TERRIBLE? or JUST TERRIBLE?: "The Flaming Urge" dir, Harold Ericson, 1953

If there's one thing I might love more than a great movie, it's a terrible movie.  Of course, terrible movies usually fall on either side of a sometimes thin dividing line that separates the crap-tastic and the torturous.  "Terrible? or, Just Terrible?" is a new review segment that attempts to accurately draw that line, while still recognizing what might be distinctly, even sublimely, awful among the vast reserves of cinematic drek.  The rich well of dreadful movies, no matter what realm of production they rise from, deserves critical appreciation just as much as...well, everything else.  There seems to be a desire recently, as the midnight movie experience has gone through an attempted resurrection, to discover the next Tommy Weisau-esque train wreck.  But, jaw-droppers like Weisau's The Room only come along once in a very long while, and a true cult movie cannot be forced, as Karl and Phillip French note in their seminal book "Cult Movies":
A good many cult pictures have the prime constituent of sad orphans--that of being abandoned and rejected;the problem is, do they retain their status as waifs after being adopted by a large, welcoming family?
It's important to note that the French's weren't just talking about bad movies--their book is mostly filled with great movies, including the likes of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalyspe Now, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, Jean Luc-Godard's Breathless, Fritz Lang's M, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and the list goes on.  Only does "Cult Movies" occasionally dip into the "Terrible," with entries such as Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, Joseph Newman's This Island Earth, and Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. Of course, The Room is the most current example of a cinematic waif with just the kind of large, welcoming family the French's were talking about.  Also, in the terms I am applying here, The Room is definitely a "Terrible" movie:  displaying a sublime, layered ineptitude; perhaps, giving the impression that the filmmaker is inventing the act of film production as part of their process (see:  Doris Wishman), as well as displaying an agressive, even Dada-esque, contempt for subtlety, refinement, or traditional displays of art/entertainment.

Tommy Weisau, director, writer and star of The Room
The "Just Terrible," is inevitably more soul-crushing than the "Terrible."  If the "Terrible" is a slow, delicious twist of a knife, then the "Just Terrible" is a blunt, inelegant blow to the head.  The "Just Terrible," like the "Terrible," may rise out of any realm of cinema production, but are perhaps more likely to creep up from the darkest corners of commercial or mainstream cinema.  Just from recent movie-going memory, Roland Emmerich's 2012, Jimmy Hayward's Jonah Hex, and Louis Leterrier's remake of Clash of the Titans qualify for inclusion among the "Just Terrible" ranks.  All of these movies have the potential to be successfully campy/laughable/enjoyable examples of their respective genres, but all of them are, in my opinion, far from "Terrible," and ultimately, definitively, "Just Terrible."

Josh Brolin as Jonah Hex
For the purposes of this segment, I would like to stick to movies that are, for the most part, considered to be Bad Movies, and look a bit more closely at what pushes a movie just over that line, and headlong into the "Terrible" sublime.  To be clear, I'm not much of a fan of the slash-and-burn criticism that continues to auto-archive in the bottomless cracks of the internet.  For every one of the movies I have already mentioned there is an IMDB post with the heading "I HATED this movie...", although, like a bad movie, there may be kernels of wisdom buried deep within even the most thoughtless, confused commentary.  I certainly don't pretend to connect to everything they told us was a masterpiece in film class (I find a lot of Antonioni to be a slog, and Hitchcock often fails to thrill me), and I am not trying to simply trash a movie that you might deem "Terrible," "Just Terrible," or just pretty darn good.  As always, it's a matter of perspective.  Watching The Room with a group of actors, or an aspiring filmmaker, or a midnight audience of hipsters will no doubt yield very different emotional and/or physical responses to the film. (I recall one student who, without any experience with the world of Bad Movies, approached me about The Room after class, a bit shaken after having seen it.  A "friend" had recommended it as a movie he should see, and he was obviously still trying to grapple with it psychologically days later.  He wanted answers.)

Kyle Vogt and Greg Sestero in The Room      
In reviewing possible films for this segment, I went through a short list of the number of films I had seen in recent years, mostly with my partner Jen (who probably deserves an apology at this point--you're fearless!), as a way to test this binary.  Some films left no doubt as to their "Terrible" status for us, such as the 1959 Mexican production Santa Claus, in which Santa lives in outer space and, with the help of Merlin the Magician, uses his creepy robotic reindeer and his "Rose to Disappear" to deliver presents to children while battling the Devil.  No shit.  Others were definitely "Just Terrible," as in the 1985 cross-dressing comedy Just One of the Guys, a film which seems to have some promising elements, but features lead performances that not so much get under your skin as they do burrow into your flesh.  Similarly, 1984's (please don't click on this!) Rhinestone, starring Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton as country singers, or something, would seem to be a cinematic pairing destined for the timeless "Terrible," but...well, no.

Sylvelster Stallone and (Unidentified Actress) in Rhinestone
Other pics we split on:  Larry Cohen's The Stuff (1985) fell just barely on the "Terrible" side for me, whereas it missed the mark for my partner--just the opposite for 1954's Devil Girl From Mars  (we still have Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case I + II to bring us together!).  Some seem like they might qualify for consideration, but maybe prove too bland/competent/uniquely strange/genuinely enjoyable to even enter the running (Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers and John Chu's Step Up 3, as recent examples...not to mention a fun double bill).  Of course, I am always open to suggestions, and please leave yours in the comments section for future segments!

Up first for consideration, as a kind of compliment to the last INSTANT 3 post on "Closeted Themes," is maybe the most badly closeted movie in cinema history, 1953's The Flaming Urge.  Directed by one-time auteur Harold Ericson, The Flaming Urge follows the troubled young man Tom Smith, played by Harold Lloyd Jr., the son of silent film legend Harold Lloyd.  Tom is having problems adjusting to a new town, a new job, and to make it worse, everything seems to be burning down around him.  Fortunately for Tom, the titular "Urge" that he possesses is fire chasing.  Yes, chasing fires, watching fires, being around firetrucks, firemen, fire dogs, not to mention those slides they use to save people from high rise buildings.

A thrilling, dangerous ride in The Flaming Urge
Tom's urges are so strong that they threaten to jeopardize his standing with Mr. Pender, the manager of his new job at the Tie counter of a local department store.  One day, while drawn away from his duties at the Tie counter by the sweet sound of sirens, Tom befriends a local gentleman named Mr. Chalmers who politely asks "haven't I seen you somewhere before?" and seems to share and understanding of Tom's passion for fire chasing.  Of course, Mr. Chalmers is not just another fire enthusiast.  Unbeknownst to Tom, Mr. Chalmers turns out to be the manager of the very department store where Tom is employed.  Mr. Chalmers advises young Tom that maybe instead of chasing  every fire that comes along he should spread it out a bit, as a way to not make his embarrassing urges so obvious.  Mr. Chalmers then reveals that he too enjoys a good fire, and even allows Tom to slide down the fire pole he had installed as a secret getaway from his office!

Jonathan Hale as Mr. Chalmers and Harold Lloyd Jr. as Tom Smith
in The Flaming Urge
Tom learns gradually to temper his urges, with the help from a young, female psychology student, Charlotte Cruickshank, played by Cathy Downs (most notably, Clementine in John Ford's My Darling Clementine).  Equipped with only the first year of a psychology degree, Cathy's pursuit to help Tom with his issues is paralleled by Tom's struggle with the local fire department's fire dog, a pesky animal that he can't seem to shake.  In another frustrating conflict with Tom's boss Mr. Pender, the dog follows Tom back to the department store, crouching low to pull his body covertly along the base of the Tie counter (an impressive animal acting moment that rivals another canine-based television sensation of the early 50's).  Mysteriously disappearing to chase fires was one thing, but now Tom has to explain why the fire dog is following him back to his place of employment.  Not only that, but Tom's idea to create a giant bow tie display is shot down by Mr. Pender, who calls it out as "too flamboyant."

Tom's "flamboyant" bow tie display in The Flaming Urge
Tom and Fire Dog are confronted by Mr. Pender,
played by Byron Foulger, in The Flaming Urge
The climax of The Flaming Urge involves a mysterious fire breaking out in a men's changing room at the company beach party.  Was Tom the culprit?  Will he ever get his job back, given his nearly pyro-maniacal learnings?  Will he ever shake that dog?  I don't want to spoil the finale of The Flaming Urge...but lets just say, even though it seems that Tom gets married to Cathy Cruickshank, remember that final image of the dog running close behind.  Ultimately, The Flaming Urge reminds us that sometimes desire is a lot like a fire dog that just won't leave you alone.  

Who started the fire?  -  The Flaming Urge
Shot on location in Monroe, Michigan, The Flaming Urge captures all the beauty of a highly combustible locale in the early 50's.  A good movie to watch with someone who has a keen eye for subtext.  With a mercifully brief running time of around 67 minutes, The Flaming Urge is delightfully, flamboyantly "Terrible."

The siren sounds of the Monroe fire engines strike the ears
of young Tom for the first time in The Flaming Urge

Have suggestions for "Terrible? or, Just Terrible?"  
Please let me know, and feel free to comment on any of the films mentioned in this segment in the Comment section.

Thanks to the Neo-Futurists of Chicago who tipped me off to this gem and others through their "It Came From the Neo-Futurarium" series.  Check it out.


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