What Makes A Bad Film Good?

Stephen Sambrook, Duty Manager at Harbour Lights Picturehouse takes a look at the what makes The Room such a cult classic

As part of the daily film history posts on the Harbour Lights Facebook page, we recently marked the fourteenth anniversary of The Room. The response involved demands for a screening (demands we took seriously – the film is showing this week). But why was the reaction to a piece detailing a film’s “inept and bizarre nature in every aspect” a request to sit through it on the big screen? Why do we enjoy bad films so much?

Of course, we don’t love all bad films. There’s a difference between the likes of Dirty Grandpa, Jaws: The Revenge and a Transformers sequel and ‘so bad, they’re good’ films such as Troll2, Birdemic and Taffin, most obviously the entertainment level. Sit through, say, Dungeons and Dragons and you’ll likely find yourself bored with uninspired choices, a dull script and unenthusiastic performances. Watch Battlefield Earth from the same year however and you’ll find baffling decisions (alien dreadlocks), unique dialogue (”crap-lousy ceiling!”) and a performance from John Travolta that is energetic to the point of coming across as deranged – that fine line of enthusiasm/derangement stretching to Travolta’s promotion for the film, where he referred to it as “Schindler’s List in space”. None of it is good – the Washington Post review stated “a million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth” – but it is fascinating to see it unfold and to try and figure out the answer to one simple question – why?

The answer to that question is the secret to the enduring nature of many of these films – passion. Battlefield Earth was Travolta’s dream project and though every decision made on it comes across as wrong it’s hard to think that any were made half-heartedly. Likewise, George Lucas’ was determined to adapt Howard the Duck and M. Night Shyamalan took the threat of killer breezes seriously in The Happening. The same goes for the original ‘so bad it’s good’ film – Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. The film is mired in bad dialogue spoken in incomprehensible accents, editing that allows day and night to interchange in the same scene and an array of scripts and microphones in shot. But anyone who was seen Tim Burton’s Ed Wood will know that Wood was simply a man who loved filmmaking and what he lacked in talent he made up for in passion.

Which brings us to Tommy Wiseau. A man who allegedly raised the $6m budget for The Room through real estate and imported leather jackets and spent another $600,000 on keeping a billboard for the film up in Hollywood for five years, Wiseau believed in his film. So the acting is dreadful, the plot is nonsensical and the sex scenes are nightmarish. It’s the work of a crazed imagination and it’s impossible to understand why plastic spoons being used for interior decorating or football games are being played in tuxes. But there’s something there: a bizarre, hypnotic and enjoyable element that makes it hard to turn away from. The tagline for the film noted it had “the passion of Tennessee Williams”. It may not apply to the quality of the film but it’s a fitting description of its creator and one of the reasons why so many people keep falling for its odd charms. What a story!

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