Across the country, hype has been brewing for what is becoming a summertime tradition. Despite being a geographic and meteorological impossibility, a “Sharknado” will happen again! “Sharknado 3” opens today. Friends and family are gathering, organizing parties, and accumulating supplies for the traditional basic-cable arrival of a tempest infused with homicidal apex predators. Even for aficionados of horrendous cinema, however, this franchise can be a vexing enterprise.
When the initial entry in this series broadcast in 2013, it erupted into an Internet fury. The SyFy Channel suddenly found itself in possession of a hot property as the country embraced an amazingly absurd film. Rebroadcasts and even a release into theaters followed the inevitable announcement of a sequel. That second iteration last summer was staged in Manhattan and populated with an endless string of sub-celebrity cameos.
These tiburon-twisters have become a cultural event, despite content too outlandish for even The Cartoon Network. Certainly, there is an attraction for many to revel in the ludicrous premise, but the main question a bad-movie devotee (like this writer) is forced to ask: Is it truly a bad movie? I recognize the folly of approaching this kind of low-rent fare with high-minded sensibility but, having covered various facets of retrograde cinema, something about the “Sharknado” experience rings false. Affection for these titles is widespread, but why is this howler so popular? What launched this cheaply made and asinine premise into a national phenomenon?
Initially, nothing. To understand what I mean, allow me to perform an autopsy on this trophy catch.
Intentionally Bad, Accidentally Successful
“This is a film we’ve made one hundred times,” said a baffled “Sharknado” producer David Latt in an interview following the first showing. “Literally, one hundred times.” The “Sharknado” films are the master-stroke of an independent production outfit Latt co-founded. It’s called, appropriately, The Asylum. But why did this concept—no more fantastical than others the network proffered—latch onto the public consciousness? Don’t ask Latt: “You know … I’ll tell you how surprised I am, I don’t even understand this now . . . after the release. What is the story here? Why is everyone interested? I’m banging my head against the wall going: ‘Why’?”
Over the years, The Asylum has carved out a successful pocket in the direct-to-video marketplace with its signature productions, derisively dubbed “mock-busters.” This means boxcar-hopping major studio releases by creating carbon copy, low-budget rentals on DVD just ahead of the theatrical premier. Titles such as “Transmorphers,” “Paranormal Entity,” and “Snakes on a Train” give you an idea. This summer, the studio cashed in by serving up its doppelgangers “Road Wars” and “San Andreas Quake.”
A few years ago, The Asylum began to supply lower-rung creature movies for the Sci-Fi Channel (later the SyFy Network), focused mainly on epics with gargantuan organisms battling each other. The legendary Roger Corman (the original mock-buster creator) was also producing titles for the network. His offerings bear the mark of hybridized zoological nightmares: “Dino-Croc,” “Piranhaconda,” and the esteemed “Sharktopus.” Tapping into this mutation theme, The Asylum conjured its cyclonic carnivore squall, prepping it for the summer 2013.
On that momentous night of July 11, the film debuted and, as many are now are aware, social media exploded. A D-grade television movie was all anyone would discuss that Wednesday night. The Twitter dispatches from my feed that evening showed the response was not so much fan reactions as it was bemused curiosity. Most of the commentary was of this nature:
What is a “Sharknado”?
Is this the title of a real movie?!
I can’t believe anyone would watch anything called “Sharknado”!
Why the hell is “Sharknado” trending?????
(Repeat ad nauseam)
People from various movie outlets also mentioned the title, many placing it in context against cinematic releases. Some compared “Sharknado” against theatrical summer bombs, while many lamented the attention this schlock-buster was receiving as quality releases languished in theaters. It was an odd maelstrom, where everyone was on the same subject but few seemed to be talking about the movie. Some stats declared that at one point as many as 5,000 tweets a second were sent regarding the film. It was an organic hysteria, but here is what is most shocking about those figures: they did not reflect audience interest. That initial broadcast only drew 1.4 million viewers. I say “only” because that total was actually lower than the average audience for SyFy original films.
As for the press, while they did not create this hysteria, they certainly churned it. Every news outlet seemed to be discussing the social-media explosion, commenting on everything from the amount of comments to the hilarity in all the interest. Again, few talked about the movie itself. No matter the context, this shallow digital interest became an impetus, and the network adroitly responded. SyFy kept the news cycle alive, and one week later an encore presentation drew a more robust 1.9 million viewers.
This stoked the public’s passion for a storm cloud choked with killer fish. From here, “Sharknado” officially entered the public consciousness, becoming a pop-culture staple and an office punch line. SyFy next staged a Saturday shark movie marathon culminating in their surprise hit, now netting an audience of 2.1 million viewers—a new record for the network’s original titles.
Last summer, the sequel drew an even more impressive rating. Lured by heavy advance promotion and parent company NBC cross-platforming with scenes using properties like “The Today Show” and Weather Channel, “The Second One” was watched by 3.9 million viewers. There was enough hype that this cable cheapie also sported numerous product placements, including brands such as Coors Light and CitiBike. (Those “Jared from Subway” scenes, however, have not aged well. Understandably, his appearance was culled from this summer’s repeat sequel.)
A Pre-Fab Faux Failure
To regard the “Sharknado” franchise objectively requires understanding what makes bad films enjoyable for the deranged set. Much of the appeal for bent minds like myself comes from a measure of solemn failure. It could come from numerous factors, such as a movie that strove to achieve grandiosity and fell short, or was created cynically and became derisory as a result. A neophyte filmmaker displaying stunted skills might be fun, or base writing that chucks logic like off-cut beef flanks could deliver chortles. Of course, there’s the standard: any dramatic attempt from Ashton Kutcher delivers more laughs than his comedic roles.
Point being, a certain level of cinematic sincerity is required to bring the merriment. A production such as “Sharknado,” which strives only to achieve the ridiculous, cannot deliver those revelatory moments. The enjoyment of bad film is an outgrowth of that irony-rich sentiment known as camp. Decades ago, Susan Sontag wrote of this in a lengthy essay, “Notes On ‘Camp,’” devoting thousands of words to detail its meaning (in, ironically enough, serious literary tones). In defining this mindset, Sontag makes the accurate assessment: “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional.” To offer one such example, I’ll look away from film.
In the midst of a family trip, we stopped at an outpost gas station deep in the Carolinas (North or South being irrelevant). During refueling and restroom visits, I strolled the aisles and found amusement in some of the products offered for sale. Of note, a salt and pepper shaker set fashioned as replicas of Remington shotgun shells. These incongruous items were amusing because someone had fabricated, packaged, and marketed them in earnest to an expected customer base. Were these very same tchotchkes instead sold at Spencer’s Gifts, let’s say, inside an urban mall, and labeled as “Redneck Salt and Pepper,” most of the ironic amusement is drained. They are “supposed” to be tacky, and they end up not nearly as mirthful.
Sontag noted this reality. “Pure Camp is always naive. That which knows itself to be Camp—is usually less satisfying.” Likewise, the intentionally bad movie is not nearly as humorous. It is fabricated “awfulness.” An honestly bad film delivers epiphanic moments, when a viewer discovers the subpar, the catabolic content, and laughs the more due to the intent of the delivery. “Sharknado” pokes you in the ribs, insisting on the “hilarity.” It is like watching a comedy with a cousin who has already seen the movie and keeps prodding about how the next scene is hilarious, which deflates the humor entirely. These movies defy most scathing commentary and heckling, because pointing out the ridiculous is met defensively with, “It’s supposed to be outrageous!” The built-in risibility of “Sharknado” is the pratfall neutered by the comic announcing he is about to trip over an object.
So, am I saying that “Sharknado” is not to be enjoyed, that it is not worth the effort? Hardly. In my home, the party will be in full effect. There will be a cooler filled with Landshark Lager (natch). There will be Myers Dark Rum, orange juice, and grenadine for sharkbite cocktails. Our salsa platter will have blue nachos nestled to resemble fins in bloody water, and there shall be cupcakes festooned with a frosted twister and gummi sharks placed in a sea of Jell-O.
This is the true nature of bad movie viewing: it’s not always about the movie. Watching with a crowd of like-minded souls and enjoying each other should be more fun than the film itself. And if you find some amusement in the “bad” display tonight, I implore you to stretch and seek out some truly enjoyable titles from the darker reaches of Hollywood’s discount bins. Fun is to be had with such fecal fare as “Catwoman,” or maybe “I Know Who Killed Me,” and certainly anything starring Madonna.
On second thought, maybe don’t go that far just yet. Movies featuring Madge should really be approached only by fully trained veterans of the genre.