Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: ‘Obsessed’ and the Canon of the Awesomely Bad

Bad films give audiences a rare type of power, and when films fall flat on their face, the result can be spectacular.
By  · Published on April 27th, 2009

“Who’s that woman?”
“She’s the new temp.”
“More like temp-tress!”

Dialogue like this doesn’t come along very often, and it’s even more of a joyful rarity to see such dialogue delivered by Jerry O’Connell. This painfully unamusing combination of words comes, of course, from the weekend’s #1 film, the “erotic” “thriller” Obsessed. While it was no surprise to anyone that Obsessed took the weekend’s #1 spot, it seems everyone was surprised that it made $28.5 million. The critical consensus for this film (which provided no advance screeners for critics – always a bad omen for a film’s quality) is almost unanimously negative, and while many box office analysts argue that (like they so often do with popular-but-mediocre horror films) Obsessed succeeded despite its negative reviews, its success may have instead been enabled by its very badness.

While I can’t suppose that zero people who saw and enjoyed this film this weekend took it as a serious piece of entertainment, it’s safe to conclude that most people did not. The sold-out opening night screening I attended at AMC Empire 25 at Times Square, because of its location in the city, was inferentially not filled with metropolitan film snobs, but rather the populist audience the film was intended for. Meanwhile, the fact that the screening seemed to only consist of people from their late teens to early thirties and that around 70% or more were African-American suggests the demographic this movie was primarily intended for were in attendance at my screening. And nobody – I mean NOBODY – in attendance took this film even the least bit seriously. Judging from their uproarious laughter at the film’s most “serious” “dramatic” moments (from Idris Elba’s “Breathe, bitch!” line as he resuscitates a dying Ali Larter to the ridiculous catfight climax), nobody in the audience made any type of emotional investment necessary to take this film at face value, but, through this process, probably got more entertainment value out of the experience by poking fun at the film’s obvious inadequacies.

Obsessed is a very rare type of awesomely bad film, a typology for which there are various subcategories. There is, for instance, the bad B-movie, those films (often released straight-to-video) whose awesomely bad entertainment value emanates from their clumsy balance of a high-concept generic plot with little money behind it and even less talent. Canonical films of this type include Troll 2 (1990) and Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002), both of which have achieved cult status. Another type is the failed blockbuster, those rare Hollywood films whose costly vision somehow failed to achieve anything close to what it aspired to be – films, like Batman & Robin (1997) or Battlefield: Earth (2000) that represented, often through a creative process involving a great deal of overconfidence or insecurity behind-the-scenes, a very expensive collection of bad decisions that went spiraling out of control, only to be forced on audiences in a half-gestated shadow of its intended self. However, these films rarely offer the feature-length viewing pleasure of the bad B-movie, and are instead often enjoyed and remembered largely for the idiosyncratic particularities of their excess (nipples on the Batsuit, Ahnuld’s cringe-inducing “freeze” play-on-words, John Travolta).

Obsessed, in terms of production scope and artistic intent, is neither the bad B-movie nor the failed blockbuster, but instead lies somewhere in between. Being a studio production (Screen Gems is a subsidiary of Sony/Columbia Pictures) with Beyonce’s headlining name attached (though she remains a pop star and not yet a movie star) and two recognizable actors (though their best-known work has been on TV), Obsessed carries signs of legitimacy the B-movie doesn’t, and also doesn’t have the money or anticipation behind it to qualify as a failed blockbuster, so it can be enjoyed in all its badness without the disappointment associated with such a film.

But what Obsessed has in common with these other types of enjoyably bad films is intention: the notion that somehow, somewhere in this filmmaking process, those involved intended to make the film a serious piece of entertainment worthy of respect by an audience. Filmmaking is a time-consuming and tenuous process, one that requires months of involvement by most of the major participants, so the fact that some films (especially ones made by major studios and involving credible professionals) can come out of this process as a silly piece of crap is astounding. It’s dumbfounding that it even happens at all. You would think that, at some point, somebody would say, “wait a minute…are we making a piece of shit?” Yet somehow Obsessed hit theaters in its awesomely bad form.

The mark of a great bad film is not only serious intent, but also a lack of self-awareness. This is why Snakes on a Plane (2006) never quite succeeded in its camp, because it knew it was camp and tried too hard to reiterate and bank off this campiness through its pre-release reshoots. However, a movie like Obsessed can be enjoyed because we allow ourselves to laugh at things never intended to be funny, like the aforementioned resuscitation of Ali Larter – a “serious” moment which comes off as irresistibly silly.

Obsessed follows a trend of generically-titled erotic thrillers released every spring since 2006, all of which have been forgotten the weekend they open. These films are legitimized by their stars and status as a studio production, but have been bogged down by a degree of silliness or implausibility that allowed them to fail critically and commercially. These films include Basic Instinct 2 (2006), Perfect Stranger (2007), and Deception (2008). The difference here, of course, is that Obsessed became, for some reason, a notable commercial success.

I won’t explore the implications of why the erotic thriller hasn’t been pulled off convincingly in years (because I don’t really know, but maybe this would be good material for a later post…thoughts?), but I do think it is significant that audiences flocked to a film this weekend arguably, in least in part, to enjoy the over-the-top spectacle of its amazing badness.

Enjoying a bad movie for its badness is not necessarily the same thing as enjoying lowbrow entertainment. For instance, popular movies like Fast and Furious are perfectly enjoyable on their own merit because they rarely have pretensions beyond their reach. They know exactly what they are and deliver on these parameters. Obsessed, however, fails as an erotic thriller in every respect, as nothing about it is in the least bit erotic or thrilling, and it has neither the talent nor complexity of character behind it to come anywhere near the 21st century update Fatal Attraction it fashions itself to be.

Bad movies, if they are popular, often say a lot more about the current state of our culture than movies meant to be taken seriously and read critically, because they reveal unquestioning assumptions audiences often have going in. The highly successful Bringing Down the House (2003), for example, contains troubling implications about white middle-class perception of African-American culture if read beyond the surface, yet these assumptions are rarely questioned because the “bad” or “popular lowbrow” film positions itself to not be taken seriously, which renders it all the more powerful. Approaching popular film in a similar vein, John Ridley of The Wrap reads significance in Obsessed’s use of upper-middle class African-Americans as protagonists set against a white blonde female temptress. While Obsessed’s problematic race, gender, and sexual politics are certainly worthy of discussion, Ridley’s reading points more to a lack of upper-middle class African-American representation in studio filmmaking rather than a particularly insightful commentary in its particular use within this film. But even more significant is Obsessed’s popularity because of, rather than despite of, its badness.

While bad films have had a history of cult appreciation, Obsessed quite possibly marks a populist, mainstream appreciation of gloriously bad cinema heretofore unrealized in studio filmmaking. Bad films represent a safe haven for filmgoers, a place where the façade and artifice of filmmaking is not only acknowledged, but celebrated. This dismantling of suspense of disbelief, a process previously thought to be essential to the entertaining filmgoing experience, allows the audience to laugh at what would otherwise be taken seriously, like the attempted suicide of a major character. Laughing at a bad film also gives power to the filmgoer, as they realize that their emotions and reactions are not necessarily controlled by the director or the movement of the lens, and they instead have the power to interpret a film their own way and react accordingly. This gives the audience a holier-than-thou authority over the film and filmmakers. From the posthumous revival of Ed Wood’s career to the creation of the Golden Raspberry awards in the early 1980s, film audiences have embraced a sense of superiority over bad filmmaking (even emboldening a sense, through the agency afforded by digital filmmaking and online distribution, that they can do better). Bad films give audiences a position of authority over a complex process usually meant exclusively for the talented and qualified few that reveals itself instead to be as shaky, insecure and uncertain as any creative venture. Bad films remind us that respect from the audience must be earned, and is not a given. But when films fall flat on their face, the result can be spectacular.

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