Are B-Movies Back in Vogue?

battle-beyond-hd-1Ah, B-Movies, B-movies, b-movies… where to start!? The thing about B-movies is that there are so many different types to classify and when you think about it, you can give the “B-Movie” label to so many films as long as you are prepared give it the right frame of reference.

This frame of reference extends beyond the amount that it cost to make the movie. For example:

i)                    The film with the big budget that still looked cheap, was badly acted and had a poor script: e.g. ‘The Black Hole’, ‘Saturn 3’

ii)                   The film that had literally no budget, but was so original that it still made good: e.g. ‘Death Race 2000’, ‘Donnie Darko’

iii)                 The film that was an unashamedly a rip-off of another property and was made on the cheap, but you loved it anyway e.g. ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’, ‘Beastmaster’

Death_Race_2000_movie_image-1

In order to approach this article, I thought I’d be clever and succinctly define the term ‘B-Movie’. No such luck, I’m afraid:

“a B-movie is a low-budget commercial motion picture that is not definitively an art-house or pornographic film”

said one trite definition.

That definition may have been accurate several decades ago. B-movies started life as films intended for distribution as the less-marketed, ‘back-end of the horse‘ half of a double feature. Think in terms of the “B-side” of a music single, if you will. In the same way that sometimes, a musical B-side wasn’t just a cheap, second-rate jingle thrown on the underbelly of a hit single, but was actually a damn good, finely crafted song, a B-movie could occasionally come up trumps in a market-place filled with star-studded, high-budget, CGI-driven noise-fests.

Contrast The Blair Witch Project, with say, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Both films were released in 1999, the latter cost $115 million and took in over $500 million. The former cost a mere $60,000, and famously took $250 million! Lest we all forget, B-Movies have been the place where many a rising star was discovered, usually exploited and where many fading stars still go in their twilight to end their careers.

Today, the term “B-Movie” has evolved in its meaning, in much the same way that the whole film industry has become more complex & multi-faceted.  These days, the term has almost contradictory definitions:

i)                    A movie that has “minimal artistic creativity” (you know the type!),

ii) An original, off-beat, thought-provoking film, usually unshackled from the trappings of a big studio. The film will therefore have no creative constraints or oversight, no big-name stars with unreasonable salary demands to pander to, and no expectations from share-holders or stake-holders for product-placement or fast-food tie-ins in order to guarantee that all-important “return-on-investment”.

Investor money in the arts is arguably easier to be had these days and by the same token, the cost of equipment, Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and travel to international locations have all reduced. In addition. There is now a large pool of available “wannabe” actors & actresses prepared to be exploited for fame. Quite simply, the term is now used to loosely describe many mid-to-high budget, mainstream movies with lowest-common-denominator content, usually drawn from the traditionally associated genres: sci-fi, horror, martial arts, crime etc. Always on the look-out for that elusive sleeper hit, the distribution companies, now with Blu-Ray, low cost DVD and of course the internet, are all much more likely to take a ‘punt’ on giving a B-Movie higher profile media exposure.

Either way, most B-Movies have represented a particular genre of their time. Born as the cheaply produced black & white Westerns, churned out in their droves after the Depression & during the 2nd World War to give the masses a well needed distraction and relief, they morphed into the low-budget science-fiction & horror films that became more popular in the late nineteen-fourties. These were typically garnered with incredible eight plus word titles like: “[Revenge/Invasion/Attack] of the [ Monster / Creature / Alien] from the [Black / Lost…] [World / Jungle / Planet]”. You get the general idea!

To maximise any costs associated with sets, make-up, equipment rental and so on, early B-Movies were often part of a series in which the same star(s) repeatedly played the same character(s) in endless sequels. Think the multitude of Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein films starring Messrs Chaney Jnr, Lugosi and Karloff. So, the term “B-Movie” became synonymous with low budgets and inferior quality of acting, scripts, special effects and sets.

Dracula_lugosi

Then the nineteen-fifties came and with it – television! Television was a heart-stopping jolt to the B-Movie makers and it all but killed off the “two-feature” night-out at the cinema, which later ended completely in the nineteen-seventies.

Later, the nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies, along with the Sexual Revolution, LSD and race riots came B-Movies of almost soft-porn eroticism, “blaxploitaton” films, Asian martial arts movies, the Hammer horror films and so on. Every genre was turning out B-Movies but having to try harder, as costs were steadily increasing and cinema audiences were drifting away to their love affair with television. That said it, even then it was easy to pick out the little gems of innovation, such as Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

As we moved from the late seventies into the nineteen-eighties, however, two big factors breathed new life into the B-Movie. Firstly, the commercial success of original films like Jaws, Star Wars & Dressed to Kill spawned a plethora of copy-cats films. Later, the advent of the VHS cassette player gave the studios a new channel to reach the masses. This spawned the entrance of the “video nasty” which single-handedly delivered the type of government-funded marketing-hype that B-Movies couldn’t hope to achieve in a month of Sundays. A film being banned by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) was the best promotion you could get and guaranteed plenty of sales of brown-paper bag “under the counter” sales transactions. Amongst this mass of trash offerings, there were still plenty of diamonds to be found. Diamonds like Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars, and John Carpenter’s Halloween.

halloween

All through the eighties and into the nineties, B studios churned out shelf-load upon shelf-load of schlock horror films, whether they were set in a sorority house, on a camp-site, or on an alien planet. In the mid-nineties, recession hit again and so too did a decline in the appeal of the traditional video B-Movie. Maybe the viewers were getting tired of the same staple diet of knives, blood and guts or perhaps it was that we were suddenly being treated to seminal B-movies that had bigger budgets, bigger stories and rising stars, but which still remained independent of the big studios. Films like Total Recall and Dick Tracy evolved the meaning of the term “B-Movie”. All this tied in nicely with the arrival of multiplex cinemas, whose owners wanted ten screens with films that filled every seat, for a quality cinema experience.

In the past few years, we have seen a return to form of the B-Movie. This is typified by the many remakes of B-Movie classics, and their multiple sequels, such as The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, as well as their clones. Such films are typified by the Wrong Turn series, or Eli Roth’s Hostel movies. That’s not to say that there isn’t any high profile trash in there too: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, or The Thing prequel as well as pretty much anything you see after midnight on the SyFy channel. It is the multiple channels on cable and satellite that have found a home for the likes of Ogre or the MegaShark vs … movies. The past few years have turned out some original lower budget genre classics like Shaun of the Dead, The Descent and the Ginger Snaps movies.

This resurgence has not just taken root in the horror genre. Science Fiction too, has produced the likes of the very brilliant District 9, The Mist, Moon and apocalyptic tales such as 28 Days Later, and Doomsday. Unfortunately, we’ve also had to stomach the onslaught of I Am Number 4, UltraViolet, The Spiri’ and anything that Shyamalan has made since Unbreakable.

Arguably, the twenty-first century revolution within B-Movie making has been the use of camcorder-view or “mockumentary” style of filming. Examples of films using this style range from the very brilliant Chronicle and Cloverfield, to the very bland and crass Fourth Kind, Paranormal Activity and Diary of The Dead. This trend shows no sign of abating, as it’s so cheap to produce a film in this style. In short, as we enter the second decade of the new millennium, B-Movies are very much alive and thriving again.

Reporter: Silverfox

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One comment

  1. I think the difference now is that so many studios decide to make a B movie but with large budgets and knows faces. Whereas looking at Plan 9, Manos, Creeping Terror etc., these most often came from half finished ideas being stitched together, producers squeezing an extra film out of a weeks shoot, and often included random people as well as aspiring starlets; now you’d be hard pressed to find a B movie not made with a bug name either directing or producing, attached to a major distributor, and not featuring several lookalike LA fodder hoping to be the next new talent… B movies now are a cheap way of big studios filling gaps in their production cycle and hoping for a cult hit on DVD or Netflix. They certainly ain’t the undiscovered joys they used to be!

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