You've probably been in this situation before: You see a movie on Netflix with an awesome name, like Santa Claus Battles the Demon Unicorns. Your friend convinces you that you should watch this movie together, because it's going to be "so bad it's good." You sit down, put it on, and awkwardly pretend to have fun watching a character actor, who's obviously battling alcoholism in real life, mumble his way through some bad dialogue. Thirty minutes in, you snap and bludgeon your friend to death with the popcorn bowl. Throughout the murder trial you ponder whether the phrase "so bad it's good" has any meaning at all anymore.
Part of this confusion comes from the phrase itself: "So bad it's good" implies that once a movie dips below a certain level of quality, it somehow automatically shifts into the "good" category. If this were the case, channels like SyFy and Lifetime would be the most celebrated forms of entertainment in America. But they're not, and that's because, to achieve true good-badness, movies must follow a surprisingly complex series of rules. For example ...
The "so bad it's good" label is often thrown around to describe the cheap, low-quality movies that flood today's Netflix accounts and Redbox machines. These kinds of films, sometimes called B-movies (because they traditionally formed the less-worthy half of a cinematic double billing), were popularized in the 1950s by a production company called America International Pictures. AIP had a unique way of making movies: First, they'd come up with a title that sounded awesome, like I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Terror from the Year 5000. Then they'd commission a poster to match it. Finally, once the truly important stuff was out of the way, they'd hurriedly fart out the actual film.
Via Cool Ass Cinema
Sometimes the title wouldn't even match the movie anymore, and then
the people in the movie comment section got really angry.
This title-comes-first, budget-and-quality-come-last method was so successful that it's still being used today by production companies like the Asylum, the guys responsible for such recent titles as Nazis at the Center of the Earth and 2-Headed Shark Attack. The Asylum gets a great deal of business from people seeing these awesome titles and saying, "Zombies vs. Squirrel Ninjas? Whoa, that must be so bad it's good."
John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images
"The wise win before the fight, but the ignorant fight to win. Remember this, young Puffcheeks McNuttikins."
These viewers inevitably wind up disappointed, though, because Asylum-style B-movies almost never follow the crucial rules of good-bad movies. Like ...
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Of course, he was talking about life in 19th century Russia, when they presumably had a greater variety of fatal STDs to keep things interesting than we do now. But the idea still endures that good things are generally monotonous and dull, whereas bad things are terrible in unique, interesting ways. So if a movie looks awful or ridiculous, it must have something inherently interesting about it. This is complete bullshit.
You're such a douche, Tolstoy.
What makes Jurassic Park enjoyable isn't the same thing that made No Country for Old Men a success. The Avengers and The Seventh Seal are not good for the same reasons. But bad movies? Almost always, bad movies are bad in the same way. The acting sucks. The monsters are stupid looking. The ghost shark is just phoning in his lines. It's duller than watching a plant die. And yet these dull B-movies keep making money, because every time we come across a new one (Amish Vampires vs. a Yeti! A Giant Tsunami of Velociraptors!), we convince ourselves that this one will be different.
What we're forgetting is that for a movie to be enjoyably bad, it must also be a success. Remember "Friday" by Rebecca Black? It was a terrible song, yes, but it was also a successful song, because it did what a pop song is meant to do: It got into your head and wouldn't leave.
And now it's there again. Sorry.
Similarly, a good-bad movie should succeed at its job: It should entertain us for 90 minutes. And this achievement is so rare that it's almost impossible. For every Troll 2 or The Wicker Man, there's a thousand bad movies that sank like dead two-headed sharks because they were terrible and boring.
How do some bad movies manage to avoid this and achieve greatness, then?
Most straight-to-DVD movies and pieces of Netflix detritus fail because the badness of the average bad movie is static. For example, SyFy movies produced by the Asylum usually involve a giant monster of some sort, usually based on a shark:
That's pretty entertaining ... but it's like one minute of the movie, and the film as a whole doesn't really offer much else. No joke is funny if you keep repeating it for 90 minutes. To reach "so bad it's good" territory, a movie needs to continually escalate its badness. For example, let's take Birdemic, widely celebrated as one of the greatest "so bad it's good" movies of all time. The badness of this movie is like the subject of a long Internet argument: Just when you think you've grasped it, it morphs into something else.
Flying Colours Ltd/Photodisc/Getty
"Your nitpicking of my grammar in paragraph four of this counterdiscussion
is a straw man argument. It's laughably obvious that ..."
Birdemic starts with some terrible acting: Sure, that's amusing for about five minutes. But then comes the scene where the protagonist invents a solar panel that would single-handedly solve the world's energy problems, and everyone around him reacts like this is no big deal. Soon afterward, mutant birds appear that are made from those animated gifs they had on websites back in 1995, and then the birds start exploding and making cute little dive bombing noises while they do it. And it just keeps going. Amazingly, Birdemic pulls off this badness roller coaster for its entire runtime.
Of course, the boundaries of this rule are blurry, because not everyone is entertained by the same thing. Some people think Batman & Robin and Die Hard 4.0 successfully climb the "so bad it's good" mountain; for others, they're just bad. I enjoyed the Twilight movies on this level; a lot of people enjoyed them about as much as sticky floor popcorn that a hobo's been sleeping on. But it's important to realize that good-bad movies are like those trips to the dentist where they offer you a bunch of different of flavors of fluoride gel that all taste like butt: They should be varied in their terribleness. Another important rule is ...