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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).
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.
- Corman, Roger. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, New ed. New York: Da Capo, 1998.
- Kaufman, Lloyd, Adam Jahnke, and Trent Make Your Own Damn Movie!: Secrets of a Renegade Director. New York: Macmillan, 2007.
- 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
- Schaefer, Eric. “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!”: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.