Maybe it started with Tommy Wiseau. The writer-director-star of The Room took the devoted cult mockery of his movie and transformed it into a celebration of his own weirdness (and an extension of the movie's), and his audience responded by elevating Wiseau to celebrity status, making him a self-aware object of ridicule.
Or maybe it started with Troll 2, the 1990 horror movie whose stars revel in their notoriety to such an extent that actor Michael Stephenson made the documentary Best Worst Movie about the phenomenon of ironic Troll 2 appreciation.
Regardless, somewhere along the way from Ed Wood to James "Birdemic" Nguyen, the distinction started to break down between movies created in earnest and later appropriated by cult audiences for ironic purposes (like Wood's work, or most of what was showcased on Mystery Science Theater 3000), and movies whose camp intentions were built-in from the start (hello, Snakes on a Plane).
Eventually the cult audience, once defined by its active willingness to seek out something special, became just another passive segment to be marketed to, whether by filmmakers and executives in on the joke or by websites and festival programmers picking up hapless low-budget movies and anointing them as cult classics before a cult even existed.
The "bad movie" is now a genre unto itself, with filmmakers and fans working hard to keep it going — but the definition of "badness" is becoming increasingly confused.
This confusion should surface at Cinefamily's "HFS" screening series this month at the Silent Movie Theatre (the name stands for "holy fucking shit"). "HFS" will showcase three low-budget independent films that embody the spirit of stunned disbelief represented by the title. Filmmakers Il Lim, Jeff Leroy and Neil Breen will be present for screenings of their respective films, Acts of Violence, Rat Scratch Fever and I Am Here .... Now.
The question is: Do they know what they're in for? Are they like Tommy Wiseau, embracing the ironic appreciation for their trash masterpieces? Or are they more like Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso, stubbornly insistent that they've created great cinema?
As Cinefamily head programmer Hadrian Belove sees it, there doesn't have to be a difference. "I don't actually think these films are bad, necessarily," he insists. "I think they're amazing and incredible, and they have many, many qualities — be it accidentally or not — that I like in films."
One of the tastemakers in the world of cult cinema, Belove is reluctant to endorse the idea that audiences are deliberately seeking out badness. "I hate the connotations of 'ironic appreciation,' " he says. "We try and present things here with a lot of enthusiasm. These are just things we genuinely love."
That's easy for Belove to say, but what about the crowds that fill his theater ("HFS" screenings typically sell out)? The attitude from most viewers toward these movies probably isn't best described as "genuine love," even if people are getting pleasure out of watching them. Simply designating a film as camp or cult creates a distancing effect, so that audiences can enter with a somewhat condescending attitude before experiencing the movie for themselves. Nobody went to see The Room because they heard it was great; they went because they heard it was great to make fun of. But even if the people searching for the next The Room aren't searching for a new movie to love, Belove thinks they may end up finding it anyway. "I think sometimes people try and cover their love with irony," he says.
That's an optimistic attitude, but it's one that the new generation of cult filmmakers may have to embrace. If Wiseau didn't present himself as being at least partially in on the joke that is The Room, he wouldn't be nearly as entertaining. He accepts the irony, but he receives it as genuine love.
"I hope they love it for whatever reasons they have. I just hope they're entertained and they have a good time with it," says Lim, the writer-director-star of Acts of Violence, which Belove describes as a combination of a Saw movie, a martial arts epic and David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. Lim himself says the trailer emphasizing the movie's action sequences and revenge plot doesn't capture the full Acts of Violence experience. "The movie itself is pretty weird," he says. "It's more dark humor."
Director Leroy describes Rat Scratch Fever as "a mash-up of Bert I. Gordon, Godzilla, [Sam] Peckinpah and Gerry Anderson" — all cult references in their own right, touchstones that art-house audiences are more likely to appreciate than mainstream moviegoers would.
"I think Rat Scratch Fever is an incredible piece of filmmaking," Belove says. "I think it's inspiring and awesome. But part of the fun of Rat Scratch Fever is the thick awareness you have of the guy's budgetary limitations and how far he pushes himself to overcome them."
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Like Lim, Leroy takes appreciation where he can get it. "Whether you are laughing with the film or at the film, you are still having a good time," he says. To care about the distinction is to admit failure.
Not that these filmmakers are unaware of it. "Nobody sets out to do a bad movie," Lim says. "Am I happy with the film? And the answer is, yeah, absolutely I'm happy with the film." Leroy sees Rat Scratch Fever as part of a tradition that includes "many of my favorite '70s drive-in classics."
As for Neil Breen, a Las Vegas real estate agent who financed I Am Here .... Now himself, there's a clear personal vision to the odd story of a mystical being who comes to Earth to judge its inhabitants. "I always like movies where someone really had to make this movie, and they went out and did it," Belove says. "In some ways I guess it compares to outsider art."
When Lim and Leroy and Breen stand up in front of audiences at Cinefamily, they won't exactly be facing their fans, but they're not just freak shows being put on display for audiences to laugh at, either. The new cult cinema is a mixture of sincerity and self-awareness, on the part of both filmmakers and audience members.