What Makes a Movie ‘So Bad It’s Good’?

troll 2 so bad it's good

Troll 2 (1990)

In my book review of Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies by philosopher Matthew Strohl, I outlined some of the features of ‘so bad they’re good’ movies and what distinguishes them from movies that are just bad. However, I think a point that wasn’t stressed enough in that review was how it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. The line between movies that are so bad that they become aesthetically valuable (entertaining, interesting, humorous, absurd, cringeworthy, etc.) and those films that are so bad that they are aesthetically disvaluable (dull, irritating, offensive, unfunny, etc.) is not always clear. Moreover, this can be highly subjective: the mistakes, failings, and oddities of one film can be aesthetically valuable for one viewer (thus making it a good-bad film), whereas these very same qualities can make the film an unbearable watch for someone else.

Leaving aside these differences in subjective opinion and experience when watching a supposedly good-bad film, for the bad movie lover, the search for the next good-bad movie can be difficult. This is because there are many good films and many bad films, but the intersection between these two – where conventionally bad qualities in films become aesthetically valuable – is a tricky thing to achieve. This is why quality ‘so bad they’re good’ movies are few and far between, whereas there are many more films that are ambiguous in terms of whether they deserve the ‘so bad it’s good’ status (again, this can be highly subjective). Many films contain a mix of conventionally good and bad characteristics, and if the bad qualities do not outweigh the good, or the bad qualities are not sufficiently heightened, then these films may not be aesthetically valuable in the ‘so bad it’s good’ sense.

I would now like to try to identify some of the essential characteristics of a ‘so bad it’s good’ movie. Firstly (returning to the aforementioned point), the bad qualities need to dominate, otherwise, the film may have ‘so bad it’s good’ elements but may not be considered a ‘so bad it’s good’ movie overall. Additionally, these conventionally bad qualities need to be obvious and strong enough that they evoke positive reactions (attention, interest, laughter, bonding, bewilderment, etc.). If bad qualities evoke negative reactions, then the film cannot reach ‘so bad it’s good’ status; it will be considered just plain bad.

Conventionally bad aspects might include unconvincing acting, awkward dialogue, confusing plotlines, shoddy set designs, poor sound editing/mixing, odd or garish costume choices, bad VFX or CGI, and so on and so forth. These are the kinds of qualities that get highlighted in negative reviews of films. But when these qualities become striking or novel enough, these conventionally bad qualities can transform the film into something that is non-conventionally good. 

For example, The Mummy Returns (2001) has been widely criticised for its use of shoddy CGI (when the Scorpion King, played by Dwayne Johnson, makes his appearance). In contrast, the visual effects used in Neil Breen’s films – such as Twisted Pair (2018) and Cade: The Tortured Crossing (2023) – are so amateurish that they become hilarious. The Bad Movie Database website states that the visual effects in Twisted Pair “look like Clip Art put through a rotate effect on Windows Movie Maker”. In line with Strohl’s definition of Bad Movie Love, we can say that such a person welcomes Breen’s use of greenscreen with open arms. They adopt an attitude of embrace, appreciation, and positive enjoyment, in opposition to Bad Movie Ridicule, which involves an attitude of superiority, contempt, and sneering. As the Bad Movie Database concludes about Twisted Pair: “This is arguably Neil Breen at his most Breenius self.” ‘Breenius’ is the term that fans of Breen’s films use to affectionately describe his work. This is not an attitude of contempt but appreciation.

The visual effects in Breen’s films work because the films as a whole are low budget and are characterised by other conventionally bad qualities (to a similar extreme degree, thus making the film novel and unusual). If these sorts of visual effects were featured in a higher-budget film that was marked by conventionally good acting, plot devices, set design elements, etc., then it would seem out of place. It would certainly ruin the film. For many people, this is the kind of effect that the poor CGI had on The Mummy Returns (others did not think that the film was, as a whole, ruined by its use of CGI, but that particular scene leads many people to adopt an attitude of scorn, not appreciation). A ‘so bad it’s good’ film, therefore, needs to be pervaded by non-conventionally bad qualities, rather than have a mere sprinkling of bad acting or CGI here and there.

There are plenty of conventionally good films and conventionally bad films that make errors (such as seeing glimpses of filming equipment or the artifice of set design elements being exposed). However, when these errors are frequent or glaring enough, then the film becomes a fit subject for comedy, instead of criticism. (I wrote a previous blog post on what I call the aesthetics of failure: how incompetence and failings in films can become aesthetically valuable.) Similarly, acting in a film needs to be consistently odd or surprising to elicit positive reactions instead of negative ones. This might be achieved through the presence of a single actor (such as Nicolas Cage in the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man) or through the unconvincing or exaggerated acting of several actors.

Susan Sontag, in her essay ‘Notes on “Camp”’ (1964), argues that ‘Camp’ is a mode of expression in film that involves exaggeration, passion, and the fantastical – all expressed with seriousness. She contends, “When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition.” Indeed, a certain threshold needs to be crossed if a film wants to achieve ‘so bad it’s good’ status. But ‘so bad they’re movies’ are unique because this threshold is often crossed unintentionally. The filmmakers and actors may be sincere in their attempt to make a conventionally good film, but when this ambition is juxtaposed with a palpable falling short of this aim, it becomes ‘so bad it’s good’. Furthermore, if a bad movie lacks this earnestness, and the viewer notices that the bad elements are created ironically or with the intention of being conventionally bad, then the impact won’t be the same.

Sontag’s notion of ‘Camp taste’, similar to Strohl’s concept of Bad Movie Love, refers to a warm and appreciative feeling; it is not a feeling of judgement, malice, or cynicism. This attitude celebrates human nature and the varieties of ‘character’ that are possible. Hence, I think part of what can make a movie ‘so bad it’s good’ is the creation of novel human expression – the sort of facial expressions, gestures, dialogue, interactions, and storylines that are unnatural, strange, or nonsensical. In this way, some movies are so bad that they become (often unintentionally) surreal or comedic.

The mismatch between what a viewer expects from human expression (in film or in general) and what is represented on screen is another source of Bad Movie Love. There is enjoyment in having our expectations played with (the same is achieved in humour, in which comedic techniques like reversal and incongruity are employed). An example of this is the scene in Breen’s Fateful Findings (2013): Breen’s character (Dylan) finds out that his friend (Jim) died by suicide, and his reaction is of mild annoyance. He then says to his dead friend, non-ironically, “I can’t help you out of this one, Jim.” The effect is similar to that of deadpan humour, in which the delivery is incongruent with the subject matter.

To reiterate, I think crossing the threshold between ‘bad-bad’ and ‘good-bad’ is a difficult feat (even if this is successfully done unintentionally). This is why bad movie lovers (like myself) treasure the classic ‘so bad they’re good’ movies that are bad to such a degree that they are ripe for humour and ideal for watching with friends. This is also why bad movie lovers are always on the search for the undiscovered gems: the ‘so bad they’re good’ movies that are under the radar, which share the same characteristics as the iconic films in this genre (such as Samurai CopThe Room, and Troll 2). Some notable ‘so bad they’re good’ films I have seen that are cited less often than these are The Astrologer (1975), Creatures from the Abyss (1994), and Dancin’: It’s On! (2015). These films deserve much more recognition in the ‘so bad it’s good’ canon. If anyone has any other favourites in this genre, do recommend them in the comment section below.

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