Why Films That Purposefully Fail Fail at Failing

Neil Breen in his bad movie masterpiece “Fateful Findings”

In the last handful of years, the moviegoing public has found itself caught in a tsunami of low-budget, straight to SyFy Channel flicks that attempt to force themselves into the “so bad it’s good” category. The Sharknado films¹, which there are now six(!!) of, may be the most popular examples, but they are far from the only offenders. Aztec Rex, Ice Spiders, Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, Metal Tornado, Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus, Sand Sharks, Piranhaconda, Mansquito, Dinoshark² and plenty more, all fit the mold.

These types of movies are not worth your time. Which is obvious, I know, but I want to go even farther and assert that these types of movies are not worth your time even in an a hanging-out and drinking with your buddies while you make fun of what you’re watching kind of way.

Bad-on-purpose films are the equivalent of a person saying to you, immediately on meeting them, “I am dumb. I am a waste of your time. There is nothing you will gain from interacting with me.”

“Yes,” you respond. “You are dumb.”

What a riveting, eye-opening conversation you just had with your new acquaintance.

There’s no mystery as to why these movies exist. They’re cheap to produce, and there is a presumed audience. A sizable subset of people legitimately enjoy “so bad it’s good” movies, a phenomenon which is not new. Mystery Science Theater 3000, for example, a popular TV show that almost entirely consists of puppets watching terrible movies and riffing on them, first aired almost 30 years ago, and boasts a fan-base persistent enough to warrant a Netflix revival of the series (season two of which is now in production). Awful movies like The Room and Birdemic: Shock and Terror regularly attract sold out midnight movie crowds. I am myself, and this might surprise you based on what I’ve said already, a huge fan of movies that suck. But there are real, meaningful, significant, powerful differences between movies that suck, and movies that suck on purpose.

The Sharknados of the world pander to people like me, but they miss the point entirely. It’s not enough just to be a horrible film. The best bad movies are the ones that honestly, earnestly, intensely tried to be good and face planted in front of everyone. The genuine failure is essential to the equation not because it gives us a target to laugh at, Nelson Muntz style, but because it gives us something to connect to. There is beauty in failure. Humanity. And, yes, a lot of humor. But we don’t cringe and laugh because we think ourselves better than these abysmal movies. We cringe and laugh because in these films we see ourselves.

This is the true source of power in accidentally terrible films: they’re therapeutic. They remind us that, just like us, others try and fail, sometimes on epic scales. Through the enjoyment of the shortcomings of those films, we better learn how to cope with our own failures.

Writing, filming, scoring, and editing a film is a huge undertaking³, and the completion of a movie, even a bad one, is an unbelievable accomplishment. There is something reassuring about knowing that people exist who possess the admirable determination it takes to finish a film, even if those people sometimes clearly don’t have any idea what they were doing. After all, no one was born an expert in anything. Any great accomplishment begins with trying and failing. Pouring your soul into something that ends up embarrassingly terrible is a universal part of the human experience, and sometimes, witnessing someone else’s embarrassing failure can be cathartic. “Me too, terrible movie…” I often think to myself as I watch. “Me. Too.”

A film that purposefully fails, on the other hand, the Sharknados of the world, hold none of this kind of cathartic power.

Now, far be it from me to tell someone who enjoys bad-on-purpose movies that they are objectively wrong. Art always has a large element of subjectivity baked in. Everyone approaches art for different reasons, looking for different things. But I do think there is an undeniable difference between an earnest failure and a purposeful one. And I think one kind of failure has significantly more heart, more sincerity, more to love, more to empathize with, and more to laugh at.⁴

Enjoying these films is a tribute to earnestly misplaced effort. It gives movies that would otherwise find themselves forgotten a new life — a life in which they can be loved and enjoyed for what they are. The filmmakers’ goal of creating an entertaining movie ends up accomplished after all, they just took an alternate path to arrive at their destination.

Loving accidentally awful films goes well beyond snarky schadenfreude. Earnestly bad movies help teach us how to mentally cope with failure, even when we’re trying, even when everyone is watching. They help teach us what it means to be alive. To be human. Purposefully bad movies, on the other hand, tell us nothing. About anything. So why the hell should I bother?

¹ I don’t think the word “film” is sacred or anything, but I still have a hard time using it here.

²The two most popular current trends seem to be the combination of two creatures into one monster creature and something to do with sharks. Dinoshark goes big and does both.

³ The mediocre blockbuster Iron Man 3, for example, credits over 3,000 people. Think about how much of a pain-in-the-ass even small group projects can be. Now multiply that by a factor of 1,000. The fact that completed movies exist at all is a straight up miracle.

⁴ Laugh at, or with? Or is there even a difference? After all, we’re all made of the same atomic building blocks. In the cosmic sense, laughing at someone else always includes an element of laughing at yourself.

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