I've been mulling over J.R. Jones's excellent piece this week on Michael Paul Stevenson's doc Best Worst Movie and the general poverty of the phenomenon it addresses, i.e. organized cult worship of crap movies like Troll 2. I agree with Jones completely on the merits of the Best Worst, but maybe only with 89.8% of some of the other points he makes. The discrepancy has obliged to me to try to figure out what the hell it is I really think, which is a big headache really, but arguably also one of things reading criticism is supposed to do for you.
Eternal optimist that I am, I was hoping from its title that Stevenson's film would be a survey or canvass of lots of films that various people love for their terribleness, and this struck me as a potentially interesting and/or amusing theme. Alas, it's exclusively about this one crap film I'd never heard of and will never care about. Best Worst additionally bored and bugged me as yet another instance of a cinematic trend I've previously bitched about in the Reader: the kudzu proliferation of docs about subcultures made by people within those subcultures. (Now that crap movies have joined all the various other fan scenes on this conveyor belt of documentary production, it's high time for the government step in and regulate. We could have a system whereby the Troll 2 cultist and aspiring filmmaker would be paired off with the amateur burlesque dancer and aspiring filmmaker and they'd be obliged to make a film about each other's obsession or else shut up. Granted, there are some First Amendment issues to be ironed out here, but heck, movies didn't even legally qualify as protected "speech" until the 1960s anyway, so we can probably find a constitutional workaround.)
Still, I'd be lying my face off if I claimed to know nothing of the appeal of films that are so bad they're "good." Jones is right that this is largely the aesthetic territory of youth, and consequently doesn't play a huge part in my viewing habits anymore, but my Creator and I both know how much time I've wasted savoring the accidental comedy of cinematic crap. I'm not particularly proud of the fact that I know far more about the life, mind, and oeuvre of Ed Wood than those of Abbas Kiarostami, but a fact it remains.
I never was one for the organized and ritualized worship of crap, mind you. When I think way back to my midnight movie days, the ritual destinations were always movies I loved sincerely and unconditionally: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, Eraserhead, Shivers. And though I never got the Rocky Horror thing—I walked out of that sucker after ten minutes—I'm not sure it truly qualifies as "the first bad movie to find an adoring cult audience." My impression was and is that the people who were into that whole scene actually loved the movie, the music, etc. (Anyway, in retrospect I'd defend the whole thing for the liberating possibilities it offered to small-town closet cases. I can remember a bunch of glum, homely dudes from school and work whose eagerness to put on fishnets for a Friday midnight screening was the one visible crack in their hoser facades.)
But back in the day, I used to go out to the movies a lot. In my teens it was practically a physical imperative, but in the market where I lived, Winnipeg, it entailed going to movies you just knew were predestined to suck. Life's not really like that anymore, of course, because practically everything ever made is now available on demand through one media channel or another. There's really no incentive anymore to sit through, much less pay money to see Sergio Martino's Screamers, to which my pals and I were lured by the completely dishonest tag line "In This Movie You Will Actually See a Man Turned Inside Out!" What we actually saw instead was two uncompleted Italian horror films made ten years apart and arbitrarily spliced together with no attempt at continuity whatsoever. I don't remember a lot more about it because we were messed up and it was over three decades ago, but what impressions I retain are of a highly entertaining night at the movies.
The same program of slumming led my brother and I to stumble upon Greydon Clark's Without Warning (1980), a low-budget Predators premake about an extraterrestrial hunter who stalks humans for sport with living weapons that look like flying omelets with retractable tentacles. Was it great to see F Troop's Larry Storch die screaming as one of these dug into his flesh? Yes, but not as great as it was to watch Martin Landau and Jack Palance duel for scenery-chewing supremacy as small-town lunatics alert to the alien threat. No, it wasn't The Spirit of the Beehive, but in its own way it was a peak cinematic experience for me.
Then there's the bygone of world of late-night terrestrial-broadcast TV to consider, whose random offerings were crucial to surviving the long nights of the prairie winter. (It always made perfect sense to me that Mystery Science Theater 3000 came out of Minnesota. The premise—a guy marooned in a hostile vacuum passes the time by watching shitty movies with his yappy friends—is barely allegorical.) Without it, I might never have discovered The Silver Chalice, a skull-fuckingly awful 1954 religious potboiler starring Jack Palance as Simon the Magician, a no-goodnik bent on subverting the early Christian church in Rome by gulling Christ's followers with phony miracles. (It also stars a mini-skirted Paul Newman as a slave and sculptor commissioned to cast a commemorative silver holder for the Holy Grail. Supposedly Newman later took out an ad in Variety apologizing for the film, though I haven't seen that with my own eyes.)
The two things that must be seen to be believed about The Silver Chalice are its insanely inapposite art direction—it looks like Star Trek hybridized with The 5000 Fingers of Doctor T—and Palance's demented performance as the mad magician. But you don't have to take my word for it: drag the button to the five-minute mark and let it roll to the end. I'll wait.
I just don't know how else to describe that but "so bad it's good." When I first saw that through a 2 AM marijuana haze 30-odd years ago, I was thrilled to the bone. A screamingly gay, spermatozoa-emblazoned Jack Palance in freefall! What's not to like? The pleasure was quintupled by the sudden certitude, which came to me at the exact moment of Jack's apogee, that I was looking at the inspiration for side two of the album Rainbow Rising by Blackmore's Rainbow, which is a 17-minute, two-song epic about a mad magician who compels a population of slaves to build a tower from which he promises to fly but then plummets to earth instead. Giving voice to this theory, I was roundly pooh-poohed by my fellow cineastes, who also knew the album by heart. Our rabbinical parsings of the lyrics continued till sunrise. I didn't make any headway, and by the time the Internet came along to prove me right*, I was the only one who remembered the controversy.
Anyway, I doubt I'll ever fully outgrow my fondness for crap like this, and those feelings are inseparable from my love of movies. By way of a coda: I Tivo'd The Silver Chalice when AMC was running it last Easter, and it caught on for a couple of weeks with my six-year-old daughter, whom I try to keep well supplied with wholesome alternatives to Dora the Explorer. A while ago, apropos of nothing in particular, she idly pointed out to me the fundamental commonality between Palance's Simon and Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear: two guys who only think they can fly. I never would have thought of it myself. It's a terrible, terrible film that just keeps paying off for me.
* Amazon customer Thomas J. Lovelace ("tommystixrox" ) writes in his review for The Silver Chalice:
"No doubt you have read the other reviews here about this movie.. I saw this years ago on late night t.v. when i was young and i remembered it well.. but I remembered it more for the Jack Palance role more than ever.. His want ing a tower bulit to prove he can 'fly' was also the subject of a Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow song 'Stargazer' from the album 'Rainbow Rising'.. I know this because I met Ronnie James Dio after a show he performed and verified that exactly..."