So Ridiculously Bad it’s Awesome: The (re)Rise of the “Bad Movie”
Since the birth of film in the 1890s, audiences everywhere have had to endure some rather catastrophic pieces of cinema. From Reefer Madness (Gasnier, 1936), Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Webster, 1964), Mommie Dearest (Perry, 1981) and the now infamous Troll 2 (Fragasso, 1990), there is an entire catalogue of ”bad movies” spanning decades of film-making. In recent years however, a niche market seems to have emerged for this very type of film. Particular audiences actively seeking out ”bad movies” probably doing so with the intention of having more than a few laughs, gasps and on occasion even tears; these movies provide an intensely emotive experience, which is arguably wherein the fascination with them lies.
There has always been a place for parody and satire within film, with texts such as The Evil Dead, Army of Darkness – not to mention the hoards of other B-Movies Roger Corman or ”King of the B’s” has been producing/directing over the past 50 years – and long running franchises such as Scary Movie and American Pie: audiences have always been attuned to the idea of intentionally bad film-making.
Arguably, this stems from the style and intention of B-movie’s made during Hollywood’s Golden Age, when they were primarily produced and released as the bottom half of a double feature, made with lower filmic standards just to ensure the feature film of the release prevailed. By the 1950s however, the B-movie was beginning to garner cultural attention. With the explosion of television, a new platform was born where these films could be released as a stand alone feature and distributed at a fraction of a studio’s price. This mode also gave birth to the ‘midnight movie’, when non-mainstream films would be aired at this time in the hope of attracting a cult audience. With popularity rising, by the time the 1960s approached a new phase of the B-movie struck: the exploitation film. When the hays code demised in 1968, this opened up many opportunities for film-makers to explore with the medium.
It became possible for sex, violence and obscenities to be shown on screen and paved the way for ridiculous, head-scratching narratives which have become synonymous with the ”bad movies” of today. As film-makers began to interact with the B-movie seriously, a new wave of specialised low-budget film companies emerged within the industry – New World Pictures and New Line Cinema, for example – that were dedicated to widening the exploitation boom by bringing the films to theatre audiences.
With the B-movie beginning to infiltrate mainstream culture then, this propelled the ‘midnight movie’ format into the cinema and transformed it into a social, counter-cultural event. The impact of the B-movie is apparent: not only was this approach to film-making actively bringing people together, it also influenced the style and intention of many pieces of popular cinema throughout 1960s/70s. Films such as Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969), The Wild Angels (Corman, 1966), The Trip (Corman, 1967) and American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973) embodied B themes and aesthetics – the biker motif, coming of age genre, nudity, violence, the menaced red neck, gritty cinematography and a significance with music – as well as Jack Nicholson (Easy Rider, The Trip), whose career was cemented in the fantastical field of the B-movie.
By the 1980s however, the B-movie’s success was brought to a halt. Many of the independent studios which were built in the exploitation era collapsed due to a dramatic increase in production costs. Special effects, explosions and action sequences began to dominate the narratives of mainstream cinema, and this damaged the reputation of the B-movie. It couldn’t compete with this more-than-spectacle driven industry, and so, momentarily demised.
Where the B-movie had altered popular cinema for the better, popular cinema had affected the B-movie for the worst.
Whilst some low-budget films were still being shown in cinemas throughout the country, this was the moment when they became heavily associated with straight to tv releases; a stigma still attached to the ”bad movies” of today. Amidst the B-movie’s downfall, another style of filming arose in the nineties: the independent movement. Within this, were films which acknowledged the historical significance of the B-movie throughout cinema – King of New York (Ferrara, 1990), Bad Lieutenant (Ferrara, 1992) and Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994) – as they directly link the low-budget genre aesthetic and ”arthouse” heavy narratives.
With the stability of the B-movie in question by the end of the nineties/early millennium, I would argue that there is in fact still a place within cinema – and most definitely amongst cult audiences – for these films. The intention of the modern B-movie has shifted; what was once produced only to accompany the release of a bigger, and often better film, the B-movie has transformed into the bigger and better film. It is not down to an increase in quality of narrative, aesthetic or performance, but rather, a decrease of overall filmic quality.
”Bad movies” are a contemporary re-awakening of the B-movie; they appreciate, mock and critique the approach.
The dominant presence of the internet has also contributed to their cult popularity, providing more opportunities for ”bad movies” to globally circulate than television ever did. Films such as The Room (Wiseau, 2003) and Birdemic (Ngyun, 2008) mark the dawn of the B-movie revival – they are pieces of cinema which were produced seriously by their directors, but the results are so terrifically awful that they acquired a cult following. As the catalysts of the ”bad movie” phenomenon, both films now have their own annual tours, wherein the director and cast travel around the globe, showing their work to cinema’s full of fans, often engaging in the B-movie tradition of ‘midnight movie’ showings. From the internet launching ”bad movies” into contemporary popular culture, the next phase of this movement manifests itself in a particular strand of ”bad movies” that have had multi-platform, worldwide releases. Pirhanna 3D (Aja, 2010) and Sharknado (Ferrante, 2013) both had reputable budgets – by B-movie/”bad movie” standards – and casts, but the result of both films still remained ”bad”. The effects are reminiscent of 50s low-budget science fiction films, the dialogue is questionable and the absurd narratives – such as a tornado made of sharks which goes onto attack a small coastal town in America – can leave you speechless. This is extreme intentional bad film-making, simply because there is seemingly a desire for this kind of schadenfreude (to gain pleasure from watching other people – or film-makers, production crews, cast – suffer) filmic experience amongst contemporary audiences. This market is ever growing too, which has become interconnected and reliant on the sole production of ”bad movies” as other forms of media have sprouted as a result. There are now documentaries about these films; Best Worst Movie (Stephenson, 2002), directed by and featuring the star of Troll 2; books written about these films; star and producer of The Room, Greg Sestero released The Disaster Artist, a book chronicling his friendship and career with the cult hero Tommy Wiseau, which there are talks of adapting into a film.
We love ”bad movies” for all the wrong reasons, and that is precisely why we love them. We enjoy being shocked, exasperated and having our suspension of disbelief taken to the absolute limit. And this, my friends, is what cinema is all about.
The ”bad movie” takes the core values of the filmic experience and takes them to their limits, which undoubtedly stirs something within audiences.
There is a unique pleasure in unabashedly appreciating something which we understand to be bad, but what extends this within context to the ”bad movie” is that the film-makers, studios, producers, and everyone involved are aware of this too. Whilst the ”bad movie” can be regarded as a homage to the B-movie, I propose it is a development of. Whereas B-movies were not typically recognised as arthouse productions, ”bad movies” have gone onto defy this as they have acquired their very own place in the cinema industry. These films are made with a specific target audience in mind, assigned proper budgets and granted stand-alone, global marketing and releases. They are no longer the bottom half of a double feature.