A short history of B Movies
B Movies started out in the Golden Age of Cinema (the late 20′s to the late 50′s) as a less publicized and typically lower budget film to be shown on the bottom half a double feature. The notion of specifically making movies to be shown in double features largely went to the wayside towards the late 50′s, but the b movie term has lasted. Since B Movies are typically of a lower budget and therefore less publicized, it would seem to imply that they are somehow crappier than headline movies but that is not always the case.
Many Golden Age B movies are tied to a specific genre like Westerns or Science Fiction and in some early cases, were even a short series that would have the same characters in them (like a genre specific TV show). B Movies were almost always shorter than their headlining counterparts usually having a run time of around 70 minutes or so. Another ubiquitous fact about B Movies is the general lack of interest from major movie critics. Exploitation films began to spread like wildfire and almost all of them were B movies. The connection is so great that even modern day movies with decent budgets are largely considered to be B films if they have exploitation-style material in them.
B Movies with training wheels
At times B movies can be associated with a kiddie pool. Many actors have honed their craft or made their way into headlining films through the B-Movie portal. Actors like John Wayne and Jack Nicholson started out in B-Movies and later went on to have fantastic careers. B movies are also a a place for former A list actors to get work. Actors like Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi starred in several B movies.
The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film – B Movies at their finest
The 1960′s was a time for change, and movies was no exception. Exploitation style films have started and showed no signs of slowing in the near future. Exploitation in this context is the style of film making that relies on exploiting sensational subject matter. Exploitation films are almost always low quality and have relied on sensational advertising involving large overstatements of the film itself. Exploitation films were shown regularly in the 70′s to coax people into coming to the drive in and Grindhouse theaters due to falling ticket sales.
Exploitation films made their start in the 1930′s and 40′s as ‘Cautionary Films’. These films got past the strict censorship codes by claiming to be educational in nature. These films would show the supposed dangers of Premarital sex and drug use. Movies like Reefer Madness were Cautionary exploitation films. Exploitation comes in many sub genres like: Biker films, Blaxploitation, Nudist films, Mockbusters, Mondo Films, Slasher films, etc. They all relied on sensational advertising and over exaggeration.
The Decline of the B Movie
The 1980′s marked the period of the decline of B Movies. As more and more major studios began focusing on expensive and higher quality genre movies the audience’s expectations began to raise quite a bit. The cost of making movies has increased into the millions of dollars and the B-movie film makers have a harder time getting noticed. There were a bunch of slasher films in the 80′s and some other notable horror pieces like ‘The Evil Dead‘ starring Bruce Campbell, but the over all b-movie culture began falling dramatically in the 80′s.
In the 90′s, 24 hour cable channels began using B movies as filler content and this supported the creation of more movies many of which were made specifically for that reason. The decline was even greater with the increase of un-edited movies being shown on cable, satellite televion and the huge popularity of home video. Even big B-Movie companies like Troma were vastly straight-to-video due to the large decline of non-chain theaters that showed genre pieces. B-movies took a different direction than previously done and usually went straight to cable or straight to video.
Movies like Pulp Fiction began blurring the lines of what a B-Movie was. Its ability to use an art house narrative, b-movie content, and a Hollywood cast began paving new roads for the B-Movie. In the 00′s the cost of making movies is in the tens of millions and up but the decline of analog methods and the increase of digital methods have made B movies a little cheaper to make. The newer digital processes also leave the older movies’ gritty nature behind.
Close but no Cigar
Some other terms that are associated with B Movies are:
- C-Movies – These movies are of a lower quality and budget than B-Movies and are typically associated with cable televion. The C-Movie name comes from two ways of looking at it, 1 it implies that its worse than B movies, and 2 it is a C movie from its Cable TV reference.
- Z-Movies – These are extremely low or ‘no’ budget films of a terrible quality. A lot of the films associated as Z movies are many of Ed Wood’s films like Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space.
B Movies are great in their own right, and usually press through more boundaries than their blockbuster counter parts, and for that I commend them.