Why do we like terrible movies? Not just bad or mediocre movies–those are depressingly common and a distressing amount are released each year from major and independent studios alike. Those are then shuffled off into the catacombs of daytime airings on Showtime and the dregs of streaming services, never reaching over two stars in their ratings and the kind of movies you recommend to people you know have low-power taste receptors.
No, what we seek out are the abysmal: films that should have never gotten past the script phase but were somehow cast, filmed, edited, and released for all the world to see. From the low-budget incompetence of Plan 9 From Outer Space and the insane Deathbed: The Bed That Eats to high-budget professional disasters like Showgirls and Battlefield Earth, something must hit a primitive part of our brains that enjoys watching something that seems to clash with all of our established understanding of how a movie is supposed to be.
And it’s not just one element in these “so bad they’re good” films that’s off. A bad performance or crummy script or even artless direction can still mostly save a film to bump it up to mediocre or just not good (for a modern example, see the most recent iteration of Disney/Marvel output: it is competently made, it just isn’t very good–but it also doesn’t make it bad enough to want to actually watch it for fun).
No, a truly terrible film is wrong in every sense: clunky, awkward dialogue being spoken by sub-par actors; ridiculous stories that are filmed with the grace of a rhinoceros and seem to lack key technical aspects like proper sound and lighting. Most significant are these films are made with the foolish confidence of somebody who was convinced that what they were making was going to be just fantastic. In some cases, such as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, they are convinced they will be nominated for an Oscar. What Wiseau found was a different, unexpected kind of widespread acclaim: having made such a perplexing, fascinatingly bad movie, it became an almost immediate cult classic.
In this series of articles about cult classics, so far I’ve only covered what can be considered truly good movies that have gone on to find an audience that appreciates their unique, artful perspective and originality.
But a lot of film fans also associate the term “cult” to be synonymous with the type of film I’ve been describing so far in this article. And to be sure, there’s something to learn from the “so bad it’s good” type of film–mainly what a good film isn’t.
This is also, paradoxically, how we can recognize such a film: having watched so many films in our lives, some good and some bad, we pick up on what the truly terrible is. Which brings me to the film under discussion today: 2012’s Fateful Findings.
Filmed in 2012 and screen at the 2013 Seattle International Screen Festival to what could only have been completely confounded audiences, Fateful Findings is by rising cult auteur Neil Breen, a man who–based on the dialogue, character interactions, and general story lines–has seemingly never met another human being or experienced anything outside of his house. Having made two “movies” before this one, both similarly odd and clunky, Breen quickly made a reputation for himself as making some of the most incompetent films seen so far this century.
A real-estate agent and architect who began making films when he was in his late 40s, Breen writes, directs, and funds his own projects. He also does the production design, set decoration, makeup, editing, casting, and catering of his films. With no formal training in filmmaking, Breen is a true outsider artist. And boy, does it show.
Listen: anyone who makes a film on their own dime, following their own vision, and actually go through with the insanely difficult work of actually completing an entire movie on their own is admirable. Plenty of aspiring filmmakers out there in spend years of their lives cobbling together a script, the finances, putting together a cast, securing shooting locations, and editing their film. And even then, to be able find a venue to show their work is yet another hurdle to jump. It’s difficult, is the point, and these directors should be applauded for their drive, temerity, and focus.
Neil Breen is not one of these filmmakers.
His work is sloppy to the point that it’s maybe home movie quality at best. He shoots most of the scenes (literally most) in two rooms of his house–both those that are supposed to be his character’s house and other locations, including a hospital room–and barely attempts to make it look any different. And let’s talk about set direction and production design: there isn’t any. Outside of a number of dead laptops scattered about to make it look like his character is a “hacker,” that’s pretty much it. Breen must have been too busy with the catering to actually bother with silly details like making anything look convincing or even closely resemble what the movie claims the locations are.
The delivery of the dialogue and general acting style of literally everyone involved make them come across like they all have suffered debilitating head injuries. Considering that’s just what happens to Breen’s character in the beginning, it makes sense, but unless there’s a gas leak in every single scene, I’m guessing Breen didn’t pay these “actors” anything.
Speaking of people that aren’t actors: Breen’s possibly the worst actor I’ve ever seen, and he’s in nearly every single scene. The character he writes for himself is a sanctimonious prick who is not only the moral center of this film but also has gained a connection to the spiritual world from his accident. He’s also….not appealing, to put it nicely.
The Most Secret Government and Corporate Secrets Revealed
Synopsizing this film is kind of a nightmare task, to be honest. But here goes: author and hacker Dylan has been hacking into government and corporate “information” that he’s going to expose to the world. But he’s also then hit by a car, which gives him a connection to the spiritual world. Along the way, he deals with his deteriorating domestic situation, where his wife eventually dies of a pill overdose, his best friend is murdered by his wife who made it look like a suicide, his best friend’s teenage daughter attempts to seduce him, spirits begin to haunt him, he picks up with an old love after his wife dies of a drug overdose, his new lover is abducted and Dylan uses his previously unmentioned teleportation powers to save her, he reveals those “most secret government secrets,” which drives the leaders of the world to literally kill themselves to applauding crowds, and Dylan gives a rousing speech about how they have to fight the power of the tyranny of corruption.
If that plot doesn’t seem to hang together, that’s because it doesn’t. And believe it or not, this synopsis skips over a lot of stuff that happens in the film. Can a film be both underwritten and overwritten? Fateful Findings suggests so.
Breen packs in too many plot points but doesn’t actually flesh any of them out. Instead, a scene or two happens, a major plot point occurs, and the movie just keeps rolling forward. Case in point: his wife has a pill addiction. They fight about it and reconcile. Then she goes back on the pills. He begins a relationship with another woman. Despondent, she takes too many pills and dies of an overdose.
You would think this dramatic development would have a major bearing on the plot. You would be wrong: he continues the movie with his new girlfriend with no more mention that the woman that he was married to had just died. No lasting sadness, not even any impact on the story. She may as well have never existed. It’s nuts.
It also doesn’t help that everybody in the film seems to be inhabited by worms that are trying to pass as humans. Either this was an acting note Breen gave them or he’s holding them all hostage until filming was completed. We’ll never know.
Breen tends to jump around a lot in the plot and although his characters literally describe every single thing they’re thinking and doing at every moment, almost nothing that’s happening is apparent to the viewer. Here’s a typical example of the jarring editing that turns any notion of a linear plot into soup throughout the film: Dylan is discussing with his wife Emily her pain pill addiction, and the scene–and I’m not cutting anything out as it progresses–plays as such:
INT. LIVING ROOM – NIGHT.
Emily sits on a couch across from Dylan, who is busily typing away at a laptop.
Emily: I need them–I realize that–but I’d be lost without them.
CUT TO: LATER IN THE SAME ROOM. DYLAN IS STILL TYPING AWAY AT HIS LAPTOP ON THE SOFA WHILE EMILY SITS ON THE ADJACENT SOFA.
Dylan: I’ve gotta get this work done.
Emily: (hanging up the phone) My job sucks! I don’t like the people that I work with.
Dylan: I’ve gotta get this work done. It’s gonna shock the world. I’ve hacked into just about all the information I need. They have no idea. It’s gonna change the world as we know it–it’s gonna change everything. They have no idea.
Emily: The bank is failing! Pills help. I need something stronger. I need a stronger mediation.
Dylan: (raising his voice while maintaining a flat tone) It’s a crutch! Get off the pills! Straighten your life out!
Emily: Maybe it’s because of you.
Dylan: What? I’ve been so supportive of you. (long pause) So supportive.
Emily: You heard what I said.
Dylan puts his hands on his face and slides them down.
Dylan: I hate seeing you this way. (long pause) You’re not the same girl! I want that girl back.
Emily: She’s not coming back.
Dylan: Don’t turn away–let’s talk!
EMILY SIGHS, THEN DYLAN TAKES HER HAND.
CUT TO: DYLAN’S OFFICE. DYLAN TYPES AWAY AT A LAPTOP. EMILY’S HAND ENTERS THE FRAME AND SHE PUTS IT ON HIS DESK.
Emily: I’m done talking!
Dylan jumps up and grabs Emily by her wrist, pulling her close.
DYLAN PUTS HIS ARM AROUND HER AND PROCEEDS TO PUSH ALL OF HIS LAPTOPS ONTO THE FLOOR, CLEARING THE DESK. THEN DYLAN THROWS ALL OF HIS PAPERS UP INTO THE AIR. THEY BEGIN TO TEAR AT EACH OTHER’S SHIRTS, LAUGHING AND EMBRACING.
What. The fuck. Was that all about? One short scene is cut across three different time periods and two locations. Often Fateful Findings comes across like a nightmarish David Lynch film. What it reminded me most of was the Lynch series Rabbits where three characters wearing costume rabbit heads reside in one domestic location speaking seemingly non-linear lines of dialogue to nobody in particular. Only that was, you know, artful.
First Take, Best Take
Shot on hi-def digital video, the movie shouldn’t look as bad as it does. But since Breen decided to go with not just the “first take best take” philosophy, apparently “available lighting best lighting” was also the spirit of the day. The “soundtrack” is stock music that comes from an online library, the editing jumps abruptly from scene to scene without smooth transitions, and the camera is mostly stationary with apparently no attempt at blocking since the tops of people’s heads are cut off, characters are off-center, and there’s no serious attempt at framing any shots.
How a film with this many actors in it can have such uniformly poor performances is mind-boggling. The further you get into the movie, you start to think that someone at some point will deliver a line like a normal person. Instead, there are long pauses in-between lines, off-kilter line deliveries that emphasize words randomly, and performances that make it seem like every single actor was given Thorazine right before their take.
It’s truly stunning how inept the film is. And this is what makes it such a fascinating film to watch: you wonder who this Neil Breen is and how he managed to get these people to agree to be in the film. Did he put out an advertisement? Did he just flag strangers down on the street? Has he ever seen a film before? Has he ever had a relationship or even a conversation with another person? His perspective is so odd, especially when you consider this film wasn’t just an accident–he spent hundreds of hours of his life making this film. Writing, casting, shooting, editing….it’s almost unfathomable.
But there’s also a very weird charm to the whole movie because of this. Under no circumstance would anyone who wanted to be considered a serious director, if they saw how the footage was coming out, would ever release this as a movie. Instead, Breen saw all of this and thought to himself, “this is pretty damn good,” and then proceeded to publicize it and get it out to as many venues as possible.
And further to Breen’s credit, he kind of understands that he makes movies that people consider so terrible that they willingly pay money to go see screenings just to laugh at his work. And he shows up to these screenings and takes questions from the audience. Either he has a personality disorder or an iron ego, but whatever it is, it’s truly something to consider.
So Bad It’s Almost Too Good
Like Wiseau’s masterpiece The Room, Fateful Findings hinges upon a strange auteur that created a baffling piece of cinema. And although FF has found its followers, it’s not nearly as well-recognized in the “So Bad It’s Good” club. Which is unfortunate because unlike The Room, this movie has a lot more plot to chew on and spit out and far more bizarre events that occur to leave the viewer completely confounded as to what’s actually happening. It’s almost closer to Birdemic: Shock and Terror in this respect, with half-explanations of what’s going on and a far grander vision at stake. But there’s also Room-like recurring motifs left unexplained. One example is how things keep sliding off of surfaces and onto the floor. Laptops, plates of food, glasses–and these are dedicated shots capturing these events, they aren’t just accidents. What does it mean, Breen?
Sure, Fateful Findings is terrible from the title down. The acting is just above what mannequins are able to accomplish, the production values are sub-basement, the script is written like how a 7-year-old thinks grown-ups talk, the plot makes incomprehensible a gross understatement, and outside of the Lynchian horror that Breen seems to have accidentally stumbled upon at times, there’s no artistry to speak of on display.
Having said that, this movie gets four thumbs up for being the kind of cult movie that you’d watch with a group of friends after drinking a beer or ten so you can laugh and mock it from the safety of your own couch.
If you’re a fan of the “so bad it’s good” type of cult film, watch Fateful Findings. It’s wildly enjoyable and thoroughly perplexing; an incredibly bad movie and a modern cult classic.