On September 29, 2009, the movie website Rotten Tomatoes released their list of the one hundred worst-reviewed movies of the decade. I was shocked to learn that I had only seen three of them. Considering myself a connoisseur of bad cinema (and with some extra time on my hands because of a change to my regular week's schedule), I charged myself with the sacred quest of watching the other ninety-seven movies on that list. We're now nearly twenty-two months later and I am onto the final five movies I need to complete the list. In that span of time, the response I most get when I speak of the list is an incredulous question: "Why would you waste your time doing that?"
When I say I'm a connoisseur of bad movies, I don't mean to say I have bad taste. I mean that I enjoy seeing where something went wrong or how bad something can go. There can be a fine line between greatness and awfulness, probably finer than between greatness and mediocrity because awfulness can come from someone really going for the gusto and missing badly, whereas mediocrity just comes from no real effort whatsoever. Take two comedies. Anchorman is unquestionably a good movie. The Goods is unquestionably a bad movie. Seeing where Anchorman went right and The Goods went wrong (better ensemble, tighter writing, more original jokes, to name a few things) makes me appreciate the former because of the pitfalls it dodged to become great. You can only really appreciate what it's like to feel good about something because you know what it's like to feel bad about something. There is also no small amount of schadenfreude in seeing a team of filmmakers really, really screw up. Train wreck cinema.
I think it's not that I'm watching bad movies that raises the "why" question, but that I purposefully set out to do it. People watch bad movies all the time. How many people went to see the last two Transformers movies? People watch whatever crap comes on whatever TV station they happen to be flipping by, or they go to the theater and see the next thing that's showing, or they go see what everyone else seems to be seeing. People watch bad movies all the time for two reasons: apathy and ignorance. They either don't care what they are going to watch or they don't do any research and go in blind. When watching a movie -- especially if I'm paying in the theater -- I couldn't live with either apathy and ignorance. I have to know what I'm getting myself into. That's not to say that I really knew what I was getting into when I started on the list; my taste in bad movies runs to the "funny bad" side of things and a precious few of these movies fit that bill. But if you had to watch a hundred so-so movies to get to The Godfather and four great comedies, you'd do it. Battlefield Earth and the four Uwe Boll movies make the whole endeavor worthwhile.
People waste time constantly. I find it fairly self-deceiving when someone says, "I don't have two minutes to do X," because they probably wasted two minutes doing something else, but want to feel busy. I'm insulted when someone says, "You must have a lot of time on your hands," because everyone has the same amount of time on their hands as everyone else; it's all about what you decide to do with it. I've decided to not just play with my baby daughter and read and run and watch TV and play fantasy baseball; I've decided to take ninety minutes to two hours out of every week or so for the last two years to complete a goal that I had set for myself. My question isn't, "Why did I do this?" It's, "What do I do next?"
Two of the most controversial (critique-wise) plots of TV shows in the last decade or so were both in the final season of great shows: the Kevin Finnerty sequence of The Sopranos and the Sideways world in Lost. Both are so controversial because, as sequences that were disparate from the actual goings-on of the shows' world, one could easily dismiss anything that happened as meaningless or unearned. In the case of The Sopranos, you knew all along that it was not "reality" (and, granted, the show had used many dream sequences before). In the case of Lost, you had no freaking idea what was going on. In both cases, what happened in those sequences had no real bearing on the resolution of the "real" story line; less so in Lost, but that's an argument for another time. All this is to say that when people decide to buy into the "reality" of a story, they feel cheated if it turns out that the whole thing wasn't ever "real" at all.
Soul Survivors has a surprisingly good cast for a movie you've never heard of, including the underrated (and he's not bad here) Casey Affleck and Wes Bentley (who somehow has turned a smallish part in a great movie into being considered a respectable actor). And that's where the good ends. The movie is supposed to be horror, but tries to pass off weird as scary. The movie is supposed to be edgy, but tries to pass off weird as edgy. The movie is supposed to be weird, but ends up passing off boring as weird.
The opening sequence has a blond girl being murdered by a guy in a mask. Another blond girl then goes to her first weekend at college. She loves her boyfriend but is still friends with her ex-boyfriend. She goes to a party where the guy in the mask who murdered the first blond girl accosts her. She throws him off, drinks too much, gets behind the wheel, and crashes into a car with the guy in the mask, throwing her into a ravine and killing her boyfriend. She's overcome with guilt, but soon is visited by her boyfriend's ghost who is trying to save her from some supernatural demonic forces (read: guy in the mask, who randomly appears here and there) that are trying to kill her. She is also helped by a priest, played stoically by Luke Wilson. Yes, I realize that I do not know how to install a laugh track on a website for just that sort of line. There's a twist involving Luke Wilson's character that you can see coming a mile away and a bigger twist at the end of the movie when (my general rule is not to "spoiler alert" this movies, because I know nobody is going to watch them) it turns out the whole thing was a dream while she was in a coma and fighting for her life after the accident.
It's actually an interesting premise for a movie and the concept saved me from really savaging the film, because it is awful. But the dream sequence also made the entire rest of the movie meaningless because there was never any clue that anything wasn't actually happening to the main character. In fact, the whole idea of the dream sequence where the guy in the mask is trying to kill her makes your brain hurt when thinking about the opening sequence, because there's no reason that guy would kill someone else. It's an entire movie made for that "gotcha" moment at the end, which I figured out too early. Sure, people might say that's what Shyamalan does, but his twist never discounts the rest of the movie, it just makes you see it in a different light. Being as critical as possible, The Usual Suspects has that kind of twist, but it a) is not a dream and b) was made with such great quality that the whole ride is enjoyable, even if you have already seen it. It's okay to be cute, but you simultaneously have to be great to have your main story stand out on its own. The Usual Suspects did it. The Sopranos did it. Lost did it. But that's probably why none of us have ever heard of Soul Survivors.
Four more to go.