‘Bad’ cinema lost its cult appeal when the big studios started making it

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The Fast and Furious and Transformers franchises belong on the small screen along with Sharknado.

Last month’s premiere of Sharknado on Syfy has weighed heavily upon my mind, and I think I’ve realised why. It’s not because I enjoyed Sharknado, though I did, and it’s not because it reignited my eye-poppingly confusing paternal fondness for Tara Reid, though it did (bless her). It’s because Sharknado, and films like it, represent hope.

Pixar, Tarantino, the Coens – the 90s and early-00s were optimistic times for mainstream film

In the 90s and early 00s, thanks to Mystery Science Theatre and its ilk, there was a real reverence for terrible films. Or rather, a sneering fascination, dragged before us by snot-nosed pop-culture historians and made to dance like a syphilitic old bear in a despotic medieval king’s court, or something. Basically we loved them; like the 1994 Fantastic Four film, made specifically so that producer Bernd Eichinger could hold on to the rights to the characters, or Trolls 2, or The Room – oh God, The Room – those were vibrant times.

They were also pretty optimistic times for mainstream film. The fallout of the 80s coupled with the economic boom of the 90s meant all that still-roiling anger and political engagement and poverty-fuelled leanness got access to enough sweet, sweet, consequence-free money to make these visions a reality. We got Die Hard, Trainspotting, The Matrix, the birth of Pixar. Tarantino broke into the mainstream, as did more arthouse directors like Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers and Christopher Nolan, names that were solidified as the early 00s rolled in. I’m not saying that it was some halcyon time of boundless artistic genius, but it was pretty good, in retrospect. Admit it.

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the room tommy wiseau

I’m suggesting that there’s a direct correlation between cult stinkers and the health of mainstream cinema – in case, it’s starting to seem a bit aimless. See, a decade ago, good cinema drew these crappy films into sharp relief. We laughed at The Room because we were getting films like Billy Elliot to counterbalace it; The Room’s terrifying attempts at dramatic empathy were made even more clownish when drawn up against mainstream cinema’s better resources.

It’s becoming harder and harder to come by a real cult monstrosity, and that spells doom

Today, however, it’s becoming harder and harder to come by a real cult monstrosity and that, in my opinion, spells doom. The major studios have never been strangers to derivation and reactionary thinking, their terror at losing some money in the short-term preventing them from practising any real artistic or financial foresight. But nowadays things just seem to really, really suck. Ghost Rider 2, for instance. The first Ghost Rider critically bombed, attempting to crest the now decade-long superhero wave. It was lazy and cynical and, unfortunately, lucrative, so it got a sequel.

Who enjoyed Jack Reacher? I didn’t. Who felt bereft without a painfully written supernatural teen drama like Twilight in the periphery of their consciousness every waking hour of the day? Not this chap.

snakes on a plane

Mainstream cinema has deteriorated to the point that there can be no The Room, no Plan 9 From Outer Space, no creepy, low-budget cracker for us to hunt down and invite our friends over to laugh at, because now they’re being made by Sony and Paramount and they’re having billions of dollars thrown at them, and they’ve got names like Transformers 4 and Fast and Furious 6 and we can go to the cinema now and pay ten quid with our student cards to watch them. Every one of these films contains all the basic tenets of a crappy cult classic: bad characterisation, awful acting, contrived plots, oddly high concept settings. They’ve just got a bigger budget now.

And we were warned! 2006’s Snakes on a Plane almost feels like a sort of grim prophecy, New Line giving us an arcane hint at the thematic direction most of the major studios would be going in for the next five or six years. Did we listen? No. And so now we have Grown Ups 2.

Sharknado represents hope – these films belong on our laptops, not cinema screens

That’s why Sharknado, to me, represents hope. Released by B-movie studio and distributor The Asylum and completely lacking in any names or artistic pedigree save for my girl Tara, it’s awful and already well-loved for it. Maybe we all just needed to see what a really bad film looks like, a cheerfully bad film, with a flimsy premise and tiny budget, for us to stop letting the wool get pulled over our eyes. These films belong on our laptops, watched with some friends and some beers and a gratifying sense of sneering irony, not on our cinema screens.


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Featured image: Universal Pictures

Inset images: Wiseau Films; New Line Cinema

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