[21 August 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Not many people know it, but there are six concrete requirements necessary in order for a film to be considered a member of that most discriminating of outsider cinema sects, the So-B.I.G. film. You know the kind I’m talking about: the blatantly bad sex comedy, the bumbling sci-fi romp, the half-assed horror film. Each one of these celluloid catastrophes easily falls into the highly specialized category, which translates for the layman as “so bad it’s good”. Beyond the guilty pleasure and far outside the realm of any realistic entertainment value, these moronic examples of mess-en-scene still manage to amuse, if only by the sheer audacity of their horridness.
Those who’ve studied this cinematic substratum have differing opinions on what exactly makes up a successful So-B.I.G. film. Famed drive-in movie aficionado Joe Bob Briggs lists the necessary requirements as the three B’s—‘blood, breasts, and beasts’. Others argue for a complete lack of redeeming social value, while true fans clamor for a purity of personal vision. Perhaps, it’s a combination of all these ideas. Or maybe, the prescription is much more persnickety. Creating the right balance of dopey with delightful indeed requires a talent that tests even the most gifted filmic fool. So-B.I.G. films don’t ‘happen’ on purpose. To paraphrase a classic show biz saying, “Drama is easy—crap is hard”.
It bears mentioning that the mainstream flop does not fall into the So-B.I.G. ideal. Hollywood and its inability to turn millions into a cogent movie is not one of the So-B.I.G.‘s concerns. Indeed, most of these films come directly from the Indie market, where actual auteurs of the awful are allowed to play fully and freely with their muses. As long as the sextet of symptoms is applied, there’s a chance that their motives will mutate into that most magnificent of malfeasant motion pictures. Let’s being by looking at:
Highly Implausible Plotting (or H.I.P.)
No So-B.I.G. movie can begin without this aspect ingrained into its filmic personality. Indeed, the convoluted narrative, the storyline so unhinged that it makes the mentally unbalanced feel like members of MENSA is the cornerstone of any certifiable crapfest. The other aspects of awfulness can swell and ooze in various stages of terribleness, but without the H.I.P., you’d either have nothing, or some manner of Oscar fodder, neither of which is conducive to So-B.I.G.ening. If you’re looking for inspiration in this area, wander over to the Ed Wood catalog for a quick ridiculousness refresher. More modern examples include Troma’s Toxic Avenger canon, any number of future shock/time travel films (like Time Chasers or Robot Holocaust), and stories centering on evil, homicidal puppets (Demonic Toys, anyone?).
Lame Ass Monster/Beast (or L.A.M./B.)
Though a cutesy acronym, a So-B.I.G. requires a L.A.M./B. if it is ever going to hope for a place in the pantheon of the pathetic. It is almost impossible to satisfy this requirement with a serial killer or a spree slaughterer (sorry Jason). No, you’ve got to have a ‘creature’ to create a crappy creature feature. So, what makes a good, or should that be bad L.A.M./B.? Studies have shown that audiences usually respond to really inept make-up effects, some manner of plastic suit or mask (usually with an obvious zipper or seam showing) a complete lack of believable articulation and a delusional sense of scope and scariness. Some have pointed to the nuclear grizzly bear in 1978’s Prophecy as a perfect post-modern example of this ideal. If you want a more traditional tainted terror, you can’t beat the haunted TV of The Twonky fame, the carpet on a rampage from The Creeping Terror, or the possessed tree stump in From Hell It Came.
Stilted, Artificial Dialogue (or S.A.D.)
Writing is not a So-B.I.G.‘s strong point. As a matter of fact, they almost always offer S.A.D., usually in dreadful droves. The definition of this element is easy: lines must be laced with clichés, formulaic fretting and over the top tantrums. Characters are poorly defined (if at all) and consistently talk at, not to, each other. Everything in these conversations must be assertions, pointless exposition, or loaded with lots of preposterous techno-speak. Toss in some inert jokes, a few failed attempts at interpersonal interaction and a classic clunker of a quotable (“Pull the Strings!!!”) and you’re all set. Such sorry excuses for scripting as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, The Wild Wild World of Batwoman, and Eegah! truly push the limits of logic and believability. But for true whacked out wording, Ed Wood definitely wins again. His narrative for Glen or Glenda is like listening to a drunken deity dictate an alien translation of The Christine Jorgensen Story.
Acting or Performance Extremes (or A.P.E.)
Here are only two acceptable thespian ideals in So-B.I.G.: scenery chewing screeds and/or amateurish awkwardness. The first concept is obviously the easiest to identify. The performer takes every line as if it was a mandate from the Messiah, and delivers it in tones that could actually crack the Earth’s mantle. They flail and careen as if fighting against an unseen nurse with a collection of needles, and when all is said and done, they de-evolve into a pool of overdone emotions, wailing and sobbing as if they’d just been told that the Easter Bunny has terminal scabies. These powder keg prima donnas can single-handedly destroy a film with their Method masturbation.
That is why the So-B.I.G. needs an equal amount of non-professional paltriness to realign the entertainment equilibrium. Sadly, the totally inept actor is extremely hard to come by. They usually refrain from making public appearances simply because of the amount of drool they produce while trying to perform, and their line readings are generally so loopy that it causes screenwriters to turn stalker. The great Coleman Francis relied on a stock company of friends and failures to make Red Zone Cuba, while Bill Rebane found floundering Z-list celebrities to bolster his Giant Spider Invasion. Indeed, such stunted casting is so important that it’s hard to imagine the So-B.I.G. canon without Arch Hall Jr., Bill Kerwin, or that slice of Hungarian ham, the ‘fat Elvis era’ Bela Lugosi.
Technological or Onsite Limitations (or T.O.O.L.)
Granted, making movies is not easy. There are literally dozens of sound and vision variables to take into consideration before being able to realize even the smallest of your personal pictograms. Bad lighting, inaudible voices, underdeveloped filmstock or overexposed negatives can all undermine your vision. Even in the realm where most cheesy movies lie the handheld digital camcorder conceits of the late ‘90s the science behind filmmaking conspires to keep you cruddy. Some sure signs you’ve stumbled across a noticeable no budget disaster include visible boom mics, crew shadows and reflections in windows and mirrors, props that won’t comply or that are cheaply made, and the occasional scene where the director can be heard barking out his unrealistic orders (see: anything helmed by Ray Dennis Steckler, Ted V. Mikels or David L. Hewitt).
A Love of All Filmmaking (or L.O.A.F.)
Perhaps the most potent of all the parameters necessary to make a mere mound of manure into a delicious So-B.I.G. diversion is a genuineness and a joy in bringing something, anything to the silver screen. You really have to adore the dimensions of the entire experience, lose yourself in the primitive possibilities of your homemade movie, and fly by the seat of your pantomime in order to overcome all the previous pitfalls listed. Since it is almost impossible to make a So-B.I.G. on purpose (isn’t that right, Lost Skeleton of Cadavra?), such a dimwitted devotion must arrive organically, flowing freely like a wide open water tap…or a festering wound. That is why Plan 9 from Outer Space is so sufferable, how The Skydivers becomes so strangely appealing, why Manos: The Hand of Fate is fun, or how anything by Larry Buchanan is even bearable.
The So-B.I.G. is special because of this last factor alone. Some movies feel like the Cineplex version of the Bataan Death March, barely able to cross the amusement finish line without getting aesthetically winded, or passing out from their paltriness all together. But with the true love of motion picture production burning in the loins of an otherwise handi-capable hack, any H.I.P. A.P.E. T.O.O.L.. or S.A.D. L.A.M./B. L.O.A.F. is redeemable. With all six synchronized however, the “so bad it’s good” movie comes magically to life. So the next time you find yourself wiling away countless hours locked in some failed film vortex where entertainment battles with intelligence for your very soul, remember the So-B.I.G. and its six tenets. They will provide shelter from the cinematic shit storm. They will ease the pain of pretentiousness and help you straddle the often confusing border between a cult classic and true kitschy camp crudity. So-B.I.G. films fill that empty space in the back of our aesthetic, that uncluttered corner that often pines for something pathetic and unprofessional to nurture its needs. And nothing says “Yes” like the excremental excess of the So-B.I.G.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/gibron050822/