What Makes A Great Bad Movie?

Over on Facebook, someone responded to my posts about Birdemic: Shock and Terror, with a request for my top ten bad movies of all time. For those who were wondering and don’t get me on Facebook, here they are:

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 5.49.14 PM


What puts these in my top ten? And what makes for a great bad movie anyway?

I think the main ingredient is earnest goofiness. If we follow the Ted Sturgeon rule, 90% of all movies are crap, but most of the crap that reaches our screens is trite soulless junk that nobody remembers five minutes after they’ve seen it. The best bad movies aren’t like that. They’re memorably bad. And earnest goofiness is a key component in that. Ed Wood, Jr. really did want to make a statement about nuclear war and our treatment of the Other. I truly believe he was sincere, and that he had the ambition to fuel that vision and surmount the formidable obstacles that lay between him and his dream. The only thing he was missing was the actual ability to write, produce, direct, or edit a motion picture. That’s where the goofiness of earnest goofiness usually manifests itself. The best bad movies combine sincere conviction with a complete lack of ability to communicate that conviction; or, as in the case of Viva Knievel, competent communication of a sincerely held, but laughable, conviction: e.g. that daredevil motorcycle stuntmen are credible superheroes/Christ figures.

Another necessary component is wacky story logic. I turn the time over to Roger Ebert’s description of the plot of Gymkata:

The movie stars Kurt Thomas, in real life a world-champion gymnast, as a young man who is recruited by the U.S. government to break into the obscure Asian mountain kingdom of Parmistan and bring out his father, who is a captive there. Here’s the catch: To enter Parmistan, all foreigners have to play The Game, which means running a deadly obstacle course. “In the last 900 years, no foreigner has survived The Game,” the lad is informed ominously. In that case, how did the father get into Parmistan?

When combined with equally wacky imagery or stunt work, the result is movie gold:

McG would never have the vision to build a scene like that, or the deranged assurance necessary to ignore everyone who’d tell him “That is, in the 13 billion year history of this universe, the stupidest idea conceived by any creature with a working nervous system and a set of opposable digits.” Never in a million years.

It’s for this reason that studio films rank nowhere in my top ten. Even the most pathetic studio pile of dung has usually at least some shoots of competence and professionalism peeking through. If studios have a tough time making truly great pictures, they seem to have an equally tough time making truly awful ones.

Still, as you can see in my dishonorable mentions, some came close. Battlefield Earth oozes earnest goofiness, and both Concorde and Amityville 2 ladle on the wacky story logic and crazy imagery.

You will notice one glaring omission, if you know me. I haven’t listed a single Michael Bay film. I’ve refused to do so because, while I consider him a despoiler of all that film is or could be, I hate him too much to rank his pictures in my favorites. I could never watch his movies in a group and riff in a good humored way. I’d end up doing what Patton Oswalt did on a comedy show when asked about Paris Hilton (to get right to it, start the clip at 01:09):

And that’s the sort of thing that brings any movie watching party down.

To get back to more cheerful subjects, any movie whose protagonist is a lumpy, mullet-haired goofball named Zap Rowsdower; any movie daring enough to include two seven minute sequences of fighter jets refueling; any movie that thinks that a Concorde could escape a heat seeking surface-to-air missile by having one of the pilots open the cockpit window while the plane is doing Mach 2, stick his arm out of the plane, and fire a flare pistol is a movie that should, nay, must be seen. That’s what great bad movies are all about.

What’s your favorite bad movie?

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