After careful consideration, although the proper nomenclature designation for this would probably be B-rated movie or less appropriately B-movie, (definitely not B-Grade Movie), I recently admonished someone else for making a big deal over my using drive by shooting when the proper usage is technically drive-by shooting, so rather than be overly anal about this (and when it comes to B-rated movies I can be rather anal, as they are a labor of love to me) I'll just put this damn thing here, if you don't mind. Alright? Excellent. Let's begin.
B don't mean bad!
Read on, Grasshopper and learn the truth...
This has nothing to do with Movie Ratings
from the MPAA
. It's an entirely different kettle of fish
Back in the infancy of film making and distribution, movie theaters would generally show a little more than just the trailers and feature presentation that they show today. In fact back in the 1920s before the Great Depression, going to your local cinema was a much bigger to-do than it is today. People used to dress up in fancy outfits, they served drinks back in those days and some places offered full meals. Back in the day what some could call Dinner and a Movie would actually happen in the same building. Nowadays people appear dressed as if they made a detour on the way to a football game, and if you're lucky you get very expensive popcorn and watered down soda. And all we get is trailers: previews of other movies. And it's getting to the point where previews are so long you forget which movie you're watching.
But almost a century ago it was different. A gentleman with a flashlight would direct you to your seat, and you would be witness to a splendid full length feature, but only after seeing the newsreel, a few cartoons, a serial episode, and other assorted little entertaining tidbits of cinematic wonder. People liked this back then. It was all new. The idea of seeing moving pictures on a screen bigger than your grandmother's greatest effort at quiltmaking? Wow. No really they were quite literally on the edge of their seat just watching Betty Boop looking out the window. It really was quite fascinating. People would spend entire afternoons there for the matinee, and taking someone out to the movies at night would be an all-night affair.
Then the stock market crashed in 1929 and suddenly a lot of people had slightly more important concerns before them than whether or not Flash Gordon got out of that spaceship in time before the big crash. People started going to the theaters less and less. And those movie houses which didn't fold under from the initial financial onslaught that followed, slowly saw what was left of their corporate empires crumbling. No people in the seats meant no future revenue, which meant no future movies.
So theater chains like Loews and RKO thought of a number of advertising campaigns, publicity gimmicks and even underhanded dirty tricks if necessary, in order to get the public to notice the movie houses again. One of the many ideas they came up with was called the double feature.
Whereas before they had only one feature, this time they would start the evening's festivities with one full-length film, then they'd have a commercial saying "let's go back to the lobby" repeatedly and like lemmings everyone did, to buy more food. Said movie theater food got cheaper for the movie houses to make but more expensive for people to buy, thus beginning a tradition that still exists today. This also started yet another tradition: sneaking food into the movie theater. The only redeeming form of sustenence in a movie theater is the movie pickle, and even that can be argued. After the intermission they'd play the second feature. Now at first, they continued playing the other trailers and serials and cartoons in between the features, but since they didn't really want people sitting down during the intermission but instead wanted them up and buying food, by the end of World War II playing cartoons and other smaller features at movie theaters became obsolete.
Notice the trend here of finding cheaper ways to bring more people into the movie theater? People who own movie distribution centers have a vested interest to make the film marketable to a non corpse watching audience. Sometimes they make decisions that benefit both the viewer and the owner, but most times their goal is to benefit themselves, and if it benefits the ticket buyer as well, that's just icing on the cake. Well, the first of the two features then became the equivalent of what the serials and cartoons and trailers used to be. People would invariably show up to all performances late. So it wouldn't be until the feature presenation began that everyone was all tucked into their seats and ready for the reason they showed up in the first place: to see Gone With The Wind or some big movie like that. The entire theater would rarely be filled for the first feature due to a human being's general tendency for tardiness. So after awhile movie houses got hip to that and started spending less money on the first feature. Basically the cheapest piece of crap they could find would be the first of the double feature, so they could still advertise they were presenting the world with an amazing double feature but it would actually be one good feature and one bad one. The good movies were top of the line and the other feature would inevitably be second rate.
The farming industry used to (well I guess they still do) label the quality of their meat and poultry much the same way. With "A" as good quality. "B" became the next logical choice for "less than A quality." So farmers would nonchalantly look at how the movie industry was treating their intelligence, and refer to the movies in the same way. It caught on, and today we still use the term B movie for anything that sucks worse than a chicken's lips. Hollywood even took this a step further. Since to movie moguls and executives, the star talent was little more than their equivalent of cattle, they started calling their top-of-the-line actors "A-quality talent." The cheaper talent was known by the B designation, and some might even call them movie prostitutes. Of course, to their FACES the Top Brass would call them all movie stars, but you get the idea. And when a lot of talent is asked to audition for a role in a movie, the term is still called a cattle call even today.
There. So now ya know.
The Attack of the Killer B-Movies
So in case anyone has ever looked at the sheer breadth of really bad movies, and how they ever got made in the first place, it's because of the great human tendency to perpetually minimize costs and maximize profits by catering to the lowest bidder
. In fact, during the 1950s there was a veritable explosion of real bad cinema, making it impossible for all time to ever deduce what exactly is the worst movie ever made
. For every Twelve Angry Men
there were a baker's dozen
with the quality of 13 Ghosts
or worse. Abbott and Costello
came out with roughly a dozen films in this time period alone, all of which were hastily constructed and designed for maximum humor effect at least cost.
Despite the ups and downs of film making, a lot of people have made at least a tolerable living by working in theater in this way. Two of the more notworthy examples in cinematic history are Ed Wood and Roger Corman. These gents could make a terribly delightful film on a shoestring budget like nobody else in the world before or since. Though the quality has often been questionable, movie executives would prefer working with someone like this as opposed to an artiste like Orson Welles or Charlie Chaplin. Movie executives always prefer catering to the man who understands their bottom-line and knows how to operate within it. Some say this is all at the expense of the consumer, but hey. They're just movies. This isn't art is it?
Actually yes it is. However, the greatest art of history has been spurned on by adversity and restraint: rebellion in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Throughout art history one can see towering examples of men who were forced by governments to find creative ways to express themselves without finding their head on the business end of a guillotine. The only difference between Marcel Duchamp and Ed Wood is that while Duchamp attempted to get the world to understand EVERYTHING IS ART -- that BREATHING IS ART, Ed Wood was trying to get people to understand that he was a lunatic whose thoughts wouldn't be accepted in modern day society but that he had no choice but to think them so damn it BUY TICKETS TO MY PIECE OF CRAP MOVIES CUZ I STILL HAVE TO PUT FOOD ON THE TABLE!
Well okay. Actually there's nothing at all comparing the two when you get right down to it, but both men felt equally restricted and confined by the social constraints of economy, politics and social restrictions of thought, and they each handled it in their own way. Money was (and is) inevitably the greatest restriction on creative thought in the 20th century. It's amazing to be witness to how some people pull it off: working with what does exist to tell stories which prior to the completion of the film did not exist. It's quite fascinating. And in the 1990s, a man named Joel Hodgson helped B-rated movies to finally get the attention and adoration they deserved, on the merits to which they had come to expect.
So there has been throughout the latter half of the 20th century a growing appreciation for the artform known as the B-rated movie. Each one is an accomplishment in and of itself. That such things can even exist is a miracle, and that we can now through the glory of modern technology appreciate them at our own pleasure in the privacy of our own homes if desired, well the mind just boggles.
And the movie houses are still trying to figure out even today how to get us out to the theater, when we can just wait six months to rent the video. The Drive-in movie theater died from such apathy. Can the indoor movie house be far behind?
How to spot a B movie
Whether you desire to someday be an connoisseur movie buff
of the all-time great movie turkeys
, or if you just want to learn how to avoid them, there's a number of ways to tell if a movie is amazingly incredibly wonderfully bad. This is not an inclusive list but it's a good start.
- The Title - Chances are if the title starts with a phrase like "The Attack of..." or "The Beast of..." or "The Curse of..." or "The Horror of..." or if anywhere in the title there's an adjective like "Incredible" or "Amazing" or "Unearthly" or something like that, you're probably looking at a B-rated movie right there.
- The Publicity - If the advertising for the film concentrates more on the fact that there's going to be a lot of blood and gore, or a lot of special effects, or some gigantic lizard thing stampeding large cities, or if there's little to no mention of any talented actors and no indication of a logical plotline, it's because odds are such things don't exist in the film being advertised, and the guys in advertising had nothing else with which to get your attention but the fact this movie is loud and probably disgusting. So I'd recommend you go see it anyway.
- The Budget - Though this is not always a guarantee nowadays, chances are if the film was made for about the amount of money it costs today to buy a car (see the Blair Witch Project) you're probably looking at a low budget film - hence the name. This may not necessarily mean it's going to be bad, but it will be very creative at points in how it shows extraordinary things in comparatively cheap ways. That's what makes a lot of bad movies fun to watch. There's also times however when tens of millions of dollars are thrown into a money pit of a film, and the result is less appealing than a low budget Golden Turkey. I cite the recent American response to Godzilla as a prime example. God that was terrible.
- Does it have Dracula, Frankenstein, the Werewolf or the Mummy in it? Especially if it's a black and white film, chances are it's a B-rated movie. Many of the vampire movies in recent years would also qualify, especially John Carpenter's Vampires.
- Is it a porno movie or a snuff film? Those things are B-rated on purpose. Also, though sometimes treated with a bit more respect, indie films and art films are also created with a very low budget hoping to create something that people will actually watch. sex and blood just tends to have a greater financial return than art for art's sake. Kinda makes one wonder about the Human Condition.
- Did Quentin Tarantino make it? - I'm only partially joking here.
- Does it have any common movie misconceptions in it? Does it have a gratuitous boat chase in it? Or perhaps the gratuitous car chase? If you actually watch the show, does it appear to have stuff in it just because it seems someone felt it should be in there, and consequently since it has nothing to do with any of the rest of the film whatsoever it doesn't belong in there at all? That's usually a dead give-away. Most formulaic movies fit the criteria for bad. Contrary to some director's opinions, every film does not need a ninja.
- Is it a sequel? - This isn't always the case but sometimes sequels are made at small expense because the movie makers know an audience will see it even if it consists of puppets and stick figures, just because the first movie did so well. They may also put a lot of money into it, but not be able to get the original talent from the first movie to come back, which also weakens its chances. And sequels are never able to live up to the original anyway.
- Is it a made-for-TV movie? - Nowadays many movies are either purposefully made for television, or were intended for the screen but never make it. Another way to tell is to see if the film went straight to video. If so, it's probably a modern day equivalent of the classic b-rated movie.
- Is it a cult film? - If the film has aquired a small cult following: a vocal group of obsessed fans who memorize lines of dialogue, dress up like characters in the film, and see the movie every chance they can get, it's probably a B-rated movie. Examples of true cult classics would include the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Buckaroo Banzaii Across the Eighth Dimension, Phantasm, and the original Night of the Living Dead.
- Does it have any terrible movie accents in it? - Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies are perfect examples. Sometimes a person's accent is real, but it's still pretty bad, like Mel Gibson in the original The Road Warrior, and the guy they dubbed him with wasn't much better. Then there's any movie that Kevin Costner is in where he's playing someone who should have an accent, but Costner completely fails to owe up to it.
- Is it an odd numbered Star Trek movie? - The even ones are great. The odds ones are B-rated. Might have cost them millions of dollars but though not low budget, they still fit much of the criteria.
- Was it MSTed? - There's a long list of films in the ten season run of the cable television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 which were hazed and razzed by the people who ran that program. If you can find a complete list of all films ever subjected to the incredibly hilarious scrutiny of that series, you'd know for certain it was a B-rated movie. They only settled for the absolute worst on that show. God I miss those guys.
- Did Leonard Maltin call it a BOMB? - At the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) you can find film critic Leonard Maltin's summaries of thousands of movies. To be specific, putting this into the address bar will give you a tell-tale sign: http://us.imdb.com/List?maltin-score=1 If he gave a movie a score of one, that's a good gauge. All in all he's done that to 987 movies to date. He's not always entirely accurate, but in my experience if he hated it, I'll probably find something about it that makes it worth my while to see. =)
- Does it have Hong Kong Movie Subtitles? - This isn't always a sure-fire way to tell, but if there's also a guy on the screen in a big green costume smashing up toy models of Tokyo, you're probably right.
- Does it have a catch phrase designed to make you forget that a movie sucks?
There are notable exceptions to these rule. As I mentioned before, some big budget blockbuster
s with expensive everything would apply as bad movies. The third and fourth Christopher Reeve
sequels to Superman
the movie for example. Terrible, but expensive. Some would argue that Woody Allen
films are B-rated movies, though diehard obsessed Woody Allen fans would heatedly argue the point. And there have been times when someone's taken very little money and done something incredibly amazing with it. And there are cult favorites which are arguably not B-rated movies, like Pink Floyd's The Wall
. It's hard to measure sometimes, and falls into subjective individual taste. Ultimately posterity
will be the final judge
s. However, you are inherently the only judge of what good taste in films
really means. Even if the rest of the world thinks a given movie is bunk, if YOU like it, that's all that really matters, doesn't it?
The Low Budget Metanode