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A Beginner’s Guide to Trash

Hi everyone. My name is Henry Jordan and I love trash. I love trash food, I love trash music and I especially love trash films. I love trash films so much that I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on them (and if you’re interested in a more academic spin on the article you’re about to read, let me know and I can send you a copy). But I often have difficulty explaining that love to other people. Which is where this post comes in. With this being a new dawn for my blog, it feels right that I should get in a post as early as I can about the joys of trash and where trash virgins (not to be confused with trash virgins, if you catch my drift) can get their first fix.

I’ve tried to explain before what it is that makes trash films so great, but it’s very difficult without the help of a therapist, able to psychoanalyse why my brain is as broken as it is. So instead, I want to introduce you to five key films that show you different aspects of the badfilm experience. If any of these take your fancy, there’s a whole world of trash behind them that I’m trying to open the door for. They each come with a follow-up recommendation and I’m more than happy to supply any additional recs to those still curious for more. But essentially, if you’ve ever wondered what the deal is with bad films/trash films/however we want to define them, these are the ones I think you should start with. So gather round with your friends and your intoxicant of choice. Let’s dive down into this nightmare together.

The Room

If you’ve seen any film on this list, it’s probably The Room. However, this being a beginner’s guide, I still feel like we absolutely have to touch on The Room. It is the insane brainchild of Tommy Wiseau, a film which he directed, wrote, produced and starred in. The plot is… Well, like so many of the films we’re going to cover, the plot is inessential, but let me give it a shot anyway. There’s a man named Johnny, who has a girlfriend named Lisa. Lisa is cheating on Johnny with his best friend Mark, which creates tension and drama between them all. Around this is a boy named Denny who keeps popping into the titular apartment, Lisa keeps meeting up with her mother (who definitely has breast cancer) and there’s a whole host of other characters who do nothing and have no purpose. They all come in and out of this room in San Francisco (why San Francisco we do not know), until the film is over. This is The Room.

But a simple description of plot can’t do justice to The Room. Only watching it can, because only when watching it do you realise how poorly all its elements fit together. Johnny comes home to Lisa, complains about his job and then they have sex. It’s quite a long sex scene and a very uncomfortable one, but it’s one we will see again so buckle in for that. Then Mark (who again, is Johnny’s best friend, please remember this) comes round to also sleep with Lisa. This sex scene is less awkward to watch but still not great. Another sex scene comes ten minutes later and then the whole thing really goes off the rails. Random characters come and go (sometimes changing actor with no fanfare), Johnny does important chores like buying flowers and in case you forgot where this film is set, there’s occasionally a filler shot of an iconic San Francisco landmark. This continues for the entire 99 minute runtime with absolutely no reprive.

This nonsense string of events, tied together by apparently only the delusion of the screenwriter-cum-lead actor, is made even more excruciatingly brilliant by Wiseau. His performance is dire, every line sounding like it barely managed to escape his mouth, though not without being tainted by his very thick accent. You might think that other actors would do better but no, they’re also hampered by Wiseau’s awful dialogue and terrible direction, direction that is legendarily terrible. The infamous moniker of “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” is not unnearned, as every single time I rewatch The Room I spot a new terrible detail that rocks my world. The most notable one was that on viewing number five, I realised that the rainy window prop used for one of the sex scenes is actually a stand-alone part of the room, not even connected to the wall. It’s the reason why group viewings are so valuable to your experience of The Room, because a new pair of eyes can often reveal a mystery that you hadn’t even considered.

The Room embodies the kind of badfilm that exists because of single minded lunatics, one of the most fruitful genres there is. As such, it’s hard to find only one film to recommend here, but I’m going to go with Ben and Arthur. It has been called The Room for the homosexual community and that feels fairly spot on. Again, it is terrible dialogue, used to fill scenes that feel completely unrelated to each other, before leading to an entirely unearned conclusion of extravagant melodrama. Though once quite hard to find, I believe Ben and Arthur is currently kicking around somewhere on YouTube, so give it a look if you’ve already enjoyed the many pleasures The Room has to offer.

Miami Connection

If you’re planning on experimenting with badfilm, films that sit very comfortably within genres are one of the safest bets you can have. More specifically, horror and action seem to deliver reliably, because even their failures end up becoming endearing. While there are plenty of bad horror films I could recommend, I’m sticking to action today and recommending Miami Connection, one of my most treasured discoveries. It is the timeless tale of a rock band who must use their taekwondo skills and friendship to stop a gang of drug dealers and ninjas from bringing their stupid cocaine into Orlando. You know, one of those tales.

In the same way that The Room is frontloaded with a lot of sex scenes, Miami Connection is frontloaded with a lot of musical numbers. Fortunately, the songs are all absolute bangers and you will be streaming them as soon as the film rolls credits. To give you an accurate idea of how rad the band are, all I have to do is tell you their name; the one, the only, Dragon Sound. Though the lyrics are dorkily charming (such as those in their song “Friends“, about being friends for eternity, loyalty, honesty), the vocals and guitar playing genuinely rock. I love them so much that I bought a Dragon Sound shirt, which has been recognised twice in public to my intense delight. If you don’t find yourself humming at least a few of the songs days after a viewing, something has gone wrong.

The other thing that takes up the majority of the runtime in Miami Connection is fight scenes. Sometimes those fights are with guns, sometimes with swords, but mainly with awesome taekwondo skills. And if you’re thinking “hang on, but how do the main characters all know taekwondo?” then fear not, we have training montages, in which our band (who are also housemates and orphans and seem to share one tank top between them all, don’t ask) slow mo punch each other in the face. It is truly giggle worthy stuff that is essential to the film because it also paves the way for our finale, an action spectacle that ramps up the melodrama in totally unexpected ways. Even in the world of cheesy action movies, there are very few things like it, especially its closing message.

Speaking of the world of cheesy action movies, there are so many other choices for recommendation, but I know where my heart goes. My heart goes to Wakaliwood, the Ugandan action studio that makes and distributes its action movies from a slum on the outskirts of Kampala. Their films are low budget but high passion and even better, their best film Who Killed Captain Alex? is available for free on YouTube. If you enjoy it, buy merch from them and support their work, because this is that lovely little area where independent filmmaking and badfilm obsession cross over. It’s where the magic happens.

Showgirls

I don’t think Showgirls has a genre, but if had I to categorise it, it would be in the genre of Hollywood excess. It’s one of those films that cost a lot of money, made very little of it back and was a completely intoxicating trainwreck to watch happen. Lots of debate has been had in the 25 years since release regarding whether the film is secretly a masterpiece or is actively dangerous, including at the cinema I work at. One of my managers is very insistent that Showgirls is in fact a masterpiece, an insistence that is not shared by the other members of staff. I do not believe that Showgirls is a misunderstood masterpiece (as its place on this list proves, sorry Lorcan), but I remain captivated by it regardless. It took up a huge section of my dissertation, as I attempted to muddle my way through how the film works and after 3000 words I still didn’t get to the bottom of it.

So why does Showgirls compel me so? Let’s start with the plot. A woman named Nomi Malone (do you get it? No Me, I’m Alone) travels to Las Vegas to make her name as a showgirl. Though she starts off in the sleazy strip clubs on the outskirts of the strip, she soon dances her way up to the big leagues as an erotic dancer. The path to fame is littered with sex and scandal and more sex. I mean holy shit, there is so much nudity in this film. The original advertising played hard on this, clearly trying to bring in the horny men in their hordes, a tactic which backfired quite dramatically on the film. That fact becomes more hysterical the more you watch the film, as the nudity loses any eroticism and the films excesses become more and more absurd. The best big budget disasters are exactly this, films that collapse under their own excess. The fun of Showgirls in particular is just that the excess is an excess of the flesh (and you’d better believe there’s a late capitalist reading of that, see my dissertation for proof).

As with so many of the the films on this list, Showgirls is also brilliant because its dialogue is terrible. Instead of wasting all my time writing out my thoughts, I could have just put down three paragraphs of Showgirls quotes and you’d have understood. In that spirit, I’ll give you a couple of my favourites: “It must be weird, not having anybody cum on you”, “She looks better than a ten-inch dick and you know it!” or “I used to love Doggy Chow” to choose but three. These lines are delivered with admirably straight faces by the actors, whose playing it straight is one of the things that makes Showgirls compulsively watchable instead of nightmarish. David Lynch’s favourite boy Kyle MacLachlan is a sleazy guy with interesting pool habits, Gina Gershon is a screen-chewing starlet and as Nomi, Elizabeth Berkley is commendably committed. Berkley in particular suffered from cruel reviews on initial release and in supporting Showgirls so voraciously, I feel like I’m sticking a middle finger to the misogyny that nearly ruined her life. I’m also laughing at the film, but people are complex, we’re capable of both at once.

The trick with big budget disasters is picking ones that are terrible in interesting ways. A film like Pan is blandly bad, where Catwoman is so insane it works. A lot of it comes down to personal taste, so I’ll instead look a little lower budget for excess and recommend you the Patrick Swayze action film Road House. In Road House, Swayze is a bouncer for dodgy bars, brought into a particularly dodgy bar to clean the place up. He succeeds, by puching people in the face a lot. Then at one point, there’s some guy who turns up who wants to take over the entire town. Something about monster trucks, there’s a helicopter, an entire town becomes thirsty for blood. It’s action packed and homo-erotic and no, maybe not the same vibe as Showgirls, but it is a film as addicted to the same excess, making it also legendarily bad.

Vampire’s Kiss

Nicolas Cage is such an incredible actor that his films become something of a genre unto themselves. His films are sometimes genuinely brilliant or sometimes painfully boring, but he is always irrefutably watchable. Again, narrowing down options has been my only difficulty. Face-Off is prime Cage but too much of a good film to include, whereas Cage is brilliant in Deadfall until he is prematurely killed off and the film takes a dive. In the end though, it had to be Vampire’s Kiss. If you, like me, spent a lot of the early 2010s watching Nic Cage freakout compilations, a lot of Vampire’s Kiss is going to be very familiar to you, as it’s where so much of the best stuff comes from. This is Cage, in his prime, going all out on a concept that requires total dedication. You bet your sweet ass that Cage puts his all into it.

The setup is simple. While clubbing, Nic Cage’s character picks up a woman who he later believes to have been a vampire. He finds bite marks on his neck and therefore assumes that he is now becoming a vampire. We’ve all been there. It’s left ambiguous whether this is actually the case but regardless, he must deal with his “transformation” while still doing his job at the marketing house he runs. Cue Cage freakouts. Though the audience are left uncertain if Cage really has been bitten by a vampire, Cage believes it fully. He chases women through his building, hides from sunlight and even buys himself a pair of fake teeth to fit the part. It is the purely illogical, taken to its logical extremes.

As I’m hopefully getting across, this film is only as brilliant as it is because of Nic Cage. There are some truly vintage moments in here, even excluding all the ones that are such brilliant acting gestures that words couldn’t communicate them. As I list these scenes off to you, please bear in mind that these are all real scenes that really exist from a real movie. In one moment, Nic Cage screams the alphabet to his therapist (yes, the whole thing). In another, he attempts to crush himself under the weight of his own sofa. In one climactic moment, Cage is walking down the street with a piece of wood and begging passers by to kill him. Cage has done so much brilliant work in the field of the subtle over the years, but when he wants to go full insane, no one does it better.

To recommend another film, the only place I can turn is another Nic Cage film and this time we’re going to The Wicker Man. Please don’t confuse it with the original and actually great Wicker Man from the seventies, this is a terrible remake with Cage singlehandedly saving the entire film from obscurity. It is the origin of the iconic “No, not the bees” clip, as well as a film in which Nic Cage spends much of the third act running around in a bear costume punching women in the face. It is as stupid and brilliant as you could hope for from Nic Cage, it’s your next port of call for when you want to get back in the Cage.

Fateful Findings

And finally, we end on another single minded maniac. The one, the only; Neil Breen. Breen is, like Cage, a genre unto himself, although his roles are more numerous than Cage. You see, Breen is an independent filmmaker who stars in, directs, writes, produces and does so much more for his films. He does so much work on his films that he makes up fake company names for makeup or catering companies, to hide yet more work he has done. So far he has made five films and all of them are exactly the same flavour of completely batshit filmmaking, plot and acting, blended together to make the weirdest smoothie you’ll ever drink. Of all his films though, Fateful Findings may just be the crowning achievement.

For all the films I’ve covered, I’ve attempted to explain the plot to you. I am going to struggle doing that with Fateful Findings, as there is simultaneously no plot and too much plot. Let me try and explain it, stop me if it sounds like I’m having a breakdown. Breen plays a writer, who as a child discovers a magical rock in the woods with his crush (“it’s a magical day” we are told). Breen gets hit by a car, taken to hospital but it turns out he’s fine. His wife is addicted to pills and is stealing his painkillers because she is addicted to pills. She is addicted to pills. Please, it’s important. There’s also another couple, where the husband is an alcoholic and the wife is a former porn star, probably. They have a daughter who tries to hit on Neil, but then the childhood crush comes back and then “NO MORE BOOKS” and then the wife dies and then “I’m gonna shoot this damn car full of holes” and then “I can’t believe you comitted suicide” and then government secrets and then “I resign as president of the bank” and then it’s a happy ending, what a magical day. Got it? Good.

Even after all my time watching bad films, there is nothing like the films of Neil Breen. Sure, other films have bad acting or bad dialogue or awkward editing, but not like this. This is a whole other level of bad and it makes Breen’s films so consistently refreshing. Be warned though, there are times where the experience of watching his films can feel like the experience of reading the plot summary I gave. It’s a lot to take in and you may feel like your brain is trying to escape through your ears. All of Breen’s films are like this, whether it’s Fateful Findings or I Am Here… Now (a film in which space Jesus Neil Breen comes down to heal humanity) or Twisted Pair (Neil Breen plays mutant twins who are battling each other and it has nothing to do with testicular trauma). Though they can be hard to find, Breen’s films are worth tracking down, to experience one of the greatest artistic voices badfilm has ever given us.

In honour of Breen, let’s go back in time for the final recommendation, to another auteur whose terrible films are truly legendary. Badfilm fans already know it, it’s Ed Wood, specifically his masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space. Both Breen and Wood heavily use stock footage to pad their runtimes, but that’s not the only similarity between our two auteurs. Breen uses plenty of terrible digital effects, but it’s not hard to imagine that a version of him in the fifties would have used practical effects and sets in a similarly poor way to Wood. Wood also makes films where the plot is total incoherent nonsense and will cause your brain to break beyond belief. I had an experience with Plan 9 where I watched it while a flatmate was listening to the song “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” and I started laughing so hard that my flat had to come check I was alright. It’s transcendentally terrible. When you’ve enjoyed the work of the modern master, go back and honour one of the greats.

I had way too many films to pick for this list. Once you start digging through trash, you’ll be amazed how deep it goes, whether you’re in the straight to VHS era in the eighties or the “there’s no way this was in multiplexes” era of the past decade. I didn’t even mention some of my favourites, like Cyborg Cop (and its magnificent sequel), Hard Ticket to Hawaii and the entire Andy Sidaris catalogue, Ma, Troma’s War, Samurai Cop and Troll 2, to name only the best examples I’ve found over the last five years. There’s a whole terrible world out there and if you ever need a guide, I am always here to be your Virgil for this trash inferno. I love recommending trash to people and not just because it gives some purpose to the hours of my life that would otherwise be judged to have been wasted on this finite time we have on Earth. Recommending is fun, you’re having an existential crisis, shut up. Just come dumpster diving with me, lets find some trash and have a terrible time together.

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