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'The Room,' once a bomb, scores a direct hit

COLUMN ONE

The film that was panned when it came out in 2003 has become the latest cult sensation. 'It's fantastically bad,' one fan at a monthly midnight showing says.

October 30, 2009|Yvonne Villarreal

The independent film "The Room" didn't exactly make a splash when it opened six years ago. Critics panned it -- the few who reviewed it, that is -- and moviegoers stayed away in droves.

So why, on a Saturday night, are hundreds of people lined up around the second-floor space of Laemmle's Sunset 5 theater on Sunset Boulevard, waiting to see it? And why are many of them lugging bags full of plastic spoons?

"The Room" has become the latest cult movie sensation, complete with its own rituals and rules of engagement.

Moviegoers, some dressed as characters in the film, flock to the Los Angeles multiplex for monthly midnight screenings. (The next one is on Halloween.) During showings, audience members rush to the screen and imitate action in the film, performing scenes including tossing footballs and engaging in dialogue with characters. Similar spectacles unfold at theaters across the country and in Canada and Britain.

The low-budget tale of lust and betrayal doesn't inspire such fanatical devotion because it's good.

People love "The Room" because it's so transcendently awful.

"It's fantastically bad," said Devon Brady, 18, a freshman at Chapman University in Orange who has seen the movie four times. "When you think it couldn't get worse, it does. And with each viewing there's something more awful to be discovered."

"The Room" aspires to be a dark comedy. It was written, directed and produced by Tommy Wiseau, 41, who also stars as a stringy-haired banker named Johnny. The story, set in San Francisco, centers on a love triangle involving Johnny, his best friend, Mark, and Johnny's fiancee, Lisa, who has sexual liaisons with both men.

You don't have to be Roger Ebert to spot the flaws -- it's 99 minutes of blunders and idiosyncrasies. Editing errors abound. Characters are inadequately introduced. Subplots, such as the revelation that Lisa's mother has cancer, fade into the ether.

There are random interludes during which Johnny and other male characters toss a football at close range; at one point, they're in tuxedos for no apparent reason. Then there are the awkward, drawn-out sex scenes. One erotic moment is simply a recycling of an earlier one -- literally.

Variety described "The Room" as "a movie that prompts most of its viewers to ask for their money back -- before even 30 minutes have passed."

A review posted on Internet Movie Database's website was equally unsparing: "This film is like getting stabbed in the head."

That's OK. "Roomies," as they call themselves, relish every wretched minute.

"It's a beast of a cult film," said the publisher of Cult Movies magazine, who goes by the single name Schroeder. "I get e-mails every day asking about it. The fan base just continues to grow. There's nothing good about the movie, but when you put all its bad elements together -- the bad lighting, the horrible acting, the continuity -- it's just so comical that you become so engrossed with it that it forces you to like it.

"That's what a true cult flick is. And there's been very few films out there that have generated such intense audience participation."

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is the godfather of cult films and a pioneer in the midnight movie genre. Zealous admirers of the 1975 musical comedy go to screenings in flamboyant attire; throw toast, water, toilet paper and rice at appropriate points; and shout responses at the screen.

At Lebowski Fests, fans of the 1998 Coen brothers film "The Big Lebowski" arrive in their finest bowling attire. "Showgirls," the 1995 drama about Vegas strippers and dancers, is also on the midnight circuit. Followers mimic dance moves from the box-office flop when they're not shouting lines at the screen.

"The Room" is the latest participatory juggernaut. Midnight screenings began at Laemmle's Sunset 5 shortly after the film's release in 2003. Wiseau, who often attends the monthly extravaganzas and engages in brief question-and-answer sessions with the audience, said he contacted the cinema after receiving "hundreds" of e-mails from fans "demanding" to see it.

"It definitely wasn't a blockbuster movie when it initially came out. But it's an amazing testament to the power of word-of-mouth," said theater owner Greg Laemmle, who has yet to see the film. "My teenage son was telling me how he and his friends were going to go see it. It could have just disappeared . . . but it didn't. It slowly spawned a huge following. It's quite remarkable. "

It started with one screen. Then two. Now it's shown on five screens and often sells out.

"This is the holy grail of craptastic movies," said Moss Krivin, 35, who was at the Laemmle for a recent showing, clutching a spoon. "You have to see it to believe it. It's a movie so ridiculous that it's good."

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