So Bad, It’s Good: Sherlock Bones and beyond (Blog Post)

You may not have heard of Richard Harding Gardner, but he’s a personal hero of mine, and for one simple reason: he directed perhaps the most dire film I’ve seen in recent years. It’s a film more deficient than Earth Vs. the Spider starring Dan Aykroyd, more abominable than Hardwired starring Cuba Gooding Jr and Val Kilmer, more incompetent than Boa starring Dean Cain. No, Gardner’s contribution to cinema eclipses them all. He’s the man behind Sherlock Bones: Undercover Dog, a film that’s nigh-on impossible to acquire for anything greater than a pound at any given retailer.

For my money, all one hundred pennies of it, Gardner’s low-rent poochstravaganza remains the ultimate in ethereal terribleness, and one of the most remarkable film experiences of my life. Something that not only transcends bad, it defecates in bad’s bag, sets it on fire and dumps it on the doorstep of disappointment.

It’s difficult to say exactly what makes Sherlock Bones such an extraordinary and calamitous failure. Where do you start with something so misjudged? The woeful acting? Or perhaps the anal-clenching awfulness of the screenplay? (Why does Sherlock have an eye-patch? What kind of heinous abuse has he suffered? Is he the Equus of investigative hounds? What exactly is going on? It’s never really explained.)

As you’d expect, the film’s production values are unintentionally risible. During the climactic chase sequence, for instance, one of the bad guys gets dragged around a harbour by a speedboat, except clearly it’s neither him nor a stunt man – it’s the world’s most rubbish mannequin, stapled to the side of the vessel, flimsy, flaccid and almost existentially unconvincing as it flaps its way through the water with rubbish abandon. Perhaps most bizarrely, there are jaw-dropping displays of animal cruelty. In one scene, the titular canine appears to be dragged across the floor by a wire. Is that even allowed? And more pertinently, couldn’t they have at least tried to cover it up?

For all these reasons and more, Sherlock Bones is the kind of film you can’t just watch. You have to let it wash all over you. Bathe in it. Drown in the eternal sunshine of its shittery. To this day it represents the only time I’ve ever suffered actual physical pain watching a film. I laughed so hard my ribs felt like they’d been crushed to dust.

And yet, no matter how ill-conceived, Gardner’s film is a delight. A completely satisfying entertainment, albeit for all the wrong reasons. It is hilarious in its ineptitude. Every single decision made during its conception and execution utterly incorrect. In other words, Sherlock Bones: Undercover Dog is so bad, it’s good.

Of course, a film like this only ever works in the context of a communal experience. It demands to be experienced with friends. Solo viewings only expose Sherlock Bones for what it really is – a turd, wrapped in a bow, made out of another turd. And that’s the thing about bad films. They create a shared sense of purpose, a communal schadenfreude. A film that would otherwise be left to rot on the scrap heap of cinematic misery can be elevated to legendary status just through the simple act of watching it together. And then bitching about it on the internet. There’s safety in numbers. As a collective, we can exert our moral superiority and decry “Dear God, what is that thing?” safe in the knowledge that despite wasting ninety minutes of our lives, at least we did it together.

Connoisseurs of the bad film will direct you towards Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, perhaps one of the biggest and baddest bad films around. It’s the exception that proves the rule, a bad film that’s so good it pays for itself. Every month at the Prince Charles Cinema, a couple of hundred of cinema-goers pay £10 per head to gather together and point and laugh at Wiseau’s cruddy opus.

With its melodramatic screenplay, unhinged direction and line delivery that borders on the mentally ill, The Room is a cacophony of balls. But what amazing balls. Wiseau has since tried to reposition his wonky epic as some kind of subversive black comedy. He’s an idiot. A more earnest, heartfelt attempt at creative seriousness you’d be hard-pushed to find. Unless, of course, that heartfelt attempt at creative seriousness is Tulpa.

Tulpa is the new giallo throwback from director Federico Zampaglione. The film recently received its World Premiere at Frightfest, the blood-soaked, gore-worshipping festival of the damned. It’s basically Christmas for genre nerds. The unveiling of Zampaglione’s film was an unusually (implausibly) glamorous affair for Frightfest. His ravishing leads were in attendance and the press were out in force. For the first time ever, Frightfest felt sort of sexy, more La Biennale di Venezia than the West End on a Saturday night.

Sadly, it was all an illusion, a seductive facade that collapsed within minutes of the film’s opening scene, a particularly grisly sequence in which a man’s genitalia gets severed from his bodice then casually tossed aside like a penile trinket. The atmosphere in the screening was equally neutered, like someone had made a slit in the forehead of the Empire Leicester Square itself and sucked out all the Botox.

Why? Put simply, Tulpa is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. A tawdry, ignominious disaster, Zampaglione’s film is not just a dog, it’s a dog within a dog. It’s basically The Thing (the actual “Thing”, not the film as a whole) and it should probably be burned. With its ludicrous characterisation, terrible dubbing, moronic plot twists, Tulpa isn’t so much the rebirth of giallo than it is the soft porn Tales of the Unexpected by way of Garth Marenghi. If Dario Argento’s film Tenebrae is a sexy Lamborghini, turbo-charged and ready for action, then Tulpa is a clapped-out Punto and the wheels have fallen off.

And it’s bloody brilliant. The perfect communal bad movie experience, in fact. From its dazzlingly dire screenplay to some of the most insane performances I’ve ever seen on screen (raise a glass to Michela Cescon, who plays Joanna, the world’s worst best friend and Queen of Wooden Delivery) Tulpa piles on the kitsch to dizzying effect. It’s a ham mountain. Just in case there was any doubt, the film even throws in several shots from the point of view of a snake. Tulpa really is that bad/amazing. (The “animal POV” shot is a classic “so bad, it’s good” trait. See also: “Crow Cam” in Robin Hardy’s extraordinary film The Wicker Tree.)

Tulpa also contains the following line of dialogue: “No one knows anything about him, except, they say, he’s a hermaphrodite.”

Oh, and this moving exchange: “My colleague committed suicide in very weird circumstances.”…”You’ll be alright.”

Not to mention: “Have you ever read books on the occult?”…”No, why?”…”Doesn’t matter.”…”Oh. Okay.”

My heart skipped a beat watching Tulpa. Like that first viewing of Sherlock Bones, there was something in the air, a feeling that perhaps I’d never get the chance to see something quite so ball-scrapingly awful ever again.I felt it during the John Barrowman vehicle Shark Attack 3, basically a Russian tax dodge famous for the immortal line, “I’m a little wired… what do you say I take you home and eat your pussy?” Ditto when I watched The Steam Experiment, a nasty piece of work starring Val Kilmer – he’s pretty much the king of these things nowadays – as a climate scientist scorned. You’re seeing and hearing things you’ve genuinely never experienced in a film before. The shock of the new.