marketing as a horror film – not a comedy, not a parody – an actual horror film and it plays the part of one for a good while, there are genuine horror tropes worked into the film, albeit mixed in with some comedy and war film iconography. The film is made on a low budget and is an earnest effort by an established director making the best of what resources he had to hand, it’s charming and quaint and enjoyable. A bad horror film though, not scary to anyone except borderline bedwetters. Watchable? Yes, very much so, with good reason.
You see, ‘bad’ horror films like Birdemic, Dog Soldiers and Trolls 2 are awful yes, you perhaps laugh more than you jump and scream and there is so much to poke fun at – usually low budget lack-lustre effects and acting so wooden Keanu Reeves should feel bad for them but what redeems the films is their honesty, their earnest attempts to be good. If you haven’t seen a film called The Room by Tommy Wiseau, go watch it. If you have, you’ll know it’s awful, it’s not a horror film, it’s not trying to be but it’s relevant to this point. Tommy Wiseau didn’t gather a bunch of actors and tell them “Ok, I want your worst performances, I want a plot written by a twelve year old and I want the most awkward sex and romance scenes in cinematic history”, no, he genuinely looked at the awful shlop he had produced and went “Yup, masterpiece”. As cruel as we are for thinking that, THAT’s the funny bit, something so bad you can only ask who ever thought it good enough to deserve funding and selling to other people? Who thought it could honestly generate an audience? There is something heartwarming in these funny failures, film studies students can relate here, chances are their early films look like shit to them and they’ll laugh and cringe but back then? You thought you had conceived your magnum opus, you thought that was what would get you your grade and perhaps it did but it’s seeing a professional film that puts you in mind of a shakily edited student project that makes you chuckle and love a bad film.
However, what doesn’t make a lovable bad film, in my opinion, is a film that sets out with the deliberate intention of being a bad film. Think Sharknado sequels, the first was terrible yeah but it took itself seriously, it genuinely treated itself like a horror film but the others are sold on silly pun-based tag lines and dialogue such as “I know you’re scared. I’m scared too. Sharks are scary”. Nobody wrote that with a straight face thinking it golden, the Sharknado sequels were parody cash-ins in the marginal acclaim of the original, which found a bizarre niche and was widely spread due to it being on TV rather than a cinematic event – you wouldn’t pay money to go see Birdemic would you? But if it came up on Syfy or something, you’d tune in just to see it. Other films like this are the infamously atrocious film Tusk by Kevin Smith, a shameless act of self-appreciation by a hapless comedian turning a conversation he had into a film. No joke, the film premise (A man being abducted and rebuilt bit by bit into a walrus by a mad scientist) just came from a podcast joke that stuck and then Kevin Smith said fuck it, let’s make a comedy horror out of this and make it so bad it is good by the grace of irony. It isn’t by the way, it’s not earnest or charming or excusably low-budget, it’s just Smith stroking himself off onto the screen.
So there’s a grey area here of what is so bad it is good and what is so bad it is just bad. Sharknado, for example, isn’t low budget and earnest but I just put it in a class with films like Birdemic and Night of the Lepus, films that aren’t close to it in production value. Basically, in my opinion, a film is in the former category when it shows as a cheaply made film that tried its best with limited resources (Dog Soldiers) or when it is so balls-to-the-walls bonkers you can’t understand who would make it in the first place (Night of the Lepus). However, when a film is so self-aware it looks to the audience as if to say “Isn’t this whimsical and weird?” (Snakes On A Plane) or you can indeed see who was responsible and how they aren’t honest film-makers trying to be the best they can but are in fact just out to make easy money (Pretty much anything by Uwe Boll) or jump on a bandwagon (Tusk) then you can’t find it all that redeemable. Essentially then, using Birdemic and Tusk as examples – Birdemic is a cheap tea room that doesn’t sell very good food but they make a decent cuppa and the staff are delightful, Tusk is a corporation trying to do the exact same thing but they did so by cutting costs and overdoing it on the quirky angle so all you see is a cut-rate hipster trap that is desperate to catch your attention