B-movies are movies just like any other and they should be respected for that, no matter if they are gold or garbage. For all of movie history, B-movies have been a perfectly reliable means of pure, bonkers entertainment. Audiences love them for their simple digestible thrills, and are easy to forgive them for any shortcomings as long as they deliver the goods in one of a few manners. Devotees will show up and fall head over heels for these projects as long as they have a great premise, interesting characters, fun setting, high kill count, or a particular artist pulling the strings behind the scenes. Sometimes, you have a film like The Burning, a project that uses many of the tools in the B-movie toolbox to its great benefit. Other times, you have Bubba Ho-Tep, a movie that promises a long list of reasons to love it yet hardly delivers on any of them. That being said, even if a film falls short in all ways but one, fans are going to be in for the ride, but why? Is it due to an affinity for atmosphere? Familiar plot gimmicks? Or just an addiction to the ride that B-movies provide? Hop on the B-train and dig into the many reasons audiences keep coming back to this treasure trove of trash cinema.
Knowing Your Audience
Now here’s the deal, it’s not like B-movies don’t ask a lot of their audiences. If this subsect of film isn’t your thing, then you’ll have quite a few hurdles to overcome. B-movies are notorious for their mega low budgets. Their “quality” is lower than your average proper production in just about every way, cutting production value in visuals, sound, music, cast and crew, you get the idea. These films aren’t known for being moving works of art, but they are typically regarded for their effortless ability to entertain. B-movies typically fall into a couple different genres, namely action, science fiction, and horror. So while a prestige drama has to rely on a well written script, great actors, and a high-quality production, low budget movies have very different standards to meet. B-action movies can rely on endless ammunition and big explosions, B-sci-fi can use an interesting premise and creature effects to lean on, and B-horror can keep ratcheting up the kill count to entertain paying audiences. Some think that B-movies don’t try as hard, when really, they just place their efforts elsewhere. It’s about knowing your audience, people.
Horror: A B-Movie Goldmine
More than any genre, if an independent filmmaker has to make a B-movie in an effort to break into the film industry, they’ll go the horror route. It’s understood that, more than any other genre, audiences will show up for horror movies. There have been many scary movies with a good chunk of change behind them, no doubt about it, but horror is an easy genre to please crowds with, even if there’s little at a filmmaker’s disposal. If a horror director utilizes the right setting, it will either trigger an audience’s sense of nostalgia (summer camp horror), hit too close for comfort (home invasion horror), or take them somewhere that they’d never touch with a 10-foot pole (a dirty, claustrophobic basement). Any filmmaker can film on location, but with the right person behind the camera, a certain magic can be brought to a film — atmosphere.
When Done Right
1981’s The Burning is a slasher film that no one talks about for its story. Nobody returns to the Cropsey-centered film for the camp counselors at the center of the film (okay, maybe for Jason Alexander), they come back for iconic slasher villians, summer camp setting, kill count, and general atmosphere that director Tony Maylam brings to the film. The tragically burned Cropsey stalks the camp in slow, patient shots as unsuspecting victims have fun in the sun. Maylam’s general use of long takes, shadowy environments, and a warbly synth score bring an unusually eerie tension to the film’s comfortable daytime setting. The movie also delivers on some pretty fantastic kills as well! A big selling point for many B-movies is the centric slasher’s weapon. Think Leatherface’s chainsaw, Freddy’s knife-fingered glove, you get the idea. Front and center in The Burning’s poster is Cropsey’s garden shears, held high over two unsuspecting victims. The film doesn’t provide empty promises in the shears department; Cropsey goes to town on countless victims in some pretty fun slasher set pieces. The Burning is a B-movie horror experience that delivers greatly in every avenue of slasher scares.
Maylam shoots the film in a way that, for large chunks of its runtime, doesn’t exactly feel like a horror movie. Being set at summer camp, when the film isn’t trying to scare the life out of you, it often has the tone of a fun summer comedy, almost to the degree of Meatballs or Caddyshack. This is absolutely just Maylam knowing his audience. The Burning wasn’t going to be playing in art house cinemas or anything, teens and college kids were going to be the film’s biggest fans. The film had to be fun at all times, both in a frightening sense and fun in a party sense. It’s a B-movie with a brain, thinking of the audience through the entire making of it.
When Done Wrong
While many B-movies make the best out of scraps, there are always those that promise more than they can provide. 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, sadly, falls into this category. It’s a horror comedy with a fun premise centered around a man who may or may not be Elvis (Bruce Campbell), who partners up with a man who may or may not be JFK (Ossie Davis), coming together to face off against an ancient Mummy dubbed Bubba Ho-Tep (Bob Ivy). A horror comedy with all of these components at its disposal, Bruce Campbell in the lead, and Don Coscarelli, director of the gonzo Phantasm, sitting in the director’s chair has enough to sell B-movie fans 100 times over… yet it’s a film that seemingly leaves all of its effort in pitch form only. The movie doesn’t make near enough the effort to entertain the audience as it should. The excuse could be made that the film only has a 1 million dollar budget, but with this many positives at its disposal, Bubba Ho-Tep should be a foolproof experience.
B-movie fans will sprint to theaters in order to see their favorite actor or director bring a new project to the screen, so it’s safe to say any true Bruce Campbell devotee has carved out time for this glorious move of casting. While Campbell is an ingenious pick for the role of Elvis Presley, he doesn’t quite commit to the role in the way one might hope. He plays the part with one foot in the Elvis pool and the other in a pool of Nyquil. Campbell seems pretty bored in the part, and with the film being entirely centered around him, the film ends up boring as well. Not only that, Ho-Tep also forgets to deliver in the action, comedy, and horror departments. The film quite literally feels like you’re wandering around in its quiet, uneventful nursing home setting. Despite all of its shortcomings, the film still feels as though it can be forgiven for the presence of its B-movie icon at the center. Even when Bruce Campbell is sort of phoning it in, he’s still got enough of his signature charm that the movie ends up becoming more forgivable.
B-movies, more than any other, can get away with just about any avenue of their film’s production lacking. With these films, audiences aren’t looking for a great script, Oscar-worthy visuals, or moving performances, they just want to be entertained. A film’s atmosphere, characters, creative team, genre classification, and notoriety are all things that audiences look for when choosing the right low budget movie to check out. Those that truly enjoy these hallmark trappings end up totally addicted to this avenue of cinema. If B-movies are your niche thing, you know they’re like comfort food, and even if a movie falls short in more ways than it doesn’t, there’s almost always something to keep you satisfied and guaranteeing another round.