When one recalls the glory days of the drive-in, immediately B Movies. B Movies defined the drive-in and the drive-in defined B Movies. When the drive-ins numbered close to 4000 screens B Movies captured the attention and imagination of a shifting American culture. B Movies evolved the passion and curiosity of a nation coming out of a period of economic tragedy and a global world war. It was a new time, a good time and a defining time.
Today the drive-in has abandoned it’s traditional partner, the B Movie and I think for both B Movies and the drive-in, this is not a good thing.
The term ‘B-movie’ was first used n the early 1930s to distinguish the low-budget productions usually lasting between 50 and 80 minutes from their more expensive A-movies put out by the Hollywood based studios. The B Movie term was also applied to product produced by Poverty Row studios suck as Republic and Monogram. ‘A-movies’ were screened on their own. The B-movies were released as the second half of the double bills or specifically made to support the release of the ‘A movies’. The B Movies found a home in the small-town movie house, providing value for audiences who demanded by Depression audiences with time on their hands but little money with which to kill it.
As a cultural phenomenon the B-movie lasted for less for 50 years. The life of the B Movie was extended by the post-war popularity of the drive-in cinema and the rise of the VHS revolution. These were both fleeting as its natural home, the smaller house theatre was decimated by rise of television.
For most movie-goers, B Movies delivered the delivered the generic goods, they told fast-moving stories in the form of westerns, horror flicks, thrillers, adventure yarns, slapstick comedies, swashbucklers and romantic melodramas Once in awhile the B-movie-makers could inject social criticism, satire, surreal comment and attempted to cast a discerning subliminal eye of the key issues of the ever changing American society. Looking back on cinematic history, Val Lewton’s low-budget unit which made subtle horror movies such as “Cat People” at RKO in the 1940s is now regarded as cinematic-ally substantive as Arthur Freed’s bombastically produced musicals at MGM.
For the most part B Movies were made at a fraction of the cost of A pictures forcing movie-makers to focus on efficient plots and cheap effects. The majority of early B-movies were Western and low budget sci-fi operas but horror was soon to see a rise . When Britain unleashed the Hammer horrors upon the world, horror movies soon became the dominant and were probably the best example of tried and true B Movies and certainly the most successful. These movies proved that an overblown budget was not needed to frighten an audience or make them believe passionately in a story. The rise of television saw the studio system shudder but for the B-movie this gacve way to a golden age.
As drive-in theatres exploded across the US . Millions of movie goers flocked to see movies like THEM and I Was A Teenage Werewolf starring a young Michael Landon.. The Soviet threat created a paranoia fueled series of atomic nightmare pictures, Godzilla rose out the Sea of Japan for the first time. The major studios saw independent producer raking in serious cash by making B’s and soon created divisions to emulate the independent success.
The loosening of the firm grip of the Catholic League of Decency in the US during the early 60’s saw a new type of B-movie emerge, the exploitation film. These movies brought a a more vioent and sexual vision ot American screens. Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was made for unheard amount for Hitchcock $800,000, with Hitchcock’s foray into B Movie land he introduced the slasher flicks and the Hammer soon film faded from the market.. In order to grab more market share Hammer threw more blood and nudity into their pictures which took away from their skillful story execution. B-movies started to become appealing to larger audiences. As a result the halcyon days of B Movie creativity began to erode. Movie quality as a whole declined.
More societal changes were reflected in B Movies. More and more black actors and directors were finding their voices through the movies . Movies saw the advent of the Blaxploition movie which were designed to appeal to a very particular audience but ended up attracting fans from all races. The cult movies of John Waters, and the midnight classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show came onto the scene. Horror grew stronger, combining strong plots with the modern craving for blood and guts. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas and Halloween: well executed , all perfect examples of what the B-movie could achieve.
The 80’s saw B-movies flee movie screens and find a home on VHS. The blockbuster success of Jaws and Star Wars, and really the birth of the summer blockbuster in general saw studios essentially make B-movies but for bigger budgets. The eighties saw for a brief time a voracious appetite for B Movies, from 1984-1989. Video labels like Lightning , Media, Vestron, Wizard and Full Moon poured out a torrent of B Movie product to eagerly awaiting audience who flocked to video rental stores and walked out with stacks of B Movies.
VHS represented a remarkable turning point for the American consumer. For the first time, classics and its recent hits could be rented and watched at home. But what was interesting is that while the consumer walked into a video store looking for a major Hollywood title, often they would walk out with two B movies for every Hollywood hit. VHS was easy money, producers like Roger Corman and Crown International abandoned movie theatres and drive-ins in favor of the new medium of home video.
The major studios took control of the home video market. Blockbuster erased the Mom and Pop video store from the American landscape and the B Movie soon became victim of corporate manipulation.
The comic book derived movies of today are essentially bloated , overblown B Movies. The days of B Movies like “Death Race 2000” and “Dawn of The Dead” filled with often profound social commentary have ended. The days of B Movies being a venue for emerging talent like Jonathan Demme and Francis Coppola has ended. Many of us recall fondly the glory days when a Galaxina/Pom Pom Girls double bill filled the sweet night sky. B Movies evoked the curiosity and passion of a growing and discovering America,
Maybe when America re-discovers the glory of a B Movie projected on a drive-in screen , it will again re-discover itself.