What separates a ‘good’ bad movie from a bad one?

"Fur uns ist nicht verboten! Wir machen, was wir wollen -" If only the movie lived up to this poster.

What separates a “good” bad movie from a bad one? I doubt there’s a more subjective judgment to be made about films. Here I don’t mean movies that you watch simply to laugh at; that has never interested me. What intrigues me is the irrational aspect of what draws a viewer to a film that in a certain light — or any light, perhaps — isn’t very good. Surely every movie lover has his or her own private criteria, and maybe privacy is what’s called for here. I’ll leave you alone with your favorite stinker if you won’t ask me what Scarlet Diva is doing on my shelf.

The poster captures the movie's highbrow aspirations perfectly.

For me the question of what makes a good bad movie, as opposed to one that’s just a waste of time, is a shifting target, hard to pin down exactly. But I suspect that age is crucial when it comes to one’s choice of guilty pleasure.

One day when I was 14, I watched the R-rated Humanoids of the Deep on cable at a neighbor’s house, and by 30 minutes into it, I had concluded that it was the best bad movie I had ever seen. The movie was clearly the work of people who knew exactly what they were doing, as it consisted of nothing but cheesy sci-fi/horror mayhem and numerous topless women. (Perfect for the target demographic, i.e., 14-year-old me.)

Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern in Haight-Ashbury, 1967. This movie is a lot of fun, actually.

As one climbs into one’s later 20s, one becomes less easily amused. It also gets harder to find the time to keep up with new movies, let alone indulge a side habit of stuff you suspect is going to be trashy even before you walk into the cinema.

That said, when I lived in San Francisco in my 20s, I found myself helplessly drawn to any theatrical screenings of a particular subgenre: call it psychedelic schlock, my personal weakness. Any late 1960s or early ’70s B movie, most of them produced by Roger Corman, that purported to blow the lid on the new underground scene, man! The Trip, Riot on Sunset Strip, Psych-Out, Wild in the Streets (in which a rock star becomes president and sentences everyone over 30 to concentration camps), the Monkees’ truly terrible Head (co-written by Jack Nicholson) — I’ve seen ’em all.

The screenwriter was a hack, but whoever wrote this poster was a genius.

I wouldn’t call any of these good, but I always found them amusing for their ersatz grooviness — they’re not so much the ’60s Mick Jagger as Sonny Bono. Riot on Sunset Strip is a 1967 update on Reefer Madness, and it’s every bit as hypocritical and exploitative as that 1930s movie. The numbingly pedestrian scenes set at a police station are like outtakes from TV’s Dragnet; things pick up when the action moves to the Strip, and we see the Chocolate Watch Band perform a couple garage-rock numbers. The lead singer has the sort of Prince Valiant haircut that it’s hard to believe was ever fashionable — but that’s exactly the kind of detail that drew me to this type of movie.

You might not be surprised to hear that these movies are campy and often beyond ridiculous; the teens in Riot on Sunset Strip speak a ludicrous hepcat lingo that sounds like a parody of ’50s beatniks. Clearly the screenwriter had no idea what the kids forging hippie culture would actually talk like. That points up how these flicks are inherently false, inevitably written and performed by people in their 30s or older, with no feel for the culture they’re cashing in on.

(You see how I can hold forth on this subject. It’s no wonder that my friends always made hasty excuses whenever I tried to sell them on the idea of seeing one of these movies with me.)

The detritus of psychedelic culture, and an all-time stinker.

My devotion to late ’60s youthsploitation bottomed out when I caught a deservedly obscure curiosity called Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969) at the American Cinematheque a few years back. A Sunset Strip rock god (somewhat comically modeled after Jim Morrison) and his retinue of bandmates and groupies seduce a rich girl (Holly Near), and then move into her parents’ mansion, ultimately causing the death of the girl’s parents. It’s basically Teorema for morons, pretentious, tedious and offensive to boot, or at least seriously dated. (The movie’s sexual politics are ghastly, not only toward women but gays as well.) All hyperbole aside, I would cite this as the worst movie I’ve ever seen, and that judgment should inspire no one to seek it out. Trust me.

If your first poster tagline doesn't succeed...

A debacle like Angel, Angel, Down We Go helped persuade me that maybe I don’t need to answer the siren song of every bit of late ’60s junk that turns up at the local repertory cinemas. And since I started working as a freelance Movie Analyst, I’m too busy seeing films for my job to deliberately seek out anything in the so-bad-its-good category.

Apart from general questions of taste, such as my ’60s fetish, there are even more random factors, such as the moviegoer’s mood and even the time of day, that influence how indulgent a viewer is likely to be when it comes to cinematic guilty pleasures. Catch a bad movie before noon and you might chuckle a few times, and then get on with your day. By nightfall you might barely remember the film. Base an evening around that same movie, either with friends or a date, and you might come out of it feeling like a sucker: Just see if I ever go to the movies again! (Cf. the murderer’s row of summer 2001: Moulin Rouge, Tomb Raider, A.I. and Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake, none of which came close to qualifying as a guilty pleasure.)

I should mention a crucial distinction, whether the moviegoer is getting paid to see the possibly bad movie in question. As was the case with the subject of my next post…

These posters are too much fun not to run another one. Just what does red sound like?

Feel free to weigh in