In this short series of features, Tom Jolliffe will look at the humble B Movie and everything below. From the golden period of B cinema, to the rise in popularity of the B picture, to the underground mavericks making films on a shoe string from the 50’s right up to the present.
To begin with, lets look at the B movie. The terminology over the years has kind of evolved into a variety of interpretations. Everything from people using it as a derogatory term, to the actual qualifications of the B movie. Some pass it off as low budget. To an extent that was largely true in the distant history of Hollywood. The term initially spawned to represent the ‘other’ film of a double bill. Usually the low budget, low rent film (or the one with the B level star). More classically it also points to your premise or genre. Anything that might be deemed low brow, or silly, that may set logic away from a basis of some reality. Think Ray Harryhausen films in the 50’s and 60’s. Films set on alien worlds or in space. Horror and sci-fi in particular was almost instantly badged as B material. The Western genre was an odd one, often flitting in and out of the B categorisation. But in the 50’s and 60’s, at their peak, they were big productions, with some huge stars, and they attracted large audiences.
Back during the Hollywood production code era, of manufactured and carefully studio controlled policing and marketing of movie stars (and directors etc.), it would have been nigh-on impossible to cross between A (never particularly referred to as this, but for the sake of this point…) and B movies. For someone like Boris Karloff, or later, Vincent Price, they found themselves perennially attached to B movies, certainly as leading men. It could also represent something of a death knell for actors or directors. Very few could cross between the two. Alfred Hitchcock, by that point highly influential in cinema was afforded the ability to shock and surprise, and as such he could make films like Psycho or The Birds in his own imitable style, which in other circumstances may have been made more conventionally, and far cheaper, outside the studio system. In an alternate universe somewhere, Ed Wood made The Birds.
Still, like anything, movies live or die by audience. There was an appetite for the B movie. In their own right, to perhaps a less discerning audience, the likes of Karloff, or the Chaneys, Price and Christopher Lee, all had their fans. The 50’s and 60’s would become particularly busy. The Hollywood system relaxed its grip, which allowed for a rogue group of exploitation film-makers to jump in and make movies. In the silent era of course, at the beginning of film, everyone was a maverick, a rogue, a trailblazer in an industry discovering and experimenting in its medium. In the late 50’s, Ed Wood with all the passion and madness of a Howard Hughes, set about making films on a shoe string. Roger Corman started in a similar ilk but found a level of success someone like Wood couldn’t, and eventually had his own production company. The Corman branding is still making films to this day. It’s where Martin Scorsese got his start. More on Corman and his ilk in the next part.
Then something happened in the late 70’s. B movies were still churned out with regularity but from the late 60’s until around 77, Hollywood was very serious, very dark. Even many of the underground filmmakers, following a blazed trail set by Europe, were now focusing on re-envisioning dramatic concepts. A director like John Cassavetes would make a film outside the system that fought against the ground rules, and become an inspiration to almost every kitchen sink indie drama made in the modern era (even if those film-makers don’t realise it). The Blaxploitation era was in vogue in the early 70’s, capturing audiences and catering to wider demographics. There was some dark subject matter, but still done with a swagger and style, and injection of humour that the gritty era of mainstream Hollywood was moving away from. Where B movies would capture an outsider audience historically, that would change thanks to a galaxy far, far away.
The surprise success of Star Wars, which was never expected to achieve anything like it did at the box office, showed that a big shift in audience tastes was coming. The huge historic epics had worn thin. Westerns were out of fashion and that decade of pessimism was starting to wear on audiences. Spielberg had already found success with a movie about a killer shark. Tides were changing. By the early 80’s, the blockbuster was a substantial entity. Spielberg, Lucas, Ridley Scott et al were relishing fantasy and science fiction and these were the big budget studio films. Of course your classic dramas and Oscar bait films were still being made, but more and more, money was being piled into attracting audiences with the fantastic. More Star Wars films. Indiana Jones. Time travelling DeLoreans. The kind of films which were historically B films were slowly consuming cinema. Into the 90’s. Dinosaurs return. The revolutionising of computer technology was opening more avenues to film-makers. To this point now the growth in the tech and reliance upon it has grown exponentially. Now we find ourselves in a time where almost anything can be imagined on screen to epic scales and relentless levels of carnage.
Who rules the cinemas now? Disney, an all encompassing, all consuming force now oversees its own blockbusters as well as having Pixar and Marvel under its wing. Films are costing several hundred million dollars for production (before the mass marketing push costs are even taken into account) and the ones being greenlit at this scale are all what would classically have been described as B movies. Whether it’s Avengers (which made in the 60’s would probably only have been made by someone like Corman, perhaps with some help by Harryhausen) or Batman, or whoever. B movies still have their perennial underground placings too and their cult audiences, but it has become more tiered than ever, and the ability to shoot and distribute genre films from a couple of thousand bucks spent, to half a billion has opened the B movie across so many levels. Now we have further classifications like Z movie, or C grade, to further distinguish these levels.
Hitchcock had already done it, but a decade ago, film-makers, lead by Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman, were starting to take B movies seriously. Something like The Dark Knight given the intensity and seriousness, and grounding of an Oscar film. Suddenly the predominant remit for these B movies wasn’t just about fun. Of course, film-making craft was always given importance in the rise of the blockbuster, in no small part because someone like Spielberg takes his job seriously and won’t sell himself short. It’s not like the old days of ham fisted actors and silly dialogue (you still get that in many of course). Still, Nolan approached his film like he was David Lean making something worldly, deadly serious and Oscar worthy. But of course we now do not think of these mega budget films as B movies even if the material and genre would have historically been categorised as that.
As with anything, tastes change and the dark gritty blockbuster is falling out of fashion again, with audiences increasingly attracted to escapist fun and thrills. For one, many have followed in the wake of someone like Nolan with a lot less skill, but further, the MCU has managed to find a perfect balance of fun, frolics, humour and drama. The formula, for now, is the one which most arouses audiences. Still, we’re far removed from the tastes and attitudes of the 60’s and before. What used to be looked on with a degree of scorn and dismissive derision is now the predominant force keeping the big screen industry alive. You still get cinephiles who dismiss the B picture as inherently, and inescapably silly. Even someone like Ethan Hawke last year took flak for comments about Logan which boiled down to (paraphrasing) ‘it was good for a comic book film, but it’s not Bergman.’ Whilst he’s correct to a point, he is in fact the minority. The largest audience demographics are opting for escapism over intense human character deconstruction.
Students of film may point to the rise of the B movie as the predominant force behind something of a decline in great drama in the 21st century. I myself, looking at a cinematic point of view, particularly if focusing on American cinema, would call the 70’s the golden era for powerful, ground-breaking, gritty and intense drama. Are ‘straight’ films dropping in number? Are studios becoming less inclined to fund these when audiences are clearly shifting toward fun? Probably. Even looking down the budget scale, indie film-makers, even at a point where it’s cheaper and more efficient than ever to shoot films, are struggling to get dramatic pieces made and funded (beyond focusing on timely matter or demographic pushes). Yet, the micro-budget horror market is booming. It’s easier to get 10 grand to make a horror and far easier to sell it, than to make a heartfelt drama. Times have definitely changed.
In the next instalment, we will look at the mavericks of B cinema. The trailblazers who opened up horizons for film-makers from big to small scale.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/