At a midnight screening in a Los Angeles multiplex, the atmosphere hovers somewhere between rambunctious and mildly terrifying. Whenever a framed photograph of a spoon appears on screen, which it frequently does, audience members throw fistfuls of plastic cutlery. They also perform skits, at one point gathering at the bottom right of the screen and shouting, ''Down here, Tommy!'' anticipating the moment when the face of the lead actor, Tommy Wiseau, looks in their direction. And they comment loudly on blurrily shot scenes (''Focus!'') or inadequately introduced characters (''Who the f--- are you?'').
Late-night showings of cult films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Big Lebowski are known for their rowdy and strange behavior too. But people who go to see Rocky Horror and Lebowski think those films are good. Tonight's movie, an obscure, five-year-old drama called The Room, holds a different place in the hearts of those present at West Hollywood's Laemmle Sunset 5. ''It's absolutely terrible,'' says Chris Bonk, a talent-agency assistant who has seen the film more than 15 times. ''The script is not the best. The acting is certainly not the best. The music is horrible.''
The Room is a San Francisco-set love triangle involving a banker named Johnny, his friend Mark, and Johnny's fiancée Lisa, who is sleeping with both men. The film does seem to be beset with problems. Various subplots are inadequately resolved or simply disappear altogether, including the throwaway revelation that Lisa's mother is suffering from cancer. The film's many rooftop shots feature an unrealistic San Francisco backdrop, thanks to some less-than-impressive greenscreen work. There are lengthy, unerotic sex scenes, the last of which prompts a section of the audience to depart the auditorium temporarily in mock protest. Finally, in one sequence, a sharp bone seems about to erupt from Lisa's neck for no reason at all.
The film's so-bad-it's-freakin'-awesome vibe has attracted a devout army of aficionados whose membership includes the cream of Hollywood's comedy community. Role Models star Paul Rudd and Arrested Development's David Cross are both fans, as is Jonah Hill, who uses a still from the movie as his MySpace photograph. Heroes star Kristen Bell hosts Room-viewing parties at her house and last year attended the film's monthly Laemmle screening with Rudd, Hill, and Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright. ''There is a magic about that film that is indescribable,'' she says.
The Room has even infiltrated the halls of cinematic academia. ''It is one of the most important films of the past decade,'' says Ross Morin, an assistant professor of film studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. ''It exposes the fabricated nature of Hollywood. The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad movies.''
If The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad movies, that makes Tommy Wiseau the Orson Welles of crap. Wiseau who speaks with a thick, Schwarzeneggerian accent directed, wrote, and produced the film. The muscled auteur also plays the cuckolded Johnny, and, when not exposing his ivory rump in the film's sex scenes, gives a performance that's both heartfelt and berserk. In one scene, a vein-poppingly distraught Wiseau howls the line, ''You are tearing me apart, Lisa!'' The moment a favorite of Room fans is reminiscent of both James Dean's ''You're tearing me apart!'' howl in Rebel Without A Cause and Marlon Brando screaming ''Stella!'' in A Streetcar Named Desire. At least it would be, if those actors had chosen to play their parts as deranged Austrians.
The Los Angeles-based Wiseau is an admirer of Streetcar playwright Tennessee Williams and (indeed) Orson Welles. ''You can relate to it,'' he says of their work, over lunch in L.A. the day after the Laemmle screening. ''You see all this emotion. That's why we are on the same page.'' Wiseau is also a big fan of Dean and Brando, but he insists that any discussion of specific films that may have influenced him be off the record. While the actor-director is friendly and infectiously upbeat about his work, he is also incredibly secretive. Wiseau shies away from questions about his background and his age, though he appears to be in his early 50s. ''We tried for a long time to figure out where he's from,'' says actress Juliette Danielle, who plays Lisa in The Room. ''We never got an answer.''
After some prodding, Wiseau does let slip a few personal details. ''I used to live in France, a long time ago,'' he says. ''Then I moved to New Orleans I have family there. Then I moved to Bay Area. I work for hospital, I work for the city. But I always wanted to be an actor.''
Wiseau got his directorial feet wet with a short film, Robbery Doesn't Pay, and then, in 2002, shot The Room in L.A. and San Francisco. The filmmaker has always refused to discuss where he got the movie's $6 million budget, but he now hints that at least some of the money came from a clothing import business. ''I tell you a little bit, but that's it,'' he says. ''We import from Korea the leather jackets that we design here in America. If you work, you have to save money, right? I didn't get money from the sky. I was preparing, let's put it this way.'' The shoot was marred by the constant departures of cast and crew members. ''It was just mayhem,'' recalls Dan Janjigian, who plays a drug dealer in one of the film's peculiar plot cul-de-sacs. ''You could come in and it would be a completely different cast and crew. It was crazy.'' Wiseau himself initially denies that he had problems with his behind-the-camera team ''I was very happy with everyone'' but then admits that he did come into conflict with individuals who tried to tamper with his work. ''Some of the crew members, it's correct, we changed three times basically,'' he recalls. ''Because they tried, for example, to change the script. They say, 'This is the way to do, etcetera, etcetera.' I say, 'No!''' However, according to one cast member who requested anonymity, the script was indeed altered during the shoot: ''It was actually a lot longer. There was stuff that was just unsayable. I know it's hard to imagine there was stuff that was worse. But there was.''