What Makes the Classics So Special?


So you like classic B-Movies huh? Well that's cool, but have you ever actually thought about why you like them so much? I mean, what exactly is the appeal of these old low budget flicks that makes them so much more fun to watch than modern films? I think that the average viewer tends to take these classic gems for granted without really realizing just what it is that makes them so great. My intent with this article is to perhaps shed a little light on some of the more subtle aspects of classic B-Movies, and maybe in the process, give you a little more understanding of why you respond to these films the way you do.

Remember when you were a kid and you’d catch some old monster flick on Saturday afternoon television? Remember how you couldn't pull your eyes away from it as you would sit there drinking your juice and eating your sandwich? Or how about when you used to sneak out of your room well after bed time just so you could peek around the corner into the living room to catch that late night thriller that your parent's didn't want you to watch. There's probably not many of you that don't have some kind of a similar memory to these. These are the experiences that made our childhoods fun, and filled it with wonderful memories of giant monsters that destroyed whole cities, insects that had grown way beyond imagination, fabulous adventures to distant fantasy lands, and much much more. It is these memories that plant the seeds of an adult love for classic B-Movies. I believe that there are three things that made the classics so great. The settings, the creatures, and the acting. Let's take a look at these factors in order, and see just what makes the classics so great.

The settings of classic B-Movies vary from the mundane to the bizarre, but they all have one thing in common - they're interesting. Why they're interesting varies from film to film depending on where the movie is taking place. Sometimes it's a basement laboratory full of really slick lab equipment and Bunsen burners and Jacob's ladders and all manner of nifty stuff. Sometimes it's a city setting with all kinds of really nice old cars and people walking around in old fashioned suits and great old buildings and such. Then other times it's a really cool island or jungle setting with all manner of strange creatures peering at the actors from unseen hiding places. Basically, the settings create a great sense of nostalgia and make us almost wish we could step back into that simpler time every now and then. Setting has a lot to do with whether a movie is good or not, as it sets the whole mood and feel for the film. Where would you expect to see a giant leech? You wouldn't expect to find it slithering its way down the street in some city or dropping out of some tree somewhere. Attack of the Giant Leeches was shot in the Florida Everglades, which set a perfect tone and a mood for the film. I mean, the movie was still pretty stupid, but it was fun and had a cool feel in a lot of ways despite its lame script. How cool would Frankenstein have been if it had been set in some shack out in the middle of nowhere? It wouldn't have been cool at all. But take that same movie and set it in a spooky old mansion or castle, and it takes on a whole different feel. The props that go along with the setting in a movie also play a huge part in whether the movie is cool or not. Sometimes, as in the infamously bad Plan 9 From Outer Space, you can get away with cheap and stupid looking props, because that's what makes the movie cheesy and cool. Having an airplane cockpit that looked more like an empty walk in closet was really quite fun. The stupid looking video screens and the lame old radio equipment gave the film a cheesy and almost child-like feel that made it fun to watch. So the setting and all the side props in a movie are basically the element that gives classic B-Movies their special feel.

Next we have the creatures. Who could ever forget Robot Monster, which was nothing more than a great big hairy gorilla in a space helmet. Then there's the ever popular Batratspidercrab from The Angry Red Planet, which was actually a giant creature that was actually just a combination of those four creatures. And what could be more horrific than the brains with eyes that you'll find in The Crawling Eye and The Brain From Planet Arous? And have you ever had nightmares about giant ants after watching Them!? The great thing about classic B-Movies is that a lot of creativity went into creating the monsters that scared us as children and made us laugh hysterically as adults. B-Movies often had quite low budgets and the producers often had to make due with what they could get their hands on as far as creature design went. Cheesy gorilla costumes, goofy lookin' multi-tentacled creatures, and even jellyfish men in a jumpsuit were the order of the day, and it was up to the special effects wizards to make them look as cool as they could on a very limited budget. Some of these creature designers did a wonderful job in creating the monsters that defined classic coolness. Others weren't so lucky. But slick and spiffy or cheap and goofy, it never really matters, because however it came out, there's something to be enjoyed in nearly every creature that's ever lurked across the screen. Compare this to the super slick and super boring CGI created creatures of today. They have a nice, clean, slick look to them, but they're missing something really important. They're boring. How many times have you been watching a modern movie with some CGI monster in it that just bored you to tears because there was nothing the least bit innovative about it? We've all seen computer generated monsters, but they lack that special coolness that a giant turd looking monster like the one in Creature From The Haunted Sea has. There was a lot of design that went into the CGI monster, but where's the craft? That's what's been lost for the most part in modern films, and that's what makes the classics so great and fun. The only modern movie I can think of that stayed away from CGI and actually did the costumes and effects the old fashioned way is Dog Soldiers. That was a very good and very cool werewolf flick that actually used real creature make-up. It's an art form that hasn't been completely lost, but one that seems to have been abandoned by mainstream Hollywood.

Lastly we have the actors themselves. It's funny that this has never occurred to me before, but I just realized that the one thing that all of the classic B-Movie actors had in common was a good sense of cheesy style. Some of them had it unintentionally, while some of them played it to the hilt, but they all had it in one way or another. Let's take a look at three of the coolest and cheesiest classic B-Movie actors of all time. Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi and Doug McClure all brought a special sense of fun to their roles. Their styles were actually quite similar in some respects, but they all have a very special talent that really comes through on the screen. How many times have we seen a wry smile or a goofy look or even something like a goofy look of shock from these three wonderful actors? What I like about them is that their personalities really came through in their acting styles. Vincent Price often played up the goofier aspects of a character because I believe he delighted in bringing out those characteristics in the lighter roles. Bela Lugosi, especially in his later years when he was working in Ed Wood films, really played up the cheesiness of his parts and went over the top to make them goofy and fun. Doug McClure was just naturally cheesy, and that really came through in movies like At The Earth's Core and The People That Time Forgot. But as well as a light and cheesy side, all three of these men could play a serious role as well and Vincent Price especially could bring out the evil in one of his characters. The funny thing about watching Vincent Price though is that no matter how evil or disturbed of a character he's playing, there's always a twinkle in his eye that makes watching him extremely fun. Bela Lugosi, even when he's playing in a serious role, still manages to come off cheesy and fun because of his accent and the way he delivers his lines. Doug McClure played a lot of serious roles throughout his career as well, but you just couldn't watch him without sensing all that cheesy goodness that was hiding just beneath the surface, no matter how serious of a role he was playing. These three men, and so many others like them that we have had the privilege of watching over the years, are really the core of what make classic B-Movies so special. I mean, the settings and the monsters are a big part of it, but in the final analysis, it's really the actors that contribute the most to making these movies great. The monsters typically aren't the focal point of the films and are often relegated to about ten to fifteen minutes of screen time at the most. They're also not the ones actually telling the story. As far as the settings go, a film can take place just about anywhere with a little justification. It's the actors who really bring the stories to life, and in the end, that's why we really watch a movie in the first place - because it tells a story.

There's one more aspect of the classics that I would be remiss in not mentioning, and that's the sense of innocence, wonder and fun that the classic B-Movie writers, actors, creature designers, and directors brought to these films, for it is that sense of innocence that makes these films truly special. I mean think about it. If people saw a flying saucer crash into the Washington Monument nowadays, they wouldn't think anything of it. But back in the days of the classics, people would have freaked big time. The actors brought out those emotions, not only on the screen, but out of everyone watching as well. We can watch a movie like At The Earth's Core now and laugh at how goofy it is, but back when that movie was made, it was a wonderful adventure full of fantastic monsters and all manner of strange settings. There's a new movie out now called The Core which is kind of similar in the sense that there's a group of people that have to use a digging vehicle to make it down to the Earth's core. There's plenty of CGI effects in that movie, but does it manage to evoke any sense of wonder? When I watch a movie like At The Earth's Core, I feel myself drawn into the settings, like I want to jump through the screen and become a part of it all. When you watch a movie like The Core, you just want the movie to be over with so you can get to your car faster than everyone else so you can be the first one out of the parking lot. There's no sense of wonder in a movie like that, and no sense fun either. What you end up with is more of the same old repackaged CGI effects wrapped up in a big budget Hollywood flick with a recycled storyline. The classics did it all first, and they did it the best.

Thanks to the sheer numbers of these great, and even not so great classic B-Movies that have been released on DVD, I truly believe that we are seeing a distinct increase in the popularity of these classic films. Often these films are restored for DVD, and the sound is cleaned up as well. It allows us to experience these films in a way that wasn't possible with VHS tapes, and since DVD is a permanent media, we'll be enjoying these classics for years and years to come. One thing that really makes me happy is seeing the restoration of silent films for DVD. Silent films have a style all their own, and if you've never considered watching some of the cleaned up and restored silent films that are available from Kino International and various other sources, then I highly suggest you check some out. It's truly amazing what they did in those films considering the time and the lack of technology.

So that's it. I know that there's a lot of people out there that think the old films are dumb and that the monsters are stupid looking and cheap, and I truly feel sorry for them. I can only hope that someday they'll get bored with their CGI effects and their big budget flicks, and discover just what it is that's so truly special about the low budget classics, that for over a century, have shown us what class and style are all about.



- Duane L. Martin -
April 2, 2003


Unseen Things: Origins

My series of contemporary fantasy / sci-fi novels, Unseen Things is now available through the official website, Amazon, Smashwords and other online retail sites.

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