B-Movies are low-budget films that traditionally received a "B-list" billing on theater marquees, but are now produced almost exclusively by the SyFy Channel.
Just The Facts
History & Origin
Starting in the 1920s, Universal Studios produced a string of monster movies based on classical literary works of horror. These included:
- Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame
- Erik, the Phantom of the Opera
- Dracula and His Brides
- Frankenstein and His Monster (and Their Bride)(and Ygor)
- Imhotep, the Mummy
- Dr. Jack Griffin, the Invisible Man
- Both the Werewolf of London AND the Wolfman
- The Creature from the Black Lagoon
Now, when these movies first premeired, they were genuinely regarded as terrifying. Frankenstein was actually preceded in theatres by a disclaimer warning those more sensitive viewers of the horror they were about to behold (one man suffered a fatal heart attack, though it was a pre-existing condition). However, by the 1950s, the impact they once had was starting to sizzle. In order to expand their appeal, a series of films were commissioned featuring crossovers with comedy duo Abbott & Costello. From a comedic standpoint, these movies are hilarious. But if you take a more serious perspective, it's quite depressing when you realize that most of these actors have been playing the same character for the past twenty years. Universal finally hit the bottom of the barrell with the alliterative monster movies The Metaluna Mutant and The Mole People.
Above: The Metaluna Mutant (Top) and a Mole Man (Bottom)
The original "Universal Monsters" required their actors to go through several hours of make-up each day. The '50s introduced us to foam rubber costumes, couresy of Japan. Before, if the story called for a castle or a jungle, filmmakers had to go out and find a castle or a jungle to shoot in. Now, they could just make and re-use sets out of cardboard. Filmmaking was about to get a hell of a lot cheaper. And no man exploited this more than Mister Edward D. Wood, Jr.
His two biggest movies (it you can actually call them "big"... or if you can even call them "movies"!) were the semi-autobiographical Glen or Glenda (he certainly liked to feel pretty) and Plan 9 from Outer Space, which goes without saying is the worst movie ever made. If it weren't for his contributions to cinema, MST3K would not have a reason to exist.
While monster movies would always be an easy fall-back for hack filmmakers, the '70s saw the rise of a new type of B-movie: Blaxploitation. Quite simply, the genre of blaxploitation featured a black protagonist, a primarily black cast, and a villain who was most likely white. Some of these, such as Shaft and Dolemite are regarded as groundbreaking works of art. Others were simply a perpetuation of crude stereotypes that set back the African race as a whole, such as the sequels to Shaft and Dolemite.
Numerous other "exploitation" genres soon developed: Hentai; Outlaw Biker; Cannibal; Chambara; Carsploitation; Eco-Terror; Giallo; Mondo; Nazisploitation; Rape/Revenge; Sexploitation; Shocksploitation; Slasher; Spaghetti Westerns; Torture Porn; Women in Prisons; and of course, Zombies. All of these could be produced for next to nothing, and in relatively quick time. This sudden surge in the numbers of low-budget schlock necessitated a new type of theatre to show them. This was the Grindhouse, the drive-in movie of a new generation. As we learned from Quentin Tarantino and hetero life partner Robert Rodriguez, a Grindhouse was a dank movie theatre where they would show exploitation films back-to-back. This gimmick has died out over the years, but some older theatres and newer colleges (see below) still like to have B-movie marathons around Halloweentime. Two films that are almost always invariably among these line-ups: Plan 9 and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
At one point in the late '80s, independent filmmakers realized they could win a lot more credibility if, instead of making crappy movies unintentionally, they made crappy movies intentionally. As long as they said it was an "homage" to the B-movies of their childhood, they could get away with pretty much anything. This is how Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson (and to a lesser extent, the Coen Brothers) got their starts. If you like being that kind of douchebag, you can tell all your friends that you were a huge Raimi/Jackson fan for years before they made those mainstream trilogies everyone is obsessed with now. If this isn't true for you, rent all of their films, make up fake friends you never had ten years ago, and you can now be that douchebag. Recently, Sam Raimi attempted to bring B-Horror to the mainstream with the film Drag Me to Hell. Bruce Campbell (i.e. G~D) is not in this movie, but Raimi's trademark Delta Oldsmobile is. We'll leave it to you to judge the pros and cons of that.
Today, B-movie refers almost exclusively to films that are done in the intentional over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek style. From day one of production, every member of that crew knows they are not there to win critical acclaim. They are there to entertain people and to have fun. Aside from the already mentioned, and insanely idiotically named "SyFy" Channel (apparently, most audiences though it was pronounced "Ski-Fee"), the only two companies that exclusively produce B-movies are Troma Studios (who gave us such gems as The Class of Nuke 'Em High and The Toxic Avenger) and The Asylum, who produce low budget knock-offs of big-budget summer blockbusters (Alien vs. Hunter, I Am Omega, and Transmophers already previously mentioned on Cracked).
B-Movie versus Z-Movie
If a B-movie is a movie that is "so bad, it's good," a Z-Movie is a movie that is "so bad, it's horrible." A B-movie doesn't take itself seriously, and will develop a loyal fanbase over the years. A Z-movie will take itself seriously, and through the fault of a delusional director and bad casting (though not necessarily bad acting) it will be despised by the same people who cat watch a 24-hour marathon of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. George A. Romero made films on minute budgets, but most of them are considered to be among the great movies ever because of their underlying social commentary. At the exact opposite end of the spectrum of B-movie directors, there is a dark horse: Uwe Boll. He has been frequently referred to by his critics as the "German Ed Wood." While it is understandably why this comparison is made, it is also very VERY misleading. Ed Wood may have been a crossdresser who was responsible for some of the worst pieces of crap ever put to celluloid, BUT he was also a patriotic American, a decorated war hero who treated women as equals, and who gave Bela Lugosi work when no-one else would. Uwe Boll, on the other hand, is an egomaniacal jerk-ass who is only exploiting a loophole in Germany's tax-laws that allows him and his investors to write-off his films (which always flop) as losses. This ass-clown seriously believed that Postal was going to beat Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at the box-office, and that In the Name of the King would win more Oscars than The Dark Knight. And, that he's challenged his critics to boxing matches. Seriously.
Then again, even with the most incompetent director and the most incomprehensible story, a good actor can make it somewhat bareable (see Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Sometimes, when an actor is in a movie beneath their level of skill, their attitude will show in their performance (Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace). But other times, the actor will milk his performance for all it's worth, giving a performance that is so over-the-top it can save a film. This is known as a Large Ham with Cheese. Now, most people are under the mistaken impression that "Ham" means "bad actor." Quite the opposite. A Ham is a great actor who can make you think he's a bad actor. Jim Carrey (out-hammed Frank Gorshin in Batman Forever), Kenneth Branagh (the greatest Hamlet ever, and the only performance worth watching in Wild Wild West), Michael Keaton (Beetlegeuse, Beetlegeuse...), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli can be seen in pretty much every other "SyFy" Channel Original), Daniel Day-Lewis (Oscar-worthy ham), and Tim Curry (one magnificent bastard... has the added bonus of a villainous song) are all Large Hams. But the biggest Ham of all is BRIAN BLESSED! EVERY PERFORMANCE HAS BEEN A BUFFET OF HAM! HIS WIKIPEDIA PAGE DESCRIBES HIM IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH AS "A CHARISMATIC ACTOR." THAT IS NOT AN OPINION, IT IS A STATEMENT OF FACT. HIS MOST FAMOUS ROLE WAS AS PRINCE VULTAN OF THE HAWK-PEOPLE IN FLASH GORDON. HE HAS ALSO PLAYED OLD DEUTERONOMY IN CATS, AND WAS THE VOICE OF CLAYTON IN DISNEY'S TARZAN. NEXT HE WILL PLAY THE KING OF THE GODS, ODIN, IN KENNETH BRANAGH'S FILM VERSION OF THE MIGHTY THOR. HE HAS CLIMBED MOUNT EVEREST THREE TIMES. HE IS QUITE SIMPLY THE THEATRE GEEK'S VERSION OF CHUCK NORRIS.
The most recent film versions of Eragon and The Man in the Iron Mask were both saved from becoming B-movies by the hamminess of Jeremy Irons (who also saved Dungeons & Dragons and The Time Machine) and John Malkovich (Con Air) with their hamminess. The Harry Potter movies are a notorious playground for distinguished British and Irish actors to toss aside their classical training and just have fun (and collect a large pay-day). In The Chamber of Secrets, Shakespearean actors Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, and Jason Issacs had a contest as to see who could "out-ham" the others. A decade earlier, Rickman had only agreed to play the Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood under the expressed condition that he be allowed to be as over-the-top as possible. Johnny Depp, Bill Night, Stellan Skarsgaard, and Geoffrey Rush were all world-class hams in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. My all-time personal ham was Raul Julia as General M. Bison in the Street Fighter movie. Make no mistake, this movie sucks, even by video game movie standards. But Raul, despite being 52-years-old and having absolutely zero experience in action movies, is one of the most over-the-top villains ever in film. He takes this movie far beyond simply "so bad, it's good" into "so bad, it's so awesome it will melt your face." What makes it so special is that Julia was dying of cancer. He knew that the next project he took on would be the last of his life. So he gathered up some scripts his agent had handed him, and showed them to his grandchildren. His final film would be a parting gift to them. They were fans of the game Street Fighter II, and begged him to play Bison. So despite being the first Latino actor to win an Oscar, he gladly went out fighting JCVD and making an eye-patch wearing crime boss his bitch. All to make his grandchildren happy. Vaya con dios...
B-Movies come in tiers. If you're interested in making B-Movies, follow this helpful guide:
Tier 1: Classic B
- Create a suit out of rubber. Make sure it looks like something, but don't spend too much time on it.
- Name it.
- Put an actor in it who is strong enough to carry a live woman.
- If this is not possible, remove layers of the woman's clothing until she is light enough to be carried.
- Make sure to film endless scenes of people talking about the monster, or anything, for that matter. Be careful of continuity; the last thing you want is for your actor to wear the same clothes in each shot.
- Your monster is the star! Don't let those "actors" steal the show from him. If anything interesting or important needs to be said, have the actors mumble it or cut the sound entirely.
- When possible, inform potential moviegoers that your movie is in color. The phrase "Incredible, Ingenius, In Color!" never hurt anyone.
- Your trailer must make no sense, but also give the entire movie away. Thus, when the movie makes no sense, no one will complain. See Equinox:
You know your movie's bad when the trailer voice-over admits that the story makes no goddamn sense.
Tier 2: Super-8
- Check your calendar and make sure the year is 1976.
- If the year is 1989 or later, you are making an homage.
- Find a friend who has an awesome Super-8 camera.
- Alternately, steal one from your high school's AV department.
- Spend a ridiculous amount of money on latex and fake blood.
- Hold auditions for the lead roles, as a way to get all of your friends in one place at the same time.
- Start filming immediately. As soon as the booze is gone, you will lose most of your cast/crew.
- Try not to frame any of your shots. Foreheads are a plus.
- Convince your girlfriend to take her shirt off. Tell her it is a sacrifice for art, or something. Work it out.
- When editing, remember to take your time. Why go to the next scene when there are five perfectly good minutes of nothing but trees and buildings? Never forget how awesome it is that you're actually making a movie. Nothing else really matters.
- If your film is gory, it will succeed, despite everything else.
Tier 3: Direct-to-video/SyFy Channel original movie
- Affix various words and phrases to a dartboard. Proven examples include: shark, pteranadon, lake, river, ocean, mountain, Dr., giant, mega, raptor, chupacabra, hunt, and sasquatch.
- Throw three or more darts.
- Make sure you have a poster on the wall that lists the most common prepositions. Use them accordingly.
- On your desk should be a faxed list of has-been celebrities, much like an organ recepient waiting list. Priority cases are at the top. The late-eighties/early-nineties will likely be the most popular pool. That guy from Cheers, that guy from Who's the Boss, that chick from Saved by the Bell, that dude from that band that had that one really cool hit- these are seasoned performers waiting for the role of a lifetime. It is your job to provide it for them.
- Grab a first-year computer graphics student and promise him/her an endless supply of Ramen noodles.
- If your computer graphics are any good, fire everyone in the SFX department. Magnetize the hard drives, burn their physical shells, and start anew. Do not allow yourself to get caught in a cycle; one instance of good computer graphics should be enough to turn you away from the whole concept.
- Remember that oceanographers, paleontologists, geologists, and etymologists are all women, all really smart, and look like porn stars once they remove their glasses and rough it in the wild.
- Make a brief political statement. If you can manage, oversimplify a complex issue into something people can make unfounded judgments on.
How to Become a Part of B-Movie Communities
For public screenings and dork conventions:
Fear not, for there is likely a grindhouse, blaxploitation, sexploitation, or alienploitation marathon at an arthouse theater near you. This requires that you leave your house, which can be an issue for many B-Movie fans.
To have/attend weekly B-Movie nights:
Go to college. If you've already graduated college, don't leave. More people enroll every year; think of them as your potential B-Movie buddies, or your potential "take advantage of an 18-year-old's raging hormones and newfound freedom from the rules of her oppressive midwestern household" buddies.
Alternately, post an ad on Craigslist. Since Craigslist hookups almost always turn out to be the opposite of what you were looking for, and in this case you're looking for overweight men with a sense of humor, no job and a problem with personal hygiene, you may end up with that chick from Fringe as your new B-Movie buddy. What are you waiting for?
Noteworthy B-Movie Timeline
1950s and Prior:
- Reefer Madness (1937) : Exploitation film portraying the dangers of marijuana use in a highly exaggerated manner.
- Robot Monster (1953) : An alien named Ro-Man hunts the last humans alive on earth, but ends up falling in love with the woman of the group. The alien, Ro-Man, might it be mentioned, resembles a gorilla wearing a diving helmet. Yes, a gorilla wearing a diving helmet.
- Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) : Search for a prehistoric amphibious man turns up more than bargained for.
- Them! (1954) : Atomic tests cause a nest of ants to grow into giant monsters that ravage the American southwest.
- Tarantula (1955) : Tarantula injected with a growth serum breaks out of a lab, grows into a giant monster, ravages the Arizonan countryside, and is defeated by an air-strike with a pilot played by a 25-year old Clint Eastwood.
- Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) : Alien invasion movie using pod-people as metaphor for the Red Scare, or maybe for the Communists themselves. Who knows?
- The Giant Claw (1957) : Earth is attacked by a Giant Antimatter Space Buzzard. (Translation: a puppet that looks like Big-Bird from Seasame Street's evil twin.)
- Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) : Arguably the originator of an entire style of B-movies, though stylistically preceded by Godzilla four years earlier.
- The Blob (1958) : A glob of jelly comes to earth in a meteorite and starts getting bigger by engulfing people. It is defeated via dousing with fire-hydrants and airlifted to the arctic. Remade in 1988.
- Queen of Outer Space (1958) : Opinions differ over whether this was tongue-in-cheek hack work or the most misogynistic sci-fi movie ever made. Probably the quinessential space-explorers-discover-a-world-populated-entirely-by-beautiful-women movie (e.g. Catwomen of the Moon, Missile to the Moon, the British Fire Maidens From Outer Space, and the spoof Amazon Women on the Moon).
- Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959) : Ed Wood film often called "the worst movie ever made".
- Psycho (1960) : Possibly the most popular slasher film of all time.
- The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) : Directed by Roger Corman, one of the most prolific B-movie directors of all time, this film about a man-eating plant spawned a successful musical 22 years later. The Dentist, who was a minor character in this version, was portrayed by a little known actor named Jack Nicholson.
- Blood Feast (1963) : The world's first splatterfest, directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, about an Egyptian caterer who graphically murders a bunch of women in Miami as part of a ritual to resurrect the goddess Ishtar.
- Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) : Battle of the sexes by Russ Meyer about a gang of amazonian go-go dancers who murder a young woman's boyfriend and take off with her, then scheme to rob an old redneck of his large, hidden stash of money by seducing his sons.
- The Good The Bad And The Ugly (1966) : One of the best, most beloved, most important and most influential B movies of all time; about three unscrupulous gunslingers competing to find a buried cache of coins in the midst of the American Civil War. It is frequently regarded as both the single greatest western movie of all time and as hailing the end of that said genre.
- Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) : Another contender for the title of "worst movie ever", made into a cult classic by its rerelease on MST3K.
- Night Of The Living Dead (1968) : Originator of the Zombie Apocalypse movie.
- Shaft (1971) : Iconic Blaxploitation entry tagging along on the heels of Sweet Sweetback (below).
- Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) : Progenitor of the Blaxploitation genre; essentially a manifesto for an African-American revolution.
- Deep Throat (1972) : Porno about a woman whose doctor discovers her clitoris is located in her throat. It doesn't take much imagination to guess what happens next. Started a trend of couples going out to see porn together called "Porno Chic", caused a big brouhaha over censorship, and is the most succesful film of all time in terms of box office returns (reportedly $600 million) in ratio to budget ($22,500 + 25,000 for music).
- Night Of The Lepus (1972) : In which Dr McCoy - er, DeForrest Kelley - helps rid the world of a marauding herd of Giant Killer Bunny Rabbits. While wearing an orange turtleneck.
- Pink Flamingos (1972) : By John Waters; two families compete for the title of the "filthiest people alive". Includes, among other things; the unsimulated crushing of a chicken whilst engaging in sex, the unsimulated lip-synching of a man's anus, the unsimulated fellatization of a man's penis by his transvestite mother, and the unsimulated consumption of dog feces.
- Coffy (1973) : Blaxploitation about a nurse played by Pam Grier who goes on a roaring rampage of revenge against the drug dealers responsible for her sister's addiction. Notable for featuring both a female protagonist and an anti-drug message; both of which were unfashionable at the time.
- Enter The Dragon (1973) : Fourth and final film of Bruce Lee, only one made with a decent budget, first to premiere in America and in English, released just after his death. About a Shaolin martial artist comissioned by an intelligence agency to infilitrate the island base of a crimelord by participating in an annual martial arts tournament.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) : Five hippies going to visit the vandalized grave of one of their number's grandfather fall prey to a murderous backwoods family of cannibals, one of which, Leatherface, wields a chainsaw. Bashed on its release, regarded as a classic nowadays. Three sequels, a remake in 2003, and a prequel to said remake. By Tobe Hooper.
- Death Race 2000 (1975) : Twenty Minutes Into The Future the champion of a cross-country automobile race in which pedestrians are run over to accumulate points in order to placate the populace spars with his competitors and with a resistance movement. Regarded as a satire on society's voyeuristic obsession with violence and a herald of present day reality TV shows.
- Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975) : Buxom, nymphomaniatic dominatrix Ilsa tortures prisoners at a nazi concentration camp to prove women can withstand more pain than men and castrates men unable to resist ejaculation long enough to satisfy her sexual appetite. Launched the popularity and typical tropes and cliches of the "Nazisploitation" subgenre. Probably best known for being filmed on the former set of Hogans Heroes.
- The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) : Oddball musical comedy (adapted from the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show) that remained popular as a midnight movie for decades after release.
- Dawn of the Dead (1978) : Followup to Night of the Living Dead wherein zombies have begun taking over the earth and a group of survivors attempts to ride the situation out by barricading themselves in a shopping mall. Frequently regarded as the best zombie movie of all time, and also a briliant satire regarding consumerism.
- Halloween (1978) : While not the first slasher film, is the one which launched the typical tropes and cliches of the genre which people now come to expect of it in addition to sparking the boom in popularity of the genre during the 80s.
- Mad Max (1979) : Cop in a post-apocalyptic Australia goes on a roaring rampage of revenge against the biker gang that murdered his wife and son. Brought Australian cinema into the spotlight, and launched the career of Mel Gibson; though nobody outside of Australia itself would know about it if it weren't for the sequels.
- Zombi 2 (1979) : Unauthorized Italian sequel (In Name Only) to Dawn of the Dead (above), which itself was called Zombi in that country. The best known product of the Italian exploitation boom of the '70s. By Lucio Fulci.
- Cannibal Holocaust (1980) : About a team of anthropologists who venture into the Amazon jungle in search of another team of anthropologists that dissapeared and recover some film footage; which reveals said previous team's fate. Style of the later half was the inspiration for The Blair Witch Project (see below). Banned on about half the planet. Also launched the popularity of the cannibal subgenre.
- Friday The13th (1980) : Essentially an unscary rip-off of Halloween made to cash in on its success; nevertheless started one of the most popular and long-running horror series of all time and introduced one of the genre's most iconic killers; Jason Voorhees.
- Evil Dead (1982) : Spawned the acting career of Bruce Campbell, who would become a latter-day B-movie superstar, and the directorial career of Sam Raimi.
- The Man Who Saves The World (1982) : Turkish action movie often referred to as "Turkish Star Wars", owing to the massive amounts of Stock Footage lifted from that film.
- A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) : Another cash-in on Halloween's success, though more original than Friday the 13th. Introduced another of horror's most iconic killers; Freddy Krueger.
- The Terminator (1984): A classic example of a B-movie done good: on a limited budget with one previously noteworthy star and an unknown director, it became a box office and critical hit, launched the career of James Cameron, gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his trademark Catch Phrase, catapaulted Michael Biehn into his career as an action actor, and spawned three sequels, a bunch of novels, videogames, a TV series, comics, and countless homages, parodies and imitations. And on the subject of Arnie, another of his 1980s B-movies was Predator...which has also taken on a mini-industry of its own with 3 sequels videogames, comics, state governors, et cetera and so on.
- Gymkata (1985): A movie about a gymnast who makes a martial based on gymnastics and ninjutsu to compete in "The Game". The winner gets anything he wishes. It gets worse from there. Doesn't get boring at the least.
- Road House (1989): A remake of Shane with Patrick Swayze and a monster truck. Much better than it sounds, plus unforgettable one liners.
- Lobster Man From Mars (1989). In this homage to sci-fi B-Movies a Hollywood film producer, trying to get out of paying millions in back taxes by screenimg a flop, watches the titular movie (shown as a Show Within A Show) and is enthused by how awful it is, only to go to prison when it's a great success.
- Troll 2 (1990) : Yet another contender for the title of the worst movie ever made; a family moves into a town called Nilbog (goblin spelled backwards) wherein the resident vegetarian goblins plan to turn them into vegetables so they can eat them, leavind the young son, Joshua, to save the day. Sequel in name only to Troll, and itself features no actual trolls at all.
- The Blair Witch Project (1999) : Mockumentary shot on a hand-held camcorder with a budget of $75,000, proved to be one of the most iconic horror films of the '90s.
The New Millenium:
- The Call of Cthulhu (2005) : Possibly the best HP Lovecraft adaptation ever made, shot as a silent film, in black and white, with cardboard backdrops and a stop-motion Cthulhu.
- Snakes On A Plane (2006) : Exactly What It Says On The Tin, starring Samuel L Jackson as an FBI Agent. On a plane. With Snakes. Actually quite good. The fact that he's had enough of these motherfuckin snakes on this motherfuckin plane really does help.
- Grindhouse (2007) : A double-feature of two faux B-movies; Robert Rodriguez's Zombie Apocalypse flick Planet Terror, which looks like the the kind of movie Cannon Films would have made if they'd had real money, and Quentin Tarantino's stunt-driving slasher movie Death Proof, which looks like it really was shot on a budget of $5,000 and a garbage bag full of pot. The film is scratched and at one point appears to catch fire and burn up, and the intermission consists of trailers for fictitious B-movies with titles like Hobo With a Shotgun or Werewolf Women of the SS. One of the trailers within the film, Machete, was at one point planned to be made into a B-movie itself, but got stuck in Development Hell. Although it appears to be back on track as of this writing - although the filmmakers in question have a few projects to do first...
- Colin (2008). Zombie Apocalypse movie from the zombie's perspective. Made on a budget of forty five pounds, using unpaid actors recruited via Myspace who provided their own makeup. Made a big splash at the 2009 Cannes festival.