I love exploitation films. I love them for their crassness, the way they were engineered only to rook audiences into spending money. I love them for their strangeness; often the financiers of exploitation films didn’t care what filmmakers delivered, as long as it had the prerequisite nudity and violence that could be highlighted in a trailer. As a result truly outsider artists would be allowed to make bizarre, fetishistic movies that spoke to their own weird obsessions. I love them for how often they fall short, for being too cheap or incompetent to actually achieve any of what the filmmakers were trying to achieve.
The history of exploitation film is long - stretching right back to the beginning of cinema - and filled with envelope-pushing madness, weirdness and badness. Exploitation is the chaotic fringe of the movies, a place where nakedly commercial filmmaking somehow leads to the most personal and idiosyncratic films. But now exploitation seems to have fallen prey to the most 21st century of maladies: snark.
Sharknado is, by every metric, an exploitation movie. It’s a unique one in that it’s exploiting people’s affection for other exploitation movies - in this case Roger Corman’s current run of self-aware crap like Sharktopus - but it’s fully and completely exploitation. What makes this different from a movie like I Spit On Your Grave or Spider Baby or The Wild Angels isn’t the content or the budget - it’s the tone and the attitude. Sharknado is an exploitation film made for the Gawker Generation.
All exploitation films have audiences built in; they’re aimed at teens or black audiences or perverts sitting alone in raincoats. Sharknado, though, is made for white 20 or 30somethings working jobs that have them planted in front of computers all day. It’s made for the nattering class of snarking snobs, hyperironic bores who leave ‘witty’ comments on Vulture. It’s made for the people who get through their day by feeling superior to people in the news or celebrities in the media. The movie comes pre-snarked.
This is actually in the best exploitation tradition. Exploitation movies usually have trailers that are far superior to the films themselves, and that give away all the best moments. Watching the movie after seeing the trailer often means suffering through 70 minutes of sub-par acting to get to the boobs and the blood. It’s a switcheroo sell, conning audiences into thinking that this time they’ll be getting the absolutely transgressive bit of madness they’ve always wanted. Sharknado didn’t sell itself as boundary pushing, but it did sell itself as sort of unaware when it’s anything but. That’s the bait and switch - allowing the audience to believe that their lame jokes on Twitter are an indication of how far above the movie they are. The reality, though, is that Sharknado is ruthlessly engineered to engage exactly those people, to give them that high of superiority. It’s bad on purpose. Very much on purpose.
We’ve been coming to this place for a long time. Maybe it began with 1980’s Golden Turkey Awards, the book by Harry and Michael Medved that enshrined Plan 9 From Outer Space as the worst movie of all time. That book is where ‘so bad it’s good’ truly crossed over into the mainstream. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a big step towards the culture embracing the joy of snarking. The Room was perhaps the ultimate breakthrough, the moment where a cult item (whose cult factor was based entirely on being shit) became so mainstream that even your mom gets a “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” joke.
When that ironic enjoyment of bad things became a business, it made sense that the manufacture of bad things would soon follow. Sharknado is the pinnacle of that, an intentionally bad movie that is riffing on other intentionally bad movies. Imagine if someone made a parody movie of the Zucker Abrams Zucker parody movies and you’d be looking into the same hall of mirrors occupied by Sharknado. But the exploitation majesty of Sharknado is that for some reason the target audience doesn’t seem to quite get that the movie is bad completely and totally on purpose. There’s no charming accident of incompetence on display - it is rather coldly competent, in fact.
Or maybe the audience does know that. I’m beginning to be convinced that people don’t even know where their irony ends and their sincerity begins anymore. But as long as they get to make knowing jokes about it on the AV Club comments before meeting their friends for drinks at a bar that has taken great pains to resemble a dive bar without actually being a dive bar, they don’t care.