I remember the first time I heard about “Troll 2.” I was watching a video from the gang at Red Letter Media on a documentary called “Best Worst Movie,” which is about the cult following surrounding the hilariously awful “Troll 2,” a film so disconnected from reality it didn’t even feature the eponymous trolls. Seeing the fervor and fandom that surrounded “Troll 2,” I just had to watch it. My boyfriend, my friends and his sister all sat around the television and laughed hysterically for an hour-and-a-half at the exploits of the Waits’ family vacation in the town of Nilbog (goblin spelled backwards). There are non sequiturs, strange performances, odd choices in direction and a lot of language gaps, probably because the writer and director only spoke Italian. With this first watch came many more, all with friends and family members huddled around for their own first-time viewings. It was my first jaunt into the world of bad movies and the beginning of my fascination with their grandness and shortcomings.
Even though I think film is an art form, and one that holds significant value and appreciation from countless individuals, I also believe there’s significant value in bad films. Now, when I say, “bad,” I mean films that have been so belittled, critically panned and boycotted by sensible people that they have their own aura of awful. They have a presence and weight that some large-budgeted epics cannot rival. The love and admiration for these films come from countless cult followings that put films like “Showgirls” and “Drop Dead Fred” on the same pedestals that some film cinephiles put “Citizen Kane” and “Vertigo.”
To really understand the methods of these criticisms we have to look at when a film is art and when a film is just a film. All kinds of films can be enjoyed by the same person. I myself like to watch biopics and French New Wave, but also flops, gory horror films and romantic comedies. Films are meant to entertain, so if it does not do so, you as an audience member can say it was bad for that simple reason. There are also different kinds of bad films, and there are different ways that they entertain. Sometimes there’s a level of care and commitment that comes off as goofy, like Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” or everything that tries to be dramatic comes off as over the top, like “Mommie Dearest.”
Sometimes cult followings come about because films from the past haven’t gotten recognition or the box office glory. Secret successes can sometimes be found in forgotten or often panned films. Elaine May’s “Ishtar” was a giant flop at the box office because of its ballooned budget and political undertones, but today many critics have found interest in the Warren Beatty vehicle. Many films relegated to being lost to the sands of time are now being excavated by greedy cinemaphiles looking for a gem in the rough.
Then again, finding a film that has been buried by those who originally made it is the best find of all. Something has to be pretty bad for its creator to say, “What the hell was I thinking?” A prime example would be the oft-forgotten “Tiptoes,” a film about a bereft Matthew McConaughey who hates the fact that he comes from a family of dwarves. Throw in Gary Oldman playing a little person, complete with fake dummy legs and a cane, and you have a seriously misguided piece of forgotten cinema. Even more impressive and buried for good reason is George Lucas’ “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” This is a man who feels fine about having produced “Howard the Duck,” another cult flop, yet he reviles and feels ashamed of a special that ran on primetime television some 40 years ago. In the special, which you can only find on bootlegs or in YouTube clips nowadays, we have a Wookie family who speak all in animal growls, musical guests who appear in strange segues and off-putting guest appearances from Harvey Corman and Bea Arthur. Of course, my favorite buried treasure would have to be “Song of the South,” the first live-action Disney film, which is such a shameful secret that they won’t release it until it becomes public domain. This “product of its time” features slavery in a nostalgic glow. The slaves turn into thoughtful servants who tell sweet stories about Briar Rabbit to little white children and belly laugh in amusement. Again, you cannot find this film easily, unless you have the right connections.
Bad films, if you want to call them that, are more than the sum of their parts. You need everything to be wrong to have the quintessential cult film, whether that be the content, the acting or the direction. Bad films are bigger than some better films get to be, and therefore earn the admiration from their followers just by being themselves.