Imagine if you will the following scene.
It’s nighttime along the coast, and a tiny house sits lonely and isolated on the cliff overlooking the sea. The thick fog rolls in slowly, engulfing the house in a cloud made pale blue by the moon’s light. Walking slowly up the steps to the house is a ghastly shell of a man, grey, tattered, and quite clearly dead. He was a pirate in life, and now he seeks revenge on the living for a crime old and long forgotten by all but him and the targets of his supernatural vengeance.
He stops momentarily at the threshold, a hand on the door. He knows his intended victim is inside, and he knows where she is. The flickering light of the fireplace casts her shadow against the window even as its light streams out into the dark air of the night. He pushes the door, the lock giving way to the supernatural force of his will, and steps inside. There he spies her, sitting, rocking, apparently all too calmly waiting for the fate she knows is inescapably coming to her.
She looks up and they lock eyes. His gaze bores holes into her soul and for a moment her body goes limp. He takes a step forward and the woman suddenly snaps to life again. She may have to die, she may not be able to stop this fate from befalling her, but suddenly she’s determined to not die without some attempt to fight. She grabs a poker and charges the spectral intruder in her home, screaming her last breath into a defiant sound of rage. Faster than she can react, almost faster than the eye can see, he brings his sword from out of its scabbard and removes her head in a clean, quick, and precise stroke.
Her body goes crashing past him, its momentum carrying it almost to the wall before tumbling and rolling across the floor. Her head flies past him, bouncing off the wall and rolling back over towards him, stopping but a short few inched from his boot clad feet, facing up. The woman’s still living head looks up at him in fury mixed with fear, and her last moment of life is spent mouthing a silent curse at him.
He reaches down and takes his prize by the hair, lifting it carefully and inspecting it before placing into a sack containing the prizes he’s already collected earlier in the evening. He throws the sack over his shoulder, the heads shifting and bouncing inside it, and exits the tiny home. He walks away from the house, down the long steps towards the road that leads to the sea below, and disappears into the mists. But even as we lose sight of him, we can still hear his singing; a low, slow, chilling song drifting on the night’s now seemingly colder air.
I can easily see that scene playing out in the writer’s head as he tapped away at his keyboard, perhaps pausing long enough to smile and give his creative muse a metaphorical high-five before turning his attention back to his story. Unfortunately for the writer, the scene was done almost clownishly bad in a “Sci-Fi Original” film called Jolly Roger: Massacre at Cutter’s Cove.
On the TV, the opening shot for the scene I described above was framed like they threw a dart at the lawn to figure out where to put the camera. The overuse of slow motion as the intended victim charged the ghostly pirate, combined with a shot angled so we could see her tonsils in slow motion, and the final, somewhat fogless exit of the pirate walking towards the camera while almost dancing his way down the steps as he sang his song in an overly chirpy “do-do-do” manner killed every single ounce of tension or terror that may have existed in that scene.
That’s the sad reality of low budget- and sometimes not so low budget -filmmaking. There’s an old saying in Hollywood that no one ever made a good movie out of a bad script, but lots of bad movies have been made out of good scripts. I’m not entirely sure I agree with the first half of that, but the second half of it is undeniably true. It’s a fact of the movie making world that probably contributes greatly to the perverse enjoyment that some people, me included, find in watching some bad films.
Yeah, there’s the almost DIY MST3K level of laughing at the badness of some of the films, but there’s also the wistful feeling of seeing what looked like a king of a story get dressed up the court jester instead, of watching a winner get dragged down into almost dead last through no fault of its own. Sometimes you can see a really good story dying to get out, a ripping great film that was ready to be made, but the forces that conspired against it are just too great.
My favorite example of this would be The Brainiac, a 1962 Mexican offering that was horribly let down by its production and then even more disastrously butchered in the American dub. It’s a film filled with acting that makes a 2nd Grade production of how we get tooth decay look like Shakespeare in the Park by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, musical cues that are wildly at odds with the mood of the scene, and the type of FX that could only make Ed Wood beam with pride. On a so bad they’re good scale of 1 to 10, it’s a laugh factor of 11.
But annoyingly, almost unimaginably, there’s a surprisingly good story buried under all of that. It has a solid concept, a straightforward plot filled with dark magic, revenge, and a noble(ish) hero to fight the evil in the final act. Plus it has a few twists and tricks that should have been good.
You see films like this all of the time; particularly when having a film night in with mentally disturbed film fans like me. They have names like The Alien Factor, World Gone Wild, Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Phantom Menace, Star Trek into Darkness, and The Loch Ness Horror.
My friend, horror host, comedian, writer, and illustrator John Dimes likes to say that there are no bad movies, only bad audiences. He likes to say it so much he even wrote a book with that title. It’s a point I don’t fully agree with him on, but it’s a point I don’t entirely disagree with either.
He in part explains it as meaning that a “bad” movie isn’t actually bad so much as you’re just the wrong audience for that movie. It actually has a very valid concept behind it since we see this philosophy in action with films like The Babadook. If you get that film, you like that film. If you don’t get it, you hate that film. You have to be the right audience with the right experiences and background to get some aspects of that film. If that’s not you, it just comes off as weird.
Films like The Babadook make for an easy example to point to though. It’s a newer film and the division between viewers was very stark in its contrast. But the same thing holds true for lovers of films that fall under the so bad they’re good umbrella, just with a goofier twist.
I don’t know if it’s a talent of some film fans that they can watch something like Manos: The Hands of Fate more than once in their life and actually enjoy it or something of a mental disability, but I know I and a number of my friends have whatever it is. We like the goofy films out there that come on in the wee late hours of the morning or are found in 50 movies for $20 packs. There’s just something so damned fun about them.
But it’s not all bad movies that come off that way, and I think that’s the key to the enjoyment factor in some of these things. There are movies out there that fall flat because it just feels like everyone involved was phoning it in. They’re bad movies because almost no one involved with making them seemed to care.
But then there are the ones where it seems like a lot of people actually cared, but it just got away from them. They really wanted everything to go right, but absolutely everything went wrong. Then there are the ones where you’re not sure what the hell was going on, and you’re not entirely sure if the people involved ever worked that out either. Those are the fun ones. Those are the ones you can see wistfully something great in that got away from them, or the ones that just have such a “WTF?!?” factor about them that they’re funny.
The Creeping Terror
The Angry Red Planet
Attack of the Crab Monsters
The Galaxy Invader
These and many other films are either gloriously fun in the worst way possible or gloriously bad in the best and most fun way possible. These films and hundreds of others over the year have been called schlock, b-movies, z-movies, and a host of other insulting names. But what they actually are is a lot of fun.
In a way the idea of so bad they’re good films is a bit like pro wrestling. If you “get” them, you always will. If you don’t get them, you probably, but not absolutely, never will. But if you never get it, you’re damned sure missing out on a lot of goofy fun.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He’s a former contributor to Needless Things and Gruesome Magazine and occasionally remembers to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.