Digging one up from the archives — this isn’t a new piece, but I stumbled across it in my work files; originally it ran on FT back in 2000 when it was a dot-com and was lost in the Internet underworld along with that domain. There are a few edits to bring it more up to date, but the feeling remains the same!

HEART OF BADNESS

Sooner or later my friends realize something about me when it comes to recent films in particular. Namely, I don’t care for many of them — they don’t move me to much of anything, least of all to actually make me want to investigate them further by viewing them. I’ve seen an average of something like two movies a year in the theater since about 1990 or so, when my previously fierce and strong love for moviegoing mostly died a miserable death (music took over fully and that was that). Schindler’s List? Whatever. American Beauty? Huh. Braveheart? Mm. And those are just the Oscar winners for best picture — though certainly The Return of the King broke that particular streak.

I should say that a good number of those modern films that do slip through my barrier often end up being deeply, totally cherished by me, and my inclination to owning DVDs helps. Frida? A beautifully filmed and directed biopic. Velvet Goldmine? Can almost quote you the entire script. This summer I did enjoy Anchorman — even if it wasn’t the funniest thing ever, it still had some great moments. But generally these are the noble exceptions to the rule, and as the amount of material on DVD grows, likely I’ll be found ignoring the usual suspects — and indeed, The Usual Suspects — in favor of whatever idiosyncratically catches my fancy.

However, I’ve been talking about putatively good films. When it comes to bad ones — oh man, that’s another story!

I love bad movies. I LOVE bad movies. Bad movies are great, they’re fantastic, wonderful. You can’t watch bad movies with the same enforced level of forelock-tugging that you do with, I don’t know, Citizen Kane (which I do like, but you get the point). You can relax, be free, heckle. You’re not going in with high expectations, so you can be pleasantly surprised, even when (and especially if) something is so incredibly ridiculous that you can’t but laugh.

Bad films are funny. Bad films are entertainment value. Oh sure, they can also make your skin crawl, but then again there are bad films and BAD films, and more about that later. Bad films make you think about the folly of mankind and allow you to laugh it off. Bad films are a gift to modern society thanks to an intersection of technological advances, insatiable demand and the secret joy we all find in watching somebody fail.

Why bad films more so than, say, bad books or bad music (though I’ve enjoyed my share of those)? My parents asked me why, back when I was still in high school and beginning what would be a near obsessive run of taping for some years. Heck, they just asked ‘why bad movies?’ and left it at that (my parents collect Good Movies if anything, and have a nice library of same). Who can say where the indefinable urge came from? I don’t recall a moment of epiphany — I do recall when being even younger liking Bad and Good equally, in fact merrily meshing the two into ‘movies.’ Thus my cursed memory of knowing every frame of Krull and Battle Beyond the Stars.

But when it began, there’s no holding back. And like all other movies, bad movies can be sorted in terms of quality. See, to fully maximize its entertainment value, a bad movie only truly fulfills its potential when certain criteria are met. It has to be:

* watchable
* strange
* deeply, truly wrong
* above all us, unintentionally funny

How to define these characteristics in particular? Well:

Watchable — a truly BAD film can’t even be watched. It’s that bad and therefore pointless. It produces boredom, not entertainment, and so you can’t even be bothered to pick a fight with it. Canada does a great job at producing these — there was some awful film about tedious people leading tedious lives at a tedious religious institution. The tedious heroine met a tedious performer in a tedious travelling circus and had an overwhelmingly tedious revelation of lesbian sexuality. Charmless, dull and drab, it was bad, but so bad as to be worth nothing. Escape from its pernicious influence was had by way of putting on music on the stereo and reducing the TV volume while working on the computer, occasionally looking up to see if anything changed. The end result was that the dead dog buried in the snow at the beginning of the movie came back to life and ran around, symbolizing REBIRTH! One brilliantly stupid moment, though, does not a totally BAD film save.

Strange — as one can gather from the above, a tediously bad film is a no-no. Something — anything! — weird has to happen to prevent a bad movie from becoming a exercise in totally wasted space. This key axiom was recently illustrated over here regarding the products of the Lifetime Channel — the movies may be campfests, but the TV shows, to happily dump on my country’s neighbor again, were judged ‘kind of Canadian and off-putting.’ It has to be that drab thing again, where it would be a housewife worrying about paying the bills or else Little Meg’s outfit for Christmas as J-Lo can’t be bought without using the credit card. A housewife stumbling across a talking skull backlit by a cheap strobe with the voice of Denis Leary — far, far more strange. And importantly, far more deeply wrong.

Deeply, truly wrong — bad films are often described as cheap knockoffs of True Classics. If anything, that would actually be the realm of pornography, where all it takes is one change in a title phrase to turn A Beloved Blockbuster into something like ET, the Extra Testicle. More accurately, bad films exist in their own world, occasionally linking over to something in the Accepted Mainstream but just as often ignoring preconceptions of what works and what doesn’t in favor of curious individual logic. Sometimes the wrongness is simply technical — unfocused shots, cheap sets, editing that goes nowhere. But more often it’s the characters, the attitudes, the script and the values that they all push forth. American Ninja is a classic example — screaming with mid-eighties meta-patriotism of the most crass kind, it posits a truly heartwarming vision of the universe were Drug Corruption and Evil Superiors are handled by means of A White Badass who is Always Chivalrous to the Useless Semi-Love Interest. He even has a Buff Black Friend who wears a Rambo Headband! It’s just one example, but the point is — bad films make you realize how incredibly stupid and fucked up the surrounding world is, and why it should be destroyed.

Unintentionally funny — above all else, this. Intentionally funny bad films don’t exist, because if a film intends to be funny and succeeds, well, it has fulfilled its brief. Similarly, intentionally dramatic films succeed if they are cathartic, etc. But when both kinds of film fail miserably, they both become unintentionally funny. Arguably failed comedies are more excruciating than anything else, because rather than laughing at the inanities of the people on the screen one is more likely to want to kill them outright. Still, there’s a grim humor to be had there, while seeing somebody try to EMOTE and ACT but fail miserably is a catharsis of humor — we laugh the results, knowing we too would do little better in the same place.

It’s often been argued that in fact bad films are enjoyable because we the viewers think that we can in fact do better than the filmmakers. Not so — most of us wouldn’t even know what to do with a movie camera, where most bad films allow for the fact that somebody at least plugged it in, turned it on and knew where to point it. Instead, follies are enjoyed for themselves — the best kind of comedy, the most honest type of entertainment, resulting from the natural inabilities of those working on the production. Truly, this is reality programming at its finest.

The brilliant and peerless Mystery Science Theater 3000 established something of a canon of bad movies, selecting everything from the ridiculous teen angst of I Accuse My Parents and High School Big Shot to the sf moronicisms of Escape 2000 and The Robot Holocaust as targets and, to a certain extent, scapegoats for their decade-long reduction of America’s stupidest self-images. However, to paraphrase Umberto Eco on the Mac vs. PC debates, there’s a certain fundamentalism about dealing with bad movies directly. There’s no Catholic hierarchy of guy and robots filtering the movies for you — you deal with them up front, and react accordingly.

If I had to pick a bad movie — just one of the millions — then Vampire on Bikini Beach is probably it. It is very much of its place and time — LA, mid eighties. It fulfills the four step outline — it is watchable, it’s incredibly strange, it’s astoundingly wrong and is it EVER funny. The beginning alone lets us know we’re in for a good time — with a lame time-lapse-sped-up moon-over-the-beach-while-traffic-drives-by night scene letting us see the waves jerk in and out quick, a pseudo-DJ voiceover rabbits on about ‘mysterious murders.’ He just sounds like someone you want to punch, and while he continues, a hearse parks somewhere else. Then we see a guy in a black monk’s cowl and white makeup take a coffin over a footbridge in the Venice canals, and then into a suburban house. Bad creepy organ music quietly plays, and the door closes. Then it cuts to the production company’s logo. Um, thanks?

Three LA skanks are then seen to wander down a Urban Street. One skank decides to walk down a dark alley by herself and waves goodbye. No music plays. In fact, nothing happens as she walks. She starts and looks behind herself once, but as nothing was heard and no apparent danger is afoot, that’s as maybe. She continues walking along, to the point where she gets near the camera and we just see her legs. Then some other guy in a black monk cowl steps from the shadows and presumably attacks her. As she faints immediately upon being touched, she doesn’t say anything, and the guy just catches her and drags her, somewhat embarrassedly, off to the side. Again, no music, just a brief shuffle and scrape on the pavement.

We finally get the main credits! First we see an absolutely terrible projection of a full moon over the LA skyline. The moon is made to look like it’s about, oh, 100 miles away from Earth or something, but with the edges all completely fuzzy thanks to the bad projection. Back to time-lapse, so the freeway is speeding along. More lame portentous music kicks in, we return to the beach scene, it sounds like it’s building to a crescendo, and as it does the title of the movie appears — in cheap, flat video credit style. And we’re off!

It’s a movie crediting people for both ‘original dramatic music score’ and ‘original rock music score,’ while being markedly deficient in either. It has blondes and brunettes in bathing suits, but that’s as maybe. It has lame studs and pseudo-studs, not to mention a surf/geek/rocket scientist/computer programmer/drummer. Isn’t that the way? Sets actually do look like LA apartments created by people with more money than sense, with things like photography workrooms set up with an open space to walk into the kitchen. The previously mentioned drummer and the main alleged stud, who plays keyboards, are part of an unnamed rock band that redefines lame, with a hair farmer lead singer with the voice and attitude of Steve Perry on worse drugs, a guy wearing a bad trilby who screams ‘studio musician moron!’ even while it’s clear he’s not even trying to play and some other lamer who jumps up and down every so often. The crowds who dance to their music are beyond white, as is their extremely weak dancing. People drive around in cars to see touristy things that people who actually live in LA would never bother going to see because they could do that anytime. There’s surfing and beach bonfires and bad background music. Extremely stupid sex scenes are set in a bedroom that apparently doubles as the candle-ridden set for the Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” video, and are shot in soft focus to boot. The way the chief psuedo-stud says “C’mooon!” to his preferred skank just before their first disappointing copulation bespeaks blue neon-lit singles bars where Loverboy and Phil Collins are in eternal rotation.

Er, right, vampires. There’s a lead vampire called Falto, played by some Eastern European guy who obviously thinks he’s a real ladykiller. The long, oh-so-romantic straight black hair may be fake, but his attitude is all his, and damn is he annoying. The first time he appears he emerges out of tastefully red-lit fog machine murk, explaining to his latest victim (all of whom are female skanks and all of which seem to be brought to him — aren’t vampires supposed to stalk the night themselves?) about why he’s doing what he does. “It is not the pleasure I seek…it is a quest I must pursue…I was born hundreds of years ago, the seventh son of a seventh son…” and so forth, talking about things like “plunging a stake into the heart of love” and the like. His wannabe passionate husk/whisper, with heavy accent, adds further entertainment value. So anyway, he goes on like this forever, then finally gives her the neck bite with her full acquiescence (as indicated by the teardrop on her cheek in one lame close-up, showing her empathy). She collapses in death, he swings her around, then after a second says to his lackey, “She was not the one.” Does this clown say this to every victim?

Second chief vampire Demos is a piece of work himself, wearing an extremely ill-fitting mask and speaking with vocals run through voice modulation to sound oh-so-spooky. Needless to say, it doesn’t really work, not entirely. There’s one fantastic bit where he suddenly charges into a warehouse dressed up to look like a medieval torture chamber, in order to confront those meddling kids (or more accurately morons) who have stumbled onto all this. The way he swoops in as the lights dim, flailing his cape around in an orgy of “I am the EVIL VAMPIRE MAN OF DOOM!” overacting is absolutely mindboggling, heightened by the strange camera placement, which seems to be about twenty feet up the wall and about fifty feet away. But his true moment of glory comes when Falto asks him about some victims who had escaped. Demos snarls at Falto’s tattling valet (no, I don’t know why he has a valet) in anger — which ordinarily wouldn’t be much, except he does so by means of a point of view shot directly into the camera. So what you see is a guy with a cheap vampire-via-Bela Lugosi costume, bad wig and a grey, clunky mask suddenly turning towards the audience breathlessly going, “HAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGGHH!” This in a set where the walls consist of black garbage bags or bad curtains or something, with Falto on an elevated chair, fog machine pumping away madly behind him and a red light shining up from the ground through it, on top of a low staircase with each step outlined by cheap red neon. Did I mention the fat fake belly dancer who comes in with a plate of flaming Sterno and says, accent from somewhere intact, “Master, this is the fire of HELL!”

Let’s see, there’s also a chief high priest from the flaming underworld summoned at some point by the main characters to fight Falto and Demos — he gets to wear a cowl himself, have a craggy voice to go with his craggy looks and wields a cheap red chemical glow light cross about two feet long which he terms the Cross of Death. There’s a variety of sub-vampires and thugs who help out, ranging from greasy bikers (“My name’s Richard…my friends call me Richard…the ladies call me Dick…and what they ask for, they get.”) to what at one point looks like Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance wreaking havoc on a bunch of actors pretending (but generally failing) to be drunk teens on the beach. Goths don’t run as rampant as you might think, but there are a few of them for color, if only in shades of black and white.

Numerous scenes of cars driving along, parking and then people getting out of them and slamming the doors are done with nary a sound at all, leading one to think that the movie was filmed in a vacuum. Lead skank wakes up to find a book smoking away, so she calls lead pseudostud to investigate. He picks it up, throws it down — “What the…it’s like fire!” — prompting her to say, “Then it wasn’t a dream…that book is something evil!” An extremely perverted looking old guy who looks like he uses cocaine just to breathe plays a priest, leading to the brilliant comment from the lead pseudostud, “We think this book is something evil…what would a priest know about this?” The lead skank complains about a bookseller ‘taking so long,’ when he’s only been out of the shot for about thirteen seconds. Skank and pseudostud have a Moment in an Alleyway, then proceed to look off camera and wonder about what ‘that’ was, even though absolutely nothing has happened either visually or aurally. A random skank is hauled away by a sub-vampire, who unfortunately reveals that under his robe are a good pair of jeans and sneakers.

There’s more! Awkward attempts to start playing backgammon! A relentless unfunny pizza delivery sequence that gets even more horrifying the longer they drag it out! A stupid rocket explosion! Leering guys looking at bikini girls through a store front window! Unexplained endings to potentially dangerous situations, aka sudden random edits to the next morning at hot dog stands! Voiceovers detailing the painfully obvious and useless inner lives of our lead characters! Organs that sound like farting calliopes! Oh yeah, and the pipe bomb that one guy creates out of his socks that kills everyone surrounding the person holding the bomb, without harming said person. All this within about, oh, ninety minutes, if that.

Thus the joy of bad movies in the end — seeing things that shouldn’t happen, couldn’t happen, can’t really make a pretense at realism or artifice. It’s simply there, to be enjoyed, so why not enjoy it? Save the life-changing stories of seeing 8 1/2 for the first time for whispery discussion among film-school students over weak coffee, stale biscotti and an unhealthy addiction for ‘meaningful’ music (read — Aimee Mann and similar borefests). The bad is all around — and all it takes is a little looking for a lot of fun.

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