Bad meaning good

Film - Even in truly terrible cinema, finds Ryan Gilbey, there are guilty pleasures to be had

There are not many cultural experiences in which sheer awfulness can be just as satisfying in its own way as excellence. True, the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award is a hoot, but that focuses on a few paragraphs; the laughter would blur into pain over the course of an entire dreadful novel. Bad theatre is hard to relish, too, if only because etiquette paralyses us in our seats, stifling our heckles.

Being at the cinema relieves us of that obligation of politeness. We are free to throw popcorn and slap our thighs in appalled delight. It took a long time for cinema to be recognised as an art form, but a true stinker can reconnect us with the medium's low-rent origins in an instant. And when a film is bad - not just mediocre but jubilantly wrong-headed in every detail - it can inspire a warped kind of passion every bit as strong as the sort stirred by a masterpiece.

In the coming week, the Barbican Cen-tre in London celebrates this idea as part of a Bad Film Club season. The writer and comedian Stewart Lee will provide a live commentary to a screening of the wit- less Who Dares Wins (1982), in which an SAS tough nut infiltrates a band of terrorists posing as CND performance artists. Authentic badness evaporates if film-makers get wise to their own failures, or give the audience a knowing wink, and Who Dares Wins is certainly never guilty of that. The actress Judy Davis apparently boned up on the history of 20th-century terrorism for her role, though reading the instructions on a Cup-a-Soup sachet would have prepared her equally well.

Such straight-faced sincerity is integral to any true clunker. It's for this reason that the director Edward D Wood Jr, immortalised in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, has long been regarded as the king of the cinematic catastrophe. His 1959 disasterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space was named Worst Film Ever Made at the 1980 Worst Film Festival in New York. It has glaring continuity errors, a bewildered cast, and dialogue so cheesy it poses a danger to the lactose-intolerant. But it is Wood's belief that the film was enriching civilisation which makes it so wonderfully awful.

What makes a movie so bad that it allows us to cross the pain barrier into pleasure? It is an important question. One must distinguish between bad films and interesting failures or oddities. Now that the critical opprobrium has cooled, we can see that the Warren Beatty/ Dustin Hoffman buddy comedy Ishtar (1987) and the sprawling western Heaven's Gate (1980) are flawed rather than truly awful. The Spice Girls vehicle Spice World (1997) and the Village People's Can't Stop the Music (1980) even have a joyful appeal. On the other hand, the trashy Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest (1981) will always be fabulously terrible.

True badness, rather like true brilliance, survives the years. "I think the best bad movies are like fruit," says the novelist and critic Anne Billson, a connoisseur of bad cinema. "They have to be ripe but not totally rotten. The budget should be pretty big. The stars or makers must be people who should know better."

There are, however, various ways to achieve badness. There are the misguided vanity projects ratifying the romance of their participants - Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (Gigli), Madonna and Sean Penn (Shanghai Surprise), Madonna and Guy Ritchie (Swept Away), Kevin Costner and himself (The Postman). There are the overblown costume dramas sunk by pretension and faltering accents (The House of the Spirits, Charlotte Gray). In extreme cases, there is Michael Winner.

Most delicious is the established auteur who comes a cropper, introducing a whiff of schadenfreude into the experience. The past 20 years have produced an impressive list of casualties, including Chen Kaige (Killing Me Softly, 2002), Louis Malle and Roman Polanski (Damage and Bitter Moon, both 1992). Note that all three of these films are erotic thrillers, a genre disproportionately prone to disaster. Woody Allen has two horrors to his credit: the Bergman-by-numbers Interiors (1978) and last year's Match Point, would-be-sombre dramas that are as hilarious as his finest comedies. Poor Kenneth Branagh had barely begun his own directing career when he became the Bernard Matthews of British cinema, foisting three prize turkeys - Dead Again, Peter's Friends and Mary Shelley's Frank-enstein - upon audiences that had done nothing to deserve such cruelty.

Actors can be a jinx, too. The name Demi Moore in a film's opening credits usually indicates that nastiness will ensue: she has taken up where Michael Caine left off. Both actors appeared in Blame It On Rio, a diabolical 1984 sex comedy that deserves Room 101 all to itself. It has a plot about a man falling for his friend's teenage daughter, gratuitous use of exotic locations, and a theme song ("What if we both went a little bit crazy? Blame it on Rio!") that could make a corpse's toes curl. Nothing will challenge its place in my affections - not until Branagh signs up to direct the sequel.

Who Dares Wins, with live commentary by Stewart Lee, is screened at Cinema 1, Barbican Centre, London EC2 (020 7638 8891) on 4 May at 7.30pm