“Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
This quote is attributed to Pauline Kael, one of cinema’s best known professional critics. She also confessed to having a fondness for the biker movies that made such a mindless splash in the late 60s and early 70s.
“I’m a little unclear on this whole good/bad thing.” Doctor Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters (1984)
Inevitably, when someone tells me they love my 1986 movie The Abomination, it’s because they stumbled onto the film at a very formative age. As kids, we are sponges, soaking everything up and trying to make sense of the insanity that passes for reality on this planet. A completely inane film can leave a deep mark in our developing consciousness, because it is puzzling to us or so incredibly different from anything we could imagine adults creating.
I have a very vivid memory of the impact a cheesy film from the 50s, From Hell It Came, had on my five-year-old mind. I was at the babysitter’s house and had been told to take a nap. It was mid-afternoon and the sitter was watching the film on Dialing for Dollars, a local program that enticed people to watch B-movies by giving them the chance to win cash if their number was dialed on the air.
I stood behind the door and peered through the crack to watch this film about a murdered tribesman who comes back to life as a killer tree. It was about as hokey as a film can be; the “monster” a tree not much different than the one that threw its apples at Dorothy and the gang in The Wizard of Oz.
Still, the movie left a very creepy mark on my psyche. Partly, because I was raised in a strict Baptist environment in which the word “Hell” was simply not spoken. And I’m sure, the fact that I watched secretly through a narrow slit heightened the experience. For years, I would get an inexplicable chill down my spine when I watched that silly film.
I believe the question ultimately is not, “Why do people like bad movies?” The real question is, “Why do humans insist on labelling movies either good or bad?” I think the answer lies in the cognitive dissonance that inevitably arises in our minds when we attempt to reconcile the world as it is with the world authority figures have encouraged us to believe in.
Religions have always shaped the here-and-now by applying threats and promises of consequences in a hereafter. Taking a cue from the religions, governments have generated a secular world view that aims at having citizens police themselves. These influences in early life can only lead to the compulsive division of all we see or experience into good/bad, sheep/goats, dark/light, etc. Duality.
Humans are an odd species. They like bestowing awards on people and things. A warrior is given a medal by his king, leading him to be exalted as a hero. Meanwhile, on the foreign turf where he rode rough-shod over men, women and children, he’s viewed as a psychopath. The warrior is both a hero and a murderer, depending on your perspective. It’s no different with movies. We bestow awards on films because they are congruent with the current zeitgeist, or because they support the agenda of a particular organization.
WTF, man? I thought this was about bad horror movies! What’s all this high-falutin’ verbiage have to do with it?
We humans want to believe things are separate. We like taking things and dissecting them into little bits. We pretend we’re learning from this process. In reality, I believe we’re just whistling in the dark. The answers to all our deepest questions are not answered. We escape the oppression and uncomfortable uncertainty by turning to entertainment.
Boys love dinosaurs. A lot of little girls do, too. This love of giant reptiles often expands into an appreciation of all sorts of “monsters.” Perhaps parents encourage you to watch something they think will capture your imagination.
So, you overcome your fear and start watching monsters, aliens and such. Still, you’re probably only watching the “good stuff;” the big budget movies your folks are familiar with. Often times, the young person’s appetite for weirdness outstrips the supply of A-list titles. This is where the schlockmeisters creep into the scenario, filling the demand for the outré.
Initially, the child is disappointed by these inferior films. Even so, he/she keeps watching every quirky title that gets a hook into the young imagination: Cat-Women of the Moon, The Killer Shrews, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, How to Make a Monster. These mad movies still demand a viewing simply for the enticing allure of their title alone.
As the child approaches puberty, a sort of jaded quality sets in and watching “bad” movies with friends seems fun. What better bonding experience than pointing out the many flaws of films such as Larry Buchanan’s The Eye Creatures or Zontar: Thing from Venus while ingesting sodas and popcorn with your mates?
Invariably, the young viewer crosses a line into dangerous territory… forbidden fruit… films that seem somehow threatening to the adults in the family. A defugalty arose when I was fifteen over an Andy Milligan poster I had hanging in my room. My Mom had previously ignored the thing, Bloodthirsty Butchers, whose infamous tag line was:
“Their prime cuts were curiously erotic… but thoroughly brutal!”
When my grandmother visited, she was scandalised. How could a fifteen-year-old boy be allowed to have such filth in his bedroom? It wasn’t healthy. My mother was swayed and she insisted I take it down. I retaliated by refusing to get a haircut.
Bad films are most certainly an acquired taste. Akin to masochism, I suspect.
As a purveyor of really cheap movies, I must admit that all my creations fall into the “bad” category. The uninitiated viewer is mistaken to think these things are accidentally bad. When they ask questions like, “How on Earth did this atrocity receive funding?” they completely miss the point.
Bad movies are dredged up from the same polluted well as rock ‘n’ roll (including punk, metal, rap and all popular music’s more violent permutations). Bad films arise from the same impulses that birthed surreal art and the non-art of people like Andy Warhol (whose name was used to promote Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein). They surge toward receptive minds in response to the morbid curiosity that causes people to ogle car wrecks and freak shows.
As Pablo Picasso said: “Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”
Bret McCormick, MOV!ES and MAN!A © 2017
Coming soon from Bret McCormick: Texas Schlock: B-Movie Sci-Fi and Horror from the Lone Star State
B-Movie Baggage: Filmmaker versus Distributor in a Fight for Survival – article by Bret McCormick
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