Can an Intentionally Bad Movie Achieve ‘So Bad It’s Good’ Status?

Sam Woolfe
8 min readDec 18, 2023

In my previous post on what defines a ‘so bad it’s good’ movie, one essential feature I looked at was a movie intending to be good but unintentionally becoming bad — and bad to such a degree that it becomes aesthetically valuable. Because of incompetence and/or limited budget, the film can take on characteristics — such as humour and bizarreness — that the filmmakers and actors did not intend or desire but which were nonetheless the end result. I shared my article on various film-related subreddits and many users expressed the same view: ‘so bad they’re good’ movies are defined by the marriage of earnestness and failure, or enthusiasm and incompetence.

In their 2017 paper ‘Appreciating Bad Art’, the philosophers John Dyck and Matt Johnson argue that the ‘bad’ in ‘so bad it’s good’ stands for artistic failure (failing what they intend to achieve, which can occur at the stage of conception or execution). But just because the enjoyable nature of the end result is non-deliberate doesn’t mean it lacks aesthetic value. After all, so many things — such as beauty in the natural world or tools only designed with functionality in mind — can be admired, even though their aesthetic qualities are unintentional.

In the case of cinema, viewers can enjoy M. Night Shyamalan’s widely panned 2008 film The Happening because of the poor writing, terrible acting, ridiculous dialogue, and nonsensical plot, despite the premise being interesting (an airborne toxin, spread by plants and trees, drives people to suicide). The film was meant to be serious and disturbing, and some of the suicide scenes are, but we are immediately taken out of seriousness to the realm of comedy when we see characters try to outrun the wind, when Mark Wahlberg displays flat and lacklustre acting, and when we hear lines like, “You know hot dogs get a bad rap? They got a cool shape, they got protein.” Similarly, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) was meant to adhere to the codes and style of Hollywood filmmaking but it did a terrible job of it.

However, in his book Why It’s OK to Love Bad Movies (see my review here), the philosopher Matthew Strohl disagrees with Dyck’s and Johnson’s analysis. He writes, “One problem they face is that a lot of titles that are traditionally included in the umbrella of good-bad movies are intended to be the way they are.” He cites Freddy Got Fingered (2001) as an example. Strohl says the film:

succeeds at exactly what it’s trying to do. It’s a deliberate assault on standards of taste. Green knew perfectly well that chewing through an umbilical cord with his teeth and then swinging the baby around by the severed cord and splattering the walls with amniotic fluid would be so repulsive to the sensibilities of mainstream cultural tastemakers that they would rejected it.

Dyck and Johnson, nonetheless, are aware of this objection and argue that deliberately bad movies should be considered a separate category from good-bad movies, and that we enjoy them in a different way. This is because when we know the badness of a film is a deliberate choice, we end up engaging with the film differently. It could thus be entertaining and amusing but perhaps not absurd or bizarre, which it would be if the unconvincing acting or illogical plot were intentional. Yet Strohl is not convinced by this account. First, he believes this contradicts their view of badness as failure, and second, he argues it is not always clear whether or not a movie’s badness is intentional.

In Freddy Got Fingered, Green does not try and fail to produce a comedy that most people would enjoy; rather, he intends and succeeds at making the audience laugh with his sincere transgressive taste. There are also many films that support Strohl’s second objection. He cites Ridley Scott’s 2013 film The Counselor, which is meant to be artistically serious, but it has ridiculous scenes like Cameron Diaz’s character masturbating by straddling the windshield of a car in a full split and rubbing herself against the glass. Viewers may not know whether scenes like this are supposed to come across as absurd, despite it being so out of step with the heavy tone in the rest of the film. While jarring incongruity in films sometimes appears obviously intentional, this is not always the case.

With these objections in mind, Strohl maintains that the badness of movies does not depend on the intentions of the artist; he states that “some good-bad movies are intentionally bad, others are unintentionally bad, and still others are ambiguous from the audience’s point of view.” For Strohl, what ties all of these films together is rule-breaking, or the transgressing of received norms in the world of film. Much like experimental or avant-garde films, viewers are drawn to bad movies because they go against the grain: we expect to see — and are told to value — a certain kind of writing and acting, and anything that disrupts this paradigm has the potential to be aesthetically valuable.

If we take Strohl’s argument that intentionally bad movies can achieve ‘so bad it’s good’ status, then this would mean other features seen as essential to good-bad movies — such as a lack of self-awareness — are not actually necessary. Actors could be completely aware of how they’re coming across in a film considered to be bad, yet this does not prevent the film from being ‘so bad it’s good’. Many of the classic ‘so bad they’re good’ movies achieve their cult status because of the lack of self-awareness of the director and actors. The director wants their film to be taken seriously, and the actors are trying their best to deliver their lines with sincere emotion, but when they fail and we perceive them to lack self-awareness about this, the film becomes ‘so bad it’s good’. This may be true of many good-bad films — and it certainly produces a certain kind of good-bad film (and way of engaging with it) — but it is not true of all such films.

In his Letterboxd review of Niel LaBute’s 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, widely thought of as ‘so bad it’s good’ because of Cage’s over-the-top performance, Strohl writes, “it’s absurd to think, as so many do, that the humor is unintentional. Come on, have you ever seen a Nicolas Cage movie before? My man knows exactly what he’s doing.” Robert Bierman’s 1988 horror satire Vampire’s Kiss is also considered a classic ‘so bad it’s good’ film because of Cage’s passionate and surreal performance. Some may consider this label unwarranted due to the observation that Cage’s acting style is intentional: Cage was trying to draw on 1920s German expressionism in his performance and, arguably, he succeeded in pulling it off.

Moreover, the elements that viewers find hilarious can also be interpreted as essential to the film’s purpose: telling the story of a yuppie losing his mind and who cannot connect with others (he thinks he’s turning into a vampire). On the other hand, with Strohl’s perspective in mind, we could say that this can all be true, yet Vampire’s Kiss is still a good-bad film because of the way it violates received norms. Cage’s style of acting in the film is conventionally bad according to received norms, but this makes it eccentric in a positive way. In addition, the film is intended to be a comedy, with black comedy elements, but this doesn’t preclude it from achieving ‘so bad it’s good’ status.

I would agree with Strohl’s argument that intentionally bad movies can achieve ‘so bad it’s good’ status, as well as Dyck and Johnson’s view that such films offer a different quality to unintentionally bad movies. But in terms of personal taste, as a bad movie lover, I definitely prefer the unintentional variety and the lack of self-awareness and competence that leads to artistic failure. I don’t think I have enjoyed an intentionally bad movie in the same way as I have an unintentional one. Furthermore, there is a whole trend of intentionally bad movies that many viewers conclude fail to achieve ‘so bad it’s good’ status precisely because of the intentions involved. This would include the Sharknado franchise and other films produced by The Asylum (an American film production and distribution company that focuses on low-budget, direct-to-video films). These are intended to be ridiculous and comical.

In contrast, some bad movies can have intentionally bad elements like a low-budget or cheap look, messed up dubbing, silly lines, and exaggerated acting, all of which can be enjoyable. But I think there is a general consensus amongst bad movie lovers that when these elements are unintentional, they become even more enjoyable. Of course, we should be careful of ‘bad movie elitism’ or ‘bad movie snobbery’, where we show contempt towards intentionally bad movies and those who enjoy them. Strohl rejects the attitude of bad movie fans looking down on ‘mainstream film culture’, but the same can apply when it comes to bad movie lovers judging which films and fans deserve respect.

Yet we can avoid bad move elitism or snobbery while also being honest about our personal tastes and defending the idea that unintentionally bad movies are (or tend to be) qualitatively different from intentionally bad movies. We can, moreover, criticise examples of the latter as trying too hard (such as being too self-aware or purposefully ridiculous) in a way that prevents them from achieving ‘so bad it’s good’ status. However, this can also be highly subjective, as some view a film like Sharknado (2013) as ‘so bad it’s good’, whereas others see it as simply bad. And those in the latter camp often believe the deliberate nature of the film, and similar films, is the reason why it cannot be enjoyable in the way that Miami Connection (1987), Troll 2 (1990), The Room (2003), and Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010) are enjoyable.

Some film critics who are self-avowed bad movie lovers — such as Jason Bailey and Matt Cohen — have gone further and argued that the Sharknado films are bad for cinema and bad movie lovers. Cohen, for instance, refers to film critic Pauline Kael’s argument that trashy films can be valuable because they can lead us to crave better art (or give us a taste for art), but Cohen contends that films like Sharknado only give us a taste for more trash. It is possible for bad movie lovers to hold such a position while also appreciating the aesthetic value of some intentionally bad movies. Cohen, in contrast, believes accidentally bad movies should be celebrated, whereas he views purposefully bad movies as trashy and harmful. Based on the above discussion, this particular attitude (which is common in the bad movie love community) is understandable but too black-and-white.

As already stated, I don’t believe that intentionally bad movies cannot achieve ‘so bad it’s good’ status, but I would argue it is much harder for them to do so. Furthermore, if I think about what good-bad movies offer me the most enjoyable and fulfilling watching experience, it is when the movie clearly lacks awareness of the ineptitude involved. There is a certain kind of ‘magic’ that happens when directors and actors believe they’re involved in something serious and great, which ends up being a mess in so many different ways. This kind of effect — this distinct flavour of ‘so bad it’s good’ — simply cannot be faked.

Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on December 18, 2023.

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Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, journalist, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: www.samwoolfe.com