The Joy of Watching (and Rewatching) Movies So Bad They’re Good

Michael Musto sings the praises of his favorite cinematic clunkers.

Michael Musto | Longreads | Month 2019 | 8 minutes (2,090 words)

 

I’ve known about the power of good/bad movies since I was a kid, but I was reminded of it just a few days after 9/11, when I went to a press screening of Mariah Carey’s unwitting classic Glitter.

Naturally, New York City was traumatized, many of us going through the motions in a daze as we tried to make sense of the horror. But we had to make a living, so, along with a handful of other arts journalists, I dragged myself to the screening, not sure of what we were getting into. It turned out to be the hackneyed story of a DJ who tries to lift a backup singer (Mariah) up from her humble roots through song and romance. And it was evident quickly into the film that Mariah just didn’t have the acting chops; the new Meryl Streep this wasn’t. We uncomfortably sat there watching the pop diva try to act, but eventually we couldn’t hold back, and a few of her line readings were greeted with titters — the first time I’d heard laughter (including my own) since 9/11. It sounded both shocking and very welcome, and the unintended reaction mounted during a ludicrous scene where Mariah and the DJ were magically thinking of the same melody. By the end, when Mariah spills out of a limo in a glittery gown to visit her dirt-poor mother, we were all screaming in hilarity. This was just the catharsis we needed, and it generously helped us bond and move on.

***

I grew up in the ’60s with good/bad movies in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn because the nearby Walker Theater was where subpar films regularly came to crash land. It was very rare that they had an Oscar-caliber movie there, and I had to wonder if the place was a front or some kind of tax write-off, though that didn’t stop me in the least from being a regular customer. I pantingly lined up for the dire attractions like Boom! (an overheated Tennessee Williams drama with Liz Taylor in an eye-popping headdress and Noel Coward as “the witch of Capri”), Secret Ceremony (Liz again, this time as a prostitute who fancies herself the mother of broken waif Mia Farrow), and De Sade (Keir Dullea as the celebrated sadist, with lots of slow-motion flogging that I didn’t quite understand at age 13, though I felt very adult taking it in). I was well aware that these were not works of prestige, having read the savage newspaper reviews, but there was no denying that I loved them! For a mere dollar admission, I sat there (usually alone) and found joy in the exotic settings, the over the top acting, and the glitzy accessories. “Bad” became “good” to me because, even if I occasionally felt the urge to question the inanity of these films, they took me out of the ennui of my adolescence while also educating me about the power of escapism and star quality. I was not bored.

‘Bad’ became ‘good’ to me because, even if I occasionally felt the urge to question the inanity of these films, they took me out of the ennui of my adolescence while also educating me about the power of escapism and star quality.

Many years later — in the ’90s — I found that “misery loves company” by re-enacting the movie-going experiences of my youth, this time with friends. Performer John Epperson had invited me and a few of my cohorts over to his place to watch The Love Machine, based on the trashy Jackie Susann novel about a heartless, bed hopping TV exec. The movie wasn’t quite as unintentionally campy as Valley of the Dolls (a high good/bad watermark, based on an even more lurid Susann book), but it still had enjoyably risible elements, with terrible casting and heavy handed lines like “Have you ever felt anything for anyone?” We ate it up and eventually splintered over to my own apartment, where the good/bad movie club runs to this day. Every few weeks, six of us get together to nibble on snacks I lay out and watch camp classics — often the very same ones I grew up with. Openly snarky now, we rip into them, commenting along with all the absurdities, though there’s also an underlying appreciation of the art of making these films — so much so that after taking in a bunch of them, we get together and vote on the Movie Club Awards. They’re sort of halfway between the Golden Razzies and the Oscars, as we honor movies and performances that were so vividly awful that they kept us amused. Winners have included Raquel Welch, Burgess Meredith, and Pearl Bailey in their off moments, plus flicks like Skidoo (a surreal all-star mess with Groucho Marx as a mobster named God) and Jennifer on My Mind (about a guy whose girlfriend ODs, so he stuffs her in his harpsichord and hopes no one notices).

Whether we stream our featured attractions, get them from Amazon, or tape them off movie channels, we’ve instinctively learned what makes a bad movie fun. Magazine editor Mickey Boardman, a founding member of my club, loves the idea of “big stars brought down low” — as in Jennifer Jones playing a former porn star who takes LSD and sky dives in the inimitable Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969) or Oscar winners Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine robbing banks in full hippie garb in the misfire comedy Bunny O’Hare (1972). The most bizarre star vehicle of all is the musical of Lost Horizon (1971), in which a bunch of Academy Award types float around what looks like the courtyard of a Malibu Marriott hotel, singing ghastly Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs. In the case of Liv Ullmann and Peter Finch, they mainly just “think” their songs — a la Mariah Carey — and fortunately, John Gielgud (as Chang) and Charles Boyer (as the High Lama) don’t sing at all. By the end of the lugubrious movie, you’ll probably feel that, unlike the residents of Shangri-La, you’ve considerably aged. And we absolutely love every minute!


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


Part of the fun here is in feeling better about yourself as you watch artists with such glorious track records fail so abysmally. It’s perversely comforting to see brilliant people mess up on such a grand scale, instilling the viewer with a superiority that great films simply can’t provide. “What were they thinking?” is the familiar, satisfying response, though there’s also the delight of discovering obscure chestnuts that hardly anyone else has ever heard of, for obvious reasons. (As in, “Did you know that Bette Davis once rode a motorcycle and robbed banks in a movie called Bunny O’Hare? And that she played the mother of a schizophrenic cross dresser in Scream Pretty Peggy?”) Another enjoyable thing about these films is that they free you from the tyranny of quality and good taste. There isn’t the challenging “This is good for me” feeling that makes movies from Gandhi to Never Look Away seem like less than a romp in the park to sit through. And you don’t even have to really pay attention!

A lot of horror films suit our interests because horror by definition involves out of the ordinary plot developments, and those must be presented with some cogent internal logic or the results go awry. Well, my movie club loves it when that’s not the case. In fact, the more misguided and ridiculous the approach, the more cheesy and fun/terrible the movie is. One of our favorites is The Manitou (1978), in which Susan Strasberg is pregnant on the back of her neck with the reincarnation of an ancient medicine man. You read that correctly. Also, Exorcist II: The Heretic, with a hammy Richard Burton and a placid Louise Fletcher (who always seemed like a second-tier Ellen Burstyn, which is perfect because sequels almost always trade down). I also adore The Creeping Terror, a low budget 1964 thriller about an outer space monster that looks like it crawled out of ABC Carpet & Home on clearance day.

We gave multiple awards to The Baby, a 1973 non-Oscar-winner with Ruth Roman as a tough lady who keeps her adult son diapered and in a crib, only to have social worker Anjanette Comer try to get “the baby” away from her. But Anjanette has her own agenda. It turns out her husband has been infantilized in an accident and he needs a playmate! The highlight is the showdown between the two women (“You want the baby for yourself!”), but the bit where Comer becomes so crazed that she buries Roman alive also needs to be seen to be disbelieved. The latter actress had been in quality films like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, but she doesn’t condescend to this material at all, instead looking like she’s having a ball being wickedly vampy. And for me and my club, her glee is infectious.

***

But the best kind of good/bad movie is one that doesn’t even know it’s bad. Enter The Room, the 2003 stinker that’s been called “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” and which proved that Tommy Wiseau is a quadruple non-threat — he can’t produce, direct, write, or act. Using a sizable budget of unknown origin, Wiseau plays Johnny, a sincere guy whose scheming girlfriend, Lisa, seduces Johnny’s best friend with disastrous results. The exceedingly earnest love-triangle tragedy is done in by endless establishing shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, character touches that add nothing (Lisa orders a very specific pizza over the phone), and illogical characters, like Lisa’s mother, who chirps, “I definitely have breast cancer!” The movie was initially sold as a riveting melodrama, until audiences — such as they were — jeered in derision and it was rebranded “a dark comedy.” It’s hilarious all right — and became a midnight attraction and one of my movie club’s faves, as we all chant along with the rotten dialogue (the way the 1975 drag musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show went from a dud to an interactive delight.) I’ll give Wiseau this much: Along with Ed Wood’s oeuvre, The Room has the distinction of having spawned a truly quality movie, in this case The Disaster Artist, with James Franco as the whack auteur.

The year 2003 also brought Gigli, with Jennifer Lopez hired to watch over kidnapper Ben Affleck, though obviously no one was hired to watch over the whole deranged project. The dialogue is so blissfully undignified for a couple so big the media branded them with a shared name (“Bennifer’) that it helped to make them a lot less big, while providing a giddy bonding experience for trash-minded cineastes everywhere. Even more raunchily delectable, 1995’s Showgirls — with Elizabeth Berkley as a Vegas dancer who has underwater sex — is one of the glitziest, most hyped clunkers of all time. Costar Kyle MacLachlan recently told me the film found “a response that’s a lot of fun. It is not necessarily the way it was intended, but it’s found its place.” His unabashed admission reminded me of the time Oscar winner Patty Duke told me she had finally come to embrace Valley of the Dolls because, for whatever reason, it’s brought great joy to a lot of people. And that’s the only way to deal with such a gigantic lemon — make lemonade!

It’s perversely comforting to see brilliant people mess up on such a grand scale, instilling the viewer with a superiority that great films simply can’t provide.

Much like Showgirls, Mommie Dearest took a serious subject — Joan Crawford’s alleged abuse against her daughter Christina — and heightened it, with kabuki style makeup for Faye Dunaway, who bulges her eyes and screeches pronouncements like “No wire hangers!” and “Bring me the axe!” Audiences guffawed at her antics, though I find the film a searing portrait of dementia, as well as a cautionary tale, a look inside Hollywood, and a fashion show. Part of me is still that awkward adolescent who didn’t know good from bad — or who didn’t care. And whatever it is, Mommie Dearest is endlessly entertaining, teetering on the good/bad brink so deliciously that Faye won the Golden Razzie for Worst Actress but also was a runner-up for Best Actress at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. That takes a particular brand of genius.

That film — and all the other ones I mentioned — have helped me get through many of life’s real horrors, while making me feel that my most embarrassing missteps weren’t quite that lousy after all. While people are still divided as to whether films like Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody really deserved Oscars, no one in my movie club ever questions our awards for stuff like The Baby and The Room. So thank you, good/bad movies. You’re the best.

* * *

Michael Musto is a weekly columnist for NewNowNext.com and a freelance writer for outlets from the New York Times Styles section to the Daily Beast. He was the longtime author of the “La Dolce Musto” entertainment and nightlife column for the Village Voice and has authored four books, including the non-fiction guide “Downtown” and the roman a clef novel “Manhattan on the Rocks.” Musto is an awards-related commentator for Goldderby.com and as such appears on CNN to discuss the Oscars and other entertainment topics.

Editor: Sari Botton