Why I love bad movies (with a few exceptions)

Last week’s post featuring the classically awful Dracula AD 1972 has inspired some fond bad movie reminiscences. Well, mostly fond…

One of the stranger aspects of human nature is our capacity to take delight in things that are awful. For instance, in my late teens I embarked upon an intense study of the horror movies I had been forbidden to watch as a child: Dracula flicks starring Christopher Lee, or B-movies with Vincent Price. None were scary, most were boring and then I stumbled upon Dracula AD 1972, in which the vampire drinks the blood of groovy people in 70s London. It was awful. And yet I enjoyed it more than the others, as my tears of boredom alternated with laughter and amazement at the poor judgment of it all. I was hooked: bad films were good.

Around that time a British TV channel broadcast a bunch of Godzilla movies. Destroy All Monsters was entertaining: it had lots of monsters and some amusingly cheesy special effects, but after that the series descended into pure awfulness, as the directors repeated exactly the same plot, sometimes even reusing the same footage in different films. How bad can these get? How cheap? How corny? I was obviously not alone in my fascination as these films enjoy a lively existence on DVD to this day.

And so I continued my odyssey, subjecting myself to some of the world’s most terrible films. Something must have been in the air in John Major’s Britain, because after Godzilla there was a season of “the worst films ever made” on TV; I recall Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Plan 9 from Outer Space, wherein the director got his chiropractor to hold a cloak over his face and pretend to be the movie’s purported star Bela Lugosi, who had in fact died three years earlier. The others I have forgotten, I have seen so many bad films now that a vast ocean of awfulness stretches ahead of me to the infinite horizon and I have quite lost my bearings.

I have also grown numb. Dracula AD 1972 is probably not bad enough for me now; my system requires more extreme shocks. Thus last week I dedicated two hours of the life that remains to me to watching Pulgasari, Kim Jong-il’s Godzilla rip-off.

The plot is simple: a tiny monster made of rice eats iron, grows big, defeats the evil king, saves the farmers, explodes, turns into a little monster, turns into a blue light and then enters a lady’s tummy. The End. If that sounds bad, it’s because it is – so bad in fact that I had to take breaks every twenty minutes.

But once it was done, I wasn’t sure it was as bad as legend makes it out to be; it’s definitely better than Godzilla vs. Gigan, for instance. Perhaps this is because Pulgasari was made by a celebrated South Korean director, who was only in Pyongyang because Kim Jong-il had kidnapped him and ordered him to make films. The scenes were brief, and the monster was on screen quite a lot. Kim had even hired Godzilla’s puppeteer/actor to play Pulgasari. I had expected a much more brutal boredom.

It’s crucial, meanwhile, for the connoisseur of rotten cinema to draw a sharp distinction between the bad and the merely mediocre. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a bloated, expensive, pointless remake, but it is not awful. It does nothing, it merely exists. Rottenness forces a visceral reaction; it reminds us we are alive, makes us excruciatingly aware of the passage of time, of the vanity of human effort.

It’s difficult to create anything good, and nearly impossible to make something excellent. So much can go wrong. Some of the best worst films started with sincere intentions. Ed Wood, director of Plan 9 was passionate about his movies. But somehow it always went awry, whether through a lack of money, or talent, or judgment, or all of the above, but still he created. There’s dignity in that. Other bad films are the opposite: deeply cynical, designed to exploit our fascination with violence and sex, often little more than a lurid title applied to garbage with the intention of tricking the viewer into parting with his money. Either way, there’s always something profoundly human bubbling away beneath the surface of a bad movie.

You must however expect awfulness if you are to enjoy a bad film. If you anticipate quality but encounter catastrophic failure, you may never recover. Consider the Star Wars prequels. When I went to see The Phantom Menace I knew I was no longer the boy who had been amazed by the original trilogy and asked only that it be good, not excellent. Friends, I would have settled for mediocrity. But of course it was apocalyptically bad. And then there were the others.

There was no joy in the awfulness of these films, though they too were very human, in that they were destroyed by a combination of overweening ego, delusion and far too much money. Are these the worst bad movies of all time? Possibly. Though it is the product of an evil totalitarian system and was made by a kidnap victim, Pulgasari has more charm and, yes, integrity than any of the later Star War films, which were made by free people with buckets of cash. It’s a wonderful world.

(RIA Novosti previously published a version of this post).

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.
Share This Post

About Author Profile: Daniel Kalder

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.

15 thoughts on “Why I love bad movies (with a few exceptions)

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    July 17, 2012 at 09:50

    Can be relied upon to keep Japanese audiences enthralled, the so awful they are brilliant genre of movies. We ancient ones had the ‘Confessions Of’ series, On The Buses meets soft core, giving employment to legions of previously unemployable actors including dear, dear Cherie’s dad, one A.Booth, of Alf Garnett fame. The only message seemed to be ‘look, pubes’ titter titter. Then we had the Hollywood chemically altered bugs movies, all taking place in that LA flood channel with the finale utilising lots of redundant WW2 ordinance. Most of the actors seemed to be called Holtz, their performances certainly were.

    Latterly of course the chemically altered bugs masquerade as actors, T.Cruise being a good example.

    • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
      July 17, 2012 at 13:22

      I saw a few of those chemically altered bugs movies. Also good, and of the same vintage, was The Brain From Planet Arus, in which a giant brain does… er stuff. No Alfie Booth, unfortunately.

      • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
        July 17, 2012 at 13:23

        I mean, Anthony Booth.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    July 17, 2012 at 09:57

    PS….talking of it’s so bad it’s brilliant, wish him happy birthday now, y’all hear.

  3. Worm
    July 17, 2012 at 10:36

    Ahh Daniel, we must have been watching the same movies on late night Channel 4 at the same time! I too saw most of the above mentioned films in my teens. The godzilla movies i always found surprisingly dull until they got to the monster fighting bits. It has been a while since I have seen a really bad film I must say.

    A good bad one to seek out is ‘even cowgirls get the blues’, or perhaps ‘bad boy bubby’

    Or anything by Ken Russell

  4. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    July 17, 2012 at 13:20

    There was a golden period in the early 90s when bad films were on TV all the time. I once read an essay by Umberto Eco on porn, and I was struck by the similarities between his observations on that genre and Godzilla movies- incredibly tedious moments that drag on for fifteen twenty minutes, and then sudden bursts of action. The structure is pretty much identical.

    Except in Godzilla:Final Wars which is all action all the time, almost.

    Ken Russel is awful. Also bad, and terribly bad, is a French film starring Vincent Gallo called “Trouble Every Day”. Allegedly erotic horror, I erupted with laughter throughout.

    • Gaw
      July 17, 2012 at 14:10

      Altered States is one of my favourite films. It might actually be good-good rather than good-bad, but I defer to the connoisseurs.

      • Worm
        July 17, 2012 at 15:07

        no Altered States is definately a gem of good badness! I love that film

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      July 17, 2012 at 16:53

      Köln’s Ludwigs museum has for years and in a series of side rooms, ran a number of the most mind-numbing movies ever made, Russel’s The Devils, best described as pretentious rubbish and Warhol’s whatever, lasts an eternity, best not described at all. in other rooms other stuff is screened, the output of some German avant garde directors, also pretentious rubbish. I met, at a party, one of the museums big cheeses and enquired about the logic. “We have to cater for many tastes” she said, “whose taste runs to two hours of Gudrun Ensslin picking her nose” I asked. That was the moment she pretended to catch the eye of someone across the room and slope off.

  5. bugbrit@live.com'
    July 18, 2012 at 20:58

    I agree entirely with your assessement of the ‘bad movie ‘ dichotomy. There is no shame in doing ones (sadly dismal) best and falling short like Ed Wood. There is often fun to be had with a wholehearted failure. But the cynically shoddy rip off never offers any pleasures because there was no pleasure its creation only a hope for undeserved profit.

  6. lukehoneyfineart@aol.com'
    July 19, 2012 at 10:07

    I think the worst film I have ever seen was “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, starring Liz Hurley and Paula Hamilton. It’s supposed to be about the society drug scene in Chelsea. Joss Ackland was truly, truly awful as a Scotland Yard detective. There’s also a hilarious sequence with Jeremy Brett watching orgiastic porn on a home cinema system, all set to the music of Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier.

    • Worm
      July 19, 2012 at 13:18

      oooh yes that one is a real stinker, another one of those british films that you know was only made in order to maintain arts council funding levels – see also ‘sex lives of the potato men’ etcetc

      • lukehoneyfineart@aol.com'
        July 19, 2012 at 20:26

        Wasn’t it truly dreadful? Makes our old chum, Dracula 72, look positively intellectual. Had great fun last weekend watching Ken Russell’s “Lair of the White Worm”. I’m a fan of Russell, and I don’t mind admitting it. Just something about his films…

Comments are closed.