Michael Keene had no idea what he was getting into when he first saw a Neil Breen movie. The Las Vegas-based filmmaker considers himself something of a bad-movie expert, but when he and his friend and fellow filmmaker Sean Doyle came across Breen’s 2013 film Fateful Findings, they were astounded.
“I don’t even know how we stumbled upon this specifically, because I don’t even know what I searched for,” Keene says. “There was so much about Neil Breen and his style that took us and really was so much more than we had been used to with bad films.”
Almost immediately after finishing Fateful Findings, Keene and Doyle formulated a plan: Watch every Neil Breen movie in existence, then go make one of their own. And now, a little over a year later, Keene and Doyle’s film Fatal Future — which they wrote and directed together under the pseudonym Mitch Kean, and is now streamable on Amazon Video — is quietly on its way to amassing a cult following of its own. The spoof is becoming part of the self-sustaining ecosystem of bad movies, which in recent years have turned into a viable genre of their own. Anyone familiar with Breen’s work will find Fatal Future instantly recognizable.
Breen, also a Las Vegas-based filmmaker, has been making inexplicable low-budget films since his 2005 debut Double Down, and over the last decade he’s become one of the main “stars” of the underground world of bad-movie fandom. Breen writes, directs and stars in all of his feature films (his fifth, Twisted Pair, is currently making the rounds at theaters worldwide), usually playing some sort of hyper-intelligent, hyper-competent messiah figure who is the only hope to save the world from government and corporate tyranny. From a technical standpoint, Breen’s films are objectively scrappy, full of poorly placed stock footage, amateurish green-screen effects, stilted acting, confusing camera angles and awkward edits.
“When Neil Breen has a vision, he fucking goes for it,” Keene says. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it doesn’t have to, as long as it makes sense to him.”
That sense of purpose and purity of vision is what draws fans to Breen’s work, even more than the questionable but undeniable entertainment value of punching down. In that way, Breen has a lot in common with the most famous bad-movie auteur of the last 20 years, The Room writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau, who hit the mainstream thanks to James Franco’s 2017 film The Disaster Artist, about the making of The Room. Breen and Wiseau are both part of what Keene calls a “genre of delusion,” bad movies made by people who have complete, unshakable confidence in their terrible ideas.
Increasingly, fans of these delusions seek to participate in them in some way. In The Disaster Artist, Franco not only tells the story of how The Room was made (casting himself as Wiseau), but also meticulously recreates full scenes from the film, using the credits to prove his accuracy with side-by-side comparison reels.
Gregory Hatanaka, a filmmaker and distributor who helped popularize the 1991 cult movie Samurai Cop, took it upon himself to create a sequel to his favorite bad movie, co-writing and directing 2015’s Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance and recruiting many of the film’s original actors to star in it. That movie was partially financed via crowdfunding campaigns promoted by online fan groups. Other bad-movie icons, including Birdemic’s James Nguyen, Deadly Prey’s David A. Prior and Breen himself, have employed crowdfunding to get fans involved in their work, with varying degrees of success.
For Keene and Doyle, the goal with Fatal Future was not to parody Neil Breen, per se, but to generate their own authentic Neil Breen-style experience.
“We quickly decided that we needed to make something that could be plopped down into a bad-movie marathon and no one would be the wiser,” Keene explains. “We kind of made it in the image of Neil Breen. We created the character of Mitch Kean, based him on Neil Breen, and directed and wrote it as that character.” Keene also stars in the movie, playing Mitch Kean playing M.C. Dalton, a very Breen-esque character who is the world’s best hacker, swordsman, assassin and spy, and who must single-handedly take on the totalitarian power structure of a future society.
Keene embodied the character of Mitch Kean so thoroughly that he even recorded an entire feature-length commentary as Mitch Kean, which is available on the DVD release of Fatal Future (the movie is also streaming on Amazon Prime, minus the commentary). It’s a pitch-perfect portrait of artistic hubris, which Keene improvised one day after shopping at Ikea (cookies from Ikea figure prominently in the commentary). “With the commentary it was just: I will be Mitch Kean and see what happens,” he says.
That same mentality applied to the entire process. “While we were writing, it was like, ‘OK, is this something that this character would write? Is this going too far?’” Keene says. “We wanted to make a movie that if you just went in and watched it as just a dude who doesn’t know anything about it going in, you would say, ‘Oh man, this guy took himself real seriously.’”
The result is a movie that’s closer to the Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig’s deadpan Lifetime-movie pastiche A Deadly Adoption than something like The Naked Gun or Scary Movie. “When we were shooting, actors would come up with suggestions, and I would have to say, ‘No, that’s not funny anymore, because you’re playing to it,’” Keene says. “We’re not making Airplane!”
Keeping that balance between appreciation and mockery is not easy, and it’s something that bad-movie fans navigate carefully as they engage more directly with their favorite films and filmmakers. “I think in some cases it can be very cynical, and in some cases it’s very genuine and loving,” Keene says. “I feel like James Franco really loves Tommy Wiseau and his work.” Keene points to the 2001 B-movie homage The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra as an example of the right way to do things, and the popular (but soulless) Sharknado series as the wrong way.
“For me, I first have to love my subject,” says Lost Skeleton writer-director Larry Blamire. “I know how hard making a movie is, I know what goes into it, and in some cases, like [director] Ed Wood, there is a vision that drives them.” Keene agrees. “When you watch [Sharknado], it doesn’t feel like something that loves the genre,” he says. “It feels like something that’s just ridiculing it.”
Any Neil Breen aficionado who watches Fatal Future can tell that Keene and Doyle have studied their inspiration, and it’s not hard to imagine Breen himself playing the role of M.C. Dalton. There isn’t even much in Fatal Future that could be specifically categorized as a joke. As in a lot of genuine bad movies, the humor comes from elements that seem to be the product of filmmaking ineptitude or grandiose ambitions gone wrong, whether that’s a scene between Dalton and his bartender/underworld contact (played by Alex Pusineri) in which the two actors’ eyelines never match up, or the numerous long-winded, self-important monologues that Dalton delivers in voice-over.
By contrast, Hatanaka’s Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance is constantly winking at the audience — sometimes literally, in the form of Detective Frank Washington (Mark Frazer), the title character’s partner, whose fourth-wall-breaking looks to the camera were part of the original movie’s clumsy charm. Hatanaka has Frazer repeat those looks over and over again, and spends nearly every moment nudging the audience at how “bad” the movie is. In addition to many original Samurai Cop stars (including original lead Mathew Karedas), the movie features prominent roles for Tommy Wiseau, Maniac Cop’s Laurene Landon, B-movie villain Mel Novak and several adult-film actresses, making it a sort of all-star lineup of trash cinema.
Maybe that’s why Karedas has plans to produce another Samurai Cop sequel (with crowdfunding support, of course), one that he promises will be a “90’s style [sic] action flick shot on 35MM,” according to a tweet sent in May. Or maybe it’s just that these movies now have the same kind of name-recognition value as mainstream franchises, and the continuation of something like Samurai Cop (or 1987’s Deadly Prey, which took 26 years to get a sequel) is the bad-movie equivalent of the decades-later sequels to Blade Runner or Top Gun.
Either way, fan involvement in the cult of bad movies is only likely to grow. For Keene, the following for Fatal Future has been building steadily, one fan at a time, just as it did for Breen’s films or The Room or Birdemic. Keene, who works as a photographer and videographer, is part of the team that produces the internal TV broadcasts for the annual sci-fi and fantasy convention DragonCon in Atlanta. At this year’s event in August, he convinced the organizers to show Fatal Future on DragonCon TV at midnight on Friday night of the convention weekend. “I thought, some people will watch it, most people will just tune out immediately,” he says. “It’ll be a funny joke, because no one knows what this is.”
Instead, the broadcast spawned a thread on the private DragonCon Facebook group with around 800 comments, a second showing scheduled for the next day and a hastily organized fan meetup on Saturday night. There’s now a Dragon Con-associated Fatal Future Facebook group with tips for cosplaying characters from the movie, and Keene anticipates having a screening and a panel discussion as part of next year’s official program. “I still find it hard to believe anyone actually gives a shit,” he says. (Breen himself isn’t one of the people who gives a shit; he declined to comment on Fatal Future, saying he was “a little busy” with the release of Twisted Pair.)
Keene is taking advantage of that small but growing popularity to bring attention to his next project, another feature film in the style of movies that many consider to be bad. It’s a shot-on-VHS horror movie called The Head, and Keene cites Cecelia Condit’s 1983 avant-garde short film Possibly in Michigan, Andrew Jordan’s 1989 horror movie Things (which frequently shows up on lists of the worst movies of all time) and James Robert Baker’s 1984 thriller Blonde Death (all of which were shot on VHS) as direct inspirations. “I think I’ve actually found something that’s more niche than Neil Breen,” he says, laughing.
Those niches are getting larger, though, and the borders between “bad” movies and genuine artistic experiments continue to blur. Keene draws a line directly from bad-movie culture to acclaimed experimental projects like Casper Kelly’s Too Many Cooks. “It’s a beautiful piece of work,” he says. “But it definitely comes from this bad-movie mentality.” Certainly there are people who were just as baffled by watching Too Many Cooks as they were by Fateful Findings or The Room.
Is Fatal Future a bad movie? Or is it just good at emulating bad movies? For people unfamiliar with Breen’s work (like the viewers giving Fatal Future one-star ratings on Amazon), the difference is irrelevant. Keene has clearly put a lot of thought into his creations, and his knowledge of underground cinema is impressive. At the same time, he’s just a guy with a handful of friends and limited resources who decided to make a movie, much like Neil Breen first did. The same passion and love of moviemaking that inspires notoriously bad movies equally inspires the movies that pay tribute to them.
Keene isn’t entirely sure how to categorize his movie.
“This is just some bullshit that people are going to stumble onto in the middle of the night,” he says. “They’re going to be wasted, and they’re going to enjoy themselves, hopefully.”
Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and pop culture for The Dissolve, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx, Kirkus Reviews and more. Find his thoughts on trashy horror movies, classic cinema and other important topics at joshbellhateseverything.com.