I've thought a lot about B-movies lately.
The resurgence of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" likely had something to do with it. My continued march through my DVD "Universal Monsters" collection also played a part. Above all else, I'm thrilled that my short story "Murder in the Third" has been accepted for publication in Theater B. It will be a fantastic compendium of stories celebrating the movies you might have stumbled upon in the far-off aisles of the video store, or long treks into the wilderness of late night cable. Follow/like the publisher, A Murder of Storytellers, and keep looking back here for more information on a release date and purchase details soon.
But just what does the "B" in B-movies stand for? You might think "bad", right?
They tend to have lower budgets, and with those restrictions, a greater freedom in subject matter. They can be weirder than the A-movies that in days past would have led off the weekend double feature.
Some of the greatest movies ever are steeped in the tradition of the "B." Raiders of the Lost Ark was the B-movie brought to life on an A-budget. Alfred Hitchcock shot Psycho with the same crew and budget as an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan used stock footage and re-purposed sets.
The B-movie is often better than A-movie, for my money. Anybody want to say that Cleopatra used its 300 million-plus budget* to be a better movie than Psycho? Anybody want to say Episode I would be as bad if George Lucas had the same budget restrictions and hostile studio that he had on the original Star Wars?
"Bad" B-movies aren't even objectively bad, either. Here's a list of just a few B-movies that I genuinely, unironically love. Let's jump right in.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
The Citizen Kane of bad movies**. But, have you seen it? I mean, have you really seen it? I don't mean to ask have you seen the third act of Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Have you actually been able to stand the full 80 minutes of shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space?
If you have not, you have not seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be seen. Yeah, Shakespeare was all about stock footage and lost footage of Bela Lugosi. Look it up.
This isn't worthy of hate-watching. Within its Zen-like disinterest in continuity and 100% more Criswell than any of the Transformers movies, beats a purely joyful heart. It's better than most best picture winners. There I've said it.
And honestly, when you break the film down to its component parts, isn't the pitch for this movie kind of awesome on its face? Aliens invade Earth by bringing the dead back to life.
Why hasn't Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes remade this movie already? Probably because Criswell's dead. They could try to re-cast his role with another chronically incorrect prognosticator, but they're all running for President at the moment.
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
Yep. Spanish for Hands: The Hands of Fate. Where Plan 9 left off with the B-movie (all right... z-movie), Manos: The Hands of Fate continued and may have broken the art of cinema for all time. Shot by an El Paso fertilizer salesman on cameras that did not record sound and could only record 32 seconds of film at a time. And it shows!
Lurching through its interminable 69-minute run time is an endurance test. Manos is a film difficult to love.
Until you meet Torgo.
Played by John Reynolds, what would have been a satyr-like creature meant to strike fear into the hearts of moviegoers everywhere ended up as a bow-legged mumbler that contributed a good twenty minutes to the proceedings.
Reynolds committed suicide shortly before the movie's release. For years, urban legends sprang up indicating that many if not all of those associated with Manos took their own life after seeing the film. Not so. Reynolds never saw the film, and no other suicides were noted in the cast and crew. According to those that knew him, Reynolds suffered for some time with a combination of mental illness and drug addiction, and that condition proved fatal. His end wasn't a reaction to a film that forgot to edit the clapboard out of a scene.
He spent his young life trying to make it as an actor in a place that was never going to give him a living in such a vocation. Now, for better or worse, he is immortalized in a film role that is far more memorable than nearly every A-movie that ever was or will be.
Hercules in New York (a.k.a. Hercules goes Bananas) (1966)
In his first movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger (credited as Arnold Strong***) has a fist-fight in Central Park with a man in a bear costume. If you need anything else to watch this movie yesterday, I don't know what to do with you anymore.
Oh? You want more? I'll give you more. An unknown actor dubs over Arnold's voice. It's trippier than the last 45 minutes of 2001.
What B-movies do you genuinely love?
Tell me in the comments. A bright shiny donkey to the first one that makes me reply with "Ooh! That's a good one; I don't care what anyone says!"
*In 2016 dollars.
**Mainly because I'm going to spend 6 years of my life detailing Ed Wood's long forgotten odyssey against the dread Beowulf.
***Confusingly coupled with a sidekick played by character actor Arnold Stang. Strong and Stang. They were this close to being the new Laurel and Hardy. This. Close.