by Craig Phillips
Q: Does "B" stand for Bad?
A: Not officially, no. Let's go in the wayback machine and look at where the term "B-Movie" actually came from. In the 1930s and 40s, people would really get their money's worth out of an evening at the cinema. A typical bill would include a newsreel, cartoons (like Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse), possibly an episode from a serial (like Flash Gordon or Dick Tracy) and two features. The first movie screened was usually the shorter and more obscure of the two, generally a studio cheapie, while the "A" film was considered the main attraction. So, naturally, the first title was deemed a "B" movie.
But a lot of films now considered to have some artistic merit were initially B-movies - with lower budgets and a cast of relative unknowns, or non-"A-List" actors - but they were a place for émigré directors from Europe (like Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer) to get steady work. We wouldn't have film noir or low-budget westerns if it wasn't for the "B." On the other hand, many of these early "B" movies really were bad, but even some of those at least have camp appeal.
Q: So B-movies are always campy?
A: For those films made after the 1940s, the term "B-movie" became more of a pejorative, and is still often associated with a film that is considered campy, schlocky or not particularly striving for artistic greatness. Even so, sometimes these films - Tremors or Piranha, for example - succeed all the more because they exceed standards set rather low by their forebears, sending up the very idea of a B-movie with an intelligent wink. Sometimes these movies wink too hard, but even these can be fun (see Eight-Legged Freaks).
Q: Do B's still exist?
Working in a genre (that is, not a drama or comedy per se, but science fiction, action, horror, gangster/film noir, etc.)
Creative, idiosyncratic camera angles, lighting, sound and other technical characteristics that may later influence major studio releases. B's offered a chance to see future A-movie stars and crew at work, in the process of becoming major talents. For example, highly regarded directors Jonathan Demme and John Sayles got their start working in B-movies; so did actors like Jack Nicholson and John Wayne).
Conversely, many B's offered the chance to see B-movie actors (Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Mamie Van Doren) and directors who worked strictly in this world; Roger Corman was a B-movie factory all by himself. And then there are the actors who begin their careers in "A" films before shifting into a second life in "B" pictures; a notable example of this would be Vincent Price, whose career started in some fine Hollywood movies (Laura, Leave Her to Heaven) before starring in many solid "B" pictures (House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, etc.), mostly creepers in the horror genre.
A: B-movies haven't gone away so much as changed their skin a bit. Today they are more defined as a film with a low budget and little or no studio backing behind it. All B's, both new and old, seem to share some or all of the following characteristics (thanks to FlixML for some of these):
Q: What's the difference between a B-Movie, a "cult movie" and a "midnight movie"?
A: To define these by way of an example, think about The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which could be all three:
Rocky Horror is most certainly a cult favorite, meaning it has developed a rabid underground (and over the years, more mainstream) following;
It's had frequent midnight showings at movie theaters around the world. This is what the term "midnight movie" originally referred to, although with the decrease in real midnight screenings, the phrase now usually means a film that is "adult" in nature (sexual content) and/or disturbing in some way, and often one that did not get an official rating from the MPAA;
It's a B-Movie because it did not have a huge budget, did not get much attention upon its initial release and is in many ways highly campy.
A B-movie can be a cult movie, and a cult movie can be a B-movie, but they don't have to be both. For example, Eraserhead and Harold and Maude are certainly cult movies - they are offbeat films with devoted followings. Meanwhile, John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, an action film with less artistic aims but which received favorable notices and developed a following, could be said to be both. Whew.
Q: Is there a grade lower than B?
A: Skipping all the way down to the bottom of the alphabet, film critics often use "grade Z" to refer to bottom-of-the-barrel fare with no redeeming artistic or historic value. Like B-movies, grade Z flicks are made on a low budget, but often even lower, and unlike B's, they usually have very little talent involved. You may have seen some examples while watching the cult television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, where Joel and Mike and the 'bots were tortured by many of these (Manos The Hands of Fate, Sidehackers, Eegah!), or if you've ever caught one of the many masterpieces of schlock by Ed Wood. However, there are those who think of B's and Z's as the same thing - as any film without much merit, but which some enjoy watching in some sort of gleeful masochistic exercise.
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