So Bad It’s Good

Two monthly midnight movie features keep fans coming back for more

Admit it. You’ve watched an Adam Sandler movie and liked it. You’ve said, “Shrek is love, Shrek is life” un-ironically. You first wrote “bae” as a joke, but now you’ve written it on your honey’s valentine. It’s time to face the facts—you love bad pop culture. The question is, why?

Illustrator: Kellen Renstrom

Illustrator: Kellen Renstrom

Whether it’s using hashtags in everyday speech, or embracing “Damn Daniel” into the common vernacular, our society is plagued with a “hipster complex”—a tendency to embrace bad pop-culture phenomena in an attempt to differentiate ourselves. But while some fads are a clear attempt at hipster-ness (no, I do not believe that you actually like Neutral Milk Hotel), this is not to say that an appreciation for alternative material is always superficial. Some cinematic flops have gained such historical followings that their valor is impossible to ignore. This “so bad it’s good” genre tends to split into two very distinct groups: quality movies plagued by cheap production, and undeniably terrible films.

Two classic examples of mediocre pop culture turning into complete obsessive fandom are two movies that monthly play at Minneapolis’ Uptown Theater midnight showings: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Room.”

 

Object A: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

As a cult classic, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is the poster child for quality movies marked by production error. Among other gaffes, it features cheap props, regrettable stage makeup, and cheesy costumes, yet it has built an incredible cultural following. A single viewing quickly reveals how “Rocky Horror” managed to endear audiences despite its shortcomings.

The movie opens on Brad and Janet, a yuppie couple who stumble upon a menacing castle. There, they are scandalized by the strange staff and eccentric lord Frankenfurter, an enthusiastic transvestite and tireless pursuant of love and sex. The couple witnesses an increasingly bizarre string of events, including the coldblooded murder of rock-and-roll, adultery in all of its forms, and the mad-science creation of a muscle-bound sex slave. At the end of the night the castle transforms into a rocket ship, and the sexually awakened (if slightly traumatized) couple is thrown half-naked onto the lawn.

In all its ridiculous, overacted glory, “Rocky Horror” scandalizes viewers, yet one can’t help but admire its sadistic plot and witty social commentary. The prop budget is clearly lacking, but the movie’s premise is undeniably genius. But veteran fan Peter Nieman said the quality of production doesn’t matter in the face of a rich community of followers.

“I have always held that the movie itself is very poorly produced and not exactly what most would call a high quality film,” Nieman said. “But the beautiful thing about ‘Rocky’ is how little that matters in the grand scheme of the movie.”

That is to say, the show is the longest running theatrical release in the history of film, and it’s not because people dig ripped fishnets. Behind the poor funding, “Rocky Horror” is a poignant commentary on the societal forces that limit our sexual expression. The castle transforms its guests; inside its walls Brad and Janet experience sexual awakenings and Rocky pioneers his sexual appetite. The film’s frankness attracts, endears, and empowers viewers, provoking endless conversations that result in a very special audience experience: a sense of camaraderie.

Illustrator: Kellen Renstrom

Illustrator: Kellen Renstrom

“Is it the most quality movie I’ve ever seen? No, definitely not. But it is the best movie I’ve ever experienced? Absolutely,” Neiman said. “Because ‘Rocky’ is more than a movie, it’s a community. And any movie as low-budget as [‘Rocky’] that keeps people regularly coming back to watch month after month has to be special.”

To understand the camaraderie of the ‘Rocky’ cult, you have to attend a movie screening. Enthusiasts come dressed in all sorts of wacky attire, letting their freak flags fly. Audience members are encouraged to interact with the show, shooting squirt guns to simulate rain, throwing rice when Rocky and Frankenfurter strut into the bedroom, and yelling “asshole” and “slut” every time Brad and Janet’s names are mentioned. Live actors ham it up onstage, mirroring the movie and interacting with the audience.

In the fandom world, these traditions are unique. No re-release of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” ever has live performers, and mark my words, if you let slip a single “MUDBLOOD!” in the theater, you’d be thrown out immediately. The fact of the matter is, no fandom interacts with its material to the extent that “Rocky Horror” enthusiasts do. The official fan site for “Rocky Horror” enumerates all the fun, audience inclusive acts, mentioning:

“If you feel a new line coming on, YELL IT! A big part of keeping the show fresh is creating new lines with topical humor.”

Is it the most quality movie I’ve ever seen? No, definitely not. But it is the best movie I’ve ever experienced? Absolutely

Watching “Rocky Horror” is not a viewing, it’s an experience: meeting the movie, interpreting it, interacting with it, changing it. Fan Cally O’Neill said she found solidarity among other viewers.

“You feel a real sense of camaraderie when you’re sitting and laughing and yelling at a screen with a hundred or more nerds like you,” O’Neill said. “I think that good feeling is what makes it a quality movie and performance for me.”

 

Object B: “The Room”

Illustrator: Kellen Renstrom

Illustrator: Kellen Renstrom

With a killer plot and quality cast, “Rocky Horror” stands in stark contrast with the “so bad it’s good” movies that are truly horrible. A legend in its own way, “The Room” is perhaps the best juxtaposition to “Rocky Horror.”

“The Room” features writer-director-lead actor Tommy Wiseau as Johnny, a wealthy cosmopolitan lawyer with what I can only describe as a Dracula mullet. Throughout the film Johnny suffers from the repeated infidelity of his fiancé Lisa, who (and I quote) is “TEARING [HIM] APART!” A few joints are smoked, confusing sexual relations are had, and the classic “I hate my mother!” line is belted. Push comes to shove and after five too many sex scenes, Johnny martyrs himself on the bedroom floor.

Watching “Rocky Horror,” viewers are fixated on the twisted plot—you can’t look away. In “The Room,” looking away is a top priority. The horrible line delivery, the copious amount of sex scenes, and the faux-Freudian concept are somehow simultaneously repulsive and mundane. The screenplay, while packed with dramatic plot points, lacks an underlying message. The film has no substance.

In spite of their fundamental differences in quality, both “Rocky Horror” and “The Room” have inspired in their fans a similar fraternity. While fans can sink their teeth into “Rocky” and tear it apart, “The Room” gives its audience little-to-no material to work with. Yet with its gap-toothed plot and underdeveloped characters, fans take it upon themselves to make up ridiculous back-stories and far out character motivations in order to fill in where the movie falls short.

Illustrator: Kellen Renstrom

Illustrator: Kellen Renstrom

It is tempting to deduce that audiences flock to “Rocky Horror” and “The Room” because they hold a deeper meaning than Hollywood blockbusters—that their tattered presentation is a byproduct of poorly funded “hipster” genius. Although “Rocky Horror” fits this description, “The Room” certainly does not. The two are alike in their poor production, but the only non-superficial characteristic they share is the dialogue created in their wake. Because of their substance, or lack thereof, “Rocky Horror” and “The Room” have overcome their budgets to seduce audiences across the nation.

So, why is bad pop culture so good? As it would be, it just makes for really good conversation.