So You’ve Ruined Your Life: A Guide to Terrible Cinema And How You Can Avoid It (By Embracing It) – Part 1: The Silent Age

(So…since around 2013 I have had in mind a series of Lecture “Talks” charting the history of alternative, cult and “Bad” cinema. How through awareness of these often overlooked films that filmmakers and in particular student filmmakers can learn about the pitfalls of film making and in doing so can apply this knowledge to their own work. This year I have decided to publish these talks in a series of volumes with recommended viewings per session. Each of these in an academic context would pool clips for reference and would typically end with a screening of a film reflective of the talk in question. I will try to replicate these as best I can below for reference. Please also bear in mind that a lot of this would be spoken to film students within an educational environment and while not verbatim the below is going to read a lot less like an essay and much more like a script. So here is part 1 , it wont be entirely reflective of the rest of the series but that’s largely because it covers Bad and cult cinema from the 1890’s to 1939. Thank you.)

I want to open with a question just to get a feel for the room. How many people here when trying to justify a film idea to a tutor or lecturer would reference a known terrible movie as the reason why your film should get made?

… (The Assumption would be not many)

Alright…and how many people here when trying to pitch a film idea to your lecturer or tutor would include references to films currently in the cinema or films that have high critical acclaim? Say from magazines like Sight and sound or empire…y’know…good stuff?

…(The Assumption would be quite a few)

Okay. And would you say it was fair to say that if you watch good films, award winning films, that you will learn from those films how to make good movies. Great ones even?

…(The Assumption would be a mixed response as a few people would realize this is probably a trap)

But then…How do you know what exactly quantifies a bad movie?…I only ask because having been to universities and colleges multiple times to work with students on their films to help gain a better understanding of their work, I see the same thing time and time again. Students get so wrapped up in the visuals, the look, the feel of the film. the idea that they want it to be the best it can possibly be. How they strive for perfection and how they’ll sink hundreds (And in one students case who I worked with thousands) of pounds into 4 and 8k cameras, professional actors, the purest of the pure audio recording equipment, just to try and get the cleanest and best possible image. that they don’t stop to consider exactly whether the idea they’re pursuing is even a good one.

You can make a film out of anything. I firmly believe that. Any item, location, person. There’s a film there. A story something to be discovered. But how you approach that discovery can be the make or break of a films success. Modern mainstream cinema is two things. Diverse and homogenised. We are currently living in a time where there has never been more choice in what to watch and yet at the same time everything more or less looks the same. We have entered a period of cinema history where every film that comes out is polished to within an inch of it’s life. has sharp contrasting colours, is mainly shot in front of green screens and the emphasis has been levied on a “Fix it in post” culture wherein by filming things wide, flat and in the mutest of colour profiles the entire film can be both physically and emotionally constructed in the edit. It’s processed film making. And outside of the fringe film-makers. The people who are literally one man bands or who manage tiny indie productions. People who can rarely score a local cinema screening letalone a national one for there independent release. The industry seems to feel that this processed method is the best way to make movies that make money and keep costs down.

Theres a reasonable chance that the people sat here tonight are predominantly producing films based on this processed diet. That is to say, your scope of the film making landscape extends to films that have played nationally in cinemas and maybe one or two “Safe” out there films like “Baby Driver”, “Mandy” or “The Neon Demon”. That’s fine. Im not going to judge you…but you should all be ashamed of yourselves…Im joking…im not joking. it’s clearly a safer option to assemble your film in post over running the risk of trying something new and it potentially going wrong on set. I can practically hear some of you right now thinking “It’s all well and good telling us that…but it’s my degree thats on the line with these productions” and thats fine. I get that. what I do need to say though is that, making mistakes is useful. it teaches us not to do them again, it also makes us think about the processes we do in filmmaking completely differently and may even lead to a new and even better idea than we had previously.

I love bad films. I love cult films. the two arnt strictly the same thing. you can have cult movies that are absolutely astoundingly good. And you can have bad movies that even I wont touch with a ten foot pole. As a film student many years ago I found myself a bit adrift to my peers. They were obsessed with perfection and terrified of failure. Unless it was HD they didn’t want to know. If it was older than 12 months without attaining “Classic!” status they pretty much weren’t interested. Myself? Well I and my flatmate at the time who also studied film wanted schlock. We wanted awfulness. We watched some of the worst movies ever made during our time at university, purposefully and with intent to learn. At the time we saw students on the verge of bankruptcy if not a full mental breakdowns due to the stress of striving for that perfection. This wasn’t what film making should be about. Film making should be a fun experience. A beneficial experience. Something that while stressful to organize should be relaxing to shoot.

When I made my films lecturers were always curious about my references and sources as they were always typically for terrible films. I would always tell them that the best way to describe what I was doing was that while other students were desperately trying to climb an endless ladder spewing money and energy in the process in search of a film they’d probably be unlikely to obtain; I’d pulled out my shovel and I was digging down to see how deep the ladder was buried. And I had a blast doing that. Naturally when digging you tend to find odd things and some were very useful…not everything…but some things were…and one of the gateways to help me get a foothold on what I affectionately call good/bad cinema? Was Mystery Science Theatre.

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 or MST3K for short was a series that ran from 1988 until 1999 in the US before being cancelled until 2015 when Netflix revived it. it’s still running to this day and if you want to dip your toe into the ocean of utter trash that’s been released over the years. This would probably be your gentlest way. The series which originally aired on public access television straight out of Minnesota has a very simple premise. A janitor for a generic company who’s pretty easy going, is kidnapped by his bosses and blasted into space aboard a ship fitted with a cinema of which he becomes an unwilling test subject in an attempt to weaponised bad movies to break the will of the people of earth over which the bosses would rule as overlords.  Stay with me…the janitor however is able to remove some of the parts from the ships projector. The ones that let him play, stop or fast forward the movie. And with those parts he builds himself several robot friends who help him keep his sanity by poking fun at the films and acting as a bit of a make shift family. Much to the annoyance of the bosses.

Still with me? it sounds ridiculous but I assure you it’s one of the best ways to get a foot hold on the world of bad movies if your new to these things. The original run covered films dating back as far as the 1930’s and as recent as the 1990’s. the current series has films as recent as 2016. The writers are fantastically sharp, the jokes are funny and the films are indeed some of the worst ever produced (As a reference point I highly recommend: “Rocket Attack U.S.A”, “Manos: The Hands of Fate”, “Hobgoblins” and “Cry Wilderness” if you want a good starting point on these) theres over 200 films covered by these guys and they’re a really great resource for learning about terrible film makers like Coleman Francis, Bill Rebane and Sam Newfield. But I digress.

Why should you care about bad movies? Well. My reasoning is that if you only watch good movies you’ll only learn how to make movies that conform to whatever the societal construct of “Good” at the time actually is. And in effect you wont actually be making a good film you’ll actually be making a bland but visually nice and appropriate for the time film. I want to help you break that mold. By watching bad and underappreaciated movies not only will you balance your film diet but it’s hoped that you’ll learn something ultimately much more important. How to avoid the pitfalls of trying to make a good film and ending up with a bad…or worse. Bland film. by seeing and understanding how a film maker can go so wrong even if it was intended as their shining masterpiece you should *In Theory* be able to recognise when you yourself are going or are about to go down a very dangerous path to mediocrity and failure. consider me your guide on this journey. My word isn’t gospel and there will be people who will disagree with me about what I will say through this series. So do bear in mind that these are my own observations and opinions and if you don’t agree with me. that’s absolutely fine. I will hang around after the screening to chat about anything you want to question or discuss.

The first distinction we need to draw here is what makes a film “Bad” and what makes a film “Cult” over this series I’ll be talking about both films interchangeably so getting the definitions from my perspective here right is pretty crucial as I don’t want to mislead any of you at any point. A Cult film isn’t necessarily a bad film. All cult really means ultimately is that it appeals to a niche audience. Typically cult films are good. They just don’t tend to follow the modern constraints of mainstream appeal and as a result a much smaller audience appreciate them. cult films can also be enjoyably bad…that is to say so bad they’re entertaining. We’ve all seen a film where an actors hammed a performance, or a cameras cut at just the wrong time or held too long on a shot and it can be funny. Good/bad movies are a cornerstone of cult cinema and as a result they often go hand in hand with just obscure but good cult movies. Bad movies by contrast are not necessarily always cult. Sometimes a bad movie can just be bad. as in. not even enjoyably bad.

Sometimes bad films can be entertainingly bad but still not be cult due simply to just how few people have actually hear or seen them. it means that just because a film is enjoyably bad doesn’t necessarily make it cult and just because a film is often viewed as a cult film doesn’t necessarily mean your automatically going to be viewing something made for 20p and shot in someones back garden. I know this sounds overly vague and not helping matters, all of what I’ve just told you is on a sliding fluid scale. That is to say a film that could be seen as bad for a number of years can ascertain cult status by building up a following over a long period of time. Equally films that were seen as cult in their time can over time just become bad movies. And to throw another curve ball into the mix if a cult film becomes popular enough it can transcend its own cult status and become a mainstream classic. But we’ll get round to examples of all of these in good time. For now it’s just safest for me to say that if I say a movie is a bad movie. Its bad. if I say it’s cult I’ll clarify what I mean by that if needed and so on.

So In order to understand what im on about and to kick all of this off we’ll need to take a trip back to 1920’s to what is widely regarded as the first “Proper” cult film. A film that at one point or another has been in all 3 catagories we’ve talked about. And that film was F.W Murnau’s “Nosforatu: The Symphony of the night”. Before Nosforatu, silent film cinema…and to be fair…cinema in general was in a period of distinct infancy. There were classics in there own right released but in what might come as a bit of a shock to some of you at least 75% of films produced between 1895 and 1936 are missing…AT LEAST. That number is very likely to be higher due simply to the fact that there wasn’t really a comprehensive list of films made around this time and that the records we do have are often riddled with inaccuracies and duplications. As a result while it’s probably fair to say their were bad films during this time. The fact that they either no longer exist or are presumed to no longer exist and that their isn’t really any records of reviews of these films to back them up kind of make them a moot point. Bad films in this period however can kind of be a bit more forgiven. The craft of film making was literally just beginning with a  lot of it’s influence carried across from theatre. The earliest films were usually quite literally just recorded stage shows or recordings of life at that time. And the actual full feature films that were produced were often just adaptations of these stage recordings utilizing actual locations instead of sets. They were still directed as theatre productions and it was rare to see films utilize shot setups, or advanced direction/cinematography.

Nosforatu in the modern day is widely regarded as a legendary classic that bought the Bram stoker novel Dracula to the big screen for the first time. However on it’s actual release it was widely regarded as an absolutely interminable boring watch. Critics at the time complained the film was way too long and soon after it’s release a lawsuit from the stoker estate effectively saw the film banned and copies of the film set by court order to be destroyed. Luckily for Nosforatu by the time of the court injunction prints of the film had already been sent to several countries worldwide and when the film hit france…while the critics of the time still disliked the film. it was tremendously well received by the French surrealist movement and members of the counter culture. Who held it up as an icon of what would develop into the German expressionist movement. As a result Nosforatu is widely regarded as being the first “Cult” film. it found it’s niche audience and because of this it was able to survive the court destruction order. With fans across the world producing dozens and dozens of copies and hiding them in the hope of preserving it’s legacy.

Today Nosforatu is held up as an example of a classic of the silent era. Widely adored by critics and still shown at screenings around the world. It’s an impressive film. the critics of the time were absolutely right, it’s a very long and quite boring film in honesty…im not a fan. But I’d be hard pressed to deny that it was highly revolutionary for it’s time and that had this film not survived the world would be a significantly poorer place for it. heres a clip:

Now; considering how badly this film was reviewed. Even in light of it’s reevaluation. You’d be hard pressed to deny the menace and atmosphere created in that sequence. The striking shadowy shots in the long hallway shot, the fear expressed by Hutter even the colour tinting sets a tone and feel within the film. it’s a beautiful set of shots in an incredibly early example of genuine tension building cinema. And had the film not had the re-evaluation, the slow building of a cult audience. It most likely wouldn’t exist today and as a result a massive amount of films would either not exist or be fundamentally different as a result. The main point im trying to make here is, even films that are considered bad may have moments within them that are actually quite brilliant. and that what makes a film bad today may make it a masterpiece tomorrow. It’s important to keep an open mind with cinema and not to rely too heavily on the promotion of a film to sell you the premise. It was important in the 1920’s and it’s absolutely critical in the 21st century.

Through the 1920’s the german expressionist movement would proceed to dominate the European markets with similarly cultish movies such as “Faust”, “Metropolis” and “The Man Who Laughs” and it’s influence would dictate the style, look and direction of cinema through the decade. While I certainly wouldn’t say “The World Adopted german expressionism” it’s fair to say that young directors and producers around that time were heavily influenced by their styles and stories. In the US in particular these films “Flare” would be adapted quite heavily within horror and science fiction and this would be Crystalised by one studio in particular.

Universal Studios was fairly in it’s infancy at this time having been created in 1912, they quickly tried to establish themselves as the “Horror Studio” in 1923 they released their first “Proper” horror film  an adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre dame” followed up roughly 2 years later with an adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera” which was only just over a decade past it’s publication date at this time (Which is a bit weird to think about really). The success of these films would lead universal at the turn of the 1930’s to set in motion plans for a series of films which would change everything. While “The Hunchback” and “The Phantom” are considered universal horror films. it was the “Universal monster movies” series that would cement and secure universal as a major studio power. The 5 films they would release through the 1930’s and early 1940’s (Plus the dozens of sequels to these films they would release from the 1930’s to the 1950’s) set the standard for monster movies that would act as the “High bar of horror and sci-fi” right the way through to the mid 1960’s. films like Dracula, Frankenstein, the invisible man, the wolfman each bought something new and previously unseen to screens. These were at the time however considered “The Mainstream” audiences would flock to see these movies in the same way that audiences go to see the new marvel movie or the latest block busters today.

But while Universal was capitalising on the success of these new monsters, rival company MGM silently released a horror movie which in my opinion; blows all of the universal horror films clean out of the water. A film so shocking that it had to be withdrawn from it’s initial release and shortened to 65 minutes from it’s original 90 minute runtime just for how powerful it was in effecting audiences. This film is the one we will be watching in full tonight. Tod Brownings “Freaks” has been described as “existing in a subgenre of one” and it’s fair to say that you will most likely never see a film quite like this again. The big selling point of this film at the time (And…sort of today as well really) was that the cast was more or less entirely made up of heavily deformed, disabled or afflicted actors. The plot: a horrifically cruel hearted tale of a trapeze artist known as Cleopatra who seduces and marries a dwarf called Hanz who secretly owns a large fortune, with the aim of killing Hanz with the help of a strongman called Hercules. Im not going to say anymore than this until the film is over. but even in the 21st century I would consider this film fairly shocking still.

Unsurprisingly the film garnered incredibly negative reception in both its cut and uncut form from audiences and critics alike. It more or less killed the career of Tod Browning the man who bought us the Universal “Dracula” amongst other horror gems at the time and was the only MGM film ever to be pulled completely from release before completing it’s domestic engagements. We’re quite privileged really to be able to even view this film tonight. MGM effectively disowned it, selling the rights to the film in 1947 to an exploitation film director who proceeded to run the film through the 1960s, 70’s and 80’s at various midnight movie screenings. The film was banned in the UK for 30 years due to being too exploitative. And im only referring to the cut version here…the original 90 minute cut at this time is considered lost…so lord knows what wider audiences would have made of that version in contrast.

The film never received a VHS release in this country. And a DVD release was quietly shuffled out in the early 2010’s with a couple of extra features explaining why a third of the film is missing. There is no Bluray of this film available. Though it Is currently in my top 5 films I would love to see get a full remastering. It’s not a perfect movie. but I very much doubt you will ever see any kind of film from this period look and feel the way this one does. But that’s enough Hyperbole for now. lets get started:

Now; Im not expecting everyone to have loved that film. Quite a few people will be offended by that film. but that’s good. Its okay to be offended by films. its okay to think this film was rubbish. Im hoping that after this you will all go out…maybe to a pub or coffee shop, or even just on the ride home, and talk about what you’ve just seen. Explain why you thought it was offensive, why you thought it was rubbish. Or if you thought it was brilliant like I do that you talk about why you thought it was brilliant.

Theres plenty to take away from this film. the ending in and of itself at the time would have been seen as utterly horrific but by modern standards has almost a streak of black comedy running through it. the idea that Cleopatra ultimately ends up becoming the one thing that terrifies her the most. The one thing she spends most of the film ridiculing is satisfying but at the same time quite a harsh contrast to a film that does have a lot of merriment about it. it could be argued that the title “Freaks” is an offensive title given the castings. But I would argue that the film is actually an act of wordplay. With the afflicted cast in this picture actually showing more humanity about them than non afflicted members who in many ways are the “Real” Freaks of the feature. Indeed Hanz and his fellow performers have depth, character detail and actually run a spectrum of complex emotions that really is very unusual for the time in cinema of this era. it acts to shine a light on decency and humanity. It would be easy to dismiss this film as exploitation on a surface level. But even digging remotely deeper below the surface unveils a quite complex script and Brownings direction only enhances some of these elements without being overly handholdy.

If you want an example of genuine exploitation 6 years later in 1938 Sam Newfield would release “The Terror of Tiny Town” which was basically a western script that no studio wanted that was eventually picked up purely because Sam and his writing partner Fred Myton repitched the fill with the exact same plot but suggested that it be filmed with an all dwarf cast. With mini Shetland ponies standing in for full size horses and scaled down sets. That’s a real film. im not making that up and it’s one of the most genuinely offensive exploitation films ever made.

The difference seemingly here was the scripts way of relating to the cast in “Freaks” and “A terror in tiny town” with the formers script being adapted from a short which puts the disabled cast in such a light that portrays them as human. That actually gives them human qualities and doesn’t try necessarily to portray them as weird, evil or one dimensional. And the latter instead doing the opposite. Taking a generic script and turning it into a film purely through it being a spectacle to see the disabled cast members act in the film. in many ways turning it into a sideshow (Which is ironic given the former is more endearing to the cast and is LITERALLY set in a sideshow)

Freaks was a film ahead of it’s time. Had it been made 10 years later it probably would exist in full to this day and would also probably have had much less of an impact. Through the rest of the 30’s horror and science fiction would be released in the dozens year on year and would gradually become a staple of the film industry it was around this time that the idea of a “cult audience” was initially developed, As films that didn’t necessarily do as well as they could have (produced by the likes of RKO and other smaller film companies) would attain small but reliable followings. The decade would see the release of fantasy movies like “King kong” scifi movies like the “Flash Gordon” B-pictures  and towards the end of the decade horror would be firmly run into the ground with films like “The Phantom Creeps” illustrating exactly why “Just because Hollywood could, doesn’t necessarily mean is should” but in the 1940’s B-movie and cult cinema would continue even further down the rabbit hole. And in the next session we will be taking a look at the gradual collapse of some aspects of the film industry and the seeds being sowed for the rise of a new genre of film making and film makers.

All of the films I have spoken about today I would highly recommend you seek out, they’re all worth watching. Even if I haven’t been particularly favourable about them, because at best they’ll challenged your pre-existing thoughts on how cinema should behave and at worst you’ll waste 90 minutes of your time and probably laugh at least a couple of times at the absurdity of them in the process. As always im happy to answer any questions or offer additional recommendations should you wish to explore this era further. And I hope to see you all again soon. Thank you.

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