Legends of Horror

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Some of my B-movie collectionsLegends of Horror is the title of one multi-DVD collections of films I own. Fifty films in this package. They’re B-films for the most part (and a few of lesser quality), dating from 1927 (silent) to 1980, mostly in B&W, but those dating from the mid-1960s on are usually colour. The collection title is misleading: it’s really a mix of early horror, mystery and suspense.

It’s one of several similar sets and single DVDs that make up my personal collection of B films (a very few, but far from all, shown in the photo on the right). Most of which are early scifi or monster films (including the entire set of Universal Monster Classics with the original Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, Mummy, Creature From the Black Lagoon and Invisible Man, plus the original sequels, but they are from a different publisher, not shown here), along with numerous detective/suspense and noir films from similar eras.

Several of these films appear in other collections – the companies that compile them have a tendency to reuse titles in collections of different names. This actually has gives some obscure films more circulation that they would have on their own, which isn’t a bad thing.

But as a recent article in Newsweek noted, classic film – B or otherwise – is disappearing online:

…in the vast world of Netflix streaming, 1960 doesn’t exist. There’s one movie from 1961 available to watch (the original Parent Trap) and one selection from 1959 (Compulsion), but not a single film from 1960. It’s like it never happened. There aren’t any movies from 1963 either. Or 1968, 1955 or 1948. There are no Hitchcock films on Netflix. No classics from Sergio Leone or François Truffaut. When Debbie Reynolds died last Christmas week, grieving fans had to turn to Amazon Video for Singin’ in the Rain and Susan Slept Here. You could fill a large film studies textbook with what’s not available on Netflix.

This is just one reason I collect: otherwise I’d have no access to watch them. And even if Netflix brings in the A list of classics, I doubt it will offer much if any of the B list:

Netflix’s selection of classic cinema is abominable—and it seems to shrink more every year or so. As of this month, the streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970, and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries). It’s the sort of classics selection you’d expect to find in a decrepit video store in 1993, not on a leading entertainment platform that serves some 100 million global subscribers.

Netflix is doing to classic movies what the internet did to print newspapers, what Walmart did to downtown retail and what Amazon did to bookstores. And there are precious few DVD stores around for me to buy from (none, in fact, in my home town; the closest is 60 km away).

What worries me about the streaming trend most is its impermanence. You can’t share it, hold it, carry it, and if it falls from popularity and gets removed from the cloud, you may never be able to watch it again. Or ever. Who knows if it will even exist in real form in the near future? Even B movies deserve better than a digital death. What if you choose to watch, say, The Thin Man series and they’ve been deleted from publication because no one is buying DVDs any more? What if you discover it’s not on streaming services (these movies – wonderful, all of them – are not, currently). What then? Will these films vanish, the delightful repartee between William Powell and Myrna Loy just become a dry footnote in some database?

I collect my movies to save us all from this frightening future (in the same vein, I collect and scan sheet music from the 1920s-50s so that the music doesn’t get forgotten and lost forever).

Legends of Horror isn’t the best of the many collections on my shelves, but I happened to be reading the included booklet with the film details recently, and it got me looking through others and thinking about movies, thus this rambling post. Why, I sometimes ask myself (or Susan asks me…) do I like to watch them? It’s a complex answer. Bear with me while I ramble, please.

All told, I have at least 350 DVDs of B-flicks in my collection (not including the Three Stooges and similar classic comedy film DVDs). The copy quality is not always good, but most are acceptable. In a few cases, even with a good transfer, the original quality wasn’t sterling, so the copy can’t improve it (the worst are the obvious VHS-DVD transfers).

Many title include known actors like Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or directors/producers like Roger Corman. But some of the “known” actors you recognize were at the start of their careers, and these often low-budget films are not their best, or most noteworthy work. Contract work, for many of them.

Some are good films that simply have aged poorly, or aren’t popular today. In this particular collection are such titles as Jamaica Inn (1938, with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, with Peter Lorre and Leslie Banks), Secret Agent (1936, with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre), The Thirty Nine Steps (1935, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). All of which still hold up today (with some caveats), but the audience for them is small and, I suspect, dwindling (although famed director Martin Scorsese even included several of these or similar films in his four-hour documentary on American cinema). But since their debut, they have fallen from the box office giant status to lowly B-film.

Which strikes me as odd, because a handful of classic films like Casablanca, It’s a Good Life, and Miracle on Thirty Fourth Street seem to have a sustained popularity that doesn’t always correlate with their quality. Not that Casablanca is bad (personally, I like it very much), but it’s not Citizen Kane. And the others – they’re sentimental goop. But they are a lot more popular today than, say, Jamaica Inn.

I realize it’s hard to compete with today’s CGI-based action-adventure-thrillers (in glorious colour). Our cultural tastes have changed and we, collectively, have little patience for a slow, thoughtful movie in which there are no explosions, car crashes, explicit sex or nail-biting action sequences (yes, there are exceptions, but few). Suspense without masked, knife-wielding monsters seems dull. People will sit through numerous Jason Stratham films with their predictable cut-and-paste scripts and fight sequences rather than the methodical Double Indemnity or the creeping M or even the slightly histrionic 1931 Frankenstein in glorious B&W.

But frankly, the original King Kong was still light years better and tighter than the over-the-top CGI-and-action-dense remake by Peter Jackson. Colour, effects and CGI don’t necessarily make things better. The Coen Brothers turned to B&W to film their crypto-noir movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much as an effective way to focus attention on the characters and dialogue. Sometimes the glitter and the colour and the egregious action distract viewers from the point of the film. Are the new James Bond films intrinsically better than those originals with Sean Connery?

But that’s not what’s in the Legends collection. There’s Manfish (1956, Lon Chaney), The Devil Bat (1940, Bela Lugosi), Shock (1946, Vincent Price) or The Island Monster (1954, Boris Karloff). These are simply deliciously bad films. They’re as scary these days as a Tom and Jerry cartoon, with no visible blood and stylized (aka unrealistic) violence. They depend, generally, on modest sets and lots of dark scenes (often daylight scenes shot with a dense filter to simulate night) to convey a sense of tension and a smidgen of overacting to emphasize salient points. (On the other hand, The Haunting of Hill House(1961) – not to be confused with the Vincent Price film The House on Haunted Hill – still stands up as a scary film, shot in B&W).

My preferred B-films run from the early 1930s to the early 1960s, mostly B&W. It’s a bit like my taste in music (my vintage sheet music collection is mostly 1924-50). While there are plenty of B-films after that, I don’t have as many of them in my collection.

I’ve looked online for a good list of B-films, but have yet to find one that suits my own tastes and style. In Paste Magazine’s list of the 100 best B-films, I have barely half a dozen (I don’t like slasher films or the crude pseudo-realistic horror films, and their list has too many for my taste, as well as too many post-’70 movies).

An interesting list appears on Wikipedia – the List of films considered the worst– however, these are not all B-films: many are big-budget A-list films the critics simply didn’t like (and I often agree with their opinion). A shorter list on Rotten Tomatoes is similar. I have some of the early films in both lists, but none of the later ones. A lot of these lists have one thing in common: they equate B-list with bad. So they look for the worst films ever made. And, yes, Battlefield Earth should be at the forefront of those lists, but usually ends up only in the top ten. But it’s not a B-film: it is several letters below that grade.

Seriously: a lot of B-films are not bad – they were made to entertain the audiences, not as as statement of art, and they do it quite well. A lot of these titles were considered good – or at least very watchable – in their day. And in many are re-watchable now. I bought a series of Charlie Chan films that – despite the politically correct horror and cried of cultural appropriation they may spawn today – are actually quite good tales with reasonably good acting (the Warner Oland series).

Just look at Wikipedia’s list of the “best” films – sure there are some great titles, but 1948’s Bicycle Thieves tops several polls – and how many times have you watched it? I can watch the original Dracula over and over and never tire of it. But I struggle to sit through Citizen Kane more than once every decade or two. It’s all very personal: it comes down to taste. Sometimes you feel like an art film, sometimes you don’t.

The Westerns collection in the photo is typical of the genre. Aside from a handful of A-list westerns (not included here), almost all Westerns are B-films in that they are low to modest budget and formulaic. They aren’t necessarily bad but they are pretty much predictable and the sets are often identical.

Westerns are mostly about reinforcing American moral, ethical, legal and cultural values in American settings (at least the white, imperialist, Christian values…). They celebrate America’s (often imagined) history, as well as its gun culture.

The storylines don’t often veer from the binary good-vs-evil confrontation, and in that sense they are echoes of certain popular religious themes. But they are also feel-good films in that we get to see good triumph, thus reinforcing our belief in the stability of the universe. Life isn’t existential chaos in a Western. It has, in the end, meaning. And horses. And sometimes Indians (who seldom come across as more than caricatures, and are almost always evil in some way).

I found it interesting that Americans could take Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and recast it into a western: The Magnificent Seven, but I can’t think a reverse situation where anyone took a western and made it into another genre or remade it in a different cultural frame. The Magnificent Seven is a fair film, by the way, but the sequels don’t stand up.

Overall, I can watch Westerns, but not a lot and never more than one at a time. For Canadians like me, it’s like watching a foreign film without the subtitle: all sorts of bizarre cultural and social relationships I don’t really understand (gun culture bemuses and scares me).

A lot of early scifi are basically westerns set in space. Their story arc is essentially the same. Many have the hero’s quest as Joseph Campbell called it (… the Gilgamesh theme). This is also true of many later scifi – the first Star Wars for example – in which the hero (good: The Force) triumphs over evil (Darth) after a prolonged trial, journey and the final battle. I try not to over-analyze them, but some beg for it. Instead of guys in black hats, the evil is manifest in aliens or monsters. Even the few that break the formulaic mold – Forbidden Planet comes to mind (it echoes Shakespeare’s Tempest) – still had to cater to their pleasure-loving audiences who wanted bad aliens and robots.

Most monster films (as distinct from scifi) generally follow the Frankenstein theme – our creation turns on us and attempts to destroy us (i.e. Them)- with all the moral and ethical baggage that represents. Or sometimes they follow a Beowulf model. In the latter a monster (one not created through human effort) threatens and a hero is called (or arrives accidentally) to defeat it in order to save civilization. In both cases, the result is salvation (another curiously religious theme). The Alien series followed the Beowulf idea, just kept repeating it each time. In either situation, they are generally us-vs-them, humans-vs-outsiders. Not that far afield from the western themes, I suppose.

On the other hand, the thrillers/mysteries/suspense films are often the opposite. Many are classic noir, others are in the fringe of the noir category. Good doesn’t always triumph, and when it does it often comes at a high cost. A lot of times there is no distinct moral: good’s victory doesn’t bring any redemption or salvation (there is sometimes a moral dilemma in the plot that complicates the result). And in a few, the bad guys win, or at least escape retribution. I prefer the 1930s films of this sub-genre in part because they are not graphically realistic.

The typical gangster film of the 30s saw the rise and inevitable fall of the modern bad guy. While screeching tires and Tommy guns appeal more to me than horses and six guns, gangster films are, essentially, Westerns set in another time and place (and bigger, meaner guns). In most gangster films, the government triumphs – a bit of pro-gov propaganda, you might call it. As chaos recedes, stability returns to the universe as the successful G men or T men ride off into the sunset (like in the Untouchables).

The Warriors collection is a bit of an oddity. All of these films date from 1959 to 65, and all are set in the ancient world. They’re mostly “sword and sandal” films and have a lot in common with war films of the era, just different sets. Most are based on ancient Greek mythology, but there are a few titles about ancient Rome, the Vikings, the Middle East (Sinbad-ish) or biblical themes (David & Goliath). Of all the series, it’s my second least favourite because the themes are generally repetitive and entirely predictable: hero gets the call, fights, loses, recovers and returns to win. A fair number mix beefcake and cheesecake with confused plots and sometimes atrocious dubbing. They are somewhat redeemed by being very campy and unintentionally funny.

My least favourite is the Drive-in Cult Classics collection. These are mostly cheesy 60s’ and 70s’ films that are slim excuses to show nubile skin at the expense of plot and dialogue. While most are merely clumsily suggestive (at least compared to today’s more lax standards), they are essentially little more than exploitive trash. These are called “cult” films in an attempt to give them some panache, but in reality none have achieved cult status (as Reefer Madness or The Terror of Tiny Town have).

I have other discs of “cult” films – the term implies groups of people want to see them again or see them in festivals or create religions around them (a la The Big Lebowski). None of the films in this collection really merit a second viewing, and in many cases, it’s hard to sit through the first without your finger bobbing on the fast forward button of the remote. But now and then you find a gem that is worth the package (okay, maybe not in this set…)

The scifi collections are, however, my favourites. Even when crazily unrealistic – spaceships landing on Mars and Venus where crews walk around without suits or helmets or English-speaking aliens, for example – scifi is simply more fun for me. Scifi allows writers to examine human issues and dilemmas outside the normal frameworks of culture, society and race. It’s like a sandbox for creativity. True, not many B-films actually take advantage of that opportunity, but some do, even if unwittingly.

For example, a significant body of critical analysis has grown up around Gojira – the original Godzilla – and its relationship with Japanese post-war trauma, its subtexts about nuclear war and nature. I suppose you can look under the 35mm skin of any film and find more depth, but I always wonder if the director meant it that way (and, yes, I have Gojira and numerous of the sequels and spinoffs and would be hard pressed to find such depth in them, myself…).

But there is the fun of seeing what the past thought the future would bring. Spaceships, rayguns, teleporters, flying cars and where is the rocket pack I was promised? If you haven’t seen it, watch The Fifth Element, which includes a not-so-subtle parody of the past scifi projections. Plus, it’s a tremendously fun film, albeit not a B film.

I discovered scifi at a very early age – around ten years old – and have been an aficionado ever since. I read pretty much all of the adult scifi in our local library by the time I was twelve. I watched every movie, every TV show I could – and still do, as long as it doesn’t get silly like the X Files. I believed in my heart we’d be living on the moon before I was 20 and would have a colony on mars by the time I was 35. We would have space hotels a la 2001 and be building a generational ship to take us to the stars by the 90s. So no wonder the scifi collections appeal the most to me. They were part of my childhood dreams.

In part I like these B-films because they are the crucible of the industry: this is where actors, directors, cinematographers, writers and others learn their craft. This is where they train, get experience, develop confidence. Those who evolve move on. Those who don’t generally appear in another B flick. Some, like Bruce Campbell, Christopher and Peter Cushing, make careers out of the genre, even parodying themselves.

In part I like them for their corniness, their lack of polish, their low-budget effects because you can see both ingenuity in them and the early stages of evolution to more sophistication and artistry. I also like them because they are the opposite of the polished film work we usually get today and that roughness has a certain beauty of its own. There’s a human-ness about them, a vulnerability. You can’t quite take them seriously, so you have to simply enjoy the ride and accept them as they are.

If you watch many of them, you realize that a lot of them are knock-offs, often of each other. They’re like knock-offs of fast food joints; the periphery of pop culture, but still on the curve. This can work for them – creating a parody that may not always be intentional. Or it can be intentional like the numerous Godzilla spinoffs, which develop into their own cultural genre of campy madcap monster movies, about as serious as the TV Batman series.

But other times they create a sort of cycle of films that give them longevity. Like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a 1956 B-film (which I think is superb) that spun off numerous remakes and take-offs through into the 2000s, including the exploitive but delightfully corny Invasion of the Pod People with its lesbian aliens… King Kong is another example that led to numerous spinoffs of varying quality.

Also, I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s watching a lot of these films on our B&W TV, or at the theatre. Many Saturday afternoons were spent in the dark movie theatre watching double-bills with associated shorts and serials (many resurrected from the 40s and even earlier). My family went to the local drive-in when we had a cottage around Penetang, and in the late 50s and early 60s, I saw a lot of the classic B-film horror-scifi through the windshield, sitting between my parents (many of which films I have since collected). So my taste in this genre is also the result of my upbringing: there’s nostalgia there.

There’s no real emotional attachment to be found in most B-films. You can watch them without the obligation to “feel” something, to relate the movie to current events or to personal experiences. They’re just stories, some badly told, others well told. They have few, if any, memorable lines, and no cultural references you are expected to recall or digest. And when they’re really bad, you have no compunction against using fast forward or even the eject button (do that while It’s a Good Life is on and you’ll be considered as heartless a creature as the members of Collingwood Council’s Block).

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