Film: Attack of the Killer B’s

If legendary movie mogul Jack Warner rose from his grave and looked at the films recently released by the studio he founded with his brothers in 1918, he would probably fall over in shock. He would consider the kind of movies that currently dominate studio slates (Science Fiction, Comic Book, Action, Horror) to be B-Movies, as opposed to the prestigious A-Movies the studios prided themselves upon. Back in the day, B-Movies were produced on a shoestring budget by independent producers or those on the lowest rungs of the studio system. When the Batman comic books were first brought to the big screen in 1943, they were produced by the most disdained department at Columbia Pictures: the Serial Department. The four-hour long serial was filmed on a miniscule budget. Batman wore baggy tights and drove an ordinary sedan. No one would have considered spending a penny more on an adaptation of a comic book. By the time Warner Brothers released The Dark Knight in 2008, the budget was north of $100 million and the film was among the most highly anticipated releases of the year. Although Mr. Warner wouldn’t recognize most of the movies his old company produces (except the romantic comedies, which are still stuck in a 1950’s time warp), he would be very pleased with the massive profits they generate.

When MGM, the studio that billed itself as having “More Stars than there are in Heaven,” deigned to enter the 1950’s Sci-Fi craze with Forbidden Planet (1956), they were actually so embarrassed that they based the story on a William Shakespeare play (The Tempest, in case you’re curious) and the theories of Sigmund Freud (resulting in the film’s unforgettable “Monster from the Id”). Today, MGM executives would find it embarrassing if they green-lit anything to do with Shakespeare, while being infinitely proud of their latest Science Fiction epic. Over the past thirty-five years, Hollywood has turned itself upside down. The studios now lavish most of their vast, but not unlimited, financial resources on movies they once would have considered trash.

In the 1930s and 40s, Hollywood started making B-Movies (also known as Programmers), cheap genre pictures designed to play the bottom-half of double features. Until the late 1940s, most American movie theaters were owned by the Hollywood studios.

With complete vertical control of film production, distribution and exhibition, the studios exercised control over what you could see at your local theater. In 1948, a government anti-trust ruling forced the studios to divest themselves of their theaters. This action opened the door for independent producers. Since the independents couldn’t compete with Hollywood’s financial resources, they featured the down-and-dirty thrills the censorship-bound studios couldn’t offer, making the 50s, 60s and 70s a golden age for B-Movies. With the relaxation of censorship, independent producers flooded America’s drive-ins and grindhouses with monsters, killers, biker gangs, juvenile delinquents, bad girls and drugs, all flavored with heavy doses of sex and violence. Secure in their success and respectability, the studios ignored the entertaining orgy of depravity flourishing in their shadow.

Few filmmakers thrived more during this period than filmmaker/producer Roger Corman. Working on tiny budgets, Corman directed numerous entertaining and intelligent films like Masque of the Red Death, Pit and the Pendulum, Not of This Earth, A Bucket of Blood and The Wild Angels. Some of his films were literally made for no money—his classic horror comedy The Little Shop of Horrors was written in three days, and filmed in two, on the leftover sets and budget from another picture. Along with his fellow “Kings of the Bs” like American International Pictures’ Samuel Z. Arkoff, Corman had his finger on the pulse of a new generation of young moviegoers. His films, like the 1967 psychedelic drug freak-out The Trip, reflected the volcanic changes taking place in America at the time. However, his greatest influence on American cinema was as a producer who was always willing to mentor young filmmakers and actors. His protégés include Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, James Cameron, Bruce Dern, Ron Howard, Peter Fonda, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Jonathan Demme, David Carradine, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel, John Sayles, Monte Hellman, Curtis Hanson and Jack Hill. Corman gave them creative freedom, even if was on an insanely tiny budget. Carradine later commented: “It’s almost as though you can’t have a career in this business without having passed through Roger’s hands for at least a moment.” They were receiving their training at a perfect moment, because Hollywood was getting pretty anemic and would soon need some new blood.

If Corman and his brethren were in mostly-perfect sync with the enormous changes rocking America in the 1960s, Hollywood’s aging moguls were hopelessly out of touch. Their release slates were cluttered with expensive flops like the musicals Paint Your Wagon (a must-see if you’ve been dying to see Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin sing a duet) and Darling Lili (another can’t miss flick for those wanting to see Julie Andrews as Mata Hari. In 1967, with the studios on the brink of bankruptcy, a pair of Corman alumni, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, slipped Easy Rider through the system. It was a film that critic J. Hoberman later noted was “so of the moment that it was instantly dated.” The young audiences Hollywood had lost flocked to Hopper and Fonda’s druggy, experimental biker flick. The studio moguls didn’t much like the movie, but they couldn’t ignore the massive profits it was generating. Desperate to repeat Easy Rider’s success, the studios did something that would have previously been unthinkable—they opened their doors to a new generation of young filmmakers. The result was a period many consider a golden age of Hollywood filmmaking. This era, and particularly how it ended, would shape the course of Hollywood for the next forty years.

Corman’s trainees, and other young directors like Robert Altman, William Friedkin and Hal Ashby, were deeply influenced by the revolutionary new films emerging from Europe. At the same time, they were arguably just as shaped by the B-Movies they had been watching since childhood and recently had a chance to create themselves. The grit and edginess of B-Movies is clearly visible in films like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Friedkin’s Cruising (1980). Although many New Hollywood films were too arty and challenging to connect with mass audiences, movies like The Exorcist (1973), The Godfather (1972) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), were smash hits. Friedkin’s The Exorcist was a particularly dramatic example of Hollywood’s embrace of B-Movies.

While classic horror films like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which won a Best Actor Oscar for star Fredric March), were prestige pictures in the early 1930s, the inherently disturbing nature of horror films soon exiled the genre to low-budget units like Val Lewton’s ultra-imaginative team at RKO that produced classics like The Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. When Hollywood did later produce a big budget horror movie like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), it was based on a highly-acclaimed novel (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) and featured almost no violence. The Exorcist was an entirely different kind of beast. Director William Friedkin’s highly shocking tale of a 12-year-old girl who is possessed by a demon revels in gory violence, unsettling imagery and a subversive portrait of the American family that was rare in Hollywood, but common in 70’s grindhouse fare like Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Exorcist proved there was a mainstream audience for Horror Movies that were unapologetically horrifying.

The studios loved the profits these films were making, but they didn’t particularly like the controversy they engendered or the demanding, self-consciously artistic film directors who made them. The answer to studio executives’ prayers came from two filmmakers who had been central players in the New Hollywood scene—Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

While most of his compatriots had been cutting their teeth in exploitation filmmaking, the Southern California-born Spielberg was directing TV episodes of shows like Night Gallery and Columbo. The moderate success of his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), won him the job of directing Jaws (1975). In making Jaws, Spielberg created a film that was reminiscent of the old-fashioned monster movies of the 1950s but with a giant uptick in cinematic pace and language. There is some gory violence, but the disturbing subtexts that appear in many films of the early 70s are absent. Instead, Jaws is arguably the first movie to take audiences on what critics now like to describe as a “roller coaster ride.” Universal Pictures took the then-radical step of releasing Jaws simultaneously in thousands of theaters and reaped a financial reward that was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams—the age of the Blockbuster was born.

Lucas started his career with the aesthetically ambitious THX 1138 (1971). The disastrous failure of that film made him determined to take a more popular course. After scoring a hit with American Graffiti (1973), Lucas was able to make Star Wars (1977). If Jaws looked back to the 1950s, Lucas’ science fiction adventure looked even further back to 1930s pulp serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The film proved an even bigger hit than Jaws. Both films were brilliant and highly personal works, but Hollywood just saw a new template for box office success—lavishing ever-larger budgets on B-Movies.

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B-Movies have become the new prestige pictures. It is a process that mirrors larger changes in our culture. Once upon a time, someone who considered himself or herself highly educated would need to have a background in the great classics of Western culture. Today, someone who reads Homer’s Odyssey in the original Greek would be considered an oddball, certainly treated with less respect than a fan of O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers’ irreverent adaptation of Homer’s epic. It is wonderful that countless artists from the past and present working in popular music, movies, comic books, theater and television, are finally getting the recognition they deserve. However, in typical human fashion, we have now taken that process to insane extremes. The demanding high art that once arrogantly lorded over our cultural landscape is now on life support. Like a farm that grows only one crop until the soil is dead, pop culture is becoming a monoculture that sucks the complexity out of our society. This is especially dramatic in the boom-or-bust world of modern Hollywood, where tens of millions, and often hundreds of millions of dollars ride on every release. The brash movie moguls of old are long gone, replaced by corporate committees that cautiously stick to the B-Movie formula. One might think this massive investment would result in a new golden age of B-Movies, but that isn’t the way things played out.

In 2010, Hollywood finally acknowledged its debt to Roger Corman by giving him an honorary Academy Award. It was a long overdue honor, but came after they had destroyed the low-budget world of filmmaking he embodied. B-Movies thrived when they could offer something (most commonly sex and violence) that Hollywood couldn’t show. When mainstream moviemakers were freed from the restrictions of censorship, their low-budget brothers and sisters soon felt the ground cracking under their feet. Sexploitation filmmakers were pushed ever further to the fringe until most dropped into the abyss of hardcore pornography. Many who trafficked in violence lost their share of the market when the major studios started releasing ultra-violent works like the Friday the 13th movies. The wild, wooly, anything goes, world of low budget that Corman and his contemporaries created is gone, now only experienced on lovingly produced DVDs or the occasional repertory screening. Like ghosts, their descendents linger on in the shadowy world of straight-to-video or the self-created ghetto of Cult Movies. Unlike Cult Movies, which are marketed to a small audience of hipsters, the classic B-Movies were a truly popular art form whose audience ranged from horny teenagers in rural drive-ins to tough blue-collar workers at urban grindhouses.

Hollywood’s new big-budget B-Movies have the almost-astonishing technical polish that only millions of dollars can buy, but they lack the subversive edge and unpredictable freedom that seemed to come effortlessly to their low-budget ancestors. This malaise is especially obvious when one looks at the moribund state of American Horror Movies. Horror has always been cinema’s wild card, a free fire zone where our darkest feelings and ideas bubbled to the surface. From the 60s to the 80s, filmmakers like George Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, created a series of brilliant works that used the genre to explore political, emotional, aesthetic and sexual ideas. With some rare exceptions, American Horror is currently awash in mindless and bland remakes, often of those same groundbreaking films that revolutionized the genre. Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) is one of the period’s most disturbing movies, a repulsive eruption of violent unease at the rise of the 60’s counterculture and the sexual revolution. The recent remake is a well-made but comparatively mild flick with nothing on its mind other than giving us a few shocks.

Going back to the 1920s and Erich von Stroheim’s epic battles with MGM studio head Irving Thalberg, Hollywood has always had a love/hate relationship with creativity and those who view film as an art. However, despite obstacles that seem greater than ever before, there are still filmmakers who find ways to stretch boundaries and make great movies within the Hollywood system. In Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and Zodiac (2007), director David Fincher has boldly ripped massive holes in the studios’ rulebook, and created three of the most electrifying and thought-provoking movies of recent years. With Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Guillermo del Toro has shown that the Fantasy genre can still delight when a creative filmmaker’s imagination is given free reign. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man showed even mega-budget blockbusters can be made with intelligence and wit. Just a few months ago, filmmaker Richard Kelly managed to get The Box, his deeply personal tale of paranoia and conspiracy, financed and released by Warner Brothers.

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Hollywood has always had a fondness for the lowest common denominator. Just as white bread dependably sells, there is always a big market for bland and inoffensive movies. However, never has the film industry been so afraid of taking chances and deeply committed to a one-size-fits-all approach. Hollywood is now entering the fourth decade of the “all B-Movies all the time” era with no signs of any end in sight. The 1970’s revolution in Hollywood only happened because the industry was in crisis, and it seems likely that nothing less would be required to jolt the studios out of their current artistic rut. There are still filmmakers out there making tough, challenging movies, but most of them are working independently or overseas. While Hollywood churns out high-tech, low-creativity, imitation B-Movies, some European filmmakers are embracing the grittiness of authentic B-Movies, yet another thing that used to be made in the USA, but which is now being outsourced.

dylan skolnick

Dylan Skolnick can usually be found at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, where he is a Co-Director.