The Rise of Intentionally Bad Movies and Popular Cult

By  · Published on July 30th, 2013

Last week, my partner hosted a screening of Miami Connection, Drafthouse Films’ release of the heretofore largely unseen low-budget Tae Kwon Do musical from 1987, for a small group of friends. Ever the meticulous party-planner, she made the viewing interactive by constructing, amongst a litany of other viewing activities, a series of Bingo cards that our friends could play while watching the film.

At first, I was a bit worried that this might make the viewing of a ridiculous ’80s cult film all too predetermined, forcing our friends to anticipate amazing lines like “I thought we are all orphans” or the transcendent pro-friendship tunes of Dragon Sound ahead of time rather than experiencing these moments organically, as she and I did the first time we saw Miami Connection. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. The interactive viewing was a great success for our dear Miami Connection virgins, and everyone went home whistling “Against the Ninja” whether they wanted to or not.

But I’m not interested in talking about a party that went well (okay, maybe a little bit). I’m interested in what something like Miami Connection Bingo cards represent for people seeing the film for the first time: the simultaneous, seemingly paradoxical engagement with cult film initiation and cult film participation.

The Kool-Aid

It seems to be common wisdom that one should be initiated into the cult film before participating in its cult. I’m talking here about cult films with devoted fanbases and a developed set of regular practices to go along with screenings. Theoretically, one can see The Room for the first time via a public screening, but one probably shouldn’t. The cacophony of spoon-throwing and cued audience interaction would likely prevent the first-timer from fully appreciating the subtle brilliance of Tommy Wiseau’s naïve defiance of even the most basic fundamentals of coherent narrative storytelling.

And public screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show have long-established elaborate, even intimidating rituals for first-timers, thus making the experience about so many things other than the “film itself.” Furthermore, a lack of adequate knowledge about the original cult object in question can prevent even a basic engagement with its intended appeal when one encounters ancillary cult practices; Spinal Tap, for instance, spoke of many fans who had never seen the film and seemed not to get the joke when they went on tour.

Perhaps most cult films require the technology of home viewing. Older beloved films from cinema’s margins, like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Ed Wood’s filmography, came to be appreciated decades after their initial release through the legacy-forming possibilities of television and home video. It makes sense that the uninitiated would have to “do their homework” per se, watching The Room or Rocky Horror at home or with a small group of friends, to develop a basic understanding of the appeal of the object in question in order to subsequently participate in its interactive rituals. Such rituals are far from the ideal first-viewing context, and minimal-participation viewing is typically the best guide for understanding why such a cult developed around the film in the first place.

This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, of course. Some can appreciate any of these films in a way that they couldn’t possibly experience at home, and many cult films haven’t developed rituals at all. I’m thinking in particular about a screening of Troll 2 I once attended at one of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Terror Tuesdays. Strict and necessary no-talking policy in tow, the nuances of Troll 2’s anti-vegetarian propaganda were all the more enjoyable on a giant screen with an elated captive audience filled to capacity. And some movie experiences simply aren’t replicable anywhere else, like a midnight showing of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (psychedelic assistance non-optional). But what’s important is that, in the tradition of cult movies, ritual develops after appreciation in an evolutionary sense, with a subculture emerging from a shared love of a cinematic object and eventually forming a set of practices to exhibit a collective love of a film.

But with a couple of recent films that seem to occupy a similar category, the order of events is rather different. Practices and exhibitions of appreciation can appear simultaneously with mass initiations into the love of the cult film itself, and this has some complicated implications for what we deem worthy of “cult film” status.

Beyond Camp

I guess I should define my terms a bit here.

First, I’m not talking about camp. Cult and camp can overlap, but they are two different things. Rocky Horror is camp; Troll 2 is not. Secondly, cult films are not always films that have developed viewing rituals or interactive performances, but are films that have developed a dedicated following outside of a typical critical and commercial success – films that seem to have been marginalized or disregarded in mainstream cinema practices, but found an audience despite (or because of) this institutional rejection.

Thirdly, cult films are not always “beloved ‘bad’ movies,” like Troll 2. Eraserhead has been mostly accepted as a work of considerable artistic merit, though it was a dejected stepchild in 1977. And when great bad movies are celebrated by cults, they can verge on condescending (The Room) or a combination of genuine fascination and an appreciation for the uncanny (again, The Room). It’s exactly these loose parameters that make the designation of what constitutes a “cult film” so uncertain and subject to debate.

The films that I discuss below fall variably into a special category of great bad movies that have fallen into common practices of cult appreciation – movies that are both genuinely beloved and enjoyed at the expense of perceived imperfections, a disregard for conventions of “reputable” cinema, incoherent employments of narrative logic, and/or general over-the-top-ness.

Melon-Farming Sharks in a Melon-Farming Tornado

Miami Connection seems to be an interesting limit case for the cult film because it readily overcomes aspects of the cult film’s evolutionary process. The film was shown several times through Alamo Drafthouse cinema events (via programmer Zack Carlson) until it gained enough notoriety that it was acquired for its first legitimate American distribution through Drafthouse films. Miami Connection has all the textual markers that makes it fitting company for the great bad variety, particularly because its glorious excesses and seeming displays of incompetence are manifested through such palpable sincerity. With its un-egomaniacal intentions, it’s perhaps one of the most genuine great bad films ever made.

Yet the film did not acquire a cult organically, but institutionally. Miami Connection surmounted the wide gap between near-total obscurity and potential ubiquity (the film is now available to stream on Netflix) through its legitimation by a movie theater brand uniquely equipped with a distribution arm.

It’s as if Miami Connection were a film ready-made for a certain type of cult consumption based upon the niche popularity of similar resurrected films. It’s also as if Miami Connection’s predictable appreciation no longer required the typical evolutionary path of long-term grassroots reception of cult films, but only demanded the inevitable satisfaction of an existing audience on the lookout for the next curious object that narrowly escaped obscurity. After all, there can only be so many Birdemics.

A more striking example of this practice is, of course, SyFy and The Asylum’s Sharknado, two companies whose long-term synergistic work has seemingly been made in anticipation for its surprising, yet totally calculated, success.

With titles like Transmorphers and Sherlock Holmes, The Asylum’s work essentially banks off of a presumed confusion with a more “legitimate” cinema. However, their shark narratives suggest a different practice entirely, as both a response to a strange televisual obsession (is it Shark Week yet?) and an embrace of decided, winking excess. There’s no doubt that – unlike The Room or Troll 2 or Manos, none of which were intended to be bad and all of which were discovered subsequent an initial effort/failure at legitimate success – literally everyone, including the filmmakers, was in on Sharknado’s joke.

Common wisdom – or, more specifically, Snakes on a Plane – says intentionally bad films don’t work. But what resulted in the case of Sharknado was something seemingly unprecedented: a mass simultaneous performance of initiation and ritual. On social media, everyone from Mia Farrow to Philip Roth to TPM’s Josh Marshall (and, of course, all of us) were watching Sharknado, documenting and commenting upon it along the way. The space for being initiated into a cult film ritual privately – the home television – was now the common ground for public engagement.

The crowd mentality of theater that was reduced by TV now expanded again because of Twitter.

Building a Legend

I won’t downplay the degree to which SyFy/The Asylum intended for and predicted such a response, but the fact that the bait was taken (and largely enjoyed) says a great deal about the changing grounds on which cinematic objects traditionally identified as cult might be shifting. Sure, Sharknado and, to a lesser extent, Miami Connection may not be cult films in the strict sense of the term – neither developed a cult, but instead decidedly called upon a particular audience – but they do look and sound like cult films, and can be enjoyed as such.

It’s the myth of a film’s cult status, not its reality, that matters here. We don’t actually have to believe that somebody, somewhere was meant to treat Sharknado seriously in order to enjoy it as a reckless cinematic investment. And in an age when it seems no film is secret, when exposure and renown can occur instantaneously, when anything “grassroots” is suspect, maybe the myth of cult cinema is all that matters.

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