Sublime badness exists in a signifying purgatory, caught somewhere between diegetic suspension and profilmic fascination. Scenes are blocked, lines delivered, images shot and edited—we recognize that we are witnessing an attempt at narration of some sort. At the same time, an unpredictable alliance of forces conspires to pull us out of this fabricated world; or, perhaps more accurately, to draw us into an historical index, a photographic record.
In the Herschel Gordon Lewis gore fest, The Gruesome Twosome (1967), coeds in negligees gather in a dorm room for a late-night snack. They share concerns about their friend Dawn moving off-campus, given that a deranged killer is on the loose and three more girls have just gone missing. Incredibly, strangely, beautifully, their anxiety transforms into a spontaneous dance party—youthful exuberance unable to resist the lure of stock discotheque music blaring from the radio. Lewis handles all of this in his characteristically leaden visual style, staging both the conversation and the dance outbreak as a static tableau. Other than a quick insert for a timely newspaper headline (itself seemingly typeset by a madman), Lewis waits a full seventy-three seconds before moving the camera into the space, only to return immediately for another protracted 38 seconds of the original set-up. Much fruggin’ and passing of chicken legs takes place—a few moments of rather tame erotic spectacle to offset and motivate the gore to follow. And then back to the plot—a radio announcer interrupts the music to warn that the three missing college girls are now presumed murdered--a revelation Lewis covers with a few cutaways and a couple of awkward pans.
As is so common in “bad” cinema, we are left with the sensation that we are not watching a movie so much as watching people pretending to be in a movie. Lewis’ dedication to the “long-take” (out of economic necessity, of course) only exacerbates this sense of play-acting. Without the escape valve of cutaways or the emphasis of camera movement, the actors are left to fend for themselves. Unable to sustain the scene’s challenging shift from anxiety to pajama party to sober attention, the actors instead perform a strange array of overly deliberate gestures rehearsed to convey a “convincing” portrait of a vibrant coed confab. In a travesty of Bazin, however, Lewis’ lingering camera transforms this seemingly spontaneous party into a tableau of odd profilmic details: the woman in white folding her lingerie in the midst of a greasy chicken feast; her playful poking of the woman in the tiger-print mini to dance; the woman in pink’s awkward transition from concerned friend to momentarily distracted dancer; white-negligee woman inexplicably transferring a throw pillow from one bed to the other; Tiger-print dancer’s clumsy pointing at the radio to convey the narrative import of the announcer; Dawn’s stolid blocking and absolute impassivity throughout all three sections of the scene; the wallpaper; the hair; the hairspray. A pink stuffed animal desperately attempts to trick us into believing this cheap Florida motel suite is actually a cozy dorm room.
And through it all looms the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, centered in the frame as a kind of deep-fried punctum, a trademark so familiar that its appearance, perversely, only adds to the unreality of the scene (On at least two occasions, Lewis turned to the Colonel as an investor. In another film, an aspiring rock band gets paid in KFC, served by Colonel Sanders himself). Early product placement, the bucket also draws the ensemble together in another daunting challenge: how does one engage in a sexy go-go dance while brandishing a greasy chicken leg (this bucket has only legs, apparently, perhaps because they “read” better on film as chicken). Once again, action staged to draw us deeper into this world of endangered coeds instead becomes an index of some other reality—in this case a poorly lit and unflattering presentation of antique fast-food, dominating the mise-en-scene as a distracting and inconvenient prop.
Such is the crisis that occurs at some point in every H.G. Lewis title—indeed in any “bad” film of merit. Should the viewer continue pretending to believe in the film’s pretending to be real? Or is it better to plunge nauseously, like Roquentin, into the real real that lurks within the image? In the badfilm sublime, this real hides in plain sight, waiting for that moment when narration and diegetic investment can no longer contain its greasy, pink, wallpapered, fruggin’ insistence to be set free.