The B-movie Legacy

As long as there has been movies there has B-movies, the bastard child of the film industry, unwelcome and unloved by the studios but holding a special place in the heart of many movie-lovers. The B-movies have an important cinematic legacy as a breeding ground for new technology and new artistic talent. The last 3D craze was brought about by the B-movie and many of our biggest directors and actors got their breaks filming these low budget marvels. Would we have Jack Nicholson or Jonathan Demme or even Francis Ford Coppola without them? Prompted by the release of Piranha 3D I’m taking a look back at the B-movie legacy.

B-movies started out as the second part of double features, usually starring the same actor(s), but by the 1950s had taken on a life of their own. Ordinarily these features were made at a fraction of the cost of their bigger brothers leading film-makers to focus on tauter plots and achievable effects. Many of the early B-movies were Western and low budget sci-fi flicks but horror was to become a steady staple in no time. Of these the Hammer horrors, with Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price were probably the best examples and certainly the most successful. These films proved that a big budget was not necessary to scare an audience or make them believe in a story. The rise of television may have seen the studio studio flounder but for the B-movie this was a golden age. As drive-in theatres sprang up around the US millions flocked to see such classics as Kiss Me Deadly and Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Soviet threat drove a series of atomic fuelled nightmare pictures, while the new teenage generation flocked to features like I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The studios weren’t long about copping on to this new wave of cinema however and tired of losing money to TV soon were producing B-type movies of their own.

Freedom of speech and the loosening of censorship laws in the US during the early 60’s saw a  different type of B-movie emerge, exploitation. This films brought a more violent and sexual image to the screen with Russ Meyer a particular exponent of this genre. Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was made for a modest $800,000, led to an increase in so called slasher flicks and traditional horror like the Hammer films of the 50’s went away. In fact Hammer and other were soon incorporating even more blood and nudity into there movies, which detracted from the core principles that had made them sucessful in the first place. B-movies were becoming more mass-audience orientated and less artistic as a result. That’s not to say that the movies were bad persay, some like George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead stand tall as prime examples of not just B-movies but movies in general.

Into the 70’s and another change in B-movies was emerging. After gaining their civil rights more and more black actors and directors were finding their voices through the medium of cinema. This led to the creation of Blaxplotion films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which were designed to appeal to a very particular audience but ended up attracting fans from all races. So called cult movies began to rise in prominence too with the era seeing films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show find a steady and often repeat audience. Whole events became planned around such movies, which featured midnight screening and audiences clad in non-traditional attire. Horror too was making a welcome return to its roots, mixing strong plots with the modern craving for blood and guts. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas and Halloween: all brilliant, all perfect examples of what the B-movie could do. Another big hit and an important movie for several reasons was Piranha, Joe Dante’s creature-feature parody of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It’s legacy? The career of director Dante, who would go on to make such classics as Gremlins and The ‘Burbs, and the start for one Mr. James Cameron, who cut his teeth on the sequel.

The 80’s saw B-movies decline and that was not really a surprise. The success of Jaws and Star Wars, and really the birth of the summer blockbuster in general saw studios essentially make B-movies but for bigger budgets. The dawn of video too saw less and less people willing to fork out big money for an unknown quantity. The decline of the B saw the rise of the independent movie, small budget but more focused on the artistic aspect of cinema rather than appealing to a mass audience. This was the exact reversal of the 60’s and it shows how fickle the film industry, and cinematic audience can be. There was however one movie, and one film-maker that defied the new convention, daring to make essentially a splatter-fest horror, on a shoe-string. That man was Sam Raimi, and his movie The Evil Dead is still one of the best B-movies ever made. Some like The Nightmare on Elm Street could have been considered B-movies, but with a $2 million budget from a studio the lines were beginning to blur. The B-movie became consigned to straight-to-video hell but it held on during the late 80’s and 90’s.

The 2000’s saw the resurgence begin, with digital video offering a cheap means of production and movies such as Primer and The Blair Witch Project showing what could be achieved with a hand-held camera and some savvy marketing. The rise of the internet also gave would be film-makers a medium to promote and display their vision for peanuts, with fans and enthusiasts spreading their message for free. So the B-movie has adapted to it’s place in the world and a new generation is embracing such stellar classics as Titanic 2 and Air Disaster. Not really B-movies but more spoofs on their big-budget brothers. That is why the release of a movies such as Piranha 3D, which harks back to the glory days of the 1970’s is so welcome. Welcome back big B.