When I was six years old, my school held a Halloween costume contest whose result might have helped to shape my future taste.
All of the students assembled in the cafeteria to vote on the winner out of a group of finalists that were somehow determined by the faculty (I don’t know the details; I definitely feel it was rigged since I wasn’t one of the finalists for my FRANK-ly excellent Frankenstein’s Monster costume). There were five candidates, as I recall. Three of them I don’t remember. Of the two I do remember, one was an immaculate Scarecrow costume (of The Wizard of Oz, that is, not the Batman villain) that had every detail of the character exact right down to the specific fabrics and colors. The kid seriously just looked like a smaller version of the Scarecrow from the movie. It was that accurate.
The other was a clearly homemade witch costume. Not the Wicked Witch of the West, I don’t think. Or maybe that’s what it was supposed to be. I’m not sure. But when I say it was clearly homemade, I mean that the hat was made of black construction paper folded up and haphazardly taped along the side, barely even forming a point at the top. The accompanying broom was this little pink plastic thing that I’m pretty sure was part of one of those “it’s fun to clean like mommy” toy sets that were popular at the time. And her green face paint was already mostly off by the time she took the stage.
But the thing is — and I’m pretty sure this is why she was chosen as one of the finalists despite the, well, shoddy costume — was that she presented herself on that stage like her costume was the landslide winner. Out of all the kids on the stage, she was the only one who was not only playing the part of her costume, but didn’t break character throughout the entire duration of this most important of competitions.
I voted for her. The kids I was sitting with thought I was crazy. “Her costume looks so fake!” they all told me, incredulous that I could even consider her as my choice. But I remember feeling very strongly that she should win. Sure, the Scarecrow costume was the “better” costume in that you could tell more skill (and money) went into making it, but the witch girl just had so much more character, and even at the ripe young age of six, that’s apparently what I prized above all. It wasn’t even a pity vote. I genuinely wanted her to win that contest. The triumph of the underdog, as they say. Who the hell wants to see the obvious, safe choice come out on top when there’s a plucky underdog with heart and spirit to burn in the running?
Well, it turns out most people did that day, because the Scarecrow costume won. They didn’t announce any kind of vote tally (which I assume was to avoid hurting any of the other kids’ feelings in case they were way behind, but it still struck me as suspicious), but I can safely assume it was a relatively easy victory for him.
The thing that sticks out the most in my mind, though, was that even after the winner was announced and this kid accepted his prize (a free pizza, because it was the early ’90s and that was the prize for everything), the girl in the witch costume still didn’t break character. That’s always stuck with me. I don’t remember the Scarecrow kid’s name. But I do remember the witch girl’s name. And Shannon unknowingly taught me a lesson about my own taste that day that has translated into this fledgling career as a cult movie writer that I’ve got going here. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to suggest that this costume contest was the first time in my life that I consciously realized I was into what a lot of people disparagingly refer to as “so bad it’s good.”
To be clear, I despise that term. If something is “so bad” that it ends up being good, then I will fight tooth and nail with you to argue that it’s not bad at all. It’s just good. Bad is bad, good is good, zero times zero equals zero, etc. Obviously I understand what people mean when they describe something as “so bad it’s good,” but I for one don’t subscribe to the notion that I need to qualify my enjoyment of some such thing by first admitting that it’s “objectively” bad. Because really, when people say something is “so bad it’s good,” what they’re really saying is that it doesn’t meet the standards of quality that society, culture, academia, and the critical establishment have arbitrarily defined for us, and despite that, it’s still good.
And that’s a special kind of accomplishment, honestly. The fact that there even exists a sort of canon of classic “bad” movies (or disasterpieces, as they’ve come to be known in some circles) is proof of this. There are thousands of bad movies. Tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands. I don’t know. But let’s consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room, Troll 2, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Fateful Findings, Robot Monster, Miami Connection, Samurai Cop, and the like. I mean really consider them. What sets them apart from the endless trash heap of other “bad” movies out there? These are movies that even people who haven’t seen them can most likely quote. They have passionate followings of people who will go to sold-out screenings of them, sometimes even multiple times a year if they’re lucky enough to have a local theater that plays them that regularly. These are movies that have, to varying degrees, made an actual impact on pop culture and have legacies that frankly dwarf even many of the “highbrow” or “prestige” films of their respective eras.
Even if you’re going to call Troll 2 or The Room “bad,” which is certainly a common reaction, you kind of have to admit that they’re at least uniquely bad. And yeah, sure, if you want to say, “So? That still means they’re bad,” point taken, but I could just as easily counter with, “So? That still means they’re unique.”
What the people who balk at the notion of celebrating these films fail to grasp is that their audiences are not looking for something that would, by consensus definition, be called “good.” They’re not looking to be impressed; they’re looking for an experience. These movies are enjoyed and appreciated (and yes, they are appreciated) on an entirely different level than what I suppose one might call “normal” movies. These are different. They don’t even serve the same function that most movies do. And there are those — myself included — who find the prospect of experiencing something completely and utterly different in cinema to be absolutely thrilling. In painting, there’s a whole genre called outsider art that is very well respected in many art circles. I believe these movies are functionally outsider cinema, but they still haven’t achieved any real respect among anyone other than those within their passionate cult followings. Which, in a way, might even make them more special to the people who genuinely love them.
I wasn’t going to make this next assertion because I felt like it might be an unfair generalization or mischaracterization of other people’s intents, but you know what? They make the same generalizations about us (“You only like it for ironic reasons,” etc.), so I don’t feel to bad about saying it: the only reason to have a strong, visceral hatred for any of these movies is out of resentment that they’ve objectively — yes, objectively — succeeded despite not following any of the rules they teach you in film school or film appreciation classes. So in a way, I think some feel threatened by them in that they present a challenge to the very ideas and values upon which film studies programs are founded. I’m not saying that’s the only reason for not liking them, because yeah, I definitely know it takes a very particular sort of person to enjoy them, but as far as really, truly hating these films? I see no other reason. At worst, they’re harmlessly inept movies that happen to have a lot of devoted fans. To actually hate them is to imply that all movies should conform to the standards and guidelines for cinematic quality made up by the elitist, Eurocentric, mostly upper-middle-class and upper-class intellectuals who see themselves as authoritative tastemakers that still unfortunately dominate the course of film discussion and shape the canon of classic cinema.
But I digress.
What I’m saying is that, like all other forms of art, movies can exist for different reasons and be appreciated by different people on different levels. And it doesn’t make one type of movie lesser for not serving the same purposes as more widely accredited “great” films. I’ll use the analogy of classical music and punk rock here, as I feel it’s quite fitting in that one might say these movies have a kind of punk ethos to them. While it’s true that a two-minute punk song with muddy production, off-key singing, and no more than four basic chords is not great music in the same way that a classical symphony might be, that’s not what it’s supposed to be. And you’re certainly entitled to say punk isn’t to your liking, but to suggest that makes it objectively inferior is colossally egocentric (“If it’s not tailored to my specific taste, it’s not good, and everyone should acknowledge that”? Fuck outta here.). Different values, different purposes, different styles, different everything. They’re two totally different things. I don’t know why most people do at least partially accept this for music and some other art forms but still haven’t gotten around to accepting that it’s also true of movies. And Beethoven’s 9th is objectively a terrible punk song.
Now, as far as the accusation that fans of these movies only like them ironically or because they enjoy making fun of them, sure, there are some for whom that is true, and it’s perhaps even the initial appeal for most fans of trash cinema. But if that were the extent of it, people wouldn’t rewatch these movies over and over and over again, often recruiting new converts each time with that oh-so-intriguing invitation, “You have to see this movie.” Even if the enjoyment begins as ironic or mocking, for most, it eventually becomes genuine. And I suppose that’s natural, because when faced with a movie that exists so far outside the boundaries of conventional taste, the first instinct is usually incredulous laughter. It’s the “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” effect, and hilarity ensues. But that’s something you want to share with others, and it becomes a truly communal experience that very few “normal” movies ever inspire to the degree that these do. They may start as sort of inside jokes you have with your friends, but in my experience, developing a bunch of inside jokes with someone is often the first step towards building a really meaningful friendship with them. And I feel much the same way about many of these movies.
If you’ve never attended a midnight screening of The Room, for instance, I would highly recommend doing so even if you don’t like it or have never seen it before (especially in the latter case). Even if you decide it’s not your thing, it’ll be difficult to not at least appreciate what others see in it. It’s infectious, honestly. Tommy Wiseau may be the butt of almost every joke about bad movies, but here’s the thing: people know who he is. People who wouldn’t normally even be aware of a movie like The Room. And not only that, but I bet they even can do an impression of him (usually not a very good one, but still). He’s left a real (oh hi) mark on pop culture, or at least a segment of it. And again, I have to ask, with thousands upon thousands of bad movies out there, doesn’t it say something that he managed to make one that stands out to such an extent that he’s become something of an unlikely pop culture icon for it? Maybe The Room isn’t really a terrible movie; maybe it’s actually great on its own, very different terms, and most people just don’t want to admit it because of what that might entail about the sanctity of conventional film theory. Maybe The Room fails by the standards of Citizen Kane, but hey, Citizen Kane fails by the standards of The Room. So maybe it’s time someone makes the case that both sets of standards are equally valid, because really, if a movie is genuinely beloved by people, it’s doing something right…even if it’s not “right” according to some textbook definition.
I’ve heard it said that a good artist learns the rules and then breaks them. Well, where would we put artists who don’t bother learning the rules (which are made up anyway, unless you want to really defend D.W. Griffith as some sort of cinematic prophet, which would open up a whole other can of worms) but conjure up the passion, the will, and the means to create art anyway? It can be interesting when you witness an artist intentionally crossing a line, but it can be really interesting when you witness an artist who doesn’t seem to be aware that there’s even a line to be crossed. And that’s what a lot of these so-called disasterpieces do. They represent a primitive, homemade form of cinema that often feels intensely personal and therefore extremely exciting if you’ve got the acquired taste for it. I firmly believe that acquired taste is still taste, though, no matter how many others try to convince you otherwise. If you’re a fan of these movies, you shouldn’t have to call them “guilty pleasures” or “so bad it’s good” movies. They legitimately work in their own way and serve their own function in the vast cinematic landscape even if some try to make that landscape considerably less vast by excluding them.
Ed Wood, Tommy Wiseau, and Neil Breen may or may not be studied in film classes someday, but even if they’re not, they’ve already earned the adoration of millions who are happy to include them in the phantom canon of alternative cinema. We can use fancy words like “metatextual” to try to explain their appeal to those who refuse to acknowledge their value if we want to. Or we can just let haters be haters and bask in the quiet pride of knowing deep down that our love for these movies justifies itself. They’re not going to sit on the same shelf as Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Fellini, but they can occupy another shelf that might someday be seen not as inferior, but merely different.
Which is why I retroactively want to award the Emma L. Arleth Elementary School Best Halloween Costume Award of 1994 to Shannon, whose homemade witch costume may not have had the intricate detail or polished aesthetic of the Scarecrow costume worn by the boy whose name I can’t even for the life of me remember, but had way more charm, passion, and love behind it, which is really the essence of a great Halloween costume. Like any other creative endeavor — movies, music, writing, what have you — the point is not to IMpress, but to EXpress. And even if the rest of the students were too dazzled by the more conventionally IMpressive Scarecrow costume to notice, I thought you EXpressed yourself remarkably on that stage, which made your costume wonderful.
Pizza’s on me.
This article is part of The Nightmare During Christmas. Please read the rest of the articles in this series so far here: