Ah…B-movies. I enjoy cheesy old sci-fi/horror movies from the fifties and sixties, especially the black and white ones. Those are my favorite types of B-movies, and I think the most iconic of the bunch although the genre is alive and well in the 21st century. If you want proof, just flip to SyFy on Saturday nights at nine and you’ll see what I mean.
Even so, the B-movies from fifty or sixty years ago are in a league of their own. They have an innocent charm that modern B-movies often lack. There was no CGI back in those days, and often these movies were made on a shoestring budget, but the cheesy special effects were part of the fun. Often B-movies followed a set formula. Typically they involved an incident of science gone wrong–most often the culprit was radiation of some sort, but it could also be the work of a mad scientist–that resulted in some freakish monster (usually a guy in a rubber suit). The protagonists turn to conservative forces such as the military and police, or toward science to find the solution to the problem. I use the word “science” loosely here, because by today’s standards the science they played with was laughable. Another subset of the genre involved an alien invasion, which would once again be thwarted by conservative forces or by science.
Writers and directors back in the day took the formula I just described above and had all sorts of fun with it. THEM! is a perfect example of the genre; in fact, it’s often cited as the textbook example of the B-movie genre. The movie is about ants that become enormous as a result of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing out in Nevada. These giant ants spread all over the world and establish colonies, and (naturally) it’s up to the U.S. Army and some scientists to clear the matter up. It sounds silly, but seriously give THEM! a watch sometime when you can–it’s actually a pretty good movie.
Night of the Living Dead is also a B-movie modeled on a formula similar to the one I outlined above, but it’s noticeably darker and really helped to give birth to the modern horror movie (for better or worse). NOTLD featured ghouls–the word zombie was never used in the movie itself–who were raised from the dead ostensibly by strange radiation from a Venus probe. These ghouls were shown on film eating people. And it’s hard to spoil a fifty year old movie, but suffice it to say the ending was NOT in line with the typical B-movie up to that point. George Romero turned the B-movie formula on its head while simultaneously remaining faithful to the tradition–no small feat, that. Night of the Living Dead is another example of a B-movie that, when you get beyond the cheap special effects and bad acting, was in the end a pretty good movie (one of my all time favorites, actually).
And that right there is why I like B-movies. When you get beyond the goofy premises and hokey special effects and look deeply at the movie, they often tell pretty good stories. They couldn’t rely on special effects like today’s movies–don’t get me wrong though, modern B-movies are great fun but they often rely too heavily on gore and SFX for my taste–so instead they had to attempt to tell a decent story. That, and the actors actually had to act, while no doubt biting back laughter at the goofy looking dude in the rubber suit. Granted, many B-movies were lousy in the story and acting departments both, but they at least made up for it with unintentional hilarity (Plan 9 From Outer Space comes to mind).
Those aren’t the only reasons I like B-movies. Sometimes I get tired of the cynicism of our age, an attitude that leaks into our cinematic culture, as it must. In terms of horror, that translates into nihilistic plots, gore, and copious amounts of sex. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but sometimes I get sick of it. I want to interrupt myself at this point to say that I was brought up in a socially conservative household and live in a conservative area and while I do not subscribe to all of those beliefs now, their influence is still there. So for me, it is a breath of fresh air to watch an old time movie where the most gore you might see is a bit of chocolate sauce smeared on someone’s shirt, that ends on a note of optimism rather than cynicism (NOTLD is an exception to all of this, of course).
The saying goes that “they don’t make’em like they used to”. True to some extent. While horror and movies in general have become objectively better in many ways than their predecessors from the old days, nothing can replace the fun and charm of the old time B-movies.
What are your cinematic guilty pleasures? Do you like the B monster movies from the fifties and sixties, or do they bore you to tears?