B Movies Essay

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B movies  are  motion   pictures   characterized  by their  low  budgets   and  short   production  times. While often  examples  of a particular genre, such as western, horror, or science fiction, the traditionally  derogatory  appellation “B  movie”  often  is used to imply that  the filmmakers  were more concerned  with  profit   than   with  artistic   vision  or quality.  Since the  1990s,  B movies  have  enjoyed increased  attention both  as ironic objects of camp appreciation and as works of art in and of themselves.

History Of B Movies

While many viewers believe that the “B” stands for “bad,” the  name  actually  traces  its  roots  to  the “double feature.” From  the  1930s  to  the  1970s, movie  theaters  regularly  showed  two  movies  for the price of one: (1) the A movie, which had a high budget  and  established  movie stars,  and  (2) the B movie. These  B movies,  though  produced by the same  Hollywood studios  as the  accompanying A movies,   were   frequently   shorter   and   of  lower quality.

With the decline of the double feature, the term B movies  began  to  merge  with  “exploitation” to describe low-budget, independent movies that played at single-screen theaters called “grindhouses.” While  B movies  always  had  lower  production  budgets than A movies, the “exploitation” films,  which  date  back   to  the  earliest   days  of filmmaking,  had  even lower  budgets.  These films often employed graphic (for their era) violence, language,  and  nudity  and  dealt  with  taboo  topics such   as  venereal   diseases,   miscegenation, and abortion. The  B movies  of  the  1970s  continued this   practice    by   elevating   one   or   some   of their  features—be   it  sex  (“sexploitation”), race (“Blaxploitation”), shock value (“shocksploitation”), and  so on—to  attract an  audience.  These films were among  the first to feature  women  (e.g., Pam  Grier  in  Foxy  Brown),   African  Americans (e.g., Richard  Roundtree in Shaft), or Asians (e.g., Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon)  as protagonists in action  films.

B movies continue today in the form of straight-to-cable, digital versatile disc, or video-on-demand releases. While B movies continue  to be primarily genre  pictures  featuring  gratuitous sex  and  violence, since the millennium,  they have increasingly been  of  the  “mocksploitation” type,  in  which  a quickly   made,   low-budget  knockoff   attempts to  profit  from  the  attention surrounding a  bigbudget,  mainstream release  (e.g., a  movie  called Transmorphers was  released  at  the  same  time  as the big-budget  Transformers).

The Auteurs

While B movies carry the reputation of being poorquality “quickies,” starting  in the 1960s and 1970s there  were a handful  of B movie filmmakers  who brought to their  films artistic  and  aesthetic  sensibilities  that  reveal  concerns  beyond  cost  cutting and quick turnarounds.

The so-called King of the Bs was Roger Corman. Corman’s  title was ironic given that  he made only one true B movie, that  is, one intended  as the second movie in a double  feature.  Nonetheless, in his more   than   60-year-long  career,   Corman  made more  than  100  low-budget genre  films featuring unknown actors  and directors.  Famously, Corman mentored many young actors (e.g., Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda) and directors  (e.g., Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese), often giving them their first jobs in front  of or behind  a camera.

On  the  more  lurid  side,  the  filmmaker   Russ Meyer became famous for making low-budget sexploitation films featuring  large-breasted actresses. Over  the  course  of  his  decades-long   career,  he made dozens of movies that, in addition to emphasizing sex, employed  the  kind  of campy  sense of humor  that  would  become a prominent feature  of most B movies in the decades to come.

Similarly, George  Romero  came to prominence as a B movie director  for his series of horror films, which popularized the “zombie” as a film monster. While the B movies of the 1940s  and 1950s  were often  clearly  influenced  by the  widespread paranoia about  nuclear weapons  (e.g., Them)  or fear of the  spread  of  communism   (e.g.,  Invasion   of  the Body Snatchers), Romero’s films directly and unambiguously dealt  with  issues  such  as  racism (e.g., Night  of the Living  Dead) and consumerism (e.g., Dawn  of the Dead).

The B Studios

Beginning  in  the  late  1970s,  as  the  grindhouses began to shut their doors,  B production shifted to the  “straight-to-video” market. One  of  the  first independent studios  was Lloyd Kaufman’s  Troma Entertainment. Often  called “Z  movies,”  in reference to their even lower than B movie budgets and production values, Troma  films such as The Toxic Avenger  and  Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD feature  violence, gore, sex, and a campy sense of humor  that hearkens  back  to the films of Russ Meyer. Troma functioned  like a caricature of a golden age Hollywood studio  in  miniature as  it  reused  the same actors,  props,  sets, wardrobes, and  so on in film after film.

Building on the Troma  model but achieving far more  financial  success, The Asylum has, since its founding   in  the   late   1990s,   made   dozens   of low-budget, straight-to-video films and, like Corman, claims  to  have  never  lost  money  on  a production. The Asylum specializes in “mocksploitation” (e.g.,  The  DaVinci  Treasure)  or  disaster (e.g., Sharknado) movies, and its films possess the campy  sense of humor  that  has become  the  hallmark  of B movies.

While  the  majority   of  B movies  are  cheaply made films of dubious  quality, they have also from the start  been a space for people unrepresented in mainstream films, a venue for taboo  topics, a first break for young filmmakers and actors, and an opportunity to satirize and comment  on both society and filmmaking  itself.

Bibliography:

  1. Corman, Roger. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never  Lost  a Dime,  New ed. New York: Da Capo, 1998.
  2. Kaufman, Lloyd, Adam Jahnke,  and Trent  Make Your  Own Damn  Movie!: Secrets of a Renegade Director.  New York: Macmillan, 2007.
  3. Potts, Rolf. “The New B Movie.”  The New  York  Times (October 7, 2007). http://www.nytimes. com/2007/10/07/magazine/07wwln-essay-t.html?_r=0
  4. Schaefer, Eric. “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A History  of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

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