Found Footage Fave: The Bad Ben Series (SPOILERS!)

The Bad Ben series of found footage horror films are written, produced, directed, acted, and everything else you can think of by Nigel Bach. Most of them use his house in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, as his setting, and the star of most of the films is Bach himself, as his alter-ego Tom Riley. An interview with Bach can be found here that breaks down the humble beginnings and the sustainability of what has become a legitimate franchise; suffice it to say that Bach made his first movie for $300 with his cellphone and the rest is history.

SPOILERS BELOW! Don’t read if you don’t want to know.

Reason for Filming: Tom Riley just bought a house at auction that he intends to flip and sell for a tidy profit. He starts out filming the house to show it off, but ends up installing security cameras to capture the paranormal events as they unfold.

What’s the Horror: Demons, Paranormal, Monster Lore

Does the Dog Die? No dead animals here!

Gore Factor: None

Character Quality: Great – although these movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. If Tom’s antics amuse you from the start, you’ll know you’re in the right place. If you find yourself either falling asleep or wanting to punch him, you should probably just move on. Personally I find the character of Tom Riley amusing and endearing, as do many others, and my favorite films of his are the ones where he is the star. Nigel Bach occasionally takes a break of acting and just directs his films, but I don’t care much for those. Bach is the reason Bad Ben works, and he’s at his best when he’s focused on Tom Riley doing his thing.

Re-Watch Scale: Regular rotation. These movies make me happy.

Bad Ben movies can be bought or rented on Amazon (you used to be able to stream them for free until recently). I came across them when they were still free, but enjoyed them enough to purchase them once they started charging to watch. The first Bad Ben movie was made after Nigel Bach wrote a script, hired some actors, and prepared to get to work – only to have the actors back out on the first day of filming. So, Bach simply used his iPhone and some of the structures he’d put in place for the other movie to make one by himself. And thus Bad Ben was born.

It is literally just one man using an iPhone and being filmed on a security camera system in a house that is experiencing paranormal activity, and yet it is ridiculously entertaining to a certain segment of the movie-watching population and has spawned 7 or 8 films total, all of which this certain segment of the movie-watching population gobble up delightedly.  I am one of that segment – although I have my favorites, and others I don’t watch on repeat. Now, I love horror films, and I love found footage horror films (and trust me there is no dearth of low-budget found footage horror on Amazon that is absolute trash). I also love weird, low-budget, art horror films and home horror movies where creative people turn their limitations into strengths by finding a way to work within them – the Marble Hornets YouTube series is another example of this, but it’s super-long and actually really freaky, so I wouldn’t watch that one unless you enjoy being wigged out for weeks. The super low-budget horror movies the Mansfield Dark channel has on YouTube, like The House on Mansfield Street, are also very well done but again, they are more true horror, whereas the Bad Ben series has some nice scares and tension, but is ultimately more about the unique, quirky, and naturally funny character at the center of it – Tom Riley. As a found footage film reviewer said about the inexplicable success of this franchise, “There simply is no Bad Ben without Tom Riley,” who is more or less Nigel Bach himself.

The plot doesn’t need to be explained beyond what I’ve already revealed – a man buys a house, moves in, and experiences strange occurrences that lead him to set up security cameras in every room where the audience gets to watch him do things like threaten ghosts who are bothering him with exactly the same tone and attitude as he might shout at kids who won’t get off his lawn, or yell at furniture as it moves across the room. He does most of this clad in boxer shorts, house slippers, and a Hanes T-Shirt, all while refusing to do what the spirits want him to do at every turn, which is evacuate the house. That’s one of the things that makes Bad Ben so much fun; Tom Riley simply does not react to these demons the way we’ve ever seen anyone react before. He yells and curses at them (and he curses A LOT), he gets in their invisible faces and dares them to fight back; but he does it all without really ever getting his blood pressure up too high over the whole thing.

Nigel Bach made the first Bad Ben for $300, and 7 or 8 more films have been made after that. Some of them involve a cast of characters, but my favorites are the ones where it’s just Tom Riley doing his thing, talking to himself and the camera, and occasionally cracking me up when he calls a possessed doll a “little plastic bitch” or tells a demon “you know, you don’t have to make that noise; I can smell you.” I don’t quite know why they comfort me so much, but I think it’s partly how his movies manage to feel authentic and completely cheesy at the same time in a combination that works. Are the visual effects horrible? Yes, but because we know Bach made them himself, we allow it. Are the sound effects equally bad? Yes, but again – it’s just Bach making a movie with an iPhone and whatever noises he or his dog can make that he can manipulate into some sort of demonic growl, so we appreciate the effort instead of judging the quality.

In the end, I guess Nigel Bach is like a crazy uncle who lives in New Jersey and is constantly making movies on his iPhone that I appreciate because he’s “one of us” – a creative person doing the best he can with what he has, completely independent of any interference or outside obligations, and even in the midst of something as awful as a global pandemic he can keep doing his thing for as long as he has a cell phone and a salty tongue. This makes me happy in a world where so many of us have had our lives put on hold, our plans completely thrown out the window, and everything thrust into flux in the midst of so much struggle and uncertainty. When the news overwhelms me, or the crazies in my deep-Red neighborhood get me so pissed off I can’t see straight, I stream one of my favorites from his series to clear my sight and my mind. It’s gonna be okay, because Uncle Nigel is still out there making his crazy movies and being hilarious with his iPhone and his security camera, and his (and our) creative spirit will simply not be restricted or restrained. If Uncle Nigel can do it, well, I guess we  can too.

But I can’t stop my Bad Ben rambling here without telling you my favorites! As much as I love Nigel Bach and the Bad Ben series, I can’t recommend all of his films. There are some that work for me, and some that really, really don’t. I am not going to name them because I feel that would be rude to everyone involved, but I will share the ones I love here :

  1. The original Bad Ben, about a man who buys a home that turns out to be haunted
  2. Badder Ben – This is the only movie of his with other actors onscreen that I care for, but the cast of this film works really well together and plays off the strengths of the Tom Riley character effectively. In this movie, that cast plays a team of paranormal investigators who decide to revisit the Tom Riley tragedy from movie #1, and soon enough get Tom himself involved. Chaos ensues. 
  3. Bad Ben: The Mandela Effect – This movie plays smartly on the fact that his fans obsessively watch his movies over and over, mainly by having Tom Riley visit the home over and over in parallel universes, with different hauntings occurring each time until a deliciously funny conclusion ends the pattern. This is my favorite ending sequence of all the films (although Badder Ben also has a real corker of an ending), and any weaknesses in the plot that come before it is forgiven by the satisfaction of how perfectly it wraps up. In fact, I get the sense Bach thought up the ending first then constructed a plot that would build up to it – that’s how much of a total rimshot it is – but I have no confirmation of this; it’s just my guess. 
  4. Bad Ben: The Way In – Tom Riley is hired as a paranormal investigator to clear the house of demons before a new owner moves in, and encounters a truly ridiculous number of spirits that have taken possession of the strangest assortment of artifacts ever seen in a horror film about possessed artifacts. This movie includes what is, for me, one of the funniest scenes in all his films: Tom gets bitten by a possessed doll hidden in his bed, grabs it, walks casually out of the room holding said possessed doll by the hair, and just chucks the thing down the stairs with all the energy of someone throwing a gum wrapper into the garbage. Problem solved. For some reason I crack up insanely every time I witness this.
  5. Bad Ben: Pandemic – Actually made during the pandemic, this movie is a love letter to Bach’s fans – who call themselves Bennites – by putting many of them in the film. Tom Riley is in his basement, hiding out from the Coronavirus and trying to keep his fledgling paranormal investigation business afloat by helping clients cleanse their spaces of spirits via Zoom. The fans show up as customers contacting Ben about very similar situations happening all over the globe that appear to be connected somehow to the COVID-19 outbreak; fans simply Zoomed themselves talking to Tom while boxes and guitars fall over behind them, walls knock and doors slam shut, and, in many cases, ghoulish deaths occur. All the while we see Tom reacting to each situation with ever-increasing horror. From what I can tell, none of the fans involved in the making of this film are actors, so a lot of grace has to be given for this film to work, but as a fan of the series I appreciate what Bach pulled off here, and it also stands as a unique time capsule to what has been an awful, awful year for everyone; highlighting one of the many ways people have managed to stay creative and positive during unprecedented circumstances.

So, to sum up: Bad Ben is an acquired taste and a niche audience, but if you’re the least bit curious about the whole phenomenon then I recommend checking the first movie out and seeing what you think. It looks like Pandemic is currently streaming on Amazon for free with a Prime membership; not sure if the others are back to free streaming or not because I own them.

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