Bad Movie Magic: Why the Junk of Yesteryear Tops the Junk of Today

Robot monster bad movieWould you rather watch a bad movie made incompetently or a bad movie done well?

Let me be more specific: Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) or 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)?

I know which one I’d prefer. And it’s the sad state of crummy filmmaking that validates my decision.

Once upon a time, there were “so bad they’re good” flicks. Pictures that didn’t have a shred of skill behind them, cobbled together on budgets that would make The Blair Witch Project (1999) look dear. Sets were flimsy. Cinematography was poor. Acting was wooden. And yet, people watched them because they were so awful. Films like these made audiences laugh. Groan. Lampoon them on Facebook.

Fine, Facebook didn’t exist way back then, in the heyday of bad movies. But you know what I’m saying. There was a kind of cinema in the past that viewers liked for its low quality. Some of these lemons had camp value. Others had no value at all. Yet they had one thing in common: They were made by folks without talent—individuals who couldn’t fashion a compelling scene to save their lives. And that was just fine with those who went to see them.

Bear in mind I’m not suggesting untalented filmmakers are some kind of extinct species, like dinosaurs or penny candy. It’s actually quite the opposite. We get more lousy movies showered upon us than ever before, and the supply may be infinite. The cinema’s rich as Midas when it comes to utter crap.

Unfortunately, most of this crap can’t be viewed with any masochistic pleasure … and that’s because the people crafting these pieces of cruduloid are often highly trained, with the result being that their flicks are godawful but technically sound—and there’s no way to enjoy that.

Take 300: Rise of an Empire, for instance. Its raison d’être seems to be providing its core audience (which may be 18 to 30-year-old men or sadistic, maniacal gore-hounds or both) with as much computer-generated bloodshed as possible. Most of this hemo-letting is gratuitous, yet it’s clear that the team behind these “special” effects had enough training and experience to devise some pretty realistic spurts and spatters. Meanwhile, the movie’s comic-book-like cinematography and posturing performances, while not involving, spoke to the skills of the artists involved in developing them; stars such as Eva Green and David Wenham have done strong work in the past, and they definitely have acting ability.

Clunkily stated—I realise that. But what I’m trying to express is that there’s a difference between technical skill and talent … and that the bad movies of today, while dealing with a surplus of the latter, ofter enough of the former behind and in front of the camera to preclude them from being lumped together with the “real” bad movies of old, the Manoses, the Robot Monsters (1953). Flicks that look like they were made in someone’s living room, that are as technically adept as a paper airplane. Those are the poor pictures that bring joy to viewers’ hearts. Those are the ones with merit.

300OK, I realise almost anyone can go out and buy a camera, then make a junky film and put it on YouTube. Still, that’s a bit different from having a flick distributed to theatres nationwide, on the big screen, where bad movies were made to be seen. Plus, not everyone can gather the funds needed to finance a bad operation; not everyone has the resources. And although Joe Aspiring Untalented Filmmaker can recruit his friend to work the camera, chances are it’ll be a whole lot better than any frame in Manos.

Frankly, I think it’s up to the big studios to churn out the real rubbish—and they’re just not doing their job. Duds such as Gigli (2003) and Showgirls (1995) don’t have a lot going for them, but they’re just plain unwatchable … not the laughably all-too-low caliber of an Ed Wood or Bert I. Gordon travesty. They’re just too slickly made, despite their abysmal quality, and are consequently hard to sit through.

Yes, I’m perhaps making unfair comparisons: films with big budgets and stars versus poverty-row stinkers. Yet I think that’s the issue. “So bad they’re good” movies are a lot harder to come by these days, and in their place are “so bad they’re … well, bad” flicks. I can’t get into those and long for the garbage of old.

Call me Miniver Cheevy, then—aching for something in the past I can’t attain. Maybe I am a little like that, though I relish the present and its possibilities just as much. I just want to stress that there’s a difference between a bad movie and a bad movie; they’re not all alike, and they’ve had varied impacts on the cinema, as well as on our lives. We live in a time where dreck can be all it should be but usually falls short. Don’t we want our dross to transcend every boundary? Make us as happy as something good, something high quality, an actual classic?

I’m gonna avoid watching 300: Rise of an Empire, in the future, thank you very much. But when Manos comes on, I may tune in for a few laughs—to remember the good old days when cheap and lousy went together, when bad movies had character.

We need those times back; we need those kinds of pictures. Without them, we’re at a loss, and no amount of CGI blood can make up for it.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

18 thoughts on “Bad Movie Magic: Why the Junk of Yesteryear Tops the Junk of Today

  1. I agree with the main point. It’s true that there are a lot of very bad movies today that nevertheless show a high degree of technical proficiency (special effects, art direction, production design). I think if you have a lot of money you can buy that, and it hurts when you see it all in aid of a worthless script.

    There is still a bargain-basement fringe, however, and a more apt comparison to Robot Monster than 300: Rise of an Empire might be any one of the awful Dinocroc vs. Sharktopus-type titles, or even Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Not all CGI looks as slick as 300. And while it may be harder to find low-budget bad-movie classics of the Ed Wood school these days, there are still odd gems like The Room being tossed off.

    • That’s a good point, Alex, and you’re right: There are lousily made bad movies still out there. One must look, but they do exist. So there’s hope yet for the genre. I haven’t seen The Room, but it sounds just wonderfully terrible. 😀

  2. Like James, I am a fan of Showgirls, but for admittedly shameful reasons…

    As for old crap being more fun than new crap, 100% correct. Why stop at epics and horror though? How about ‘The Hangover’ against any Marx Brothers film. I know which one I would be laughing at. And ‘Moulin Rouge’ compared to any Astaire and Rogers? The list goes on and on…
    Nice one, Simon.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. Goodness, if I told you how much I dislike the film Moulin Rouge!, you’d want to run away in despair. But that’s an interesting example. It’s completely campy yet dreary at the same time–unwatchable, in my opinion. It doesn’t have the je ne sais quoi of, say, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. But then again, what does? 😀

  3. To be fair, there are so-bad-they’re-great movies being made today. They just don’t get theatrical releases.

    I know I am going to hell for having laughed so hard at this movie so many times. It’s awful, but it’s so, so great.

  4. It’s a great discussion, Simon. I too will always hold Creeping Terror and a few William Kastle titles in a special place. But whenever I get to thinking things used to be better back in the day, I wonder whether it isn’t at least in part do to access. We see everything today. We only see the bad movies from 1940 that have stood the test of time for 75 years. They have proven value, even if it is value as an entertaining bad movie. I think it is possible that 50 years from now, film fans will look back at some of today’s Troma or Asylum titles with the same guilty pleasure adoration we feel for Plan Nine From Outer Space. A future blogger may well be lamenting the bygone glory of Sharknado (and all its sequels).

    • Thanks, Jon. I dig William Castle, too. It definitely remains to be seen if the cinematic garbage of today becomes the treasure of tomorrow, a la Belloq’s observation in Raiders of the Lost Ark. To a certain extent, the Troma “oeuvre” has reached that level already, methinks. I’d hesitate to put any value now or in the future on Sharknado, however; I suspect whatever appeal it has is not for posterity.

  5. I completely agree. Schlock from back in the way always felt like they were at least trying, and doing the best they could – regardless of budget or talent involved. B-Movies these days generally feel more cynical and lazy, like check-box excercises for (mostly) up-and-comers.

    Example: Sharknado 3. THREE!!!

    • You bring up an interesting point with Sharknado 3. There is something cynical about such an exercise in lousiness–it’s deliberately cheesy, and that’s no fun. A move that winkingly self-aware just becomes grating, in my opinion. On the other hand, films that are inspired by junk (!) but are actually well crafted–down to the last celluloid ripple–such as the Rodriguez/Tarantino Grindhouse saga, are harder to categorize. I guess Sharknado 3 is no Grindhouse. 😀

      • It’s bizarre. I’ve (stupidly) sat through a bunch of Shark/Octopus/Piranha films which are all lazy copies of 80s films (which are mostly copies of 60s films). Then you get movies like Hobo with a Shotgun & Iron Sky which are identical on paper in almost every way but actually celebrate the genre.

        Just checked and Sharknado 3 had a $2.5M budget, Hobo had $3M – and you couldn’t get two more different films, in every aspect. It’s almost like SyFy are ‘doing a producers’ and deliberately releasing stinkers for no reason.

  6. The difference between the old bad movies and the new bad ones is well covered in this entertaining article, but I would like to add some things. The old bad movies definitely have the benefit of being old and are, by comparison to the modern bad output, even more funny and inept to our eyes as a result. I say this as a good (acting, script, etc) old movie can sometimes be amusing due to crappy effects, but we will over look the humour due to other outstanding merits. I also think the passion of people making bad old movies is missing in new bad movies. You had to be very passionate about film making, even if you were entirely lacking in talent, to make films on tiny budgets. I think that shines through in some of the carappy cult movies I have seen. Hope this makes sense! I am usually a three words or less blog commenter!

    • Thank you. I agree that there’s a certain kind of passion in the bad movies of yesteryear; it had to be there–some kind of belief in the junk that was made–to pull the films off so terribly. Behind every bad piece of non-art is someone supporting it fervently, I guess. 😀

  7. Pingback: Bad Movie Magic: Why the Junk of Yesteryear Tops the Junk of Today | Scenes of futures past

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