The Joy of Awful
Not every film can be good. It isn’t easy to make a good piece of any kind of art. In my experience it’s almost as hard to create one that is spectacularly bad; in other words so bad it’s good. It requires almost as many confluences of bad luck, misdirected taste and historical/cultural context to end up with something REALLY bad, smelly bad, campy bad, OMG-I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing-bad. The film must be out of sync with the world that exists at the time it is viewed.
There are plenty of near misses. These would include films that fail in their intent, ones that don’t have the money to film the concept and films that contain some good moments or scenes but don’t coalesce into a unity. They aren’t bad enough. This middle ground is populated by a lot of TV miniseries like The Winds of War or North and South. Come to think of it, many bloated theatrical war movies would belong there too like A Bridge Too Far. Too many stars spoil the broth, to coin an awkward cliché.
As a child I used to go to a theater that showed double and triple feature programs all day on Saturdays. It was there, sitting on a torn seat with my sneakers adhered to the sticky floor that the pleasures of L’Bad Cinema first revealed themselves. I had seen The Three Stooges on TV, and liked their way of doing normal things wrong, the goofiness of the KABONK noises and the frenetic pacing. When away from the others, Curly could enter a world of white magic where clam chowder spits back at you. It didn’t prepare me for the supreme awfulness of The Three Stooges in Orbit.
I was no student of film history at the time, but I knew actors get older and that comedy teams try to do different routines over time. What I had not understood was that the film I was seeing was made 25 years after the studio-produced shorts I liked, and was produced independently by Moe’s son-in-law. Moe was 65 and Larry was 60 by then, and WHAAA?…Who’s this fatter, slower guy they are CALLING Curly? I now understand that Curly Joe DeRita was a kind of Shemp, the guy you bring in when the regular Stooge isn’t available.
Trivia Timeout: Obscure Movie Term – “FAKE SHEMP”
In 1955, Stooge Shemp Howard died suddenly. The Stooges still had four shorts left to deliver to Columbia. Budget cuts had already forced the Stooges to rely on stock footage from previous shorts, so the trio was able to complete the films without Shemp. When continuity required Shemp to be in scenes, they used his stand-in, Joe Palma, as a body double, appearing only from behind or with an object obscuring his face. Sam Raimi, a Stooges fan, coined the term while making The Evil Dead. Most of his crew and cast abandoned the project when filming took too long, so he was forced to use himself and a few die-hard friends as Fake Shemps. The term stuck, and is now used by other low-budget film makers as well as in all of Raimi’s work, to refer to stand-ins and nameless characters. Watch the credits for listings of Shemps in films after the mid eighties.
….we now return to our regularly scheduled program….
The Stooges are TV stars (!) who can’t sell their idea for an animated pilot, so they move to the manse of a mad scientist (huh?) to rethink the concept. The scientist has invented a tanka-copter-submarine (it can go into orbit too, get it?) to protect Earth from an impending invasion by Martians named OGG and ZOGG who look like the Frankenstein monster but in shiny space suits. If the Stooges help with the machine, Doc will build them a cartoonimator (ooo, motion-capture, watch out James Cameron) that converts their antics into cartoons so long as they perform in white tuxedos and white pancake makeup. Mind you this movie was widescreen. I was used to seeing the boys on a 19” TV making messes out of normal jobs like being plumbers. Now I was seeing GIANT OLD MEN Stooges dressed up like some reverse-image of Amos n Andy, n ‘Nother Andy. There was all this Cold War stuff with fat generals (it was 1962) and the Martiansteins end up dancing Rock n Roll. The weirdometer in my head went off the scale. That’s when it hit me. This is so bad it’s GOOD!
Now, in the autumn of my years, I can look back on the many happy hours I’ve spent watching Reefer Madness, Robot Monster, all those Ed Wood films, and early efforts by John Waters. If not for this experience, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate gems like these or bad westerns like White Comanche (William Shatner as TWINS and with jazz music!), or new masterpieces of awfulness like The Room (2003).
Thanks, boys. ( I need a tissue…)
What are your bad movie favorites?