Michael Mohan (Save the Date) Talks John S. Rad’s Dangerous Men

After the death of its auteur, a mythic bad/good movie is getting a proper release. One of its early champions explains why it's so special.

It was 2:34 a.m. on January 8, 2006. I had just come home from having my mind blown at a poorly attended midnight screening of Dangerous Men at the Sunset 5 theaters. I was so energized from seeing the film, I felt compelled to go to the Dangerous Men website, find an email address, and actually type the following:

Hi there!

I just saw Dangerous Men about an hour ago, and wanted to send an email to the people involved in the making of this great film. This may have been the funnest moviegoing experience in my entire life. A sincere thank you to everyone who made this film; I can only hope that more people will go see it.

Your number 1 fan,
Michael Mohan

So, a little backstory. In high school, if you asked me what my favorite television show was, that would be easy: Mystery Science Theater 3000. I still quote the Laserblast episode to this day, and just thinking about the song “Idiot Control” from Pod People makes me chuckle.

Every Saturday night, my two nerdy friends and I would go to the video store in the hopes of discovering our own next great bad film. We’d sit through tediously boring films like Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo or Assault of the Party Nerds, in search of a bizarre gem like Yor: The Hunter from the Future (“No, you’re the hunter from the future” we’d often say in the high-school lunchroom). My senior year, the school made the questionable decision of allowing my friend Shaun McQuaid and me to write our senior class play, Norton vs. the Ubiquitous Flying Saucers, an absolutely nonsensical story directly influenced by the work of Ed Wood.

For me, one of the allures of watching a terrible film was the reminder that it was made by a human being. At the time, when I was about to leave my small New England town for Southern California to follow my dream of making movies, it somehow made that dream seem slightly more attainable.

As I went to film school and the Internet grew, it became easier to learn about the found diamonds in the rough. It’s just fun to debate whether or not the ineptness of Ninja III: The Domination is worse than the blatant commercialization of Mac and Me. And as I found myself going to great lengths to see some of the more obscure notable titles (a carful of friends and I actually drove two hours outside of L.A. in search of the one suburban movie theater inexplicably showing After Last Season), I found my own tastes within this subgenre to become more refined.

It’s one thing to laugh at the electric drill guitar the villain dons in Slumber Party Massacre II, but you know that the bar the filmmakers were shooting for wasn’t very high. They knew what kind of film they were making. In fact, I don’t find any enjoyment in the Sharknado films because this sense of self-awareness ruins it for me.

To me, what really sets one of these films apart is a purity of intention. Tommy Wiseau didn’t aspire to make The Room as we now understand it. He wanted to make a rich Tennessee Williams drama, and just missed the mark along the way. Or Birdemic: Shock and Terror, which, if you look past the astoundingly terrible editing, was born out of director James Nguyen’s true passion for spreading the word about the dangers of global warming.

In fact, my all-time favorite cinematic anomaly is also the most audacious: Menahem Golan’s The Apple, a musical from 1980, set in the future (1994), about an evil record producer brainwashing society through his sinister disco. It brilliantly meshes Orwell’s 1984 with the parable of Adam and Eve, aspiring to dizzy the audience with its cinematic cocaine. My true dream project would be to one day remake it with Will Ferrell and Lady Gaga. I dare you to find any movie with a better sense of comedic timing than this one. And the ending… oh, the ending.

And that leads us back to John S. Rad’s Dangerous Men. I first learned of Dangerous Men by seeing the poster hanging outside the Laemmle Town Center theater. Three poorly Photoshopped figures against a banal city shot, with the tagline “An unforgettable suspense, mystery drama” written in a terrible font. I just assumed it was a self-released vanity project, and moved on. But a few weeks later, upon seeing that it was playing at midnight at the Sunset 5, a few friends and I assumed there might be something more to it. We had no idea what we were in store for.

What really puts Dangerous Men in that upper echelon of bad/good movies is that this is the work of an auteur. Directed, written, produced, edited, production designed, set decorated and scored by John S. Rad, the film contains an unbelievable amount of preposterous creative decisions. Half of it was shot in the ’80s, half of it was shot in the ’90s, and it was in post-production until 2005. If you thought Boyhood took commitment…

While it would be tempting to describe its hilarious parts here, I think Dangerous Men is a film that is best discovered the same way I did, knowing as little as possible. Just know that unlike even the best good/bad movies, there are no slow parts. Between the abruptly shifting character motivations, to the complete point-of-view changes, to the evolving visual style of the film, it’s unrelentingly baffling. It’s kind of a feminist revenge story, and kind of a police takedown story, but totally unpredictable. Let’s just say that if Andy Kaufman was discovered to be alive, and that he’d spent the last two decades making Dangerous Men, I would not be surprised. Even still, I love thinking about what motivated John S. Rad to make this film.

In 2007, not long after the screenings at the Sunset 5, John S. Rad mysteriously passed away, and except for a single screening at the Cinefamily in 2009 (that I dragged all of my friends to), the film disappeared. Since then, if I ever met someone at a party who had managed to see it, you really did feel like the two of you were part of some larger mythological thing. It was proof that the movie actually existed and wasn’t just a remnant of some fever dream. It is the definition of a cult movie, and I’m so thrilled to think that the cult is now able to grow.

Now, as I get older, I sometimes wonder if I’m growing out of this phase of liking terrible movies. The last time I went to see The Room, rather than celebrating the oddity of its existence, I actually found the audience to be self-righteous and disrespectful, acting hostile towards the screen. And now knowing first-hand how difficult it is to simply make a film, I have compassion for any filmmaker who is able to see their vision through to the end, no matter how poorly conceived or executed it may be. I also just have such little free time these days, and question whether it’s better spent watching any of the actual cinema classics that I’ve still yet to see, or spent watching John Stamos’ failed action vehicle Never Too Young To Die (the director of which, Gil Bettman, was actually my Directing 1 teacher in college). I suspect I’m not alone in this.

But with Dangerous Men, watching it takes me right back to my high school days, sitting in Eric Barker’s basement, munching on microwave popcorn. Or to the days spent handing out double-decker bologna sandwiches to people in line outside screenings of Troll 2 (which, if you look closely, you can see me doing in the documentary Best Worst Movie). So in a weird way, this movie represents a time in my life that was a lot more innocent. It’s not that I’m growing out of these films, it’s that my appreciation for the greats has only deepened. I have to give Drafthouse Films so much credit for releasing this movie. John S. Rad is a real filmmaker, and Dangerous Men is in a class of its own.

Michael Mohan‘s latest film, Pink Grapefruit, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and won the Narrative Jury Prize at SXSW.  He most recently directed a series of branded films for Kate Spade starring Anna Kendrick and Lily Tomlin. Other credits include Save the Date, starring Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, and Martin Starr.  Currently, he’s co-writing The Ends for the production company Big Beach. See more of his work at michaelmohan.com.