Warnings should be issued to anyone who watches bad movies for entertainment value: Your time would be better spent seeking out neglected classics or supporting superior independent films than picking through cinema's slag heap. It's better for you, and better for film.
That said, sometimes you simply lack an appetite for nutritious cinematic fare, and must slake your craving for film junk. The current bad movie revival suggests that celluloid cheese gives off a siren song (unless that's just the ambulance responding to the food poisoning call). When cities could sustain revival houses, the likes of the nonsensical anti-pot exposé Reefer Madness or the bumbling alien graverobbers of Plan 9 From Outer Space were staples of midnight shows. The rise of the VCR nearly killed repertory cinema, but grassroots support for misbegotten motion pictures such as Troll 2, as illustrated in the new documentary Best Worst Movie, has renewed the communal pleasures of bad movies.
Not just any bad movie will suffice, however, and the breed reveals surprising diversity. Most notorious are Hollywood's lumbering, garish steamrollers like Batman & Robin or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — sources of the world's most expensive headaches. Genuinely talented directors can make transgressive art films that fail to justify repugnant material, such as Irreversible and its nine-minute rape sequence. Or risky ideas can explode in a great filmmaker's face: I'm especially fond of John Boorman's Zardoz, with its giant floating rock head and Sean Connery in loincloth and ponytail.
The truly miraculous are those films that, by some alchemy of nutty ideas and utter incompetence, become unforgettable entertainment. Best Worst Movie reveals how Troll 2 inspires a strange mix of love and condescension: One fan remarks, "It's so funny that there's no way to hate it." Troll 2 explores how an Italian production with U.S. cast and a bizarro fairy-tale storyline about goblins bedeviling an all-American family develops a beloved following among hipsters.
Troll 2 belongs to the current vogue for films that aren't just bad, but unreleasably bad. Part of the experience of seeing a Troll 2 or Tommy Wiseau's The Room — which receives monthly screenings at Atlanta's Plaza Theatre — is that you can't believe anyone even bothered to finish and release the films in question. Usually movies like these would be unknown to everyone but the brave souls who view entries for film festivals.
The Internet has enhanced the ability for failed films to find audiences: Best Worst Movie shows the moviegoers who make consumer choices through the bottom-feeders of the lists on Rotten Tomatoes and the Internet Movie Database. Social networking can create instant word of mouth for cruddy new curiosities such as C Me Dance or Birdemic: Shock and Terror.
George Carlin once said that surprise was a key to comedy, and the finest of the worst contain something genuinely strange and unpredictable amid the stilted acting, tone-deaf dialogue, nonexistent sets, etc. In the non-classic Robot Monster, the title character is rendered with a gorilla suit and a diving helmet. The Room's answer to the Robot Monster is leading man/auteur Tommy Wiseau, whose creative pronunciation of English and sinister physical presence prove hilariously at odds with his role as a cuckolded middle-class nice guy. Birdemic's cheap .gif animations look so fake, they have a hypnotic fascination. Most of the films combine clunky dialogue with hysterical line readings to create their own catch phrases, such as The Room's "You are tearing me apart Lisa," or Troll 2's "You can't piss on hospitality! I won't allow it!"
Many bad films can set up jokes for riffing, as played out by Atlanta's Cineprov! or the RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic ventures. "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" popularized arguably two of the worst films ever made - the grim family horror story Manos: The Hands of Fate and the choppy, incoherent mutant-astronaut flick Monster-a-Go-Go (which fails even to provide a climax and concludes "But there was no monster.") They're so boring and visually unpleasant it's impossible to imagine watching them without comedic commentary as a protective filter. RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic have found a niche with touring shows and live simulcast screenings, including RiffTrax's upcoming take on Reefer Madness in a national movie theater simulcast Aug. 19.
These films succeed as camp thanks to the absence of irony in their creation, which Best Worst Movie proves through the reaction of Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso. The glowering, pompous, and prolific Italian exploitation director insists his movie is "an important film" and clearly loathes his American fans for laughing at it. He reveals none of the huckster showmanship of a Z-movie mogul like Roger Corman.
Social causes can find fewer enemies as damaging as a bad movie's sincere support. Troll 2 raps vegetarianism via herbivorous goblins who turn humans into plants, then eat them. Birdemic blames its avian apocalypse on global warming, but is so tin-eared and unpersuasive, it's more like an avant-garde critique of yuppies and environmentalists.
Actors like Wiseau and cast milk their films' notoriety, and trailers for the likes of Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus can be aimed to the market for bad movie lovers. But the joke has its limits. In Best Worst Movie, Alabama dentist and former Troll 2 leading man George Hardy relishes the limelight when a specialty audience discovers his film, but makes a hard fall to Earth when the interest runs out.
Several of Best Worst Movie's scenes contemplate the idea that it's better to be in a beloved failure than a forgotten mediocrity. And while terrible movies may be indefensible on aesthetic grounds, they provide the purest examples of the joy of seeing films with audiences. If the movie gods bestow the likes of Troll 2, The Room and Birdemic on us, we shouldn't piss on their hospitality.