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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The culture of terrible movies

Published: September 7, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

A few minutes into the Nicolas Cage/John Travolta cheese-fest Face/Off, were almost immediately treated to some of the most preposterous dialogue and far-fetched action movie scenarios in the history of man. One wonders how such an embarrassment of a film can keep you entertained.

By the time John Travolta is slain with a magically found harpoon, all barriers of realism, dialogue, physics, and sanity have been crossed.

The plot is preposterous, as are the terrible performances from the films two leading men and the all-too serious direction (shots of flying doves grace a ridiculous shoot-out/boat chase that begins in a small Catholic church).

Face/Off is indeed one of the worst films Ive ever viewed. However, theres something about watching this film take itself so seriously as Nicolas Cage utters zingers like If I were to let you suck my tongue, would you be grateful that endears itself to me and countless others who regard it as a cult classic of suck.

So why are people drawn to ridiculously bad movies? Terrible music, for the most part (with the exception of Journey), does not even make it to the cutting board, much less have a devoted cult following.

Why did the very recent Death Sentence, a preposterous revenge-flick, amuse its audience with its ridiculous gun-toting one liners and all too beautifully failed attempts at genuine meaning? Why is Battlefield Earth, the frighteningly awful Scientology epic (again John Travolta), a centerpiece in the terrible albeit viewable movie catalog?

I think the amusing, and for all intents and purposes, gripping thing about these movies is the absurdity of them. People are drawn to the stupid laughs and wonderful self-satirizing ironies that play out in these films.

A film like Battlefield Earth works wonders in these ways. A supposed sci-fi epic that attempts constantly to subtly refer to its writers (L. Ron Hubbard) other notable work, the Church of Scientology, Battlefield Earth comes off as a pamphlet and parable for the religion that has just as many ridiculously far-fetched aliens roaming through its pages as the movie does.

The comedy lies in the idea that the creator of this abysmally stupid story also has crafted a very similar tale that currently has a great deal of people devoted to it. In a way, the movie is a spectacular unintentional satire of Scientology.

The same can be said for the previously mentioned Death Sentence. As the movie progresses through various pitched battles between Kevin Bacon and a mass of murderous skinheads out to get him and his family, the pure futility and silliness of the whole situation becomes more and more apparent.

The movie, with its overdone shootouts and graphic kill scenes, glorifies the violence that its characters clumsily try to devalue. In the end, lines like Go with Goda big bag of guns reveal no insight into the culture of violence but instead prove its stupidity in an all too-satisfying absurdist sense.

Possibly the greatest example of a terrible film that satirizes itself would have to be 1984s Soviet invasion blockbuster Red Dawn. The movie follows a group of American teenage rebels that do battle with an occupying Communist force in Colorado.

Lets get one thing straight: this movie is awful in every way. With every line uttered attempting to glorify some right-wing theme, this is cinema at its worst. In the film, a piece of right-wing cold war propaganda at best, Soviets and their Cuban allies occupy most of America, and it is up to a band of rogue high schoolers (led by bad movie icons Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen) to fight back.

And they do so, with heavy weaponry that is found in their parents homes (thanks to good old Second Amendment rights).

Naturally, our heroes are high school football stars who rally the troops by belittling those whod cry at the death of their comrades. Communists are portrayed as bumbling womanizers and inept soldiers, and when they are killed in battle it is inconsequential. However, when one of the U.S. boys are killed, it is great drama.

Much attention is paid to vilifying Americans collaborating with the Soviets. It is not-so-subtly hinted that if the Communists invaded, all liberals would cooperate with their conquerors. When Patrick Swayze deems it necessary to murder two of his friends for aiding the Russians, the movie fully supports him.

In the end, this kind of over-the-top right wing rhetoric, coupled with the filmmakers terrible attempts to glorify its cast and some of the worst writing and overwrought acting I have ever witnessed, makes this would-be propaganda film a hilarious spoof of Reagan-era politics and the idiocy of much of the Cold War.

These are just a few examples. We must not forget films like the Steven Seagal action flick Fire Down Below, where the only way to save the environment is through terribly fake martial arts.

The last example I have for you folks is the 1971 Charlton Heston vehicle The Omega Man. Essentially a story about a man wandering the streets of some abandoned city because the rest of the worlds population has been transformed into some kind of albino Catholic vampires, Omega Man attempts to thrust Heston, a man notorious for his conservative leanings, into a late-sixties state of affairs.

In addition to the terrifically hilarious villains, Heston does a number of things that are in contrast to his typical image as a conservative stalwart.

He is far from convincing, and that is the source of great comedy, especially when the movie suggests that Heston having intercourse with a tough African-American woman equals an endorsement of the Civil Rights movement when it amounts to nothing more than another exercise in Blaxploitation.

The movies utter lack of a real plot again hints that this is merely an exercise in catching Heston, a 19th-century man, with the realities of the 1960s. The utter lack of any tact in doing so is where the comedy lies, as Charlton Heston succeeds only in making himself look even more backwards-looking in a forward-thinking time.

These contrasts between terrible movie-making, misplaced star power and decidedly obtuse and outdated political ideologies cook up a particularly satirical and hilarious joyride of a film. These movies are truly terrible, but they remain watchable because in the end they mock and tear apart the main arguments they supposedly endorse.

I guess it takes a serious appreciation for the absurd to appreciate things like this, but I liken it to one of the Christopher Guest “mockumentaries”, where the actors skewer the subjects their characters claim to love through absurdist humor and over-the-top antics. These terrible movies work the same way, except they just dont realize they are doing it.