In a way, ‘B’ movies are the life’s blood of genre films, supplying the essential foundation for the science fiction films we love and hold in higher regard, with their unfulfilled aspirations to be better and more.
What do you think of when you think of B movies? When I think of B movies I think of the matinee serials that were made back in the 30’s designed to separate children from the nickels and get them out of their parent’s hair for few hours on weekend afternoons. I think of the westerns and gangster movies that were churned out as quickly as possible to entertain and maybe make few bucks for the people that created them. The mindset was later expanded to include science fiction films so they became a part of this modern tradition and beginning in the fifties and sixties it became big business and a popular trend that was born and still lives today.
This goes hand-in-hand with the once popular notion that science fiction was not legitimate literature, but rather represented a less serious fringe element of expressing oneself artistically. A form designed to entertain the lesser minds of the world like low comedy as compared to more worthy attempts such as a Shakespearean play when in fact many of the jokes in Shakespeare were designed to be exactly that; low comedy.
There’s probably not many fans out there that don’t have a B movie, or two they love to watch and enjoy from time to time. These poorer cousins of the first tier of science fiction films are mostly the results of a poorer DNA through no fault of their own. Limited by budget and other constrictions, they just turned out that way.
Wikipedia defines B movies as – A B movie is a low-budget commercial movie that is not an arthouse film. In its original usage, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the term more precisely identified a film intended for distribution as the less-publicized, bottom half of a double feature. This statement reveals itself as being dated since there are hardly any theaters that show double features anymore.
Beyond that what makes a B movie what it is? Usually, it is a matter of having the tale-tale signs resulting from the low budget mentioned in most definitions, cheap props, special effects, costumes, sets, and art design are some of the most common.These are most notable in genre films because, in science fiction and fantasy, appearances are of utmost importance. These are sometimes joined by poor acting, writing, directing, and editing, resulting in films that are sometimes considered as laughable almost-parodies, and at other times considered just plain bad.
There is also the sleaze factor, films that rely on showing a lot of skin in an attempt to compensate for qualities that would make them more entertaining otherwise. Thee are some who have actually made a living intentionally making B movies their legacy, people like Roger Corman, and Russ Meyers are two of the most notable of this intentional approach to filmmaking.
I first became aware of this sub-strata of filmmaking at a relatively early age when I was first exposed to the original version of Little Shop Of Horrors at the tender age of 13. Admittedly I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but hen it showed up again on late night tv not long after that, I watched it again with a better appreciation for what it was, and actually enjoyed it. It appealed to my almost teenaged sense of the unusual and odd, a sense I still have not outgrown to this day.
Without further ado, here’s my list of B movies I think of as worthy of note:
Godzilla (1954): I don’t think even the Japanese knew what they had started when they made this film that gave birth to a whole industry based on guys running around destroying models of cites in foam rubber suits. It not only gave birth to a franchise based on the “King of Monsters”, but gave rise to several other franchises also. characters like Gammera and Mothra have delighted audiences for generations.
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960): The Little Shop of Horrors is an American black comedy horror film directed by Roger Corman. Written by Charles B. Griffith, the film is a farce about an inadequate florist’s assistant who cultivates a plant that feeds on human flesh and blood. The film’s concept is thought to be based on a 1932 story called “Green Thoughts”, by John Collier, about a man-eating plant. However, Dennis McDougal in Jack Nicholson’s biography suggests that Griffith may have been influenced by Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi short story ‘The Reluctant Orchid’.The film stars Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, and Dick Miller, all of whom had worked for Corman on previous films.
The Blob (1958): The Blob (a.k.a. The Molten Meteor) is an independently made, De Luxe color, American horror/science fiction film directed by Irvin Yeaworth. In the style of American International Pictures, Paramount Pictures released the film as a double feature with I Married a Monster from Outer Space.
The film stars a 28-year-old Steve McQueen in his debut leading role as a teenager, and Aneta Corsaut, as his co-star. The plot depicts a growing corrosive alien amoeba that crashes from outer space in a meteorite and engulfs and dissolves citizens in the small community of Downingtown, Pennsylvania. The origin of The Blob is never identified, and the film ends with a question mark. This film got a much better response from audiences than expected and later was repurposed as the lead film instead.
Invasion Of The Bee Girls (1973): Invasion of the Bee Girls (UK video title: Graveyard Tramps) is a science fiction film. that was the first film venture for writer Nicholas Meyer, it was directed by Denis Sanders and stars William Smith, Anitra Ford, and Victoria Vetri. Meyer almost didn’t put his name to the project after he saw it but was later convinced by his manager at the time. The premise of the movie is that a mad scientist (played by Anitra Ford) has created an army of beauties who seduce men to death. One by one the male victims is killed before the local police catch on to the plans of the infected females. There is lots of nudity and implied sex, in an attempt to make up for being a really bad film.
Death Race 2000 (1975): Death Race 2000 is a cult political satire action film directed by Paul Bartel, and starring David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, and Sylvester Stallone. The film takes place in a dystopian American society in the year 2000, where the murderous Transcontinental Road Race has become a form of national entertainment. The screenplay is based on the short story The Racer by Ib Melchior.
Megaforce (1982): The horror! The Hair! Megaforce is an action film directed by former stuntman Hal Needham. The film starred Barry Bostwick, Persis Khambatta, Michael Beck, Edward Mulhare, George Furth, Evan C. Kim, Ralph Wilcox, Robert Fuller (who, years later, admitted to being less than fond of the picture) and Henry Silva.
The film featured a “phantom Army of super elite fighting men whose weapons are the most powerful science can devise”, including realistic 3-D holograms and combat vehicles such as a motorcycle called the “Delta MK 4 Megafighter” equipped with missile launchers. The movie included extreme scenarios, such as motorcycles and dune buggies launching missiles that proved lethal for main battle tanks. The dune buggies, “mega-destroyers” or “mega-cruisers”, also had lasers that could destroy a tank in a single shot. The vehicles were coated with a photo-sensitive paint that was a white, tan, and black lightning-bolt scheme during the day and darkened to a solid black camouflage at night. In the film finale, the main character’s motorcycle activates small (~2 ft or 0.6 m) fold-out wings and flies. Now that’s entertainment.
Krull (1983): Krull is a British-American science fantasy film directed by Peter Yates and starring Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, David Battley and Freddie Jones. It was produced by Ron Silverman and released by Columbia Pictures.
Krull’s distinctive features include an unlikely union between the science fiction and fantasy genres, a robust score by James Horner, early screen roles for actors Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane, and its surrealistic set design within the castle presented as the “Black Fortress”. Although it was a commercial failure when released, it has since achieved the status of a cult film.
Battle Beyond The Stars (1980): Battle Beyond the Stars is an American science fiction adventure film directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and produced by Roger Corman. The film, intended as a “Magnificent Seven in outer space”, is based on The Magnificent Seven (in which Robert Vaughn also appeared), the Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai. The screenplay was written by John Sayles, the score was composed by James Horner, and the special effects were designed by James Cameron. The cast features Richard Thomas, John Saxon, George Peppard, Sybil Danning, Robert Vaughn, and others.
Several of the effects shots and clips were re-used for other films throughout the 1980s, including Bachelor Party, while the spaceship model was re-used in the film Space Raiders. The film was later picked up by Shout! Factory, who released it on DVD and Blu-ray in 2011 as part of the “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series.
Cyborg (1989): No list of this sort would be complete without some mention of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s contribution to genre film. Cyborg, known in the UK as Cyborg 009, is an American martial-arts cyberpunk film directed by Albert Pyun. Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as Gibson Rickenbacker, a mercenary who battles a group of murderous marauders led by Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn) along the East coast of the United States in a post-apocalyptic future. The film is the first in Pyun’s Cyborg Trilogy. It was followed by 1993’s Knights (originally entitled The Kingdom of Metal: Cyborg Killer) and Omega Doom in 1997. Cyborg was followed by sequels Cyborg 2 and Cyborg 3: The Recycler.
Masters Of The Universe (1987): Masters of the Universe is an American science fantasy action film directed by Gary Goddard and starring Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Jon Cypher, Chelsea Field, Billy Barty and Courteney Cox. It is based on the Mattel toy line of the same name. It was released theatrically in the United States on August 7, 1987, and was a critical and commercial failure but became a popular cult film.
There are, of course, many more examples of these sorts of films distinctive for their ambitions, being beyond their ability to achieve those dreams of greatness or to rise to the occasion for various reasons. They are worthy of note as being part of a chapter of pop culture that sometimes earns our scorn, and at times earn our admiration to varying degrees, for not so much what they achieve but for doing it in style.