We love bad movies. Or should I say “so bad they’re good” movies. They’re the cinematic equivalent to chasing a Fireball shot with a PBR; not exactly something that nourishes, but dang — who cares about nutrition when you feel that alive. When sitting down to watch Disco Exorcist or Sorority Babes In The Slimeball Bowl-A-Rama whether you know your shit from Shinola makes no difference.
While there’s no fixed set of criteria to separate a downright bad movie — i.e. Transformers: Age of Extinction — from a ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ movie — i.e. Plan 9 From Outer Space — it’s generally understood that the pantheon of loveable bad films stray beyond Michael Bay’s big-budget offenses. Pictures that might not dream of awards glory but at least attempt to offer something new in an interesting, creative way.
The likes of Showgirls and Hackers, both of which celebrate their 20 year anniversaries this fall, are two such examples. They receive nods at the Raspberries, yet they’re as much a part of our rich cultural history as the same old revolving door of real-life biopics that dominate Oscar ballots. They were just mauled upon release, their inherent awfulness turning them into an accepted shorthand for bad. Only do these types of films find sanctuary in the hearts of cult movie enthusiasts.
Paul Verhoeven, like Bay, always goes big. With a penchant for burying social commentary about an inch below the surface of his work, he tore apart consumerism in Robocop and tried to lift the lid on sex with Showgirls. What poured out was a 100-minute All About Eve-inspired riff on Vegas dancers held together by a poorly-judged sense of what people find sexy. Is a naked woman flailing around a pool as if in the throes of death erotic? For some, perhaps. For most, that infamous scene of Elizabeth Berkeley nailing both Kyle Machlachlan and her squeaky-clean image in a pool, was hysterical. It’s when watching scenes like that…
Or listening to the clunky dialogue like this:
Or cringing at the deliveries in scenes like this:
… that I like to imagine audiences at the first preview screenings back in 1995, critics carefully musing on whether or not Verhoeven had produced a hot mess of garbage or had crafted a brilliant and biting satire.
Initial response to Showgirls at the beginning was negative — hardly anyone bought into the idea that Verhoeven had created a masterpiece — and the box office reflected that universal opinion. MGM managed to flip that around, steering the film to profit on home video. A 180 that Naomi Klein touches on in No Logo:
“Trendy twenty-somethings were throwing Showgirls irony parties, laughing sardonically at the implausibly poor screenplay and shrieking with horror at the aerobic sexual encounters.”
Looking back on the film now, with 20 years of evolved public reaction, and the shape of that change rather resembles the Kubler-Ross model outlining the five stages of grief, as if the experience of Showgirls is tantamount to mourning:
1. Denial Refusal to believe it even exists.
4. Depression But what if I don’t get it? I’m not in on the joke!
We’ve gone through an entire emotional cycle, reacting to shitty movies so vehemently to begin with that we end up resigning ourselves to their camp allure in the long run.
Another response to the rising popularity of celluloid guff is as a by-product of our nostalgia obsession. Things once subjected to deep, critical inspection are given a new lease of life celebrating those revealed flaws. Denouncement just as good a fate as a ‘fresh’ Rotten Tomatoes score.
Hackers likewise is another misfire that’s just as much fun to sit through. Teen hackers outfitted in retrofuturist garb charge around New York City on rollerblades, evading police capture while a former hacking glory boy attempts to throw them under the bus for his crimes. Standard ‘90s teen fare that’s watchable for its laughably bad rendering of what it’s like to hack. Contemporary screen hackers carry out their means behind banks of razor-thin monitors, the only aesthetic nods we need to understand their skills. Hackers goes above and beyond to bring those exploits to dazzling life, cementing the film into history as an example of how best to ensure a movie ages badly.
If anything, it’s this over-the-top — and unnecessary — scramble to show us the joys of being a hacker that makes it such a blast. Hacking has never been and never will be like this. It’s pure ‘90s fantasy.
Two decades later neither movie has been forgotten, or been resigned to the discount DVD bin at Target.
Far from it. Aside from the Blu-ray 20th anniversary special editions, they both live on in theaters. You don’t see last year’s Best Picture winner trotted out for countless midnight screenings — you only ever see the trashiest, campest dirge hitting up repeat business at smaller theaters across the globe. Fans dressing up as their favorite characters so they can sit in a cinema packed with costumed strangers all wanting to do the same is not a phenomenon extended to prestigious offerings. It’s an almost exclusively “bad movie” experience, that’s not a case of “Misery loves company.” People who buy advance tickets to watch Hackers in Hecklevision don’t venture out to their local second-run theater to be miserable, and mourn the loss of good cinema. They do it because it’s fun. It’s a shared delight to revel in the hogwash served up to us as entertainment. Watching crap in an acceptable scenario, there’s a community of moviegoers all ready to unburden themselves from responsibility.
Bad movies are a free pass to your hidden desires. You’ve license to watch unfettered crap, all under the proviso that you aren’t taking it seriously. You’re watching junk without any expectation to serve up some astute observation on the state of cinema.
An old friend of mine told me he’d recently sat through M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth, a dud that’s not quite reached the same epic heights of adoration as the two films explored in this here piece, but it’s getting there. And my friend knew this before he hit play. I asked him to explain his attraction towards terrible movies, to which he laid out his stripped-down definition — “It’s a film that’s supposed to be no good, but you want to watch it anyway.”
There’s hope for Fantastic Four yet.