Appreciating B-Movies

Bubba Ho-TepIt drives Susan to distraction that I love B-flicks. She squirms and fidgets if I put one into the DVD player and can seldom sit through an entire movie. They get cut off mid-film, and saved for me some time in the vague future when I might have an evening alone to finish watching it and the others in the category.

Overacted, melodramatic, clumsily scripted, wooden dialogue, transparent effects, low budgets… what’s not to like? Okay, not all of them, but some fit that description. The range in B-flicks is great: from the truly abysmal to brilliancy (albeit usually unrecognized, otherwise it would be on the A list…).

Being in the B-list doesn’t mean it won’t have an appreciative audience, or achieve cult or popular status.

To me, the B-movie industry is often the most creative, most innovative and most entertaining, in part because it tries harder on a smaller budget. Having a big budget didn’t save Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Or Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.

True, a lot of B-films are knock-offs of A-list entries, and sometimes crude ones at best*, but I think of them like sports fans think of farm teams and junior leagues. These movies are where the greats learn their skills, develop their talents, and practice their art. A lot of talent emerged into greatness from training in the B-film league.

It’s also interesting – for me, anyway – to see how someone takes an idea that succeeded in another film, and turns it into their own adaptation. Nothing wrong with that – writers, playwrights, singers and artists have been cross-pollinating with other artists for millennia. Shakespeare and Chaucer did it. If it wasn’t for plagiarism, we wouldn’t have a lot of the great works of literature and art today.

I don’t recall the source offhand, but I read once that there are only a limited number of original plots (seven? twelve? thirty? Different people seem to have different ideas…), so naturally there’s going to be a lot of overlap of ideas, even if the story wasn’t lifted wholesale from another film.

The RavenA remarkable number of B-flicks have garnered cult status. Think of all the early horror and monster films from the 1930s and 40s: the early Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman films, for example. I have all of them, cherished parts of my DVD collection and I delight in watching Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney in their roles. Plus I have a lot of the later knock-offs: the Hammer films with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the Vincent Price and Peter Lorre films. Or then there were films that starred Karloff, Price and Lorre together… the early John Wayne films…

When I was growing up, the family used to go to the drive-in movies. There was one near Penetang where our cottage was, and we watched double bills through the windshield in the warm summer night while the speakers hung from the side window. A lot of those films were classic B: Them, Attack of the Crab Monsters, She Gods of Shark Reef, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Blob, Teenagers From Outer Space (a lot of Roger Corman movies hit the drive-in circuit)… while I cringed in fright during the viewing, I often delighted in them later.

Since the advent of the DVD, I have purchased several of the more memorable ones for my collection. Susan squirms if I even suggest watching one (especially one of those box-set collections of 50 films, which are often the B-est of the Bs and suggest whole new categories of C, D and E list films…). But they’re not frightening any more – often quite corny, in fact – and I watch them with an eye to the production, the script, the acting and the effects – and the sheer entertainment value. Not unlike re-reading Edgar Rice Burroughs today.**

I stop watching “horror” at the slasher films. Never developed a taste for the Halloween, Friday the 13th and other gory flicks. The blood-splattered full-colour effects seem garish and exacerbated compared to, say, the tense black and white of the brilliant 1961 movie, The Haunting (also known as The Haunting of Hill House); a movie that will chill and thrill you without a single drop of blood being spilled. Unfortunately it is too often found in the $5 bin, unappreciated by a modern audience raised on CGI and colourful gore.

There are modern B-films that I enjoy, of course. Everyone concedes that the Daniel Day-Lewis film, Lincoln, is an A-list flick. But what about Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter? B-list? Sure, but is it any less entertaining for that? In fact, it may be more so (and it did a decent box office business at around $120 million). Not likely to win any Oscars, of course, but then are Oscars really a good yardstick? After all, The Hunchback of Notre Dame won two Oscars for sound and music, but nothing for acting or anything really meaningful.

And Avatar lost out to the rather dreary Hurt Locker because Hollywood is loathe to give awards to anything with extensive CGI no matter how good, how the critics loved it, or how much money it made (a measure of success and popularity). So to me, the Oscars are a sham and while many deserving films have won them, many others, equally deserving, have not for political reasons.

I prefer to judge film on its merits (subjective, I admit) rather than on what others tell me about it based on their highly suspect judgment. Hence my passion for B-flicks. Which is why I was delighted today to discover, on a serendipitous visit to a local yard sale this weekend, two books by B-film actor, Bruce Campbell (If Chins Could Kill and Make Love, The Bruce Campbell Way).

I don’t normally read bios and auto-bios of the glitterati and celebrities, but there are some that have intrigued me (although I found Keith Richards’ “Life” dull and never finished it).

Campbell is a cult figure, and he’s in several B-flicks I have enjoyed. If you don’t know his work – and his filmography is long – you simply gotta see Army of Darkness – it’s a mashup of Connecticut Yankee, Back to the Future, Night of the Living Dead and a few others. Then there’s Bubba Ho-Tep, in which he plays a grumpy Elvis, abandoned in a retirement home (with a black JFK…) to face an ancient Egyptian horror.

I couldn’t resist getting the books. I thought they may give me some insight into the world of B-films (about which I admit to knowing nothing more than that as any audience member would). Campbell is also known for mocking himself, both on film (in My Name is Bruce, in which he plays himself…) and in print (these books). I look forward to some entertaining reading.


* The original, 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a B-film that is now considered seminal work for its mix of horror, suspense, art and film noir (I treasure this film, and it’s worth reading the original book, too). Several later high-budget remakes were fairly good, and a lot of B-films were spun off, but the 2007 Invasion of the Pod People may be one of the worst B-film knock-offs ever. But, like so many other B-movies, it is making the journey from simply bad to campy, which opens the door to cult status.

** Perhaps my all-time favourite of these is the 1939 movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton. I’m not sure if it was seen as a B-flick in its day; today it is considered high art by many critics – not relegated to Wal-Mart’s $5 bin, the burial ground of so many B movies. I developed a childhood crush on Maureen O’Hara from my first viewing. Until I realized somewhat later she was almost as old as my mother… anyway, coming in a close second is the 1933 King Kong, and it was a B-flick in its day.

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