Essay

Midnight Movies: The Humor, the Madness and the Culture of Bad Cinema

by Jordan Aaron
From the April 2015 Issue
Plan1
Since its dawn, cinema has been a place of escape, desire and entertainment. There are websites, television shows and magazines such as this one that devote themselves to the glory that is film. Movie nerds bicker and argue all the time – “Should Forrest Gump really have won best picture in 1994?” “Which Godfather movie is better?” “Should Adam Sandler just retire?” – but they always take pleasure in the practice of film discussion, itself. However, there is another realm of cinema that many fans live in: the “bad movie” circuit.

It shouldn’t seem uncommon that people love to watch bad movies. Films like Sharknado and its sequel have gained much popularity and have achieved commercial success on TV. Conan O’Brien even swallowed his pride to appear in a self-deprecating role in the Syfy Channel movie, Sharktopus vs Pteracuda. But neither of these films scratch the surface of the cult phenomenon maintained by bad movies like Troll 2, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and of course, The Room. Fans of these films bask in the humor of the dialogue, cinematography and acting. Some equate it to the idea of watching someone trip and fall.

It seems the first place to look when examining bad films is the dialogue. Dialogue is one of the main sources of information when following a film narrative. For a comedy film, the jokes are mostly translated through dialogue and its delivery. One of the key moments in Plan 9 From Outer Space is the famous line, “Inspector Clay is dead, murdered, and somebody’s responsible.” Disregarding acting here, this line is quite absurd. There is always the fair point that one must maintain a suspension of disbelief during a movie, but lines like these are really asking for a lot. In his article, “How Not To Be a Clever Writer” for io9.com, Charlie Jane Anders writes, “Sometimes the more quotable the dialogue, the less it sounds like the way people really talk”. The silly tone this line carries makes the murder seem comedic. It is then that the viewer realizes the incompetence of the line and laughs at it as if it were an awkward quip at a dinner with friends.
Troll 2
But then one has to question the actors’ delivery of these lines. A prime example of this is the much-parodied line from Troll 2, “They’re eating her – and then they’re going to eat me! Oh my god!” Now, this dialogue does break the rule that Anders points out in his article, but it is not the writing that is remembered so well, but the facial expressions, half-hearted delivery, and absurd shouting done by actor, Jason Wright. Billy Wilder famously had to repeatedly scorn Jack Lemmon for doing too much. Unfortunately, Wright was never given this advice and instead opts to deliver a performance more catastrophic than that of the soldier strapped to a bomb in Dr. Strangelove. And while the whole movie may be considered campy or some other negative adjective, it is the screenshot of Wright’s face and the cataclysmic scream that people associate with the film. The delivery of lines can go a long way in making a film have higher quality, and this is absent from Troll 2.

It is important not to forget the actual process of making a film as disastrous as some of the films that are deemed the worst ever made, and one of these terribly crafted movies is Birdemic 2: The Resurrection. In this sequel, the filmmakers dared to take a step up from flash animation for their special effects. The film is sprinkled with abysmal effects that make it nearly impossible to take any part of it seriously. In one scene seemingly shot with a webcam plugged into Apple’s Photo Booth, a cartoon jellyfish too ludicrous for clipart stings a woman in the ocean. Linked with a cheesy score and sound effects that may or may not have been made by a child blowing into a glass of milk through a straw, this scene is funnier than the whole of Adam Sandler’s much-derided “comedy,” Jack and Jill. And yet, none of these films eclipse what is considered to be the best worst film ever made.
Room1
One of the most cherished cult films ever made is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. The film focuses on a love triangle between Johnny, his fiancée, Lisa and his friend, Mark. Wiseau wrote, produced starred in and directed the film – an important note to make, as he manages to be incompetent in every position. His passive aggressive acting makes it very difficult to follow the random and unintelligent dialogue. In terms of production value, the green screen backdrops of San Francisco stand out as a particularly laughable example of the movie’s technical quality. And even with the noticeable lack of production value, the eccentric director desired even more. Wiseau’s co-star and best friend, Greg Sestero, writes in his book, The Disaster Artist, that Wiseau wanted the film to end with his lead character flying his Mercedes off the roof of his house into the sky over San Francisco. Unfortunately, viewers weren’t graced with that pleasure. And even with this cockamamie movie, a huge cult following has emerged in favor of The Room, leaving one question: Why do people love these movies so much?

In an article on The Dissolve titled, “What Makes a Bad Movie Enjoyable,” Matt Singer points out that most bad movies are shown at midnight screenings, arguing that it is the group experience commonly sought out by fans of these films that makes them such an adventure to watch. This is true of The Room, as its screenings are events where viewers bring spoons to celebrate the odd amount of spoons used in the film’s mise-en-scene. Sometimes, Wiseau and Sestero even show up to the screenings. These experiences are something that any fan wishes to take part in (and I look forward to someday taking part in it myself).

The midnight showings and fanfare are a part of why these bad movies live on. But the popularity goes beyond midnight showings. Personally, I have only watched these terrible films with my friends at night. We’ve watched everything from Plan 9 From Outer Space, to the Little Cars series (a Brazilian rip-off of Pixar’s Cars). Together, we can laugh about the terrible animation, quote the god-awful dialogue and have a good time.

That kind of good-natured riffing is what Ithaca College’s own “IC Bad Movies” stands for. Every Thursday, the group screens a bad movie for anyone who is interested. The president of the club, Walker Dowd Whipple, says, “Watching with a big group is a lot more enjoyable. I guess it’s because everyone is going through this piece of crap together.”

Indeed, it is fun to be part of the bad movie circuit. They are nothing to strive for, but the best worst film can still find a place in the heart of any bad movie fanatic and foster that sense of community that makes cinema (good or bad) so wonderful.

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