What Makes a B-Movie “Good”?

220px-Evil_dead_ver1By Vincent Clarke

B-movies like Evil Dead and Barbarella clearly weren’t made to win any Academy Awards. In fact, by regular film standards these productions should be considered downright awful. Instead they got stellar reviews and are now considered some of the greatest cult classics of all time. So what is the secret formula? Where do we draw the line between a bad movie and a bad movie with style?

These films are captivating because they break it down to the most primitive level. They’re clearly not meant to be taken seriously and were produced as a form of harmless entertainment. Character development and plot continuity are downplayed to embrace the viewer’s imagination and creativity. Instead of having the luxury of expensive sets and superstar actors, B-movies have a restricted filming schedule to complement their micro budgets.

The B-movies with the flair that makes them work essentially prove that entertaining film can be produced without a multi-million dollar budget and a Pulitzer Prize winning script. All it takes is a little something that really touches our inner child; something frightens us, angers us, or makes us laugh and cry. We don’t think about it too much, or relate it to real life. We just enjoy it.

We don’t always remember what they were called, and we don’t always understand what they were about, but we do remember the experience of watching certain B-movies for the rest of our lives.

Not every B-movie that comes out is great, however, and not every camp film director has the eerie talent and unforgettable style of guys like Ed Wood. In fact, some B-movies have gone so far as to give certain filmmakers reputations as the worst directors of all time. These movies are boring and dumb, with absolutely no entertainment value whatsoever.

Here we will discuss more about the differences and try to analyze just how B-movies take a turn for the worst or make it to the hall of fame.

What’s a B-movie anyway?

B-movies have a cinematic feel and style all their own. They are low quality, derivative, and have some of the worst acting and dialogue of all time.  You know the ones I’m talking about. Remember ever watching those really bad monster movies or those science fiction films with the terrible special effects?

Despite their cheesy themes and atmosphere, people love B-movies. Take Plan 9 from Outer Space for example. It’s easily considered one of the most famous B-movies of all time, earning its director Ed Wood his title as one of the worst directors of all time. And yet, almost ironically, the mere idea that so many people have experienced viewing his pictures somehow secured his position as a notable part of film history. His films were so terrible, and yet most people viewed them as lighthearted and silly.

Yet other B-movies were made to be taken a lot more seriously. If you look at the Roger Corman classics of the 60s and 70s, or the Paul Verhoeven blockbusters of the 80s and 90s, you’ll see an entirely different class of B-movies that are disguised as ridiculously excessive. They really have subtle hidden agendas with thematic undertones that are meant to have some form of underlying social commentary. Since their release, viewers’ opinions of these movies have also drastically changed from gross contempt to scholarly admiration.

In some way, all good B-movies push the social boundaries of their generation. Roger Corman’s Wild Angels and The Intruder are great examples of this practice, as are Jacques Tourneur’s early horror films like I Walked with a Zombie Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet was a low budget war movie from the 1950s shot entirely within the span of 10 days. Set pieces were left severely underdeveloped and most of the film resorted to using US Military stock footage to fill in the gaps. Still, the film managed to address some really progressive ideas concerning the Korean War and American racism overall. These B-movies tend to have a great theme or truly original ideas, but suffer from little to no production value.

Monster flicks have also played an enormous role in making B-movies what they are today. Big budget Hollywood blockbusters feel that if they just throw in some nice looking CGI and a few A-list actors they’ll get cinematic gold. But while CGI may be truly put on an impressive display of computer graphic artistry and modern innovation, it still leaves out a realistic quality that connects with their audience and leaves a true lasting impression on their psyche. You know it isn’t real right from the start. Yet when you look at some of the cheapest, corniest monsters that appear on some B-movies, you manage to feel some sort of attachment and possibly even fear if you’re young enough. Either way, monsters from B-movies are what people manage to remember for the rest of their lives.

Take a look at the Japanese monster movie icon Godzilla. His presence has created a long trailing series of films and a loyal fan base like none other. Destroy All Monsters was the ninth of Toho Studio’s Godzilla series and one of the most successful. It wasn’t made on a tiny budget, however, it still managed to keep the feel and tone of a classic B-movie and went on to become one of the most famous and well-received Godzilla movies of all time. Yet, the American big-budget Godzilla remake of 1998 with millions of dollars worth in advertising and merchandise, has been completely forgotten and can now be found only in the depths of Wal-Mart’s $2 movie bins.

By the 1970s, dozens of new B-movie genres were emerging and gaining significant popularity. Above all others, Blaxploitation was definitely the most well-known for the decade. Blaxploitation films featured a strong-willed black protagonist, an almost entirely black supporting cast, and a villain who was most likely white. Some of these, such as Shaft, Blacula and Dolemite are regarded as some of the most iconic films of all time.

(Dolemite trailer – NSFW)

Following suit, a number of other exploitation B-movie genres soon emerged as well. Among the most popular were the following:

  • Cannibal
  • Crime Revenge
  • Sexploitation
  • Shocksploitation
  • Slasher
  • Torture
  • Women in Prisons
  • Zombies

These B-movies were green lit, directed, edited and released in theaters within an incredibly short amount of time and on extremely small budgets. This immense growth of B-movies introduced an entirely new genre of theater that would show you movies back-to-back rather than change admittance for one show. This was called “Grindhouse,” and it inspired an entirely new generation of directors.

These directors came about in the late 1980s with the premise that they could gain popularity and credibility if they made their movies “bad on purpose.” As long as they referred to their work as homages to earlier B-movies from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, then they could pretty much film anything they wanted. Directors like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Robert Rodriguez (Desperado), and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) perfected this new wave of B-movie filming to an art form.

Nowadays the term “B-movies” simply refer to films that are intentionally or stylistically produced in an incredibly over-the-top and unbearably tongue-in-cheek manner. Right from the beginning, everyone involved with the film knows that they aren’t there to make something dramatic or Oscar-worthy. They are just there to honestly entertain people and have a blast doing it.

What’s the appeal?

B-movies use their failure as an alluring aesthetic. Like stopping to watch a car accident about to happen, there is just something inside you that tells you not to look away. It’s a trope that personally seems comfortable with the unintentionally silly to downright awful moments that define them.

There is something artfully ironic about their portrayal of story and interactions through the medium that makes them fun to criticize for their logical inconsistencies, terrible dialogue, horrendous acting, blatant political incorrectness, and their complete disregard for realism. There’s also a light touch of cynicism that complements B-movies’ underlying messages and tones. B-movies have gained more appeal over the years, and have grown into the artistic style of filmmaking that it is today.

Vincent Clarke works for USB Memory Direct and you can follow him on Twitter @_vhclarke.

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