On the Joy of Guilty Pleasures

"Yes, it's terrible, but it's terrible and OURS."

Recommended Videos

At this point, “guilty pleasure” is used so frequently and casually that it has about as much connection to actual meaning as connecting “irony” to “rain on your wedding day” does. That’s not to say that the term is inherently meaningless—people have a sort of gut instinct, I think, about what gets put onto their ‘guilty pleasure’ list rather than the earnest one. On the other hand, that opinion often seems to be tied into the mercurial tides of public opinion, so it isn’t much good for use in the long term.

As you may’ve realized, I am the sharing type, particularly if there are lists involved, so let’s set up a working definition.

First off, it’s got to be something that you acknowledge to be flawed—this is where the “guilt” bit comes in, perhaps out of some erroneous belief that we should only like things that are perfect and flawless, ensuring that bookshelves the world over would contain very little beyond titles like Lolita, Cool Hand Luke, and Gankutsuou, and that we would all tire of things to discuss very rapidly (I can already feel the emails coming in …).

So, it has to be something you’re willing to admit has weaknesses, and probably big ones at that. But! Not in the ‘”yes, I acknowledge X problems, but I think they’re outweighed by Y strengths” sort of way (I would term my fondness for the Watchmen movie in such a way—the movie’s an absolute mess in a lot of ways, but Jackie Earle Haley’s performance is a work of art). Nor in the “sure, it manages X, but that is totally outweighed by Y, and mostly I am here for the train wreck” MST3K style.

Contrarywise, a true guilty pleasure is one where the flaws contribute toward your fondness for the thing (which also implies that they are unintentionally done—so Evil Dead would count, but Evil Dead 2 would not). It is the younger sibling of genres, where you can’t stop laughing but also have sort of a dumb, fond smile on your face. The kind where mentioning the good about it also necessitates mentioning the bad, and vice versa.

Yes, I absolutely have examples.

5. Silent Hill Revelation

Silent Hill welcome sign.

Watching this movie as a Silent Hill fan is rather like being presented with a portrait of yourself from a small child—simultaneously pretty insulting and unspeakably adorable, because there’s clearly so much love radiating from every lousy and wobbly line. Revelation is only faintly familiar with the game upon which it is based (Silent Hill 3), and doesn’t come even as near to capturing the series’ eerie, isolating creep of dread as the first film (which, before it went and introduced a whole caravan of characters and Sean Bean, was a pretty solidly moody half hour). There’s really very little intrinsically Silent Hill-ish about it, aside of the references that it tosses in (and the less said about what became of Vincent, whose personality was lost entirely in his role shift, the better).

But on the other hand … all of those references are obviously done with such glee, less ‘hey look we give an approximation of a damn about the source material, really’ (JJ Abrams) and more ‘ohhhhh man you guys, remember this thing? Wasn’t that the coolest? Let’s all remember it together!’ And while by-fans-for-fans doesn’t necessarily lead to a quality product (certainly not in this case, since the whole film is one long, loud, confusing chase with muddled stakes), but it does make it a lot harder to hate than an apathetic cash grab.

Silent Hill spiders.

Like fast zombies, arguably counter to the point but damned effective.

And beyond that, it’s actually fair to bursting with creativity as a creature feature. I will lay down extensive praise for any film in this day and age that’s willing to use predominantly practical effects, and Revelation does it with flair. The mannequin-spider might’ve had nothing to do with the game, but it’s a great design and an effectively tense scene, and every little real, on set touch does a little more to add to the well-loved feeling that radiates from the screen.

Heck, they even managed to sell us more familial love between Harry and Heather than Sean Bean managed the entire time he was running around doing … whatever he was doing in the last movie. By the time the third act rolls around, so divorced from its source that things have metamorphosed into the eldritch spawn of Godzilla and Pacific Rim, I was all in on the ridiculous train. Give it to me over the dull, soulless first film any day.

4. Metal Gear Solid

Metal Gear Solid Phantom Pain

Only in the Metal Gear franchise will an assassin with power over bees be couched comfortably next to a serious rumination of how the demands of patriotism ruin the few in the name of the many. Or will there be a fairly horrific torture scene shortly after letting you sneak around in a super stealthy cardboard box (I may have a particular predilection to MGS3). It’s also the only game I own where I can leave mid-cutscene, make a sandwich, and come back to have missed nothing that won’t be reiterated at least twice in the future.

Good ideas and poor execution, fascinating characters and unbelievably weird plot twists (did I mention the arm that possesses a guy?), interesting medium commentary and fairly unique progressive decisions next to occasionally underdeveloped execution, and the most female gaze I’ve ever seen in a game, ever (riiiiiiight next to the cringe inducing horror of the B&B Unit and the more recent idiotic justification behind Quiet’s design).

Metal Gear soldiers.

Does it count as out of context if they went on to raise a child together?

MGS is a series of extreme highs and lows, and it comes down to an individual judgment call as to which wins out. But for all that I yawn my way through 15 unskippable minutes of two idiots parroting ‘metal gear?!’ back and forth, those idiots are memorable. Nay, they are lovable, rounded and engaging enough to pull the player through even the worst of the writing (you’ll notice that I mention the gameplay very little, despite this series practically birthing the modern stealth genre—this is because stealth games are far and away my least favorite genre, which may tell you something else about this series being included on the list at all).

3. School Days

School Days.

My love of underhanded digs at the Bay oeuvre aside, I try to approach media analysis in a positive light—maybe not so much glass-half-full as ‘hey, there’s some liquid left in this 12th glass I’ve searched! Neat!’ But there’s still a fair amount of frustration to be had in sifting through piles and piles of bad (or worse, aggressively pandering mediocre) to get to the recognizable good, and all of that keyboard-smashing id has to go somewhere. Thus, School Days.

Make no mistake, this is a cold-hearted, mean little show (and frankly not intelligent enough to have consciously intended the satire I’m about to credit it with). Boy likes girl, boy gets girl only to find that having relationships is, y’know, hard and requires considering the other person’s feelings; boy starts screwing around with childhood friend, and then damn near every girl he knows, and it swerves at the last possible moment from jaw-dropping melodrama to truly giddiness inducing bloodbath. I would warn for spoilers, but knowing how things will come out it pretty well required for any wholehearted enjoyment of this show.

Because 95% of the time? It is the worst kind of indulgent, a practical self-parody of every loathsome trope from anime and fiction generally that I loathe: a spineless, practically personality free romantic lead, fanservice that has not an ounce of subtlety or mood when it can just shove close-ups of dewey breasts and panties into the camera, love triangles that hang on one party’s inability to be honest with themselves (love triangles 80% of the time, actually), and female friendships that are summarily tossed aside the second any question of a boyfriend comes along.


Verily, a quality sea-faring vessel.

They’re common little plagues of popular media, from the popular down to the niche, which are just supposed to be nodded at and glossed over. And there’s something … validating about seeing them played larger than life, unavoidably eye-catching the way they get to be after you trip over them enough times. Not just validating—the staggering incompetence of the whole affair is hilarious, and the melodrama is just engaging enough (in the same way that public dismemberment might be engaging) to keep you going Or, me at least.

And then, most importantly of all, they tear it all down. They build their wretched, engorged sandcastle of every awful, common storytelling practice in common media, and then they spend a graphic 15 minutes stamping on it. And that 15 minutes moves it from hate-watching into a beautiful catharsis. No connection to the characters (except maybe Kotonoha), no desire for anything except a sort of purging effigy-burn that will do no harm to anyone real, and that will let me go back to merely sighing over the bad while embracing the good. Everyone needs a School Days in their life.

2. Interview with the Vampire

I’ll be accepting my scum of humanity award now, thank you.

Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview With the Vampire

Now, I could well include the books on this list—the first few novels were the under-the-mattress midnight reading material of my middle school years (though Tale of the Body Thief stands as one of the most noxiously awful reading experiences of my secondary education, second only to that most hackish, masturbatory, character assassinating, published disgrace to good fanfiction everywhere, The Phantom of Manhattan—twice damned for ensuring that that the world would also be cursed with Love Never Dies).

That said, there is a particular pleasure in the out-and-out extravagance of the 1994 film—Tom Cruise in that wig chewing every ounce of scenery he can get his hands on, Brad Pitt wearing contacts that he apparently loathed more than life itself, tiny baby Kirsten Dunst, and Antonio Banderas hamming up a role he’d have to actively try to be more miscast for. It’s fantastic supernatural soap opera stuff—Gone with the Wind as populated by queer vampires, weird and ponderously serious with interspaced thunderclaps of black comedy that only make you wonder slightly if you’re meant to be smiling at the mournful-faced existentialism.

I would pay so much money for a whole movie of this.

But! The performances are actually quite engaging, even when they’re cockeyed from the book characters, the aesthetic is extravagant in a pretty accurate approximation of the novel’s thickly gothic prose and, most importantly, it’s not afraid to dance merrily over the line into genuine gore and horror. Call it True Blood with more restraint—for that matter, call True Blood and tell them to send a check, because (Stoker, arguably, aside) Interview (the 70s novel) kickstarted the whole tragic vampire subgenre. As camp vampirism goes, it’ll always be my go-to choice.

1. Descendants of Darkness

Descendants of Darkness summons.

This anime has created a real problem for me, mostly by being pretty much the exemplar of its subgenre (the one cour supernatural/gothic/intensely homoerotic series, of which there are most certainly enough to make a subgenre) and causing yours truly to seek forevermore in the dust for its like. Because here’s the thing—Descendants of Darkness (or Yami no Matsuei, as it is far and away more commonly known) is very well executed BL-pandering (they’re such good friends! Hugs! The character who shows explicit sexual interest in men is a psychotic rapist!), and I find I abide that nonsense less and less with age.

But it is just so well executed, and there’s a kind of honesty to it that feels more kith and kin to the actually-allowed-gay-couples of 90s anime (Haruka and Michiru, Yukito and Touya, Utena and Anthy, Kaworu and Shinji … I can keep bitterly at this for a while) than the buy-our-merch-no-homo sidestepping of modern fare. There’s a real, gentle intimacy to Tsuzuki and Hisoka’s deepening partnership, and while it might be fairly by the numbers (awkward first meeting! Romantic rescue! Jealousy! Rescue-back and confession!) it never once feels forced or dishonest (special bonus points for their being allowed to feel things out on their own, with minimal wink wink nudge from the supporting cast). There’s something to be said for well-done emotional comfort food like that, especially when it’s skilled at encapsulating itself in a way that few one cour shows manage (a virtue which will one day earn it its own essay).

Descendants of Darkness roses.

Gotta love a color palette where you can see the black blood by the neon roses.

Now, I did say this was a guilty pleasure, so let’s not skimp on the embarrassing details. Despite being an early-00s anime the designs are intractably 90s, impossibly broad shouldered men and women in bizarrely oversized clothing all. It’s also a seriously overwrought affair, with not one word or dramatic chord spent on each bit of internal angst if they can spare a dozen. Everything is always dire and ominously pronounced, dripping in that shiny 90s red blood and summoning every pseudo-gothic imagery it can think of.

All of which would make it plain enjoyable if a bit eyerollingly sophomoric … until you turn on the English audio track (those outside of NA can get it here). The dub transforms middling melodrama into a gold mine of over the top vocal choices and more anguished than you overacting (did you ever want to hear Team Rocket’s James as a mad scientist? Now you can!), with especially finely suited (by which I mean tremulous and shouty by turns) performances by Dan Green and Liam O’Brien in the lead roles and the single funniest choice I can think of for the voice of a previously throaty and seductive villain. Of course he should sound like the male Fran Drescher (though to his credit, the acting carries off a weird menace far better than you’d think). Do yourselves a favor on this one—I know it always brightens my day.

Want to share this on Tumblr? There’s a post for that!

Vrai is a queer author and pop culture blogger; it was inevitable they’d write this post, given how many 90s dubs they lived through. You can read more essays and find out about their fiction at Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories, support their work via Patreon or PayPal, or remind them of the existence of Tweets.

—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—

Do you follow The Mary Sue on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, & Google +?

The Mary Sue is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more
related content
Read Article A Decade of Defiance, Delight, and Decadence: Essential Stories From Uncanny Magazine
Images from Uncanny Magazine's Kickstarter campaign
Read Article Remembering Brittany Knupper, a Brilliant Writer and Beloved Member of the Mary Sue Community
A beautiful young woman (Brittany Knupper) glances upwards.
Read Article <em>Star Trek: Prodigy</em> Is Doing What the Franchise Should’ve Done Long Ago: Showcase Its Aliens
Star Trek: Prodigy cast art.
Read Article How an Episode of <em>House M.D.</em> Let Down the Asexual Community
Hugh Laurie as Dr. House on 'House'
Read Article 100 Years Later, the Racist Legacy and Violence of the 19th Amendment Persist
US President Donald Trump addresses the Susan B. Anthony 11th Annual Campaign for Life Gala at the National Building Museum on May 22, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Related Content
Read Article A Decade of Defiance, Delight, and Decadence: Essential Stories From Uncanny Magazine
Images from Uncanny Magazine's Kickstarter campaign
Read Article Remembering Brittany Knupper, a Brilliant Writer and Beloved Member of the Mary Sue Community
A beautiful young woman (Brittany Knupper) glances upwards.
Read Article <em>Star Trek: Prodigy</em> Is Doing What the Franchise Should’ve Done Long Ago: Showcase Its Aliens
Star Trek: Prodigy cast art.
Read Article How an Episode of <em>House M.D.</em> Let Down the Asexual Community
Hugh Laurie as Dr. House on 'House'
Read Article 100 Years Later, the Racist Legacy and Violence of the 19th Amendment Persist
US President Donald Trump addresses the Susan B. Anthony 11th Annual Campaign for Life Gala at the National Building Museum on May 22, 2018 in Washington, DC.