Write it now, part 27: when badder is better

There’s been a storm this week about Sharknado – Asylum’s latest ‘so bad it’s good’ take on big-budget disaster movies. Global warming causes uber-tornadoes that send sharks plunging into the streets of Los Angeles. Chomp.

Photo: Mentis Fugit
Pictures at a Dr Grordbort exhibition, Wellington 2012; fantastic art, a brilliant riff on Golden Age B-movie sci-fi, and a wonderful satire of Britain’s Edwardian-age social militarism. Photo: Mentis Fugit

The physics of it don’t work out. But hey…

Asylum make ‘mockbusters’ like last year’s Nazis at the Centre of the Earth. It seems to have everything – an Evil Secret Antarctic Base, a Nazi UFO, zombie stormtroopers, even (spoiler alert, I suspect) Evil Robo-Hitler, Wolfenstein-style. You know the trope – ‘Nazi Super-Science. For when regular Super-Science isn’t evil enough’.

Extreme silliness. Of course, movies so bad they’re good have been around a while. Frank Zappa wrote songs about them (‘Cheepnis‘). Troma released some masterful parodies decades ago (remember Toxic Avenger?) And there’s the grand-daddy of them all – Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes. Saw it. Laughed. As intended.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington - restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.
The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington – restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The best are deliberately bad, and inevitable deadpan delivery is part of not taking themselves seriously. Deadpan is smart humour. The makers know it. We know it. And we all have a great time.

The best I’ve seen was Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, which was utterly brilliant.

Can writers learn from this? Already have. Take Harry Harrison’s Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers – a deadpan pastiche of totally bad space opera. Though that genre was self-mocking enough; E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith was lambasted for tripe, but actually knew precisely what he was doing – and by the end of it was sending himself up. Quite consciously.

Don’t get me started on how good the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings is. A comic novel in its own right, even if it wasn’t sending up You Know What.

What it tells us is that ‘deliberately funny bad’ sells. But only if it’s good. It demands more skill than serious ‘good’ writing  – getting that deadpan irony right is difficult. Like the movie makers, the writer has to be able to do ‘bad’ without appearing ‘incompetent’ – to wink at the reader and get them to laugh with them – not at them. The tongue has to be planted firmly in the cheek.

Harking back to the movies for a moment – the master at this sort of thing remains Vincent Price (1911-1993). A very fine dramatic actor, but also a great comedian. Check out Champagne for Caesar (1950). Very funny. He got the balance spot on.

Your thoughts? And have you seen Sharknado yet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


7 thoughts on “Write it now, part 27: when badder is better

  1. I’ve only seen the SHARKNADO trailer, and love it already. I’m a big fan of when-badder-is-better, so I’m looking forward to seeing the entire film. Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES is another example of badder-is-better. A true rip on the classic western trope.

    You are spot on about doing this type of story well. It takes more skill and smarts. But when you hit the mark, it’s pure genius. 😉

    1. I first saw ‘Blazing Saddles’ in its ‘edited for TV’ version, which was fine except they’d blanked the soundtrack in various places – especially the ‘eating beans around the fireplace’ scene, which was absolutely meaningless without the noises… 🙂

      We don’t get the US channels here in NZ so I haven’t seen Sharknado yet, but I expect it’ll be released on DVD soon enough. Will definitely have to catch it then.

  2. There is a great art of making something just bad enough to be amazing. The tricky part is not going over the tipping point and falling into the intolerable.

  3. Can’t we also include Monty Python here? And Douglas Adams. If you really think about it their gags are terrible, not to mention the overall plot lines, but their delivery is so spot-on you cannot help but love them.

    1. Absolutely. I am a total Python fan so I guess preaching to the converted here… What I find so impressive is that ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ was done in precise B-movie style on the back of an infintesimal budget…and what more need be said about a movie becoming culturally iconic? I still recall spilling out of of a university lecture on medieval English history and hurtling down to see ‘Holy Grail’ for the third or fourth time, and learning more about medieval England from that than I did from the lecturer.

      Years later I heard an interview on radio with Terry Jones – a very accomplished scholar of Saxon literature and times – who said that one of his goals had been to create a totally authentic medieval atmosphere (within budget!) – for instance, by blackening teeth, and how frustrated he had been by the subsequent discovery that medieval peasants didn’t have bad teeth because sugar hadn’t been introduced quite then.

      I can’t say how utterly cool that movie is!

  4. I saw the Sharknado trailer and that was enough for me, though I did laugh at it. I live alone and a movie that terrible must be shared to be truly appreciated. And now for something completely different: I miss Vincent Price…great actor.

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