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A Guide to Bad Movies

I have a pretty basic system for rating movies on this site - I give them anywhere from a 0 to a 5, and the higher the score, the more fun I had watching.  But a rating like that doesn't get the point across when you're talking about a bad movie.

Y'see, bad movies defy a simple points scale.  It's like trying to measure the cold - you don't measure "cold" in degrees, you measure heat in degrees.  With bad movies, you could be talking about multiple levels of irony and any number of qualifiers that don't come across in a "1 / 5."

So with that in mind, I figured I'd come up with a quick reference page for a more complex Bad Movie Rating System that will help me get my point across more clearly.  That way you'll better understand the next time I give something like The Bronx Executioner a 4 / 5.

(You can also consider this a good guide if you're new to bad movies and you're planning to dive in head first.  Stay clear of the FSCs, start with the NBMs, and don't go into the VBMs until you've really gotten a taste for it.  Also, do not ever watch an FBM.  I know you think it's going to be fun, but you're wrong.)

The Graphic

For handy reference, I've made a crappy basic graphic to help plot where each of the ratings would appear.  The horizontal axis represents how much fun I had while watching the movie.  The vertical axis represents the technical skill and merit of the movie.  Don't bother clicking on the graphic for links - I'm not that tech-savvy.

The Ratings

Secret Comedy (SC)

A Secret Comedy is a legitimately brilliant comedy that was unfortunately meant to be a drama of some sort.  In other words, this is exactly what you're looking for whenever you want to have a Bad Movie Night.  An SC is the very definition of "good bad," the kind of thing you'll quote and watch over and over and share with your friends.

You don't even need to be a bad movie aficionado to enjoy it.  The laughs don't come from simple sneering on your part as a viewer - they're actually honest-to-God hilarious movies, and that's an important distinction.  There's a big difference between watching something so bizarre and ridiculous that you laugh versus sitting through a slog and trying to come up with the funniest way to complain about it.

Sadly, SCs are incredibly rare.  A filmmaker has to have the perfect blend of misguided energy and incompetence to create one.  Once you go through the tiny catalog of SCs that are out there, you may find yourself itching for another hit.  But like actual drugs, you need to make sure you're getting quality stuff before jamming it in your body or else you'll end up bored, obnoxious, or - even worse - cynical.

Examples: Parole ViolatorsThe Room, Troll 2, Birdemic, Glen or Glenda

Failed Secret Comedy (FSC)

So, let's say that you're a burgeoning bad movie fan and you've seen all the Secret Comedies already.  You're looking for another hit and you start plowing through every B-movie you can find, hoping to score some more of that sweet ironic high.

Sometimes you'll start a movie and you think you've struck gold.  In the first ten minutes, you start laughing your ass off at one particularly funny moment.  Suddenly, you're getting a good-bad vibe from the movie, so you pause it to go bust out your liquor / pot and really get into it.  You're thinking, "Hey, I just found the next Birdemic, this is gonna be great."

But then you un-pause the movie... and it turns out that one huge laugh you had was the only one.  Suddenly you're bored and disappointed.  You've just unwittingly stumbled into a Failed Secret Comedy.

FSCs are not the worst type of bad movie you'll see, but they're definitely among the most disappointing.  They lull you into a false sense of security and trick you.  You could cut out the five best minutes of the movie and come up with a fantastic little short to put on Youtube, and if you did that, everybody would think the movie was going to be amazing.  But don't fall for it - there's far too much tedium connecting those little bits, and it's just not worth it.

Examples: Narcotic Justice, Mind, Body & Soul, The Road Killers

Novice Bad Movie (NBM)

Let's assume now that you've seen all the Secret Comedies and you've also suffered through a few Failed Secret Comedies, but you're still undeterred in your quest.  You still want a hit of that ironic delight.  You really want to get into bad movies and make them one of your new things.  Bad Movie Thursdays?  Sure, you're ready to sign up.  But where do you go next?  You don't want any more FSCs, and you're out of the good stuff.

Well, good news!  Even though not every bad movie is quite as delightful as an SC, there's plenty of enjoyable bad movies out there.  You just have to settle for something that's not quite as thoroughly entertaining.  And that's where the Novice Bad Movies come into play.

NBMs are the next step down from a Secret Comedy in terms of watchability.  They're mostly fun and mostly harmless.  You can screen a few and your friends will enjoy watching them with you.  You may even want to revisit some of them multiple times.

The only catch is that an NBM doesn't have the same transcendent quality that a Secret Comedy has.  There's nothing "magical" about their badness.  They're accessible enough that you can share them with friends, but you would have to preemptively tell people that you're showing a Bad Movie or else they'll just get pissed off at you.

A minor distinction?  Sure.  But the NBM marks the beginning of an important divergence in your bad movies.  When you start watching NBMs, you start going down a different path.  You're becoming a different type of movie watcher - and not everybody is going to want to go with you.

Examples: College Kickboxers, If Footmen Tire you, What Will Horses Do?, Strike Commando, Laser MissionMiami Connection, Plan 9 From Outer Space, Skyscraper

Junior Varsity Bad Movie (JVBM)

So, now you've watched all the Secret Comedies, you've been burned by a few Failed Secret Comedies, and you've notched a dozen or so Novice Bad Movies under your belt.  Congrats!  You're officially a bad movie fan.

You'll start to refine your tastes around this time and you'll learn which bad movie quirks strike your fancy and which ones don't.  You'll realize that mere bad acting in general isn't enough to be funny anymore - you're looking for a specific type of bad acting.

And as you start making these distinctions, you'll become more and more aware that the movies you enjoy are not very enjoyable to other people.  This is the price you pay to become a bad movie fan - or any fan, really.  You know those people who are so deeply invested in the expanded Star Wars universe that they can name a bunch of idiots in the background of the cantina?  You used to laugh at how much time they wasted on their hobby, but now here you are trying to explain why there's a difference between a good Albert Pyun movie and a bad one.

That's where the Junior Varsity Bad Movie category comes into play.  These are movies that you will appreciate as a bad movie fan, but you cannot share them with anybody except other bad movie fans. At the risk of sounding cliquey, casual viewers will probably only make it through about half an hour before they get annoyed and go, "Why are you making me watch this?"  If Novice Bad Movies represent a fork in the road where you start going down the path of bad movie fandom, then JV Bad Movies represent the forested part where that road gets bumpy.

You probably won't be revisiting these very often, although you might have a few lines or moments stuck in your head for the rest of your life.  The good news is, when you find a particularly memorable one, you'll be aching to share it with your other bad movie nerd friends.  Watching it together becomes a unique community-building experience.

Varsity Bad Movie (VBM)

So.  You've come this far.  To carry on my analogy from before, you got to the fork in the road with your Novice Bad Movies, you walked down the shady, broken pavement of the Junior Varsity Bad Movies, and now you've reached an abandoned creepy shack in the middle of the woods.  Welcome to the Varsity Bad Movies.

Let's be clear about something: VBMs do not get their title because of their quality.  This is not my term for "bottom of the barrel."  VBMs get their title because they are on the extreme end of bad movies you enjoy watching.  This is a key difference - something that's the worst movie ever made is probably not going to be fun to watch, ironically or sincerely.

When I say "Varsity Bad Movie," what I'm referring to is a bad movie that is of so little value to a general audience that you have to be an almost religious fan of bad movies to take joy in it.  I don't mean that you're jaded or cynical or that you make fun of everything you watch, either.  If that's how you're approaching a VBM, then you've learned nothing on your journey to get here.

No, the joy of a VBM is the same joy that you get when reading a textbook; you only feel it when you're really invested in the subject matter.  Sometimes, "fun" isn't even the way to describe it.  Sometimes the joy really just comes from dissecting the movie and seeing all the ways it has failed.

You know how sometimes you'll hear about a screening of a four hour cut of Alphaville book-ended by short films from Truffaut and Pasolini, and you think, "Only the nerdiest film snob could possibly be excited for that?" VBMs are basically the same thing, only inverted.  There's times when watching them feels more like research than fun.

Examples: Ninja Academy, Twister's Revenge, Night Train to Terror

Movie You Didn't Get, But Everyone Else Did (MYDG)

This one's extremely subjective and almost always frustrating: the dreaded Movie You Didn't Get. An MYDG is critically and/or commercially lauded by the rest of the world, but you had no strong feelings for it.  Maybe you were neutral, or maybe you even hated it.

Who knows why.  It could be that the subject matter just isn't interesting to you.  Or maybe you just have an irrational hatred of one of the actors.  Maybe you suspect you're a robot because you're the only one who can see the obvious, glaring flaws.  Regardless, an MYDG is a movie you're worried to admit that you don't like for fear of losing film critic cred.  After all, who will take your opinions seriously if you admit openly that you were bored by 2001: A Space Odyssey?

An MYDG can be a particularly harsh experience if you're a bad movie fan because by now you've seen so much nonsense that you're probably starting to second-guess whether you even know what "good" and "bad" are anymore.  The overwhelming love the rest of the world has for an MYDG confuses you to a point where you start acting contrarian and petty.  It can make you feel pretty damn self-conscious.

The good news is, there's always a community of people who agree with you, so you might find some unexpected friends out of it.

Examples: Crash, Into the Woods, The Avengers

Nothing To Say (NTS)

In somewhat the same vein as a Movie You Didn't Get is one where you simply have Nothing To Say. Both are movies that completely fail to resonate with you, but the difference is that an NTS doesn't have much of an audience, so you don't have to feel self-conscious or contrarian about shrugging it off.

This is the kind of movie that you see it once and forget all about.  Even immediately after you've seen it, you find that you just have no opinion.  You watched it, and now you're not watching it.

NTS does not mean "bad."  It is the exact center of quality, neither good nor bad, neither fun nor boring.  Because all of its faults and its successes cancel each other out, the movie might as well not even exist - it ends up in a state that totally fails to leave an impression on you.

Examples: Welcome to Collinwood, Running Scared, City of Ember

Fake Bad Movie (FBM)

Now, let's get into some real dreck.

Up to now, I've tried to avoid hyperbole in this guide.  I've tried not to talk much about the intrinsic quality of the movies themselves and more about an overall experience that you have when watching.  But sooner or later I have to talk about movies that can legitimately be labeled as "the worst movies ever made."  They're probably not what you're thinking.

Y'see, when you call something the "worst movie ever made," you need to be honest with yourself and with others about why you're watching the movie.  Did you purposefully seek out a bad movie because you wanted to watch it ironically?  Were you expecting a comedy and you got a drama instead?  Are you mostly interested in historical accuracy and you felt the screenwriters took too many liberties?  There's lots of reasons why you might think a movie failed at what it was trying to do, so there's lots of reasons who you might think something is the "worst."

The thing we can all agree on, though, is that if a movie is made with some semblance of sincerity behind it and you think it fails at its goals, then it's a "bad" movie.  So, logically, if the movie was made without any sincerity whatsoever and fails at its goals, then it is objectively a worse kind of bad movie.  Thus you have the cruelty of the Fake Bad Movie.

I hate to throw the word "objective" out there like some fifteen year-old idiot who just discovered film criticism, but this is a case where it applies.  Fake Bad Movies are, by any definition, the worst movies ever made.

They are lazy movies that were made and with the explicit goal of being bad, and so when they fail to be entertaining, they fall back on the excuse of, "Well, we were trying to be bad!"  It's like a divide-by-zero error.  You cannot mathematically add negative numbers to each other and end up with a positive.

Fake Bad Movies are cynicism at its worst.  They're movies made with the expectation that nobody gives a shit and therefore, neither should the director.  It's like somebody spitting in your food at McDonald's and then justifying it by saying, "Pfft, it's McDonald's, you already know it's going to be bad food, why does my spit make it any worse?"  Whether you think the end product is going to be good or not, you need to have some goddamn pride and do your best at making it, anyway.  If you're too lazy or too much of an asshole to understand that, then you shouldn't be making movies in the first place.

FBMs can be a trap for a lot of new bad movie fans because they're usually produced with the hope that they'll catch lightning in a bottle and become the next big Secret Comedy. But that's not how Secret Comedies work. Nobody has ever made a Secret Comedy intentionally - that's the whole point.  It's called a Secret Comedy because nobody knew they were making a comedy at the time.

If you consume too many FBMs too soon in your bad movie fandom, then you'll just end up being as jaded and cynical as the assholes who produce them.  The joy of watching bad movies is that you can appreciate the talent, dreams, and ambition that went into the movie.  You laugh with the movie.  You can see yourself being part of the team that made it.  Not so with an FBM - an FBM invites you to laugh at the movie, to be a sneering dickhead who thinks that everything is garbage and it's cool to hate people for their efforts.  That's a rotten, dark place to be.

There are no winners with an FBM.

Examples: Sharknado, Icetastrophe, Blood Lake

Workman Bad Movie (WBM)

The problem with calling out Fake Bad Movies for being cynical is that anybody with a little bit of film history knowledge will point out that FBMs are produced in much the same was as classic B-movies.  Both are cheaply-produced movies that were often knowingly bad, but the filmmakers tried to finish them as quickly as possible, anyway.  In both cases, the goal was simply to pump out as much product for the market as possible.

And that's true; they are the same on the surface.  When you look at bad movie icons like Roger Corman or Fred Olen Ray or at storied production companies like Cannon or PM Entertainment, you find a lot of movies that were made with the same process in mind as a company like The Asylum has today.

But there's a key difference, in case you didn't pick up on it in my rant above.  An FBM is a movie made by somebody who does not give a shit at all.  It's what you get when the filmmakers put in zero effort because that's their "style."  A B-movie, on the other hand, has dignity.  It's what you get when you have a team of professionals who put in an honest day of work even if they know that what they're making is going to be a turd.

And that's why you have what is probably the largest category of bad movies out there: the Workman Bad Movie.  These are movies that frankly aren't very fun to watch.  Name any reason you want.  They're boring, they're stupid, they're generic, whatever.  Booze doesn't make them funnier and they don't even have the handful of funny scenes that a Failed Secret Comedy has.  They just exist to pad out the offerings on streaming services everywhere.

WBMs are movies that I could never honestly recommend, but I don't have any hate for them.  They're garbage that was made with honor.  I respect them the way I respect anybody who works for a living.  Sure, you made a piece of shit, but you committed to it, right?  Then you deserve a beer.  You're okay in my book, even though I'll never watch your movie again.

Examples: Deadly Reckoning, The Ultimate Weapon, The Void

Offensively Bad Movie (OBM)

This type of bad movie is very subjective, so your mileage will absolutely vary.  It just depends on what strikes a chord with you.  It's a kind of bad movie that has nothing to do with the technical competency of the film or the talent of the people involved.

Sometimes there's something about a movie that you find so irritating or enraging that it overshadows everything else the movie offers.  You end up coming away from the movie feeling angry.  You'll be thinking about it for weeks.  It'll just gnaw on you.  And from now on, anytime somebody mentions this movie, you'll have this gut-punched feeling in your soul that makes you physically agitated.

You've become the victim of an Offensively Bad Movie.  Dang.  Hang in there - the pain will go away when you get distracted again.  Just try not to let anybody bring it up again.

OBMs are a branch of bad movie defined solely by the feeling of rage that you associate with them.  It's one thing to watch a movie that you dislike - it's another to actively haaaaaaate it.  OBMs repulse you.  There's something in them that is so anathema to you as a person that you cannot physically stand them.  It could be political, but it doesn't have to be.  It could be a moral or philosophical objection, but it doesn't have to be.  Maybe it's just generally unpleasant.  Whatever it is, you will know when you've seen an OBM, because you can't help but be relentlessly irritated by it.  It's the only kind of bad movie that will actually ruin your day.  You see one of these and your whole night is shot.

For my money, OBMs are just about neck-and-neck with Fake Bad Movies in the race for the worst type of bad movie.  They might be the only subgenre of bad movie that is legitimately hazardous to your health.

Examples: Rent, Transformers 2, Hell and Back

Not Actually Bad Movies (NABM)

So, let's briefly step back from the concept of "good" and "bad" movies to think about these terms in a general sense.  Without getting into a whole treatise about film philosophy, I think sometimes people get confused about what these words mean.

I like to keep it simple.  A genuinely "good" movie simply means that the movie succeeded at what it meant to do.  If it's a comedy and it's funny, then it's good.  If it's an action movie and it's got good fight scenes, then it's good.  If it's a horror and it scares you, it's good.

But sometimes people get weird about this term and overcomplicate things.  There's this tendency to average everything against the metrics you use when evaluating a character-driven drama.  So something like a Jackie Chan movie is considered "bad" because it's got really stupid dialogue and melodramatic plot beats - as if anybody in the history of the world has ever gone to see a Jackie Chan movie for its nuance.

There are boatloads of movies in this camp that are Not Actually Bad Movies.  They completely succeed at what they set out to do, yet for some reason they are scorned all the same.  I've noticed that the vast majority of them are action movies - for some reason, people keep missing the point of this genre.

The NABM rating is reserved for movies that might be traditionally considered "bad" due to their acting, story, dialogue, etc., but which ultimately succeed at what they're supposed to do.  They're well-made, engaging, brilliantly directed, and/or energetic movies that most people would probably enjoy watching.  You'll almost always find that people call these "cult" movies, even though sometimes there's so much mainstream love for them that the term "cult" really doesn't apply.

Examples: Face/Off, Timecop, The Running Man, Rumble in the Bronx

Pure Horror (PH)

Pure Horror is kind of like the horror equivalent of a Secret Comedy.  These are movies that somehow managed to be supremely grotesque and creepy despite the fact that nobody set out to make them that way.  Maybe it was a misguided costume designer, maybe it was an overzealous makeup artist, maybe the lighting crew kept casting a weird and ominous glow on everything - who knows.  The bottom line is that they made something terrifying and gross that you will sadly never forget.

Examples: Garbage Pail Kids, Nothing But Trouble, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Almost Good Movie (AGM)

Every now and again you find a bad movie that deeply disappoints you because of how close it got to being good.  These are Almost Good Movies - bad movies that fall short for just one or two very specific reasons. If there was one character that didn't exist, or if there was one plot line that got cut out, or if they just took a little more time building up exposition in one area, you would be able to enjoy it.

You might find yourself re-watching them and thinking that maybe - magically, perhaps - the problem will have fixed itself since the last time you saw it.  And you start enjoying the movie again and thinking, "Hey, maybe I was wrong!  This is pretty decent!"  And then that stupid thing comes up and reminds you why you swore you weren't going to watch it ever again.

Pretty much every AGM is good fodder for a remake, since they would be dramatically improved by taking another pass.  Unfortunately, that's not why studios remake movies.

Examples: Monkeybone, The East, Allotment Wives

Shitty Ending (SE)

The Shitty Ending is a sub-category of Almost Good Movie.  It's an AGM that was specifically ruined because of its shitty ending.  Usually it's because of an incomprehensible or contrived plot twist.

This ends up making them the worst kind of AGM, because an SE isn't even a proper movie - it's like 85% of a movie with 15% of bullshit tacked on.

Examples: Anna, Parallels, The Call

Only Good When you're a Kid (OGWK)

Everybody has their selection of childhood favorites, but unless you regularly re-watch all the movies you've ever seen, chances are there's a good chunk of bad movies that you swear by purely because you liked them when you were ten years old.  I hate to break it to you, but you've been tricked - they were Only Good When you were a Kid.  If you watch them now, you'll be sorely disappointed.

The catch here is that until you re-watch them, you're going to have a hell of a time determining whether or not something counts as an OGWK.  Some of the movies you grew up with actually are good movies, like Back to the Future or Ghostbusters.  If you haven't seen either of those in a long time, you'll be delighted when you revisit them.  But all others?  It's a dice roll.

If you do suspect one of your childhood favorites is an OGWK, the best thing you can do is steel your nerves, shrug, and commit to never watching it again.  But if you break and decide to revisit, do everybody a favor: watch it alone.  Under no circumstances should you attempt to convince your significant other or your friends to watch it.  There's only two ways that story will end: either they've never seen it before, in which case you end up putting them in the position of being the asshole who realizes it's a shitty movie and calls you out on it, or you end up feeling so embarrassed and ashamed you have to call your parents to apologize for playing it over and over again when you were six years old.

Examples: Labyrinth, Toys, Adventures in Dinosaur City

Hollywood Punching Bag (HPB)

I'd like to end this guide with a brief defense for some of the movies out there that have earned undue notoriety.  Consider this the lesson you learn after you watch hundreds of bad movies in your adult life.

About once or twice each year, somebody will make a Workman Bad Movie with no particular character or substance to it.  They're not especially aggravating or reprehensible - just a ho-hum one-, two-, or occasionally even three-star movie.  But then this strange phenomenon happens where one or two critics lash out at it and rip it to shreds.  And that kind of opens the door for every other critic to do the same.

It's like everybody's got this pent-up aggression seething under the surface - as if everybody is only two seconds away from lambasting every movie they see, but they hold it all back out of some sense of decorum.  And then they see somebody else let loose and they decide, "Holy shit, we're allowed to destroy this one!  Everybody grab your pitchforks and hop on the bandwagon!"

That's how you end up with a Hollywood Punching Bag.  It's a movie that gets everybody's wrath as a matter of exercise rather than a matter of taste.

HPBs are the movie equivalent of the one kinda annoying kid at school who got mercilessly bullied and humiliated one year, and then you just felt really bad for them because even though they were a little irritating sometimes, they didn't deserve that.  You can bet the Razzies will make a big stink about it and you'll just "know" that they're bad movies without watching.

But when (if) you finally watch them, you'll think, "Really?  What was all the fuss?  This was just kind of bland."  They're not good movies, but they're hardly bottom of the barrel.  And this is one of the greatest lessons that being a bad movie fan can teach you - you really get to understand context and perspective.

If you think From Justin to Kelly is one of the worst things you've ever seen, then you've barely tried to watch bad movies.  If you think "How Did This Get Made?" is a parade of dreck, you've yet to see squalor.  People who beat up on HPBs are kind of like fat Americans who make fun of fast food.  Until you've gotten in a bare-knuckle death match with a hobo to eat the rotten grease out of a discarded lima bean can, you don't know true hunger... and until you've seen something so wretched that you've actually been physically depressed for the rest of the day, you haven't seen a truly bad movie.

Don't beat up on an HPB.  It may be bad, but it's not that bad.  And besides... some of them are actually kinda fun.  But that's a secret you may have to take to your grave.

Examples: Battlefield: Earth, Catwoman, Movie 43