The Worst Movies Ever Made
Birdemic, The Room, and what makes a horrible film great.
Birdemic: Shock and Terror, a B movie (F-minus movie?) that has become the toast of the midnight-movie circuit, is something like the un- Avatar. It is a romantic action-adventure with an earnest eco-parable at its core. It features computer-generated visual effects the likes of which cinema has never seen: .gif-style birds superimposed clumsily on the screen. And it requires that audiences don special eyewear to fully enjoy it: beer goggles.
Written and directed by a 43-year-old software salesman and Hitchcock devotee named James Nguyen, Birdemic is the latest cinematic stinker to transform into a cult hit—part of a tradition of ironic feting that extends at least as far back as Ed Wood's clunky oeuvre. Screenings of Birdemic—in which a young couple falls in love, only to have their small Northern California town attacked by a bloodthirsty airborne flock—have routinely sold out since the film's February premiere in Los Angeles, an event hosted by the Adult Swim comedy duo (and bad-taste connoisseurs) Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Late last month, the New York Times ran a story chronicling the Birdemic phenomenon, and ABC World News aired a somewhat bewildered interview with Nguyen, in which he shared the title of his next project: Peephole: The Perverted.
At their best—which is to say, at their fascinating worst—movies like Birdemic can be surprisingly rich experiences. They don't merely afford us a groan at their wooden acting or a laugh at their crude charms: They drop us into a murky vortex of authorial intent, sabotage some of our most basic notions about character and narrative, and remind us of film's power to disturb, disorient, and discombobulate us. All that and homicidal hawks.
What's the difference between a film that's just plain bad and a film that's Birdemic-bad? Nguyen's movie has several things in common with its cult-beloved predecessors—a motley, misshapen lot headed up by Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space(1959), Hal Warren's bumbling occult horror Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), and Tommy Wiseau's captivatingly insane soap-thriller The Room (2003).
For starters, from the software-salesman Nguyen to the former hospital worker Wiseau to the Texas fertilizer salesman Warren to the paperboy/janitor Mark Borchardt (the slasher-film obsessive profiled in the excellent 1999 documentary American Movie), such films are typically helmed by outsiders, who seem untainted by excesses of competence, money, or irony. Despite the preposterousness of the movies these people make, their outsider status lends them an important aura of authenticity, a word that equates, in this context, with a lack of knowingness. We like our awesomely bad auteurs to be out on the joke, to believe themselves actually awesome. If we detect a wink in the film, it threatens the happy sense that we're experiencing something truly naïve, truly alien, truly weird. Watching a movie like Birdemic, we find ourselves asking a version of the question that attaches to many of the "found" viral videos on YouTube: Is it a fake? The absence of guile is a key condition of our pleasure.
Indeed, aspects of Birdemic can seem too bad to be true—and the Tim and Eric endorsement only heightens suspicion. In one scene, a gaggle of birds sprays what appears to be toxic urine on screaming victims below. Shots linger for far too long. The sound is all over the place—muffled in one scene, abrasively loud in the next—and virtually every cut is heralded by a steep drop in volume, as though someone keeps sneaking up on the boom operator with a chloroform-dipped rag.
This speaks to something else Birdemic has in common with other so-bad-it's-good cult hits—it's physically trying to watch. This is not always a strict case of poor production values. The Room (also championed by Tim and Eric) suffers from none of Birdemic's sound problems and is generally better shot, but it launches its own formal assault on us. In some scenes, too-long pauses pothole the actors' exchanges; other moments are carpeted with rapid-fire dialogue (as in this heavily dubbed scene). Plot twists arise and drop away unresolved, and the presence of certain characters is never explained. Perhaps most off-putting is that the actors frequently seem to be talking past one another—not in a satisfying, dramatic sense (illustrating an emotional disconnect, say) but in a way that suggests they are the inhabitants of slightly different movies. They repeat themselves doggedly, do not react comprehensibly to each other (chuckling one moment, crying the next), and generally seem to operate free from any coherent "motivation."
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Still from Birdemic © 2005-09 Moviehead Pictures.