Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts Reporter and author of the blog Cinema Junkie
Related Story: Midday Movies: Horror So Bad, It's Good
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition by Maureen Cavanaugh. The fourth annual Horrible Imaginings Film Festival kicks off in San Diego this weekon Friday night. That is when some of the most awful horror films ever made will be screened. KPBS Arts Reporter Beth Accomando decided to ask Festival Director Miguel Rodriguez what makes them so bad, it's good. Here is that conversation.
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BETH ACCOMANDO: That was a piece of the trailer from Plan Nine (1959). Perhaps the most famous and most beloved of the bad movies. What makes a horror film so good it's bad? So bad you cannot turn it off. You savor every painful moment. Here to consider those questions with me is Miguel Rodriguez, director of the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and host of Monster Island Resort podcast. Miguel, What is it about Plan Nine makes it so bad it's irresistible?
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: I think with Plan Nine is a really great example of pure sincerity in the part of the filmmaker Ed Wood Jr. who was really persisting getting the film made. His love for what he was doing really shines through. I feel like for a lot of the audience the pure enthusiasm is infectious, we feel it as well when you watch it despite the overt incompetence in which the film was made. It really comes down to how do we really define that? Is bad something that is made poorly, or is it something that we do not have fun watching? With Plan Nine I don't know anyone who doesn't have fun watching that.
BETH ACCOMANDO: If you look to the film Ed Wood, a film that Tim Burton made about filmmaker Ed Wood, you get some of the reason why his films are so enjoyable. It is played by Johnny Depp, he is a filmmaker who is so passionate and excited and every time he describes the scene you cannot help that help but fall in love with it. If you haven't seen Plan Nine, there are moments it looks like cardboard sets. The cemetery looks like it's a carpet over some boxes, it really has this do-it-yourself look to it.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: It's almost like a high school play.
BETH ACCOMANDO: I forgot how much Ed Wood throws into this movie. All of the different genres that it encompasses.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: It really is a genre crossover. You have to remember that is from 1959. Were films at the time enlivened the film industry with universal horror films a couple decades before, but the 50s in order to keep the genre calling, the atomic age happens in everyone's interest was in science. Of course the fear that went along with that mystery. A lot of the science-fiction films were horror films with a science fiction bend to it. Rather than a supernatural bend.
BETHH ACCOMANDO: A film that falls into the same category of being bad yet charming is a Mexican film from 1960 called Ship of Monsters. Again it has kind of low-budget do-it-yourself quality, but it's absolutely charming to watch.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: So you've got bikini-clad women and people dressed up in monster suits, and it looks ñ
BETH ACCOMANDO: You have a singing at Mexican Cowboy and I think the craziness of these movies makes them so watchable.
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MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: It's the craziness of these movies that makes them so watchable. It's the level of insanity I don't see much anymore. It's not just that it's crazy or insane, I just go back to the word sincere. It's done totally straightfaced. There is no winking at the camera. There is no indication that anyone had any idea that they are making something off-the-wall, or over-the-top or insane. Everybody playing it is like we're here on the beach, everything is so natural. It lends such a ludicrous air, that is almost dreamlike. That is what captures me.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Both of these films were from the late 50s. Is it merely distance and time that makes them bad and enjoyable? Does a go beyond that?
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: The time it passes from when they are meant to now is a big part of that. If they did not have the time of they wouldn't have survived. There are hundreds of movies that played one B circuit at the Drive-In and never saw the light of day again. Nobody remembers them.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Is there also a sense of innocence?
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: There is a really kind of lovable naivety to it.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Let's go on to the Killer Shrews from 1959. The killer animal film ñ we've had killer spiders and rabbits and frogs, some like the film which had killer ants, effective and good sci-fi films. While a little dated, the Killer Shrews is kind of a different beast.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: Its films like them because the Killer Shrews exist. A giant regular animal film, far lower budget and frankly not as cleverly made, but the ways that the create the monsters are so inane, it is such a watchable film. It does start with a science lesson about what shrews are and what they're like, their little routes basically and in this film they grow to the size of wolves. In them you mentioned that they make these huge and a animatronic ants. With the Killer Shrews that have less money so one of the ways they decided to make these monsters was to take a bunch of German Shepherds and put costumes on the them. There is a scene where people are hiding behind a fence in the shrews are jumping of the fence to try to get in, but is clearly just a bunch of dogs wearing Halloween costumes! They look like they're having fun. Dogs jumping up and down.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Let's get a sense of them by playing a clip that shows the classic expository moment where people are trying to explain things, and also you get a sense of the skill of the actors.
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BETH ACCOMANDO: Now one of the amazing things about this film is that it was made in 1959 and we are only now getting a sequel.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: About time. It's getting sequel. This came out this year.
BETH ACCOMANDO: What is the quality on that? Is it watchably bad?
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: This gig was a lot of fun. It goes for the same kind of campy factor. A kind of brings in the whole new wave of people trying to revisit that feeling from films of yesterday and campy, but not intentionally so. Now we're getting some that are intentionally trying to reclaim that.
BETH ACCOMANDO: So the Return of the Killer Shrews has kind of a wink wink style of so bad, it's good.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: I would say anybody who is seen things from sci-fi channel, that kind of thing. There's a film maker that did several films that are overly trying to relive this moment in the 50s and early 60s of sci-fi horror. The acting was wooden and the special effects were goofy and going for a charm, but again when it was not intentionally that way. Their intention was to tell a story. And that was just a by-product of it. There's a different feeling when it's intentional.
BETH ACCOMANDO: I think earlier films were much more endearing. Newer ones have some smugness. You're laughing with them, at those older movies. As opposed to really falling in love with the film. It's a different kind of bad that's good.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: It's not necessarily my cup of tea although I will enjoy them for a while. While I'm watching them I do tend to take them a little seriously. It is almost like punk rock, which was popular in the early 70s and 80s because it was so visceral and raw. It was only two chords. It wasn't about great musicians, it was about anyone can do this. More about DIY where anyone can pick up a guitar and start playing. Anyone could put carpet on a dog and say that's the monster. It's more fun to watch Ed Wood movies, or Killer Shrews. Unlike today, it was still really difficult. They're still shooting on film. The technical aspects were not as easy to get a hold of as they are now, where we can ship things, or take pictures on the cell phone. That is another part of the puzzle.
BETH ACCOMANDO: The films we've been talking about don't really have the star quality. No good actors or Hollywood celebrities find themselves in really bad movies. But sometimes big Hollywood actors find themselves in really bad movies. This takes us to a whole other level of bad. Richard Burton in The Heretic, Julie Christie in Demon Seed, and Tony Curtis in The Manitou. Let's play a scene that has to do with Native American mythology and a big growth on a woman's back an the creature that comes out of it ñ all sorts of weird stuff. Let's hear a little bit of Tony Curtis in this movie.
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BETH ACCOMANDO: Tony Curtis is just handling this situation!
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: You have a Native American demon growing in a lump on this woman's back, until it finally comes free and it is a midget monster. The climax is so good that I don't want to give away on the radio. This one sticks out.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Is it also the fact that you have real actors in these absurd situations, and because you know these actors from other films that you kind of get this empathy or attachment to them trying to seriously go through these ridiculous scenes?
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: Tony Curtis takes this role seriously by all visual accounts, when you watch it. You'll see movies like this where the actors are clearly just phoning it in. Tony Curtis brings it in this role. He was just having fun. We see Tony Curtis doing his job in a movie with source material this outlandish, there is something that is really intriguing about that.
BETH ACCOMANDO: You wonder how it got made, and how they got these people in it.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: It does not make sense. There is a weird dissonance that feels good.
BETH ACCOMANDO: We've been talking about horror films that are so bad they're good. Do you have any kind of summing up that you would like to leave people with? Some insight into this?
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: Definitely. It goes back to the beginning. What is the definition of bad? When I am watching a film, I'm looking for something to happen. Some thing that I want to talk about. A lot of the films we have been talking about that on the worst ever list ñ like Plan Nine, and The Killer Shrews ñ they don't deserve to be on the worst films ever list. They are enjoyable. You watch them and they have charm, there's something to be said for an absolute failing in a miraculous incredible way. I think the films that deserve to be on worst ever list are the bad comedies and boring dramas.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Bland, mediocare movies. When you come out and there's nothing to talk about. And you don't have a feeling strongly one way or the other. They feel hollow.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: And there are films where one wants to be in the middle; it's bland. There are films like Citizen Kane, which I love, high brow films at the front of the line. Then there are films like Deathbed: the Bed That Eats that are completely marvelous in an opposite end the spectrum. I go with either one of those films before I go with goes something mediocre.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Deathbed brings up the issue of something so bad it's so good, that it's jaw-dropping bad. It's like a car wreck; we cannot turn away. There is that level of fascination with those films.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: There must've been some level of insanity that went into going to Deathbed: the Bed That Eats. It feels like an art film, it's really slow. It's tedious, but there are parts of it that are so hypnotic.
BETH ACCOMANDO: We've been talking about films that are so bad, they're good. I've been talking with Miguel Rodriguez, host of Monster Island Resort podcast and Film Director for the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival.
MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: It's been a lot of fun.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Let's go out with a song from The Worm Eaters.
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