The Strange Magic of Good Schlock Movies

What separates the truly unredeemable bad movie from good camp?
January 15, 2018, 3:53pm

Last night, my friends and I decided to watch Bright in a fit of morbid curiosity. After satisfying that curiosity (but absolutely nothing else), we were craving an enjoyably bad movie in the vein of Wing Commander or Doom. We alighted on Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which is every bit as dumb as the title and Peter Stormare’s name in the credits imply. We loved it.

I mean, it was absurd and felt cobbled-together in a way that a movie that costs tens of millions of dollars probably shouldn’t. But it also reminded me of RPG sessions that go hurtling off the rails and everyone just decides to roll with it. Half the cast are doing German accents, but the leads sure as hell aren’t. At various points the movie gestures toward being set in 17th century Germany but at the same time, fuck it, here’s a Gatling gun and a taser. Because those would have been fun to have in the 17th century if you were fighting witches.

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Should someone have used that money and those actors to make a better movie? Probably, but lots of people try to make good movies and end up making awful ones. There are no guarantees in creative pursuits, so mostly I’m just happy I got to watch someone (Tommy Wirkola in this case) bring their love of Blade and Army of Darkness to the big screen with a stupidly lavish production of half-assed conceits and scripts.

There’s a line that films like this need to walk that’s trickier than it looks: the cast needs to be in on the joke but still committed to the work. Jeremy Renner finds an interesting solution to this in Witch Hunters: his Hansel lampshades the stupidity of every scenario, and he plays the character as a guy who is absolutely tired of the bullshit he deals with day-to-day. “Don’t eat the fucking candy,” he sighs to his companions when confronted with a Gingerbread House late in the film.

They also need to be surprisingly violent and shocking in a completely predictable way, and that violence needs to read as funny and amusing, not disgusting or cruel. Kids get straight-up murdered in this movie (it’s what witches do in this world) but it never becomes a movie about kids getting tortured and killed. Instead it’s a movie about watching actors wearing absurd witch make-up and costumes get exploded, imploded, and torched in every more audacious ways.

I don’t know if I’d have enjoyed the movie as much if I hadn’t just sat through the sucking void of Bright. I was ready to find the joy and merriment in some B-grade genre entertainment in a way I rarely am.

(Okay, screw it, quick notes on Bright. First, David Ayer needs to realize that Robocop was a satire. Watching Bright made me realize that End of Watch plus a few scenes from Training Day might be the only story Ayer has to tell, which is a pretty bleak range for a creator. Second, in my creative writing class in college, out of about nine people, no fewer than three eventually wrote versions of Bright: modern urban fantasy with real-world social issues and trends wearing low-fantasy costumes. I wrote one of them. None of them was good. But all of them were better than Bright’s script.)

Anyway, what are your rules for a good “bad movie”? What separates genuinely unbearable trash from a fun night full of comedy?

Let me know in today’s open thread!