Five Fantastic B-Grade Films
Whether it is a “cult classic”, a “so bad that it’s good”, or just a “piece of shit”, there has always been something a little endearing about small budget films that just go for it.
So what is a B-Movie? It has been defined by my good friend Wikipedia as a “low budget motion picture that is not an Arthouse film.” Sometimes these films are just the worst to watch, as in the hands of an amateur without a concept, it can be just, stuff, on a screen. But when put into the hands of a capable director, or a passionate project, then sometimes you get brilliant results.
The genre began in the 1930s and 1940s as a way to exploit double features in cinemas (meaning you would pay to watch two films), one would be a main event and the other just a serial-type story that was made by the studios B-team. Studios still operate in this way today, in fact The Lion King was initially meant to be a straight-to-video release, and hence being a modern day animated B-Movie. Disney actually gave the A-team production crew toPocahontas, which is still a great movie, but doesn’t even come close to comparing to The Lion King. While Disney did realise what they had during the test footage and heavily marketed it from that point on, this is a great example of people making great films with the passion of making something great regardless of the limitations.
Throughout the decades B-Movies have changed and evolved into its own art-form, or shit piles, in some case. In the 1950s, serial films and monster movies became a B-Movie staple. This was ground breaking, as it gave birth to actual, legitimate, film making techniques that developed into the type of monster movies that you know and love today, whilst also rehashing old horror classic MGM characters and making them still relevant today.
In the 1960s and 70s B-Movies were often exploitation films or made outside of studios for minimal budgets. Exploitation films usually relied on telling stories that were considered too risky for big studios. Often very silly, and purposefully camp in style, this was seen as a bit of a “middle-finger” to the Cookie-Cutter studio mentality at the time. There was also a lot of films that came out to represent a new take on racial, gender, cultural and society misconceptions.
Foxy Brown showcased a point of view of African American females with a sexy, empowering message, Easy-Rider represented bikies and the comradely strength in brotherhood between the community, and Midnight-Cowboys (despite getting an X-rating for portraying gay prostitutes), managed to get discussion of sexuality into the mainstream.
During all of this time horror movies started to come into their own, and have arguably never really evolved from their B-Movie roots. Motorpsycho, a film about a madman on a motorcycle managed to pass on sexualised themes, whilst also making a pretty great antihero in the process, another trope that wasn’t totally present in the mainstream film making at the time. In the same way movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, managed to become cult B-Movie classics by being that over the top, and began a movement known as the 'midnight movie'.
From then on, the vast majority of B-Movies belonged with the horror/ slasher genre, although usually with a self-aware humour, which creeped into the 80s and 90s. Usually, at this point, it was more of a B-Movie style, rather than a status. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a complete candidate for B-Movie status, however, it somehow gets taken more seriously than films like the notorious Pink Flamingos, which are now cemented in B-Movie status rather than, an independent classic.
So I decided to find a few B-movies that are considered either the best ones, or just the most notorious ones. I avoided the really bad ones as I decided that this could be a story for another time.
[Number Five] Evil Dead, 1981
This is probably my favourite B-Movie and possibly one of my favourite movies ever. The whole franchise is pretty spectacular, but I will focus on the first one. It starts off as basically every other slasher movie started in the era, some teenagers go for a weekend away at a creepy cabin, somewhere in the woods in America. After some witchcraft stuff goes on, there is some wonderful possession stuff and some living dead shit going on. I am purposefully describing the movie vaguely, because it is much more visual rather than decrepit, but this plays to its strengths.
The practical effects in this masterpiece are just super, the comical gore, the cheap but effectively- looking make up, the bizarre set design, and the “funniest home videos” sped up photography really give the film a creepy vibe, but the over the top nature, cheesy acting and general tone of the film sort of counter each other.
If you haven’t seen this movie, then, well, what are you doing with your life? I saw this movie in early high-school and while my friends and I thought it was hilarious at the time, I was secretly pretty frightened by it too. The tree rape scene, terrified me and was so ridiculous that I laughed out loud, and the possessed people, or the “Deadites” were so crazy that they are villainous, and hilarious, that I can’t help but love them. Such a charming film, and that is a weird thing to say about a horror-comedy.
It is quite strange to think that this was Sam Raimi’s break into the world of film. Movies he directed later like the Toby Macguire Spiderman series still had the little trademarks that were in this film, funny close up reaction shots, sped up camera tracking, lots of yelling, quick cut montage scenes showing the development of a hero and plenty of camp. It is nice to see that Sam Raimi has held onto his filmmaking style and not let big studios ruin his creativity, except for Spiderman 3, but fuck that movie.
This movie also has the quintessential B-Movie hero, in Ash. He is such a wuss, so overwhelmed, yet so badass. I love his transformation in later movies, and I love how he becomes a satire of action hero’s over time.
Overall, I can highly recommend this movie obviously, but, I honestly feel like most people know this movie. I feel like I should mention it because it is a great example of a B-Movie being better than most of the other horror movies of the time. Totally uncorrupted by the studio model, and generally just awesome.
[Number Four] The Toxic Avenger, 1984
I LOVE THIS MOVIE. The ultimate in ridiculous cheese, the best in silly superhero horror-comedy, the best “so bad it’s good” movie I have seen.
This is the kind of movie that you play drinking games to, a great first rule, 1 drink every time somebody gets punched in the 'nads, another drink any time somebody gets a limb removed, another two drinks every time a new, hilarious, badly stereotyped baddy gets introduced, then pass out.
But seriously, I laughed my ass of in this movie, and was grossed out completely, my two favourite things to have happen to me in the movies. The complete plot is that a nerd gets bullied/ chased out of a window, lands in some fresh toxic waste, and has a long and painful transformation into a gross looking beast, and then kills all the evil doers in the town. Well that’s roughly it.
This is actually one of the better superhero movies I have seen, I mean compared to the Ben Affleck's Daredevil, and the new Fantastic 4 movie, this movie is pretty great, well maybe not great but at least original.
I was put onto this movie by a friend who does a movie review YouTube channel, SeanTurnerReviews (shameless plug), and his review of this movie made me a little curious, and I have to admit, I thought he was talking shit when he gave it a good review. I was pleasantly surprised by this little movie, and I hope that people actually check it out.
There is nothing particularly standout about this movie other than the effects, but it is just exceptionally charming. Hard to really praise and easy to fault, and even with it's ridiculous plot, super bad acting and basically all of the ingredients for a shit movie, it somehow works through that and made me laugh and genuinely care about it.
It should be known that there are a few sequels that I have not seen, and an apparently awful animated series that exists. I will probably never check those out, but as far as this movie is concerned, I give it a pretty good rating and believe it or not it actually has a pretty respectable rating on rotten tomatoes too, so think what you will.
[Number Three] Bad Taste, 1987
Yeah, The Lord of the Rings are amazing films, The Hobbit movies are maybe okay, (not really), and King Kong was pretty cool, for a three-hour remake. But Peter Jackson has made some of his best films earlier on in his career. I could easily talk about Braindead (or Dead Alive in the U.S.A) for about a month as it is one of my favourite movies of all-time, and probably represents this topic just as me as The Evil Dead does, however, I think I will talk about Bad Taste.
The first time I watched this movie was with my Dad, and we had the best time watching it. It is super gory, has some of the best joke dialogue I have ever heard, and a pretty hilarious plot, where aliens are abducting people to make intergalactic fast food. Dad and I had a bit of a fondness for one of the poor characters known as Derek (played by Peter Jackson), and we quoted the movie for a good long time.
I actually came across this movie when I was listening to a Grindcore band called Blood Duster on their debut album, Fisting the Dead, which sampled some of the funniest dialogue in the movie and once I heard this I needed to see the rest of the movie.
Something that really impressed me was finding out how much effort Peter Jackson actually went to film this “silly” movie, there is footage of him basically hanging off high cliffs with cameras to get 1 second reaction shots, bits and pieces of him showing how he made some of the gore effects and prosthetics using the most bizarre materials, like sheep brains, paper-mache masks baked in Peter Jacksons mothers oven, and a whole half of a house that was built from scratch. Not bad for a few guys from New Zealand.
So the movie itself is charming, gruesome, yet, very capably made. It shows that even with a strange, cheesy, and quirky film with a ridiculous plot that Peter Jackson is very committed, and will make the best movie he can with what he has. It is a far cry from the quality and scale from what Peter Jackson is known for, but if you just want to watch something a little light hearted, but, still interesting, then this might be your thing.
Oh and there is a great scene involving a sheep and a rocket launcher that cannot be missed!
[Number Two] The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975
Here is an example of a B-Movie, that was made to mock B-Movies, (Meta huh). It is based on the stage show by the same name and has an outstanding cast and an exceptional soundtrack.
For those of you who haven’t seen this film, it is basically a super strange movie about a husband and wife who are leaving their wedding as good little Christian virgins (Janet and Brad), and get a flat tire and approach a strange house for help. Upon entering the house they come to find that it is a burlesque house/ laboratory/ space ship/ cannibal house/ a cult community, and engage in terror, absolute pleasure, murder, and the birth of the perfect human all the while singing their hearts out.
While this is probably not a “true” B-Movie, but it certainly is completely inspired by it and spoofs it in a very natural way. It is cheesy, silly, uncomfortably sexual, and even a little gruesome at times. It also has a similar cult status to a lot of B-Movies although has a much bigger fan base. It is almost like the king of B-Movies in a way.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show did have a budget behind it, this is evident in the amazing sets, and strong production, however, the strength of the movie is actually……. Tim Curry. Dr. Frank N Furter is a delight to watch, especially at the end of the film with his finale. His embodiment of a transgender, transsexual, villainous, heroic, sophisticated and sensational tights- wearing talent. Tim Curry easily performs his greatest role, and becomes one of the most iconic characters in cinema history. Another notable performance is Meat Loaf as Eddie, even though he was only in the film for a short performance, it is certainly memorable.
But overall, my favourite piece of this movie is the soundtrack. Let me just say that I have never been a fan of musicals, other than animated Disney films (except, fuck Frozen), and if I am in the right mood I can enjoy Grease, but I fucking love the songs in this movie, and it might have something to do with the tone, cheesy yet dark, aware yet completely confusing.The Time Warp rocks, Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a Touch me, is a good time, and I’m Going Home is a great moment in the film, I can get behind these songs hard.
I watched this movie with my cousin (who is fifteen, I know, I am a super bad influence) and he had a really odd reaction, where he clearly enjoyed it, but found it incredibly uncomfortable to watch. He just had no idea what to think of it, is it cool? Is it too weird? Is it sexy? Does that make me weird if I think it’s sexy? Well 'cuz, believe it or not I felt the same way, however, I was quite okay with it, in fact I love movies that make me think like this. It is stunningly perverse, and I love it.
[Number One] Bad Lieutenant, 1992
So, this guy is just a complete shit-bag right? Jesus Christ this is a really fucking dark movie with a lot of crack-smoking, drunken threesomes, the absolute limit to human intoxication without dying, even a little nun-raping.
So you need to be pretty morally corrupt to relate to this movie as it follows a pretty messed up cop who is not just corrupt, but more of a criminal than most criminals. Harvey Keitel plays The Lieutenant, who at the beginning of the film just seems like a verbally abusive father and husband, and from this point on it is quite clear that the movie is going to a tough slog, as he uses cocaine pretty openly in a school carpark after dropping his kids off at school.
As this is a movie about one man it is pretty clear that this is more of a character study, rather than a film to digest. It is both disgusting and wildly appealing to watch this guy ruin himself and the lives of everybody around him, and see what the motivations are. In this way, Harvey Keitel does a magnificent job in this film, he in fact is somewhat too believable. It is an achievement that he was able to put himself in the situation of a completely catatonic person, it’s hard to watch, yet completely mesmerizing. It reminded me of the Oscar-winning performance of Nicolas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas although not as achingly hard to watch.
Another mention of the direction of this film, Abel Ferrara does a really spectacular job of bringing out the grime in this work. Each shot seems to have as much seediness in it as it possibly can, while also adding as much juxtaposition as possible to the subject matter to make the viewer realise how guilt and faith can go hand in hand, not just internally, but socially as well. Abel Ferrara is, at this point, a master of the B-Movie, with titles like the exploitation film Ms. 45, psycho-thriller The Driller Killer and the Independent cult-classic Kings of New York, but there is something special about this one, as it blurs the line between B-Movie and indie film, as it doesn’t rely on a camp and cheese to steer the plot, yet doesn’t feel like the kind of subject matter that an indie film would tackle.
While I did enjoy this movie, I did find it a little hard to deal with the morality of it, especially the scene where he makes two underage girls simulate sexual acts, while he is furiously masturbating, in order to avoid getting in trouble with the police. American History X, did a similar thing to me, I know that I really enjoyed it, but I don’t think I could bring myself to watch it again, it is just a little too raw.
It should also be mentioned that there is an unrelated sequel/ remake to this film that was directed my Warner Herzog called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, which stars Nicolas Cage, which is tonally much different from this film. It is much more outlandish and has “one of those” Nicolas Cage performances, which I love. It is ridiculous and even though the Lieutenant is just as worthless Nicolas Cage seems to be able to make you laugh more than cringe. It doesn’t really cut the B-Movie criteria, but it is still something that I can recommend.
If I learned anything from watching these movies is that none of them are Oscar contenders, but because they are so cheaply made, and often passionately made. B-Movies can occasionally have a complete originality, which then gets noticed and allows mainstream cinema to evolve from the generic and stale and influence new ideas.
I recently watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron and even though it was fine, it felt like every other Marvel MCU movie that has come out since Iron Man, I felt like I had seen it before. Watching these movies, it never felt like I had seen any of them before, it is bizarre to be refreshed by movies that were made well over twenty years ago, especially when I have seen plenty of films that are clearly heavily influenced by them (especially The Evil Dead).
So I like B-Movies, at least I liked these ones, I might try to tell you about some horrible ones, I am dying to watch The Room and Birdemic, so if I can find two or three more to talk about, I will write something else like this, just nowhere near as long. Let’s remember, don’t judge a book by its cover, or in this instance never judge a film by its status.