By Leor Galil, with another take by Ray Pride
In the trailer for the new movie “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” the film’s hero celebrates a million-dollar deal with a high-five from a co-worker. That money is an achievement, a goal people think about endlessly.
It’s something recent DePaul University graduate Patrick Dowell ponders from time to time. And Dowell knows just what he’ll do with that cash.
“I just wish I had one-million dollars: I’d buy every bad movie ever made if I could,” Dowell says.
Dowell is not alone in his love for bad cinema. People across the country have been packing movie theaters at midnight for decades to see these oft-terrible films. Though the phenomenon surrounding bad movies, and their role in cult film culture, is nothing new, it’s seeing a sudden resurgence.
“I don’t remember ten years ago there being this kind of new, must-see midnight event,” says Brian Andreotti, the program director for the Music Box, an independent Chicago movie theater.
“The midnights, kind of, have always done the same amount of business, but it seems like now there are more that are must-see, and draw larger crowds than the average midnight film,” Andreotti says.
“Birdemic” is one of those movies. Alongside “The Room” and “Troll 2,” “Birdemic” is a part of the new holy trinity of trashy film that’s brought patrons to movie theaters by the bucketful. Yes, these flicks have made a reputation for being terrible. But, that’s the charm of the best bad movies.
“They kind of have to have that sense of where they’re trying to make a really good film, and they just failed at every level. But, it’s still good because you appreciate their sincerity and their passion for making that film,” says Jason Deuchler, a Chicago-based DJ and cinematographer. Deuchler, aka DJ Intel, co-organizes “Bad Meaning Good,” a bad-movie screening series at Logan Square bar The Burlington.
With “Bad Meaning Good,” the Music Box, and specialty-video stores like Facets in Lincoln Park and Odd Obsession in Wicker Park, Chicago’s got plenty to satiate its bad movie fever. For Dowell, the popularity of bad film in Chicago isn’t all that surprising. The 23-year-old Chicago-area native points to one important factor: Location.
“The boredom of the Midwest really helps build up the ability to sit down and be able to watch a crappy movie,” Dowell says. “There’s not really that much to do in the suburbs, or farmland U.S.A. When video stores started to get big, I feel like the bad-movie culture grew a lot in the Midwest.”
For Jarrett Spiegel, the other half of the “Bad Meaning Good” team who DJs under the name Popstatic, video stores provided a place for intrepid moviegoers to stumble upon the oddest pictures one could imagine.
“If all you had was a good-looking box in the store, you could sell a movie to young kids and teenagers,” Spiegel says. “I think that that sort of system, and the popularity of video and rental culture really contributed to people just making crap.”
Spiegel may have found some terrible films at the local video store, but he also felt the influence of another key to awful cinema growing up: cable TV. “I grew up with cable in the house in the eighties, and I was an only child, so I watched a ton of crap when I was a kid,” he says.
Cable became a force for another source of Midwestern bad-movie pride: “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The cult TV sensation, which originally featured comedian Joel Hodgson and a few puppets launching one-liners at notoriously bad movies, was developed in Minneapolis.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000,” or “MST3K” as fans lovingly refer to it, offered a gateway into an entire universe full of crummy movies time supposedly forgot. After the program went off the air in 1999, the Internet became the tool for connecting bad-movie fans to hidden gems.
“It’s so much easier to see stuff, because people will post ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ and stuff like that for free on the Internet, and you’ll just sit and watch it,” Dowell says. “Somebody sends you a clip from a movie and then you’re able to find it on IMDB, and then you’re able to find it on eBay or Amazon or anywhere. You can find any movie.”
The Internet helped fuel the popularity of the newest crop of beloved bad films. It’s why “Troll 2” is known as “the ‘Rocky Horror’ of the MySpace generation.” It’s why people from coast to coast are able to repeat the same callbacks while watching “The Room.” It’s why “Birdemic,” which will play at the Music Box on June 18 and 19, has gained such a cult following since its official release in 2009.
“Birdemic” first caught the eye of Severin Films’ heads when writer, producer and director James Nguyen took to the streets of Park City, Utah, during the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in an attempt to catch a few eyes.
“It got rejected from the festival for whatever reason, I’m disappointed.” Nguyen says. “You spend three years of your life making this movie to at least try and get distribution.”
Nguyen got a lot more than just a distribution deal. The Vietnamese-born software salesman has seen an unparalleled interest in his film since inking the deal. “Birdemic” was featured on the home page of The New York Times Web site, while Nguyen juggled interviews with ABC News and CBS “Sunday Morning.” Then there’s a potential $20 million deal with Paramount for a 3D “Birdemic” sequel.
“Birdemic” is certainly an archetypal example of a bad movie gone well. Though Nguyen set out to make a serious, Hitchcock-inspired movie on a $10,000 budget, “Birdemic” has gotten attention for its terrible special effects, and critics haven’t shied away from pointing out the obvious. Still, the “cult” status has become a badge of pride for Nguyen, and perhaps a ticket to a full-time directing gig.
“I really want to go above that, be a serious director,” Nguyen says. “Get selected at Sundance Festival for film, maybe someday, you know, make a movie that gets Oscar nominations.”
When it comes to dreaming of and reaching for Oscar nominations, no bad-movie director is more adept at that than Tommy Wiseau. The writer, director, producer and star of “The Room” went as far as to take out ads in Variety that declared, “for your consideration in all categories,” next to an image of his face stuck in a menacing stare. When the movie premiered in L.A. in July 2003, Scott Foundas, writing in Variety, called Wiseau a “narcissist nonpareil.”
Clearly, the Oscars weren’t in the cards for Wiseau. But for then-USC screenwriting student Michael Rousselet, “The Room” was perhaps the best movie of the year. And had it not been for Rousselet, who now works on comedic web-videos with “5-Second Films,” “The Room” could have passed through theaters and been all but forgotten.
After finding a trailer for “The Room” online, Rousselet noticed the movie was playing at the Laemmle Fallbrook 7 in West Hills, California. “I went to see it in an empty theater with two of my friends,” he says. “And before the movie ended, I was on the phone calling more friends to come in.”
A few screenings later, Rousselet packed the theater with several dozen friends, and managed to snag a job as an usher at the theater because of his hard work stumping for “The Room.”
Word soon spread about this new cult film while Rousselet and company began to create callbacks and “Rocky Horror”-style interactions for each new screening. And it soon got back to the film’s creator.
“They say, ‘We want to see ‘The Room’,” Wiseau says. “I say, ‘What the heck is this?’ That was my reaction, I said, ‘who wants to see ‘The Room’ again’, you know?”
The fandom became so big that in 2006, Variety’s Peter Debruge covered the phenomenon of “The Room” in L.A. Soon enough, the movie and Rousselet’s callbacks spread to the rest of the country.
Part of the cult success of “The Room” rests on the back of its creator. A mystery in and of himself, Wiseau remains closely guarded when it comes to his personal life and many of the details behind “The Room.” When he visited the Music Box in February for three sold-out screenings at the theater’s 750-person screening room, Wiseau appeared to be playing a character called Tommy Wiseau. He was entertaining, yet not very informative during the Q&A portion of the screening, spurting out incomprehensible clichés in his thick, vaguely Eastern-European accent.
Crowds eat it up, and the audience at the first Wiseau-attended screening at the Music Box was no less enthused. Like countless other showings of the movie at the Music Box, the crowd greeted the film with glee-filled screams and a barrage of plastic spoons hurtled towards the screen, a Rousselet-inspired callback.
It was at a Music Box screening of “The Room” in November that friends of Spiegel and Deuchler arrived with flyers for a “Bad Meaning Good” event. The flyer advertised a movie called “Enter the Ninja,” and promised “a whole lot of sweet ninja action.”
Since April 6, 2009, Spiegel and Deuchler have played some of their favorite bad films on the first Monday of every month, free of charge. The pair had worked together previously on the DJ circuit, but it wasn’t until they began discussing film that they realized they had more in common than just music.
Using Spiegel’s connection to The Burlington, the duo amassed a list of sixty movies for “Bad Meaning Good” screenings, and soon began to play putrid pictures on the bar’s impressively sized TV. While the pair had friends fill the bar for the first few screenings, they couldn’t entirely rely on those who attended the first “Bad Meaning Good” events for future endeavors.
“Once our friends got tired of watching the movies that we liked that are just awful, the promise of free PBR didn’t work any more to them, they just stopped coming,” Deuchler says.
Still, the duo have built a core set of dedicated bad-movie fans, with at least a couple dozen people streaming in and out of The Burlington on a Monday night. And their outreach to those attending “The Room” worked. Since then, they picked up a host in the guise of John Wilson, a local actor who prepares page-long descriptions of the films to read to the crowd before they’re played.
Once the movies start rolling, the communal magic of “Bad Meaning Good” kicks in. It’s an experience that’s created its own little community. When people launch humorous quips at the screen, they can’t help but bond with one another.
“People are ordering pizzas, and trading slices and just talking,” Deuchler says. “I think it’s definitely a good kind of community feel to the movie night.”
Deuchler and Spiegel usually screen movies from their personal collections and Netflix. When they can’t find a particular title, they’ll go to Facets or Odd Obsession, both of which make a concerted effort to cover every nook and cranny of obscure movie culture, regardless of classification.
Despite carrying films others watch for their bad qualities, Odd Obsession volunteer-manager and film historian Joe Rubin doesn’t see the point of watching a bad movie for its own sake. For Rubin, the idea of watching a film because of its bad qualities negates the very notion of why we watch movies.
“With a movie like ‘Birdemic’ or ‘The Room,’ everyone knows ‘these are the bad parts, these are the parts that you’re all supposed to do this boring unison chant around,’ or whatever else,” Rubin says. “The screening of the film is therefore sort of invalidated because no one’s actually experiencing the film anymore.”
To Rubin, these films and the way they are approached, go against the very efforts Odd Obsession was created for: to present hard-to-find movies that are as worthy of viewing as any well-known hit. Rubin sees people approaching these movies as detrimental to film culture.
“There’s this sense of ‘holier-than-thou’ irony, where people go to see the film to feel better about themselves,” Rubin says.
While it would be a fallacy to say that the ironic, “holier-than-thou” attitude Rubin describes isn’t present at some screenings of “The Room,” especially given how it’s well-known for being a bad movie, it hardly describes the diehard fans who make up the city’s bad-film community. For people like Dowell, there’s nothing but love for bad movies.
“I don’t pop in a movie and say, ‘Oh I can’t wait to see this piece of crap, I can’t wait to see what a pathetic movie this is,’” Dowell says. “I pop it in because those movies are like the little engine that could. They’re just so likeable, they’re so charming.”
Clearly, Dowell isn’t the only one who feels such a strong commitment to bad films. With Tommy Wiseau planning to take “The Room” to the Staples Center and Broadway; the new “Troll 2” documentary, “Best Worst Movie,” winning over critics countrywide; and James Nguyen in talks with Paramount for a “Birdemic” distribution deal and potential sequel, the audience is there.
The real question is if there’s anyone as fanatic about bad movies as Dowell is about his personal favorite, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare.” If so, then a studio like Paramount is certainly smart to fund something like “Birdemic.”
“Had ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare’ not existed, I probably would be different,” Dowell says. “They [bad movies] just put me in the best mood, when they’re just so ridiculous, and so much fun to watch. And that’s what it’s all about.”