by Ben Casey
I recently paid $100 to see a movie in a theater. I bought the ticket, drove to Chicago, made a wrong turn at Fullerton, and arrived at the theater a half hour early to reserve a seat for my three-digit cinema extravaganza.
The movie was awful. The plot meandered left and right, introducing new characters in nearly every scene only to discard them a scene later. The special effects were pitiful, looking like something I could whip up in my backyard after an afternoon at the dollar store. It was a foreign film, as well, and was dubbed awfully, the dialogue twisted and contorted to line up with lips that were never meant to hold those syllables. I don’t think I could have made a worse movie if I tried.
It was worth every penny.
It wasn’t just a bad movie, of course. It was a stage show based on the hit television series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). The show featured live sketch comedy, a Q&A with the creator of MST3K Joel Hodgson, and three comedians riffing over the absolutely atrocious movie Argoman the Fantastic Superman.
For those who don’t know, the premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is that an average joe is trapped in a spaceship, where two evil scientists send him bad movies in the hopes that he’ll go crazy. A ridiculous premise that was wonderful to see recreated on stage.
But after laughing along with an entire audience, I started to wonder: Why were these awful movies so enjoyable? What makes something so bad, it’s good?
At first, the answer seemed obvious: People watch bad movies because they like to laugh at them. It’s ironic, part of the hipster-ethos of the past decade and a half.
But that misses something important.
Fans of bad movies don’t just watch the movies. They are called “cult classics” for a reason. A film attains cult status when it achieves a loyal following of a select few, and these bad movies have that in spades.
What makes fans so dedicated to these movies? Why do people take such joy in finding every bizarre little detail in them? Why do fans of the movie The Room attend midnight screenings and throw plastic spoons at the screen during the many times a framed picture of spoons appears in the background?
There is a clear line between movies that are just bad and movies that are bad—that gain attention, reputation and, strangely enough, acclaim and fanfare.
In the book In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000, Rick Sloane writes on how MST3K took his unsuccessful film Hobgoblins and turned it into a cult classic.
Sloane writes that
These fans love Hobgoblins. Sloane himself relates, saying the film was “heavily inspired by [his] love for really bad movies.” Their enjoyment isn’t ironic or out of the need to demean or put down an easy target in bad films. They are not laughing at the pain bad media causes them. They are experiencing joy and positive emotions from bad movies.
According to a study titled “Enjoying trash films: Underlying features, viewing stances, and experiential response dimensions” published in the academic journal Poetics, the average viewer of trash films is well-educated and a “cultural omnivore” who often also enjoys art films. The study notes that the connection between “trash films” and “art films” may have something to do with the “transgressive nature” of both.
In this way, bad movies transcend labels of good and bad in art. Beyond the preconceived notion of a movie being good or bad lies style. A bad movie without style, a conventional kind of awful, is forgotten. But a bad movie that breaks rules, that ignores what “should be” and what is normal, grows beyond its status of bad.
Art movies and bad movies connect in their forsaking of what it means for a movie to be good and the embrace of their own unique styles. Birdemic shows almost as much disregard for how a movie “ought” to be as Eraserhead does, whether it intends to or not. The Room creates a surreal, dream-like effect with its unbelievable dialogue and bizarre performances in much the same way Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut does. Killer Klowns from Outer Space is often as visually stimulating as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Each movie, art movie or bad movie, does something unique, something that few have ever seen or experienced.
This is what “so bad, it’s good” means. These cult classics have made every wrong stroke of the brush and created a painting no one has ever seen before—like a sculpture made out of a car crash.
While a cultural love for bad movies may have begun with the veneer of irony or, as David Ray Carter puts it in MST3K’s From the Peanut Gallery, “a cinematic variation on the game of ‘chicken,’” it developed into a love for the transgressiveness of non-mainstream films.
Going back to the premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000, those scientists thought the bad movies would drive the average joe insane. Instead, he finds enjoyment in them. What should be painful is funny. What should be tedious is charming.
These are the things that allow bad movies to transcend into cult classics and camp masterpieces. This is what makes people quote Troll 2 and go to midnight screenings of The Room. Make sure to bring your spoons.