What Exactly is a B-Movie?
Although there are many differing opinions as to what a b-movie actually is, there is only one real technical definition to the term. The actual technical definition is that a b-movie was the second movie on a double bill. It was typically a low budget formula type film, which fell somewhere in the suspense, horror, sci-fi, western, exploitation or gangster genres, although there were other genres covered as well.
This definition later gave way to the wider definition of b-movie, which basically encompassed any low budget film. Now I personally have a problem with this definition, because as a classic film reviewer, I've reviewed a wide variety of classic b-movies that taken as a whole, have a feel that truly sets them apart as an all encompassing genre unto themselves.
So what exactly is a b-movie? Well if you've ever seen one of those cheesy sci-fi movies from the 50's, or seen a goofy old monster movie where the monster looks like something out of a Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning kid's show, then you've seen a b-movie. B-movies have a feeling and a style all their own. They're low budget, formulaic, and often feature some of the cheesiest acting and dialogue you'll ever see on film.
Despite the opinion of the Hollywood types who think the only way to make a movie good is to throw money at it, b-movies broke the rules and proved that you could make fun and enjoyable pictures without a ton of money and flashy CGI effects. It was this philosophy that made b-movies the special films they are. B-movie directors took microbudgets and made some of the greatest films in history. Were they great because they had great acting, great special effects or great storylines? No. They're great because they touched a part of us that allowed our child-like innocence to take over, and these are the movies that have stuck with us throughout the years. We don't always know what they were called, and we don't always remember what they were about, but the images from these classic b-movies are images that have stayed with many of us throughout our adult lives.
I can't tell you how many times I've gotten e-mails from people describing some cheap sci-fi movie they saw as a kid and asking if I could tell them what it was. People don't forget those images, even though many of the details may be lost. Fortunately, because of the advent of DVD, we're able to track down many of these great old films, not only so we can enjoy them again, but so that they can be shared with the next generation of kids who really need this kind of innocent fun in a world that beats them over the head with adult themes and problems every day of their lives. By sharing these great old movies with today's children, we can ensure that not only will these films not be forgotten, but that a huge part of American culture won't be forgotten either.
So what are some of the great b-movies? Well I'm sure most people have heard of Plan 9 From Outer Space. The director, Ed Wood, has been called the most inept director of all time, which is a sad title that he didn't deserve and I think his record should be cleared. The simple fact that so many people know of his work and have experienced it means that he created a lasting part of American film history. How could you possibly condemn a man who achieved such greatness and notoriety even though he unfortunately only achieved it posthumously?
Many people are only really familiar with Plan 9, but the fact is that Ed Wood created nearly five hundred television commercials early in his career, and then went on to make westerns, gangster flicks, sci-fi and paranormal type movies, and even a documentary style film called Glen or Glenda? in which he portrayed the lead character himself. There are some really great Ed Wood films available on DVD, many of which are far better and more fun than Plan 9. Night of the Ghouls, Glen or Glenda? and Bride of the Monster are all wonderfully fun and creative films that shouldn't be missed by any b-movie fan, or by anyone who really wants to understand the genre.
There is a flip side of the coin however. Not every b-movie is great, and not every director has the talent and style of Ed Wood. Take for instance a man who has become the bane of my existence, Larry Buchanan. He made films like It's Alive! and Mars Needs Women, and in doing so, solidified his place as one of the worst filmmakers of all time. His movies are boring and tedious, containing some of the most uninspired acting I've ever seen. They are also generally lacking in entertainment value despite the fact that a competent director could have probably done a good job with the material. It's a sad fact of life though that directors like him are a necessary evil. If there weren't people doing it wrong, then how would you know who was doing it right?
The Italians made their share of b-style films as well. In fact, they were responsible for an entire genre know as peplum, or sword and sandal films. These films usually centered around Hercules or one of the other Greek or Roman heroes, so as the name implies, there were lots of swords and sandals. Two of the greatest films of this genre are Hercules and Hercules Unchained, both starring legendary bodybuilder Steve Reeves. For many, Steve Reeves will always be the quintissential Hercules, even though the character was protrayed by many different actors over the years including Reg Park, Sergio Ciani (credited as Alan Steel), Kirk Morris, Mark Forest, Peter Lupus (credited as Mark Stevens) and Lou Ferrigno.
Peplum films are not the only kind of b-style movies the Italians specialized in. They also made their share of sci-fi films such as War of the Planets and War of the Robots, and westerns like My name is Trinity and Trinity is Still My Name, both starring the great Italian actor Terrence Hill with his perennial sidekick Bud Spencer as his grumpy bear of a brother, Bambino. Then there were the horror films...
Italian horror is a matter of taste. I personally don't care much for Italian horror, but its contribution to the genre is undeniable. Directors like Lucio Fulci with his bizarre zombie films, Zombi 2 and City of the Living Dead, Dario Argento with movies like Suspiria and Deep Red and Mario Bava with films like Black Sabbath and Black Sunday. Mario Bava actually crossed over into the peplum genre at one point as well, making Hercules in the Haunted World starring bodybuilder, Reg Park.
One other contribution the Italians made to the genre were cannibal films. While disgusting by their very nature, and illegal in this day and age, these films saw a variety of animals slaughtered and eaten on film for the sole purpose of shocking the audience. There was also much actual cannibalism in these films, although that part was nothing more than movie magic. Unfortunately for the animals, their slaughter was all too real. One example of a film in this genre is 1978's Slave of the Cannibal God directed by Sergio Martino. Oddly enough, it stars American actor Stacy Keach and Swiss actress Ursula Andress in the two leading roles.
There really are no words to describe how much the Italians contributed to the b-movie genre as a whole, but the Americans really dominated it. American filmmakers covered the entire range of genres, even creating new ones when audiences started clamoring for something new. This desire for things that were new and shocking led to the creation of a variety of exploitation films.
The exploitation genre actually can be broken down into several sub-genres. Typical exploitation films tended to involve a helpless girl being manipulated and abused by some unscrupulous man, or even a group of several men. Many of these films tended to focus more on drugs and or physical and emotional abuse, while not being over the top exploitative with regards to sexual situations. One example from this more general branch of the genre, actually twists this basic formula around by putting the woman in the abusive position. 1966's A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine, is the story of a young attractive secretary who teases men into sexual situations and then accuses them of rape before anything actually happens, sending them to jail for crimes they didn't commit. Her sick little game comes to an end however, when one man doesn't take it, and actually goes through with the crime she's accused so many other innocent men of.
Other exploitation films, like 1961's Damaged Goods focused more on social evils. In this film, a girl goes out of town only to find when she comes back that her boyfriend has lost his virginity to a stripper. She breaks off their marriage plans and leaves him. He then gets together with another bad girl who ends up giving him syphillis. There's even a part in the film where a doctor makes the boy, Jim, watch a nasty movie about the disease.
Then there's 1970's The Hard Road, in which a seventeen year old girl, after giving her baby up for adoption, heads off to Hollywood where she hooks up with a group of hippies and falls into a bizarre world of drugs and venerial disease. This film is similar to the almost decade earlier Damaged Goods, but because it was made in 1970, the subject matter was a lot harder.
Sexploitation films were all the rage in the late 60's and early 70's. These films were racy by the standards of the time, but more often than not, never really got much beyond topless women and nudist camps, occasionally throwing in a monster of some kind here and there for variety. These films were short on substance and long on nudity, and some really had no story at all.
Chesty Morgan, the Polish born actress who's only real talent was that she was incredibly large chested, appeared in a grand total of four movies between 1973 and 1981, but the last two have been largely forgotten. It was her first two, Deadly Weapons in 1973 and Double Agent 73 in 1974 that made her a legend of the sexploitation genre. Her thick accent forced producers to dub over her voice, and although these films did have actual plots, they were thin at best and were mainly geared towards putting Chesty in every possible situation where she could expose herself.
Blaxploitation really hit it's stride in the 1970's. Films starring Rudy Ray Moore, Isaac Hayes, Ted Lange (the bartender from The Love Boat), Roscoe Orman (Gordon from Sesame Street), Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier, often portrayed blacks as either pimps, prostitutes, thugs, druggies or militants. One of the seemingly few exceptions to this is the 1971 film Shaft, in which Richard Roundtree plays detective John Shaft, a bad to the bone detective who takes on not only the black mob, but black nationals and the white mafia as well.
While his films are not my favorite films of the genre, it's hard to argue Rudy Ray Moore's contribution to it. His first film Dolemite (1975) has him trying to regain control of his night club which has been taken over by unscrupulous elements. With his gang of kung-fu prostitutes and their madame Queen Bee, he fights to take back what's his.
1978 saw the release of Rudy's fourth film, entitled Petey Wheatstraw, in which he makes a deal with the Devil to marry his unbelievably ugly daughter so that the Devil can have a grandson. When Petey backs out of the deal, he finds himself on the run from the Devil's henchmen.
Brucesploitation is a far smaller sub-genre, and is only really called that because after the death of Bruce Lee, many filmmakers tried to take advantage of his notoriety by casting actors in their kung fu movies who were credited with similar names. Bruce Li, Bruce Lai and Dragon Lee were just some of the actors who appeared in films like Clones of Bruce Lee, Big Boss II and Bruce Lee Fights Back From the Grave. While this sub-genre didn't really really have any lasting impact on the b-movie genre as a whole, I did think it was important to mention it here.
Monster movies played a huge part in making b-movies what they are today. In fact, most of the people who write to me asking me if I know the name of some obscure movie they saw years ago, often include a description of some monster in it that's haunted their memories since they were children. Hollywood seems to think that they can create cinematic brilliance by throwing slick looking CGI monsters at the audience, but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While CGI is nice looking, it has one quality to it that stops it from connecting with audiences and leaving a lasting impression. It's not real, it doesn't look real, and the audience knows it isn't real. Yet when you look at b-movies that had some of the cheesiest looking monsters ever to grace a movie screen, those are the ones that people remember.
One monster in particular that has always stuck with me was from a film that has unfortunately not yet seen a DVD release. The movie was 1957's From Hell It Came, and it featured a tree stump demon creature thing that walked around killing people on a south seas island. For me, that will always be one of the greatest b-movie monsters ever. Why? Because I remember it. For years I knew nothing about the movie, but I had seen it on television when I was a kid and I remembered that monster. That's what makes b-movies great. The fact that they leave an impression on us.
Roger Corman, one of the legends of the b-movie genre, has been making films since 1954, and is still making them to this day. As of this writing (February 2005) he currently has two films in post production and has produced no less than 356 films. It's his monster movies however that have left a lasting impression. His 1964 film, Creature From the Haunted Sea, featured a sea monster that literally looked like it had just climbed out of a toilet and said "Howwwwdy ho!" It had eyes that looked like giant ping pong balls with the iris part painted in. They hung seaweed all over it as well to create an overall effect. His 1960 film, The Wasp Woman, gives us another of his more memorable creations. It's the story of an aging cosmetics heiress who's so desperate to stay young that she allows an old scientist to inject her with a serum made from the secretions of queen wasps. Unfortunately, she becomes impatient with the slow results and gives herself a massive injection of the serum, which causes her to become the wasp woman.
Roger Corman has produced fun films, cheesy films, goofy films, and a large number of films that he probably shouldn't even have bothered with over the years, but there's no denying that he's been one of the greatest contributors to film history.
One of the really fun aspects of the monster genre of b-movies was the theater gimmick. These were goofy things that the filmmakers did to enhance the viewing experience of the theater patrons. Of all the directors who ever worked in the b-movie field, none were ever a better showman or gimmick master than William Castle.
William Castle produced many great classic films throughout the years. Before his 1958 film, Macabre, he actually informed the audience that he had taken out insurance policies to cover anyone who might die of fright during the film. For The Tingler, which starred Vincent Price, the theater seats were wired with buzzers, which would make the seats vibrate when the tingler supposedly escaped into the theater. Then there was the film 13 Ghosts, in which special spectral viewing glasses were handed out to the crowd so they could see the ghosts in the film. One of his more elaborate gimmicks was conceived for his film, The House on Haunted Hill. Plastic skeletons were rigged up in the theater and sent flying over the audience's heads during a key point in the action. These gimmicks and the magic of his showmanship added immeasurably to the moviegoing experience.
Monster movies are kind of an all emcompassing thing, because many sci-fi and horror movies also fall into that whole monster movie genre. After all, where would sci-fi be without it's big alien creatures looking to wipe out humanity, and where would horror be without it's zombies and werewolves and vampires thirsting for blood? They're all monsters, but when the theme of the film falls into another category, the film is usually considered to be in that particular category rather than being considered just a pure monster film.
Science fiction was huge in the 50's and well into the 60's. The world was terrified by the idea that aliens and alien creatures could come to Earth and have their way with us. The atomic bomb and radiation in general were frightening things back then, and many sci-fi films took advantage of people's fears by using radiation and atomic eperiments as the root cause of everything from creature mutation to a power source used by aliens to destroy us all.
Exploration and alien worlds were also big parts of the sci-fi genre. Films like Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Angry Red Planet (1960) took us to far away worlds where strange creatures seemed to be waiting around every corner waiting to pounce on our brave astronauts. Sometimes, our intrepid space explorers stayed closer to home, as the moon became a fertile landscape for the sci-fi films of the 50's and early 60's. Countless sci-fi movies of the era took us to this one place that seemed so close, and yet so far. Destination Moon, Project Moonbase, Cat Women of the Moon, Missile to the Moon, First Men in the Moon, etc... At the time we were still dreaming of making that journey, so these films allowed the audience to look on with eyes of wonder at what might be awaiting us in the future.
One last genre I'd like to include here before I wrap this up is one that, well, it's special. It's special because it became a staple of drive in theaters in the mid-west, the south, and the south eastern part of the country. There had been many horror films throughout the years, but Herschell Gordon Lewis took the horror film to a whole other level when in 1963 he created what has become known as the first true gore film...Blood Feast. This film took gore that had been previously left to the imagination, and put it up for all the world to see in all of its shocking glory. No one had ever dared to show a woman's tongue actually being removed, or a heart being taken from somebody's chest. No one could have imagined actually seeing a leg severed or an eye or a brain removed, and yet that's what Herschell gave us. What really made Blood Feast such an incredible movie though, wasn't so much the gore, but the characters themselves. The gore made the movie legendary, but the characters made it fun to watch. There's actors who have to read their lines off their hands or off of papers in their lap, there's a ditzy mom with an equally ditzy daughter, inept cops, and one of the greatest characters, of all time, an Egyptian caterer named Fuad Ramses. He had these hypnotic eyes and an odd little accent. He also had a limp. What's so special about a limp? Well how about the fact that he managed to outrun three healthy cops, limping all the way? Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite b-movie is, I always tell them that I like a lot of movies, but that if I had to pick one as my favorite, it's got to be Blood Feast.
At the time, Blood Feast made the rounds at various drive-in's where cars lined up literally for miles waiting to get in to see it. One drive-in actually received its copy of the the seven reel film, only to discover that they had received reels 1-6 and then a second copy of reel 5 rather than reel 7, which was in fact the end of the film. They showed the film anyway, and despite the fact that they had no way to show the end of the movie, the crowds didn't care. They sat right through the replay of reel 5 and the theater didn't get a single drive-out. Herschell had created a whole new genre, and although he made many more gore films throughout his career, he never really bested his original creation.
There are many other b-movie related genres I could talk about. Japanese rubber suit monster movies also known as kaiju flicks for one. You would probably know them better as Godzilla flicks. Although Godzilla is by far the best known and most widely used of the Japanese kaiju monsters, there are in fact a very large number monsters besides Godzilla that have wreaked havoc on poor old Tokyo.
Another genre I didn't really cover are movies that were known as Roughies. Basically these were gangster type, violent (at least by the standards of the time) films. Ed Wood actually made one of these films in 1954 called Jail Bait, after which he decided he really had no love for the genre and gave up on it completely.
It's well beyond the scope of this article to cover every little sub-genre of b-movie, but I hope I've managed to cover enough to help you understand that the name b-movie is more than just a technical term in some dictionary. It's a style of film that has truly gained more meaning over the years, and has grown and developed into the amazing thing that it is today. A lot of people find b-movies to be far more fun and entertaining than the unoriginal, rehashed big budget fare that's been churning out of the Hollywood machine for last few decades, and that's led to countless numbers of these great old films being made available on DVD. Generations to come will now be able to enjoy these great classic films and truly know why they were such an important part of not only film history, but America's cultural history as well.
- Duane L. Martin -
February 27, 2005