“Learn to go see the ‘worst’ films; they are sometimes sublime.”
So writes Ado Kyrou in Le Surrealisme au Cinema, quoted in J. Hoberman’s indispensable “Bad Movies.” The best kind of bad movie, Hoberman argues, is one that is first of all “objectively bad” (i.e., so badly made that its shoddiness is beyond dispute—hence Plan 9 From Outer Space is objectively bad, while something like, say, Titanic is open to debate). If it’s objectively bad in the right ways, a film (like Plan 9) indeed becomes sublime. But I’m not sure into what category Satan’s Children (dir. Joe Wiezycki, 1975) falls. It’s a staggeringly incompetent film on just about every level, though not in interesting enough ways to be an object of stupefied fascination.
Halfway through, however, its “plot” having utterly derailed, it struck me as so totally alien in its approach to narrative and logic that it became, if not a object of sublimity, then something approaching experimental cinema. Prolonged silences (I hesitate to call them “dramatic pauses”) during dialogue scenes go from being maddening to being part of this movie’s inimitable “style.” There’s something almost Henry Jamesian about the pregnant weight that surrounds every tortured line of dialogue; as in James, the dialogue itself is often maddeningly ambiguous, as in this choice exchange:
Character 1: “She was…wrong about you. Had she been right, then Joshua would have been wrong, in which case Joshua’s attempts to summon me would have constituted an improper challenge to authority, in which case the hangings were totally justified. If she hadn’t done them, I certainly would have. Undue annoyance! But—she was wrong.”
Character 2: “She was right! We talked about it last night. She was right, I tell you.”
Even in the context of the rest of the film, it’s impossible to follow what exactly she was right or wrong about, though we have a sneaking suspicion that it has something to do with the sexual identity of Our Hero, young Bobby Douglas (Stephen White). As in James, sexual ambiguity looms large in Satan’s Children, ostensibly a horror movie about devil worshippers that’s nevertheless intensely preoccupied with questions of homosexuality. After being sexually taunted by his bratty, vindictive stepsister (who resembles a character out of a John Waters movie), Bobby runs away from his suburban-hell home and is targeted by not one but two gay predators, the second of whom invites his redneck buddies over for some sort of bizarre gang-rape/joy-ride (see screengrab below?) which, even if we’re not sure what exactly Bobby is being subjected to, we’re clearly meant to be appalled by. He is then rescued by Satanists who are inexplicably homophobic (a lesbian member is tattled on and subsequently hanged). Or maybe they’re just more gay predators; as the dialogue quoted above indicates, there are many questions left unanswered by Satan’s Children, and sometimes its biggest question marks constitute its most enjoyably strange moments.