All right, some musings on basics now. I have spilled a fair bit of verbiage over the course of this column about films that are so bad theyâ€™re good. But there are questions going unanswered, and, dare I say it, unasked: how exactly does this come to pass. How does a bad movie achieve a certain form of perverse greatness? Why do we enjoy watching these things? I could go on.
A look at the patterns that emerge from consistent viewing of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is helpful here. Wonderful as that series was (and equally wonderful its continued preservation on DVD), not every episode hit comedy gold. The shows where Joel, Mike and the â€˜bots had more trouble with the material they were working with confirms, for me, a long-held theorem: that any type of film, if bad enough, turns into a comedy, with one exception: comedy. The sad fact of the matter is that no comedy, no matter how bad it is, becomes another form of comedy. It might almost approach the status of a horror film, but it remains a resolutely dismal experience, as Iâ€™m sure anyone foolish enough to line up this week for Daddy Day Camp has learned.
We might enhance this first principle by adding then, that the humour in these movies must be unintentional. The attempt to make the deliberately bad film (Killer Tomatoes franchise, Iâ€™m looking at you) is pointless, and runs into the problem outlined in the previous paragraph.
The other necessity driven home by the hits and misses of MST3K is that the film should have a relative wealth of incident. The movie has to give you something to work with. If there is simply nothing going on, then the movie is just plain bad, with no redeeming greatness. Having said this, there is one gigantic exception to this rule, perhaps proving it. Manos: The Hands of Fate is an astonishingly static film, with its entire first act consisting of nothing other than footage filmed through a car windshield. There is, however, something about this utter refusal to do ANYTHING, this commitment to stretch this utterly mundane and tedious sequence beyond any sane measure that achieves a certain lunatic grandeur. I find myself unable to watch this endless of display of nothing without dissolving into hysterical laughter. I can only imagine the kind of Emperorâ€™s New Clothes explosion that would take place if this film were to play on a double-bill with the likes of Gus Van Santâ€™s Gerry.
Genre films generally, and SF and horror in particular, are more prone to becoming wonderful Badfilms. This makes sense given that, if we want a wealth of incident, then the incidents we get from these genres are far more likely to be over the top or just plain bizarre than those in other domains. A few more examples should, I think, give a sense of this principle in action. Consider a few recent memorably bad films that are not from the realms of the fantastic: Gigli, From Justin to Kelly, Glitter and Showgirls. None of them are without a certain train-wreck appeal. Much of that comes, however, from seeing the celebrities of the moment abase themselves. The first two, furthermore, have some notions of being funny, which gets in the way of their being so. The latter two, and especially Showgirls, are more grandiose in what they get wrong, but even then, Showgirls is only really watchable thanks to David Schmaderâ€™s brilliant commentary track.
By contrast, and still sticking to the realm of big, mainstream releases, there is The Swarm, Battlefield: Earth, A Sound of Thunder and the remake of Rollerball. Here, there are no bounds to the absurdity on display. Showgirls may have Elizabeth Berkley mysteriously puking blood, or turning lap dances into a cross between an epileptic seizure and a mugging, but this pales before bees causing nuclear explosions, cavemen learning to fly thousand-year-old-but-still-pefectly-functional fighter jest, baboonosaurs, and Chris Klein as an action hero.
So: seriousness of purpose, wealth of incident, and the dangerous imaginative freedom that comes with the fantastic. Do we have the beginnings of a recipe here?