I love Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s my favorite thing I took away from the 1990s. Fantastic show with a great premise that coined the term “MSTie” in the fanfiction world and “riff” as the term you use when you make fun of a movie while it’s playing.
If you’re not familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000, go watch it now before I go any further on this blog. Go on. Just don’t start with Season One, Episode 1: “The Crawling Eye”. It was good (I don’t think they’ve truly done a “bad” episode…at least, not while they were on Comedy Central/Sci-Fi Channel. The KMTV era is another matter entirely…), but the show didn’t reach its “crusing speed”, in my opinion, until Season Three. Check out “Cave Dwellers”, “Pod People”, or “Fugitive Alien” from that season for a good gateway episode to the Joel-Comedy-Central era. (To find out what I mean by the “Joel-Comedy-Central era”, watch more episodes.) I’ll resume the blog when you’ve done that.
…I’m serious, go watch it. NOW.
…Done? You’re lying. You just skipped to this part of the blog. WATCH IT.
…Now done? I’ll take your word for it for now, but I might give you a pop quiz later. You’ve been warned. Moving on…
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” showcased a good number of the worst movies ever made. Even people who put out lists of what they think are the worst movies ever made put out a list of Oscar-worthy productions compared to the pure trash that’s on the show, although occasionally they feature horrendous movies like “Troll 2” or “The Room” that somehow slipped under the radar of the show’s creators or they simply couldn’t secure the rights to. That, in itself, leads to a different problem:
Do “bad” movies necessarily deserve the title of being “bad”?
Lots of movies tank at the box office and are considered to be flops or bombs, but we know full well this isn’t true because otherwise we wouldn’t have cult classics. What factors really make a bad movie? What criterion do they have to meet in order to be considered genuinely rotten?
This may not be as easy as it seems. Movies, after all, may be thought of as products by producers and filmmaking companies, but they are, in fact, a form of art, especially independent films. Therefore, trying to apply a “universal standard” is a somewhat useless gesture. Furthermore, signs that a movie is “bad” to most people may not necessarily mean anything, especially when taken in context of the entire film. There’s also historical effects. Times change, as does what a moviegoer will “swallow”.
For that reason, as I go over the factors that can be agreed on make a bad movie, I will include a “weight”. For the purposes of this analysis, a factor with a weight of 1 means the factor is possibly completely forgiveable and won’t make or break the film. Typically, you’d need numerous ones of these factors before the movie crossed into “bad” territory. By comparison, a factor with a weight of 5 can ruin the whole picture based on it alone.
With that in mind, let’s get started.
Low Budget (1) – The snap judgment a lot of people make is that if a film has a low budget, it’s terrible. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Halloween” was made for a budget of $325,000 and it’s considered the most iconic slasher film ever. “The Terminator” had a budget of only $6.4 million, not even 10% of the budget of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, and it’s still considered a great sci-fi film. “Predator” came out the same year as “Jaws: The Revenge” and “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” with a lower budget than both movies and yet there’s no comparison in terms of which was the best film of the three. If you have a good team with a creative director and a great script and good acting (…ok, decent and not-bad acting in the case of “Predator”…), it’s possible to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.
Furthermore, a high budget is no guarantee that a movie will be considered good. “Spider-Man 3” and “John Carter” make the list of top ten most expensive films ever (adjusted for inflation, even). Need I say more? In fact, movies as a whole have been getting more expensive to make even inflation adjusted, but the general idea is we get more “stinkers” nowadays than in yesteryear in spite of spending more money making movies. Hence, a low budget only gets a “1” in terms of weight. Doesn’t guarantee badness at all.
(FUN FACT: “Tangled”, the 3D Disney cartoon, adjusted for inflation, is the fourth most expensive movie ever made, and is second at the nominal price level.)
Continuity Errors (1) – This gets its own section. “Bad Editing” is further below. Movies, as you may or may not know, are rarely, if ever, shot from start to finish. It’s not practical to do that, especially if working with big-name actors with multiple obligations or you are only allowed a certain time slot to shoot at a famous location. Even a single scene will have numerous cuts by the time the film is put together, and a few lines of dialogue here and there may need to be reshot. In between shots, an actor’s hairstyle may slightly change and change back. A placement of a hand may go from on a railing to on a lap. A glass on the right side of a character may appear on the left side. Hence, this leads to an “error in continuity”.
These errors are almost always “1”s if not “0”s. People who draw a large amount of attention to continuity errors are generally pale, reclusive trolls who have nothing better to do than make it look as if “The Dark Knight” was ruined because the Joker had a little less makeup in one shot than in the previous one. In truth, most people never notice a continuity error unless someone points it out. If it was any more obvious, the editors would have caught it. Even if they are noticeable (In “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”, when fingering the culprit, Ace moves to a chest set where he actually picks up a piece and moves it, while in the next shot the chessboard is blank.), they’re usually forgivable by the audience. (Nobody cared in the previous example.)
While bad editing is technically a continuity error in and of itself, I make a distinction as seen below.
Bad Effects (2) – Touching on the last example, I will go so far as to say that “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”, in terms of script and acting, was no worse than the other Christopher Reeve Superman films (especially “Superman III”). After all, until Tim Burton put out the first serious big-screen treatment of “Batman”, superhero movies were meant to appeal to families rather than just adults, so you can only expect a “family-movie-level” of sophistication in terms of acting and plot. However, the effects clearly ruined the film. You can’t really blame the filmmakers for that. If you prepare to shoot a film at one budget and then are given less than half of that, of course you’re going to screw a lot of things up cutting corners. The only way they could have salvaged that debacle was by telling the film company: “Look…we’re going to have to rewrite this script to be a lot less ambitious, so delay production by a few more months or scrap the project.” But this goes to show you that crummy effects alone can indeed flush your movie down the toilet.
Touching back on “The Terminator”, the T-800 at the end is clearly a badly animated stop-motion puppet (this is after stop-motion animation was “perfected” in “The Empire Strikes Back”). “The Wizard of Oz” clearly uses plastic plants and matte painting curtains. The bad effects in “The Evil Dead” are almost too numerous to count, so I’ll just point out when Sheryl gets shot in the face, you can literally see the rubber hose shooting out blood coming from it. All of those movies are considered good. So these flaws can be overlooked if you’re so engaged by the story that you don’t really care for a cheap flub here and there.
Historical effects have to be considered too. Godzilla is a guy in a cheap rubber suit walking on a miniature set today. Back when the first black-and-white film came out, he was the damn Cloverfield monster in terms of fright and excitement the audience felt. Add to the fact that the actual Japanese version of the original Godzilla movie is a pretty in-your-face allegory for the dangers of Cold War arms escalation, and you ended up having a good movie even if the smoke projector in the puppet head of Godzilla kept having its “atomic breath” go back in its face.
Crew/Equipment Visible (2, possibly 3) – This means whenever you can see something that “breaks the fourth wall” and lets you know you are honestly just watching a movie and not an “illusionary world”. Often, like with continuity errors, this gets a weight of “1” or lower. If it’s an equipment error that you need to look for on IMDB to even realize was there, obviously it’s a non-issue. Nobody really cares if you can just barely see the reflection of a camera guy in a store window or vaguely make out one of the tracks for a moving camera on the ground.
On the other hand, it can be a serious problem. Frequently seeing wires in a movie where flying is incorporated, or the cables or machinery involved in making a mechanical monster move, essentially destroys any suspense involved in the scene because you realize it’s just a movie. It’s also usually a sign that the director didn’t care enough to “get it right”, which itself makes the audience dislike the movie more. One of the more infamous ones from MST3K was in the movie: “Eegah”, in which, while walking onto an actual desert location, one of the crew members quite audibly and distinctly yells: “Watch out for snakes!”
Too many of these can ruin a film all by themselves, although some movies can rise above it. During the climax in “Evil Dead 2” with Henrietta, the costume had blatant tears in it as well as the wires hanging the actor from the ceiling were visible, but it’s still considered a fun sequence.
Bad Script (3) – “Alien 3” doesn’t honestly deserve a lot of the flak it gets. Sigourney Weaver and, in fact, every actor in that film was pretty spot on, with grittiness that was a throwback to the original “Alien”. The sets were well done. The CGI was bad, but that was simply due to being a new technology. And few people would say that David Fincher is a poor director. Even early in his career he was churning out great films like “Seven” and “Fight Club”.
The problem was in the script. If you know the history of that film, you know the script that they ended up using was a “Frankenstein’s-Monsteresque” mashup of about four to six different scripts, using ideas from all of them, and not one of them standing alone was that good. The filmmakers, crew, and actors honestly did the best they could do with a piss-poor plot to work with.
The script is the “skeleton” of the film. It’s what was used to try and sell the idea to a producer and gives you a plot. To an extent, everyone else, the director, the budget, the editing, the actors, etc., is just flesh covering it. Some scripts are so good that filmmakers pretty much have to go out of their way to ruin them if they went to end up with a completely bad production. (Like Shakespeare…although the Mel Gibson version of “Hamlet” begs to differ…) On the other hand, if the “skeleton” of the film looks like it has Joseph-Merrick-level of neurofibromyosis, then even an extremely good crew and cast with Oscar-worthy performances might not be able to save it.
I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance by Anthony Hopkins or Christopher Walken that I’ve hated, but they have definitely been in some bad productions. And Rob Reiner, who put out the incredibly thrilling “Misery” that had me on the edge of my seat the whole time, as well as “The Princess Bride”, which probably has the most beautiful dialogue I’ve ever seen in a movie executed so well by the actors, dropped a bomb with “North”.
Bad Editing (4) – Now we’re getting into the real show-killers. Bad editting covers a tremendous range of problems and is often indicative of a poor and/or inexperienced director/film crew. Rarely will Hollywood, even bad movies in Hollywood, make these mistakes because you’re dealing with professionals rather than an inexperienced director putting on another “hat”, so to speak.
On the low end of problems, we have things that were left in simply because the filmmakers “didn’t seem to care”. This would include badly framed shots or “shots of nothing” that have a few seconds before the actors walk onto the scene and begin to talk.
On the high end, we have “extreme continuity errors”. These can include things such as a character having a critical item in one shot, losing it the next, then having it again in the following shot. It can also include errors in plotline flow, which itself is usually indicative of a poorly written script that was revised during shooting. This can lead to characters and scenes happening out of sequence, confusing the audience completely or just plain killing your story.
Some of the most extreme examples, naturally, involve characters themselves. Going to MST3K again, in “Space Mutiny”, a character killed in a scene five minutes earlier is back at her station, alive and well. Obviously, during shooting, the director thought the scene involved a plot revelation to the characters that fit in better there to go with the timeline of the film, but neglected to realize that a character who had been killed shouldn’t have been in the scene. Another example, “The Girl in the Gold Boots”, in which during a scene in a diner, the scene literally has a cutaway that makes another character appear to just “poof” into his seat at the table. This would be just laziness on the part of the editors, who could have easily removed the few second scene leading up to that. The overall editing in the notorious “Manos: The Hands of Fate” was, like the rest of the film, horrendous, but resulted from the fact the camera could only shoot in 30 second segments, forcing them to cutaway to the exact same scene frequently.
Bad Acting (4, possibly 5) – This is probably the most “overt” mistake a movie can make, and what definitely sticks with the audience more than anything else. It’s pretty much part-and-parcel for low-budget films where the director thinks they should be on both sides of the camera (in other words, the protagonist of the film as well), especially if the director clearly has little experience with films or acting.
Even if the acting “isn’t that bad”, it tends to drag everything else down in the minds of the audience. That’s because, just like on stage, a movie is only as good as it’s “weakest link”, especially if that link happens to be one of the main characters.
The thing that sticks out the most from the “Twilight” series is Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson’s practically void-of-emotion faces and dialogue, which is pretty bad considering the movie’s selling point was an emotional romance. The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy suffered from a horrendous set of scripts with characters who were designed to be more “placeholders” than the far more energetic and intriguing characters in the Original Trilogy, but the fact that Hayden Christiensen turned in a bland, colorless performance for who was supposed to be one of the most complex and multi-faceted characters in sci-fi history was the final nail in the coffin.
Bad acting of even one key part can be the difference between a good movie and a great one. In “The Dark Knight”, Heath Ledger stole the show and everyone remembers him, but Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent/Two-Face was infinitely better than the one in the forgettable “Batman Forever”, Gary Oldman gave yet another good Commissioner Gordon performance that elevated the character beyond the level of “guy who Batman checks in with from time to time”, and even Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman’s limited roles were good. Yet the movie, for its excellent plot, drama, and performances, only got a Best Supporting Actor nod possibly for one reason: Christian Bale’s performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman was fairly flat.
It’s a shame, because acting can make a film as easily as break it. Most of the performances in “Lord of the Rings” (Ian McKellen aside) were simply average to better-than-average. Yet the power of a large number of actors turning in a better-than-average performance was enough to push the series into Oscar territory.
Family Affair/The Unholy Trinity (5) – This factor is the proverbial “Kiss of Death” for a film. If it meets this factor, the movie is almost certainly doomed to go down as one of the worst films ever. What I mean by the name is movies where family members related to the director/producer (who very well might be the same person in a bad film) are hired to flesh out both the crew as well as the cast, or where a director puts on at least two more “hats” for the film’s production, such as screenwriter, producer, and/or cast.
There are usually two reasons this thing comes into play:
1. The filmmaker is low budget and/or inexperienced, and seems to think that a job normally done by a professional can simply be sloughed off onto any old family member or friend to save some bucks.
2. The filmmaker suffers from some degree of egomania.
I wish I could say this only ever happens with low-budget and/or independent films, such as “The Room”, that end up on MST3K or the “spiritual” spinoffs of RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Tom Green’s infamous “Freddy Got Fingered” comes to mind, as does M. Night Shyamalan in recent years.
Pretty much the only director I know who can pull this off, and is actually infamous for doing so, is Robert Rodriquez. Yet even he has a couple stinkers in the mix. His 3D CGI films come to mind, and he’s clearly out of his element there.
(FUN FACT: “The Room” had a budget of $20 million. Considering the figures I gave you earlier, someone is walking around with a couple million in their pockets.)
Basically, all of these factors can happen more than once. Multiple occurrences of the “low weight” factors are needed to sink a film, while big ones can do it in one or two instances.
To see if this rubric “holds up”, let’s try it out on one of the most infamous bad movies of all time: “Manos: The Hands of Fate”. (Warning sign right there…the movie is literally named “Hands: The Hands of Fate”.)
Low Budget – Check. Only $19,000, and this is one of the incidences where it did indeed break the film, with a camera that only shot 30 seconds at a time, no sound equipment (forcing the film to be dubbed by the same three people and with no foley), and a lack of exterior lighting equipment, resulting in a night scene where two policemen searching for a missing family almost walk to the headlights of their own car before they consider it a hopeless search and turn back.
Continuity Errors – Check. People bounce and hop around all over the place due to the 30 second time limit on a shot.
Bad Effects – Check. Not as bad as some movies, but the actor who played Torgo had such bad prosthetic legs that he appeared to just be drunk or high for his appearances as opposed to being a satyr (which he was supposed to be). The only other real “effect” in that film is Torgo’s burning hand, which only after a few seconds exposes the metal wiring used a frame when making the fake hand.
Crew/Equipment Visible – Check. You can actually see the clipboard still being pulled off camera in one scene.
Bad Script – Eh…Check. The plotline of the story was nothing new and with a better director and actors could have been salvageable into something halfway decent. Still, I’ll check it off as it’s never clear if the family was brought there intentionally by a supernatural force or just took a “wrong turn” and had numerous inconsistencies and plot holes, particularly in the motivation/nature of the cult/vampires/nosferatu/interpretive-dance-artists/whatever the antagonists were supposed to be.
Bad Editing – Check and Recheck. The number of bad edits in this movie are almost impossible to count. It suffers from what a lot of amateur movies suffer from. The point where you get the sense the filmmakers realized, at least on some level, they had a terrible product and decided they just didn’t care anymore. Just to pick on one, the entire opening of the movie plays like a reel of stock footage due to “empty shots” of rolling countryside fading away to more of the same. These shots were made with the intention of putting opening credits over them later…which never happened. Yet the director never thought to simply lose those shots.
Bad Acting – Check, Check, and CHECK. Horrific acting. Where do I begin? They looked like people straight out of the first class in drama club with how they did all their acting with their “faces” as opposed to their bodies. They presented the wrong emotions in that Michael looked more angry and irritable than a devoted husband or father. The Master’s modus operandi is “glower” and intersperse with fake laughter every now and then. Not one of the extras hired to be the Wives could present an emotion, and the fight sequence made a no-contact catfight look like Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Maul. Even the kid in the film was terrible, which is saying something since kids, who have less inhibitions than adults, are usually naturally more animated actors.
Family Affair/The Unholy Trinity – Check. Harold P. Warren – Idiotic Producer, Terrible Director, No-Talent Writer, and Bland, Colorless Actor.
Verdict: Eldrich-Horror-Level of Badness.
How does your “ultimate bad movie” stack up?
Oh…and I promised a pop quiz, didn’t I? 🙂 Fill in the blank on one of the following:
“Wow, Trumpy! You can do ______________!”
“So, the mighty Ator needs ______________ to fight with!”
“He triiiiiiied to kill him with a __________!”