About every month or so, Steve Carlson and I co-host a movie-themed podcast called the Bad Idea Podcast. The podcast’s main conceit, in short: Steve and I are cinephile dumpster divers. We either watch a collection of bad movies or a selection of movies united by a stupid theme (example: movies featuring killer trees in time for the release of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life). We do this, as Steve often says, because we’re looking for “buried treasure,” or, more importantly, a reason “to justify these films’ existence.”
Fun as this is, I still often wonder if there is such a thing as a productively awful film. We don’t think of the films we watch as immediately satisfying but not especially hardy cine-junk food, any more than Solaris is a, uh, cultural vegetable (to be clear: I love Stalker, Solaris and Ivan’s Childhood and am fascinated by The Mirror and The Sacrifice, too). So the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as a guilty pleasure film is only tangentially related to our goal for the podcast. Steve and I both acknowledge that we often highlight fundamentally rotten movies, and that, yes, there’s something odd about going out of your way to look for the sublime in the awful. But just because a movie is strange does not always mean it’s interesting, as we saw during the month when we watched a swath of E.T. ripoffs from around the world. (We watched a German period porno starring a girl in a very bad and very revealing E.T. costume. That was a rough watch.). The kind of film we’re looking for is something that can give us an experience like the one we had while watching Black Devil Doll from Hell, a title we watched for our month dedicated to killer puppets. Black Devil Doll from Hell is insane but it’s insane in a weird, sui generis, avant-garde-meets-blaxtaploitation kind of way. It’s weird in ways that made both Steve and I want to rewind and compare a scene where a woman, while showering, is psychically raped by a sentient puppet to Chris Marker’s ground-breaking use of photo-montage in La Jetee. Black Devil Doll from Hell is our kind of movie.
So, it’s with little guilt that I express my interest in The Raven, a new thriller in which Edgar Allan Poe runs around trying to catch a serial killer whose murders are all based on gruesome scenes from Poe’s stories. The Raven might very well be just a garden variety turd. The plot looks pretty formulaic, and John Cusack looks seriously miscast as Poe (sorry, but Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler just doesn’t have that kind of acting range). But: James McTeigue is directing, which leaves me simultaneously excited and confused.
McTeigue is most well-known as the director of the recent glossy but approachable and not altogether unintelligent adaptation of V for Vendetta. Though that would normally be enough to make me interested, that’s not why I’m curious about The Raven. McTeigue also served as 2nd Assistant Director on a number of other Wachowski siblings’ related projects: McTeigue worked with the Wachowskis on the Matrix movies, as well as on Speed Racer, as the second unit director. Directing under the influence of the Wachowskis, filmmakers who know how to shoot characters in motion, is not McTeigue’s problem. It’s also not really why I’m interested. The single reason for my interest in The Raven is this: McTeigue’s last film, the memorably tacky Ninja Assassin.
Ninja Assassin hails from a long tradition of awful movies about ninjas made by white guys. Enter the Ninja, Ninja Terminator, Revenge of the Ninja–all of these films were directed by white guys, and all of them happily exploited the near-mythic image of Nippon’s own brutal, stealthy black pajama-clad killers in better Japanese movies (such as Samurai Spy or any of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies). Co-scripted by Matthew Sand and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, Ninja Assassin is pure ninjasploitation. Every narrative cliche is deployed, from the doomed love subplot that teaches Raizo (Korean pop star Rain), our stoic ninja hero, to the domineering but heartless father figure who meaninglessly and firmly urges Raizo to “always remember who you are.” The film’s action scenes suck because they rely heavily on fountains of computer-generated blood, murky shadows, and goofy action poses to achieve a fairly meager effect. Ninja Assassin‘s cookie cutter plot has no heart, and its ostentatiously elaborate set pieces have no style. Ninja Assassin is not a diamond in the rough—it’s just rough. So why can’t I look away?
Something about the expertly executed superficial rotten-ness of his last film gives me hope that with his new movie, McTeigue has taken his propensity for dimwitted melodrama and done something truly flabbergasting. I want to see John Cusack twirl his mustache, drink heavily, and then, who knows, hallucinate that he is a serial killer, or even end up chasing a man-sized blackbird in a trenchcoat. I want to see John Cusack give us a top ten list of pathological clues that point toward the real killer, with a literal bullet punctuating the end of his list. I want to see Edgar Allan Poe get drunk in order to solve crime, just as Jackie Chan’s character gets inebriated in order to fight in the Drunken Master movies. In other words: I want to believe that McTeigue will use the mandate that his big budget and cluelessness as a storyteller have naturally bestowed upon him to make the best damn bad, tasteless movie he can. He has financial power at his fingertips that many other incompetent and flamboyant filmmakers only dream of. I sincerely hope he uses it in a productively awful way. Because when you watch a fantastically bad film, one that makes you feel like you’re hallucinating while watching it, you’re disarmed. You’re reacting purely, without hesitation or rationale. Whatever it is you’re feeling when you watch a spectacularly bad movie, it’s from the gut, and it’s icky, and it’s strange, and it has to be reckoned with. I want The Raven to be that bad.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.