Or How I Came To Appreciate Bad, Even Awful Films As Art, Of A Sort
Part 1 of 3
It’s all sort of cloudy now, those days before commercially available video and the Internet brought the entire world of film right to our television and computers screens: being at the mercy of broadcast TV schedules, searching TV guide for the obscure old films that ran at odd hours of the day and night. For those of us who didn’t have access to anything other than mainstream movie theaters, many of the films we read about in books or saw in Famous Monsters of Filmland might just as well as have been showing on one of those distant stars we gazed up at on summer nights while we were waiting for the news to end and Creature Feature to come on so we could thrill to “20 Million Miles to Earth” or “Dracula’s Daughter.”
I’d long sought out the most obscure horror, science fiction and fantasy films, first on TV and then, when possible, driving to nearby theaters (I remember after my older brother got his license going to see “Night of the Living Dead” for the first time at some ramshackle fourth-run theater somewhere in rural Connecticut). That was what appealed to me; I saw my share of mainstream films, but I was most intrigued by the unusual and obscure. And video opened me up to new wonders. Obscure films I’d never known existed, movies long-whispered about, legends of cinema unlike anything I had dreamed of. It was back in the days when electronic shops began to rent videos and the machines to play them on. First there were the independent, quirky new releases like “Liquid Sky” and “Repo Man.” Then, as separate video rental shops opened and I bought my first videotape player – an expensive model with “HiFi” sound – I plumbed the shelves for even more obscure titles.
That’s how I learned to love what many might call “bad” movies. Usually low-budget, independent genre titles, but sometimes big-budget studio films, too. They stretched over the history of cinema; many had been buried and forgotten until videotape made it possible to disseminate them widely. There was something about these movies that caught my attention, riveted me to the screen like my head was nailed to the floor…a train wreck in all its splendid awfulness.
Ed Wood made several of the best-known films, but a good bad film could also be made by mainstream directors like John Landis (“Schlock”), Peter Jackson (“Bad Taste”) and John Boorman (“Zardoz”). It was through these films that I came to appreciate how cleverness, creativity, ingenuity and sheer energy could be as exhilarating and entertaining – often more so – than a huge spectacle with state-of-the-art special effects, big stars and a big budget, or even just an average film that lacked the spark that working with next to nothing could coax out of a director, writer and actor, even if there was no heat and precious little light.
Friends were instrumental in pointing me toward more and more unusual filmic fair, particular the annual 24-Hour Film Fest organized by friends in Boston. That’s how I discovered Asian cinema, Jackie Chan and learned to love Bruce Campbell, Jeffrey Combs and many more. But I get ahead of myself; the Fest figures in part three of this essay, as will be my subject for a planned marathon 24-hour blog experience March 7-8.
Before marriage and kids, I watched a lot of videos. I was lucky to have a fairly good independent video store nearby, with an owner who knew my predilection for obscure, unusual and interesting films. But it was through my friends Otis, who as bartender at a popular local bar came into contact with all sorts of characters, that I advanced to the next level in my film education.
That’s when the Rosetta Stone of incredibly strange films fell into my hands.
Next: Opera Man