Last night, the Syfy Channel aired a little something called Sharknado, a made-for-TV movie about… well, a shark tornado. “Enough said,” as the ads insisted. The film, which featured such D-list luminaries as Tara Reid and Ian Ziering, was the latest collaboration between the network and Asylum, the studio behind such “mockbusters” (closely titled blockbuster ripoffs viewed, almost entirely, by accident) as Transmorphers, Paranormal Entity, and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. Their previous Syfy originals have included 2-Headed Shark Attack, Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus, and Mega Pirahna. They’re making a very good living creating bad movies — but you can’t create bad movies. Asylum and Syfy, at risk of being a buzzkill, are doing it wrong.
Make no mistake, they’re certainly doing it right from a social media standpoint. Last night’s premiere event (and let’s call it what it was, an event) was a Twitter sensation, as blogger/political strategist Patrick Ruffini noted:
Comedians, actors, and casual viewers live-tweeted up a storm. Memes and GIFs were created at breakneck speed. Everybody had a good giggle. As Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote this morning, “Whatever your race, politics, religion, or romantic history with Woody Allen, for one night, we were all just Americans, doing [what] Americans have always done best – sitting on our butts and watching TV.”
That kind of unified experience is all good and well, and the fact that everybody had a good time with an awful movie is, to be sure, a lovely thing. But for those of us with a genuine love for bad movies, who seek out treasures of terribleness, the Sharknado social media storm was kind of like when everybody discovered rap music via Vanilla Ice. That’s not the genuine article — it’s a plastic, artificial, manufactured substitute.
Because truly great bad movies can’t be made that way, with this kind of snickering, ironic snark-viewing in mind. A genuinely bad movie — a Manos, a Miami Connection, a Hobgoblins, a Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a Troll 2 — is a found object, and intention is everything. The people who made those movies didn’t think they were making bad movies; they were striving for greatness. The directors of Desperate Lives and Avenging Disco Godfather thought they were making important social documents about the dangers of narcotics. The makers of Time Chasers thought they were making a snazzy sci-fi picture. Stallone and Golan thought Over the Top really could be a heartfelt story of a good guy’s reunion with his estranged son. And every single movie Ed Wood made was an expression of his desire to make the Great American Movie. These people were pouring every ounce of their talent and self-expression into these movies. They made the best movies they were capable of — and they were still terrible. And that’s what makes them so riveting.
I’ve touched on this before, but it bears repeating. A few months back, Dan Harmon had Doug Benson (host of Doug Loves Movies) on an episode of his Harmontown podcast, and they discussed the first posters for Sharknado and the other films of the Syfy/Aslum oeuvre. And Harmon had this to say about them:
The greatest thing used to be to, like, get high and go to the actual video store and walk up and down aisles, and see pictures, and look at backs of boxes, and go to like sci-fi/kickboxing sections, and say, “Holy shit, these people are trying as hard as they can to make a good movie, this is their Citizen Kane, let’s watch the result.” But now, in this post-Piranha 3D, post-Mansquito world, it’s like, “No, it’s supposed to be funny! Opta-pirahna-terra-donna-shark-gator! It’s hilarious, Debbie Gibson’s in it! It’s funny!” And I’m kinda like, “Fuck you if you think it’s funny. Fuck you, try hard, so I can laugh at you.”
“Fuck you, try hard, so I can laugh at you,” is probably no nobler a goal than, “Let’s make a terrible movie that people can laugh at.” But at least, in that equation, the cynicism only goes one way. The Syfy approach isn’t what bad movies, as a distinction or a subgenre (or a lifestyle choice, I dunno) are all about. They’re about discovery, the sharing of a slack-jawed amazement that something could have gone so terribly wrong, and we can watch it. But in their pro forma assemblage of giggly titles, fallen stars, jokey concepts, and feature-length dramatization of ironic quotation marks, the Asylum/Syfy stuff is just as calculated as the most depressing Hollywood dreck.