The lure of low-brow: Why we love bad movies - Hindustan Times
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The lure of low-brow: Why we love bad movies

ByAnesha George
Jun 22, 2024 04:03 PM IST

Research suggests the lack of emotional investment is a big draw. The stress-free suspense and absurdity also offer an increasingly rare thing: novelty.

Shark-infested tornadoes. A priest who routinely turns into a dinosaur. A love affair set in a town besieged by exploding mutant birds.

A still from Sharknado 2 (2014), set in New York City. PREMIUM
A still from Sharknado 2 (2014), set in New York City.

Movies such as Sharknado (2013), The VelociPastor (2017) and Birdemic (2010) all belong to the genre of films so bad that they’re good.

New research is seeking to explain why people are drawn to such content; drawn so intensely, in fact, that Sharknado spawned a five-film franchise.

A 2023 paper by researchers at the Wharton business school, WP Carey School of Business and University of Colorado, Boulder, found that their appeal is linked to the joy that comes from high returns on minimal investment.

These films demand nothing of the viewer; not even their full attention. And yet they offer laughs, drama, stress-free suspense, jump scares, and that increasingly rare thing: novelty. They are like a joyride for the mind.

“There are some qualities and virtues the worst option has that the best option doesn’t. The worst is more likely to be funny, absurd and ridiculous,” Amit Bhattacharjee, co-author of the recent study, said in a statement.

The study — titled “So Bad It’s Good” and published in November in the Journal of Consumer Psychology — was based on 12 experiments that gauged reactions to different types of “bad” content, including jokes, karaoke performances, and auditions for the TV show So You Think You Can Dance.

Content was classified based on a star-rating system. And participants, without knowing the ratings, consistently preferred the bad content to the mediocre content, provided that the bad stuff was neither offensive nor too long.

Out in the real world, this kind of harmless godawfulness is finding dedicated platforms too.

The American streaming service Tubi, launched in 2014 and bought by Fox in 2020, takes great pride in having amassed what is arguably the world’s largest free collection of bad films. Offerings range from the 2005 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie-starrer Mr & Mrs Smith (a choice that speaks for itself) to VelociPastor and The Singing Forest (2003; about a man who discovers that his daughter’s boyfriend is his own former lover, reincarnated).

A key attraction of such content, researchers have found, is that it is a “way to signal to other people: I know what’s good, because this is the opposite,” Bhattacharjee says in his statement. This would seem to be borne out by a 2016 study titled “Enjoying Trash Films”, published in the journal Poetics.

Surveying regular consumers of films generally considered so bad that they’re good, the paper found that the campy sets, cringey plot lines and sloppy performances were considered a refreshing antidote, particularly by those who showed a strong preference for art films.

“We are dealing here with an audience with above-average education, which one could describe as ‘cultural omnivores’,” the researcher behind this paper, Keyvan Sarkhosh, said in a statement.

Among the films that his survey subjects listed as bad but definitely worth watching, Sharknado featured prominently. Is it just us, or is this starting to sound like a movie worth checking out?

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