Attack of the Slime People, Martin King’s spoof of no-budget filmmaking in the 1950s, walks a fine line indeed, it does. The director and his writer/producing collaborator, Robert Tiffi, aim for a vanishingly small target, one of the holy grails of b-movie fandom: a deliberately bad film that is a successful comedy because of its badness. This is not nearly as easy a task as most people who try it seem to think that it is; the charm of the great bad b-movies from half a century ago is in no small part their complete lack of irony, the knowledge we have that yes, in fact, someone did think that slapping a space helmet on a gorilla costume was an acceptable way of making a robot monster. Try to do that sort of thing deliberately, and there’s a big risk of the strain showing, the gags held together with desperation and flop sweat.
By and large, King and Tiffi do not fail in their goals, compared to a great many such movies; which is not to say that they succeed as wildly as, for example, the people behind The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (still the high watermark for deliberately bad parodies of 1950s sci-fi). There are two components to making a self-conscious bad movie work: first, it must come by its badness honestly. That is to say, there will be no broad exaggerations of the kind of problems found in vintage films, such as sets that always collapse in the middle of takes, or actors that always collapse in the middle of takes. The badness must be of a tiny, organic nature: stiff line readings with occasional mispronunciations, dropped plotlines, ill-timed editing. And these things Attack of the Slime People succeeds at. The only exception – the only point, I mean to say, at which the film is 100% good, no ironic self-aware distancing trickery going on – is that the cinematography and lighting are quite handsome and accomplished, giving the film the sheen of something with a much higher budget, and I am torn over whether this is a good thing. The look of the film is almost incongruously good, sticking out from the rest of the film.
Now, the second component of a good deliberately bad film is that it must be funny or entertaining as a result of its badness. This is where this spring’s Alien Trespass collapsed: it nailed the texture of a bad movie without being all that interesting to watch. Attack of the Slime People is a very curious beast: for long stretches, I am not certain that it is very funny, but on the other hand, it is magnetically watchable.
The film concerns one Buddy Flavinoid (played by Tiffi), a filmmaker of the Ed Wood mold: half-huckster, half-enthusiast, half-madman. The story begins in 1955, when he kills an actor with a baseball bat on the set of his latest crap epic, Attack of the Atomic Reptiles; three years later, he has become a lowly bathroom attendant, his career stalled out in part because of the mystery of that unexplained death. However, his long-shelved screenplay Attack of the Slime People has just found investors, thanks to producer Dick Goldberg (Allen Poe), who makes an unfortunate bargain with Buddy: to get his hands on the screenplay, he has to promise to keep his mitts off of the director’s creative process. Which means, in the short term, a terrific battle of wills over the leading man, which leads the frustrated Buddy to take out his bat once again and start clearing away the unfortunately large number of people standing between him and his Pure, Untouched Dream of Art.
Everything about the film hinges on a single pivot point: Tiffi’s performance as Buddy. I don’t really know how to describe it; something like a live-action cartoon character based on Ed Wood as a Droopy Dog antagonist. He wears a perpetual, terrifying grin; he flails his hands like a pair of wrecking balls; he is both completely impossible to watch and impossible to turn away from at one and the same instant. I’ll say this on the film’s behalf: Tiffi gives it every drop of energy he has, and that mania informs the way everything else in the film is put together. Attack of the Slime People is a crazy, deranged movie, and I do not mean this as a bad thing; though it does take quite a lot of energy to keep up with it, and if it were much over an hour and a half, I don’t know that I could have made it all the way through.
Is it entertaining, though? I really am not certain. It probably benefits from a bigger crowd than I had (myself, on the couch), for starters. But even in sub-optimal viewing conditions, the movie is addictive, somehow: once it starts, its weird energy grabs you and pulls you in, so that questions of “entertaining” are almost beside the point. If “entertaining” means, “I must absolutely see where this is going next, because I am mesmerised by it”, then yeah, Attack of the Slime People is entertaining. It’s also a fairly audacious concept: make a film about the people who make bad films, and do it using the vocabulary of old bad films. King and Tiffi have a real tough balancing act to play, and the fact that the movie hasn’t imploded into free-form idiocy by the ten-minute mark counts as a miracle by itself, to say nothing of how compulsively watchable the rest of the thing turns out to be.