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B-Movies - a Guide to Some of the Best, the Worst and the Strange

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A poster of a film entitled 'Attack of the Killer Dummies'.

Many older, and, increasingly, not so old, people have been in this situation; it's midnight on Saturday, you sit down on a nicely padded couch with a beer or a glass of wine, maybe even a nice cup of tea, and point the remote at the television. After searching through a myriad of channels, you stumble upon a B-Movie. You want to turn it off, but you can't. You try and justify this to other members of the household by saying things such as, 'It's so bad it's good' and 'I'm not actually watching it'. This entry attempts to explain why we don't switch off and go to bed.

Origins of the B-Movie

The term B-Movie, meaning a cheaply produced motion picture, dates from 1948. Back in the 1950s and 60s film-makers churned out literally hundreds of movies that often took only a few days to make. With acting so wooden, and special effects so amazingly bad, it seems somewhat perverse that these films are still remembered, even loved, when one compares them with today's technological wonders streaming off the modern-day big-money production lines.

The original meaning of the term B-Movie comes from the early film playing on a studio double bill. Two movies for the price of one, the second being an A-List picture, with big names and a big budget. The first, the B-Picture, was considered a lesser film1. The studios used these cheaply-made films as proving grounds for up-and-coming actors, or on-their-way-out studio contract players. With the demise of the studio system in the 50s and the advent of television, new 'independent' producers began searching for wannabe (cheap) directors. A whole new genus of films began taking hold. In the main, but not exclusively, these were low-budget science fiction adventures featuring rubbery creatures and improbable plots. The acting was terrible and the sets had a tendency to alter mid-scene. As a group, these films have earned the tag of being 'some of the worst pieces of cinema ever produced', and, in quite a few cases, this is a pretty accurate call. In the '70s and '80s, many of these so called 'classics', along with their near relatives, the cowboy and the horror movie, spent time on the Saturday matinee circuit2, to the delight of movie-going youngsters everywhere. Many cheaply-made comedies issued by British film studios of the '50s and '60s can also be considered part of the wider B-Movie family.

Modern-day B-Movies

Since the advent of modern technologies, the art of film-making has gone ahead in leaps and bounds, with films often costing many millions of dollars to produce. However, there's still the split in product: big movies with big names and seemingly bottomless budgets and small movies, usually inexpensively made, often with one quite well known film star supported by a cast of unknowns. Many of these low-budget modern-day 'epics' while usually 'Made for TV' specials or 'Straight to Video' releases, still show similar characteristics to the classic B-Movies of the '50s and '60s.

The term B-Movie can also be applied to modern-day expensive films. These are the ones with improbable or stupid plots made by directors desperate to hit the big time, and, of course, the curse of bad-acting is still with us. As a general rule be wary of anything starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris or Rutger Hauer. A modern-day expensive flop that is well on its way to achieving B-Movie cult-status is Waterworld.

A Guide to Some of the Best, the Worst and the Strange

Plan Nine from Outer Space - Directed by Ed Wood Jr (1959)

... not actually the worst film ever made, but it's the most entertaining one you'll find.
- Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Guide to Film
... Hailed as the worst movie ever made; certainly one of the funniest.
- Leonard Maltin, legendary film critic

In this classic film aliens try to take over the world by resurrecting the dead. The film is best known for the death of one of the great actors of the early 20th Century, Bela Lugosi, who died three days into the filming, and is only in one scene. Ed Wood's wife's doctor took over the role for the rest of the movie, even though he was a foot taller than Lugosi. The acting was poor, the dialogue ludicrous. The sets were slapped together; you could see the cockpit of a plane was a shower curtain over a door frame, the cemetery was inside the studio (the floor was visible around the 'grass'), the control panels are simply rows of flashing lights. You can almost not see those wires on the pie tin flying saucers.

In 1991, Tim Burton made a film about Ed Wood. Based around the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space it starred Johnny Depp as Ed Wood and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. Burton's re-creation of Plan 9 is better than the original - or so the critics would have us believe. Exhaustive information about the life and times of Ed Wood can be found on the Unoffical Ed Wood fan site.

Robot Monster - Directed by Phil Tucker (1953)

....movies don't come any better.
- Steven Richards, The Late Night Watching Handbook

This is a splendid example of the 'cheapie film'. Stretching the budget was not on Phil Tucker's mind when creating this three-dimensional (3-D) epic. Produced for $16,000 (fantastically cheap for any film, even in those days) it was shot entirely outdoors over four days in Bronson Canyon, east of Los Angeles. The title monster is a man in a flea-bitten gorilla suit with a cardboard diving helmet. Gregory Moffet, George Nadar, Claudia Barrett and Selena Royle round out the riveting cast. Robot Monster also features George Barrows in a monkey suit with a diving bell for a head. Although heralded as one of the worst films of all time, this was the first science fiction film released with stereophonic sound. During its initial run, Robot Monster made more than $1 million, mostly due to the novelty of the 3-D process.

The Green Slime - Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (1968)

Robert Horton, Richard Jaeckel and Luciana Paluzzi fight the terrifying 'goo' in a space station. This amazing film is not even 'up to' the standard of other Japanese sci-fi movies of the time, and that's saying something. The one-eyed monsters look like someone dropped a bowl of cold oatmeal on a midget who was holding a beach ball. Shooting them only made them multiply (but not act any better). A must see.

Destroy All Monsters - Directed by Inoshiro Honde (1968)

If you've seen one Japanese monster movie, you've seen them all, right? Yes, if it was this one. In 1968 the 20th anniversary of Toho Studios was celebrated by creating the biggest monster fight of all time. Aliens from Kilaak control the monsters from the Moon. Starring Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Manda (the snake from Atragon), Angurus (the title monster from Godzilla v The Fire Monster), Baragon (from Frankenstein Conquers the World), Spigas (the spider from Son of Godzilla), and the ever-popular Ghidrah (Monster Zero), plus, allegedly, some humans.

Astro Zombies - Directed by Ted V Mikels (1968)

John Carradine who, in many fans eyes should know better but often doesn't, is a typical mad scientist pottering around with zombies, who, rather obviously, are no more than actors wearing plastic skull masks. Somewhat less obvious is why foreign agents are after his work. They're led by '50s B-Movie sex symbol Tura Santana. Wendall Corey, as the CIA man, is out to stop the agents but only gets in the way. Wayne Rodgers (Trapper John in M*A*S*H) co-wrote and produced this little gem. Reportedly, it is not advisable to ask him about the chances of a sequel.

Brain of Planet Arous - Directed by Nathan Hertz (1958)

This is known as the ultimate John Agar film. A floating giant brain (evil-guy) with eyes called Gor takes over Agar's mind. He goes on to destroy an aeroplane by staring and laughing. A 'good-brain' (nice-guy) named Vol takes over Agar's dog. Good choice, as he got the one with the most acting ability. Agar's girlfriend attacks the evil brain with an axe when it isn't thinking. Something about a giant brain materialising in a room gave this Researcher nightmares for years. Maybe it was the acting?

Valley of the Gwangi - Directed by James O'Connolly (1969)

One of the best animated movies ever...
- Leonard Maltin's TV Movie and Video Guide

Someone at Hollywood movie studio Warners got the idea that a cowboys v dinosaurs film would be a good earner. The story was written by Willis O'Brien (early special effects genius who did the effects on the original King Kong movie). The studio went the whole hog on the effects, getting legendary animator Ray Harryhausen to do the monsters. Great scenes include fights between dinosaurs, cowboys roping Gwangi, the monster fighting an elephant and wrecking a church. Gila Golen owns the wild west circus that captures Gwangi for its show. James Franciscus is the love interest. Richard Carlson is the spurned lover. This film is a spectacle, with sound effects way ahead of their time.

Attack of the Crab Monster - Directed by Roger Corman (1957)

Atomic mutation causes the crab to grow and grow. It eats the heads off scientists stranded on the proverbial desert island. In a great twist, it sucks up their knowledge and uses their voices. Great crab work, if you overlook the feet sticking out from the bottom. Big non-crab eyes feature as well. Hearing the crab talk makes it all worthwhile. Richard Garland, Pamela Duncan, and Russell Johnson (the Professor in Gilligan's Island fight the thing. One of the shortest movies ever made at 64 minutes in length, but no one was paying Corman big bucks for this kind of thing.

It Conquered the World - Directed by Roger Corman (1956) and Zontar, Thing from Venus - Directed By Larry Buchanan (1966)

It Conquered the World was Roger Corman's second sci-fi movie, and after watching it you can appreciate why he occupies his lofty spot on the a B-Movie Roll Of Honour. The monster is a giant radish with arms and teeth. Lee Van Cleef is the monster's stooge on Earth who causes people's space to be invaded by bats that bite their heads. Peter Graves (Mission Impossible) is the hero. He kills his wife when she is taken over. Van Cleef's wife is killed by the monster, so he attacks it with a blow torch. Apparently, Venusians never developed a resistance to that. Russ Bender, Dick Miller, and Charles B Griffith round out the cast. Zontar, Thing from Venus is a remake, without the giant vegetable. The Thing is a scaly rubber suit. Still features those bats, though. John Agar was the hero in this one, fighting Anthony Huston as the traitor. Laser gunfire was created by manipulating the film negatives. Some historic dialogue. Catch either one.

Navy v The Night Monsters - Directed by Michael Hoey (1966)

... a top must-see feature.
- Richard Graham, The Late Night Watching Handbook

Acid-based plants attack a South Pole navy base. They heat things up for growth reasons or, perhaps, so the producer wouldn't have to pay for fake snow. The cast is all first-class; Mamie Van Doren, Anthony Eisley (from Dracula v Frankenstein), Pamela Mason, Bill Gray (Bud on Father Knows Best), Russ Bender (who appeared in many 1950s B-Movies), and the multi-talented Bobby Van. Hoey also wrote this - and possibly put up the money as well - as this is inane even by 50s standards. Plants walk, spit acid - an idea later used to better effect in Day of the Triffids - and eat flesh. The plants definitely had a taste for B-movie queens.

Mesa of Amazon Women - Directed by Herbert Tevos and Ron Diamond (1952)

Mad scientist Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester of The Addams Family fame, here with hair and glasses) creates superwomen in the desert. Features the best lobotomised scientist in film who leads Allan Nixon to the shindig. Lots of women featuring 50s-style uplifted breasts - as seen in most B-Movies. Giant tarantulas, too. You've heard the music in lots of pictures since. Kind of hard to wade through, although the voice-over narration is a true scream. Tandra Quinn is great as the head 'Lost Woman'.

Manos, Hands Of Fate - Directed by Hal P Warren (1966)

Also touted as one of the worst films ever made, this is a gem. Directed, perhaps appropriately, by a fertiliser salesman, Hal Warren also takes a starring role and gives himself the worst lines. This film is an example of just how bad a movie can be. Horrible acting and laughable special effects elevate this story of a family ensnared by a satanic cult a notch above your average bad horror film. The camera editing is pretty inept, the video transfer to the widescreen is fairly awful as well, the repetitive dialogue sounds more like a record stuck in the same groove, and the opening ten minutes feature mind-numbing scenic shots. Warren is vacationing with his wife, daughter and poodle Peppy, when he takes a wrong turn to nowhere and stops at a house featuring optical effects and illusions to ask directions. Servant Torga answers and the nightmare begins. Peppy is torn to bits trying to escape, and his owners end up in a cheesy backyard temple witnessing the weird rites of revived master Manos and his harem queens. The presence of guests causes nothing but trouble; the bickering between Torga and Manos escalates until Manos makes a point by vaporising Torga's hands in sacrificial fires.

B-Movie Roll of Honour

Bela Lugosi (1882-1956)

Bela Lugosi, born Bela Blasko on 20 October, 1882, in Lugos, Hungary, trained for the stage at the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts. From 1901 he played lead parts on the Hungarian stage and from 1915 in films, sometimes using the name Arisztid Olt. In 1918, at the time of the collapsing Hungarian monarchy and the establishment of a Communist regime, he was active in politics and organised an actors' union. When the Leftists were defeated, in 1919, he fled to Germany, where he appeared in a number of films. In 1921 he emigrated to the US and began playing character parts on both stage and in films.

His most notable success was in the title role of the stage presentation of Dracula, which he played for a year (1927) on Broadway and two years on the road. When he repeated the role in Tod Browning's 1931 screen version, introducing himself to film audiences with a heavy, deliberate, inimitable accent, 'I - am - Dracu-la...', it was clear that the American screen had found itself a worthy aristocrat of evil.

During the '30s and early '40s, Lugosi shared with Boris Karloff the legacy of the silent screen's Lon Chaney. Technically, Lugosi might not have been as good an actor as Karloff, but he had a superior screen personality and as a personification of dark evil had no peer in Hollywood or elsewhere. Unfortunately, he was not choosy about his roles, and in addition to performing in the quality horror films at Universal and other major studios on which his early fame was based, he appeared indiscriminately in scores of infantile films in most of which he was given ludicrous lines. Somewhat out of character, in 1939 came his only comic role, in Ninotchka.

On the screen, Lugosi portrayed mad scientists and demented megalomaniacs who evoked no pity or compassion in audiences. His personal life had its pathetic quality. At first under pressure from studio publicity, and later on his own accord, he allowed the vampire image to become part of his real life. He began giving interviews while lying in a coffin, was once seen at a Hollywood premiere accompanied by a gorilla, and in his later films played parodies of himself. It was at this time that Lugosi met the now famous director of B-Movies Ed Wood. They shared a special friendship as Wood tried and failed to become a successful director while encouraging Lugosi in his comeback. In 1955 Lugosi had himself committed to the California State Hospital as a drug addict. He then returned briefly to the screen and even announced plans for a fourth marriage, but in August of 1956 he died of a heart attack. He was buried with his Dracula cape. In a strange twist, to this day Bela Lugosi merchandise out sells Boris Karloffs' by a substantial margin

Vincent Price (1911-1993)

After an early, successful career on the legitimate stage Price made his way to Hollywood in the late 1930s. His early film appearances did not help his career, but by the mid 1940s, he was often seen in supporting roles in quality films such as Laura (1944). Price worked steadily throughout the 1940s and 1950s. His 1953 film House of Wax would eventually set the stage for a series of horror films in the late 1950s through the late 1970s. Following such films as The Fly (1958) and The House on Haunted Hill (1958), producers found that casting Vincent Price in a horror film was a sure-fire way to earn profits. Price used his salary from these films to amass an incredible art collection. Price, suffering from lung cancer, died at age 82 in 1993.

Boris Karloff (1887-1969)

Famous for portraying the monster in the 1931 film Frankenstein, British-born Boris Karloff began his professional career as a stage actor. By the 1920s, Karloff became a familiar face in films, but mostly in supporting roles. With the debut of Frankenstein, he finally achieved stardom. Throughout the 1930s, Karloff starred in numerous, highly successful horror films for Universal, but the genre had fizzled by the 1940s. Yet Karloff remained very active, taking roles in many low-budget films. In the early 1960s, he began an association with Roger Corman, acting in such films as The Raven (1963). Plagued by breathing problems during the last years of his life, Karloff passed away at age 81 in 1969.

George Nader (1921-)

Born on 9 October, 1921, George Nader began his film career in 1950, after earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre arts. Nader's handsome features were his ticket to a Universal Studios contract by the mid-1950s, where he made a number of both 'A' and 'B' movies. However, his first starring role came in the form of the independent 1953 film Robot Monster, a 3-D feature directed by Phil Tucker. From the 1950s through the mid-1960s, Nader made numerous films and television appearances in America. After securing a contract with Universal, he won a 1955 Golden Globe award for 'Most Promising Newcomer'. By the late 1950s, with his Universal contract expired, Nader began making a foray into starring roles in television series. During the 1958-1959 season, he starred in the detective series Ellery Queen but left the show when production shifted to New York from Los Angeles (he was replaced but the show quickly left the air). He was also in the short-lived syndicated series Shannon in 1961-62.

With his career in decline, Nader went to Europe in the mid-1960s and made a string of popular films. In the mid-1970s, Nader was in a serious automobile accident, which left him with an eye injury that permanently sidelined his acting career. (Nader could no longer tolerate the bright lights required in film production.) He then focused his efforts on writing science fiction, at which he became successful. His best-known work is Chrome (1978; reprinted in 1995). Chrome was a groundbreaking novel upon its release and is now a subject for study on many college English courses.

Richard Carlson (1912-1977)

Born in 1912 in Minnesota, Richard Carlson began his acting career on the legitimate stage as an actor and director. By the late 1930s, Carlson made his way to Hollywood and was getting good roles in films released primarily by MGM and United Artists. After military service in World War II interrupted his career; Carlson found it difficult to snag the good roles he had previously been offered. By the early 1950s, Carlson rebuilt his film career. Whereas he had usually been cast in comedies and dramas, in the 1950s he starred in numerous science fiction and horror films, three of which were released in 3-D: The Maze (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). In 1953, he also accepted the lead part in the spy drama television series I Led Three Lives, which lasted through the 1956 season in America.

Carlson began directing films and television shows in the 1950s. His first directorial effort was the 1954 film Riders to the Stars, in which he also starred. He also directed the 1954 film Four Guns to the Border (starring George Nader, Colleen Miller and Rory Calhoun), The Saga of Hemp Brown (1958; starring Rory Calhoun, Beverly Garland, and Yvette Vickers), and Appointment with Shadow (1958; starring George Nader and Joanna Moore). He also directed episodes of the television series Thriller, The Detectives, and Men into Space. By the late 1960s, Richard Carlson's career began to wind down; his last film was the Elvis Presley vehicle Change of Habit (1969).By the early 1970s, Carlson had retired from acting; his last appearance was on a 1973 episode of the TV show Cannon. Following a brain haemorrhage, Carlson died on 24 November, 1977, at the age of 65.

Sally Todd (1934-)

Born in Tuscon, Arizona, in June 1934, Sally Todd was a stunningly attractive and athletic child. With encouragement from her mother, Todd entered the 1952 'Miss Tucson Beauty Contest' and won first prize, which was a trip to Hollywood and a screen test for 20th Century Fox Studios. Studio executives liked her test so much that they offered her a contract. Barely 18 years old and having just graduated from high school, Todd took her mother to California with her.

Sally Todd began her acting career playing smaller parts in films and television; among the television shows in which she appeared are Love that Bob, Dobie Gillis, The Untouchables, Dragnet, and Gunsmoke. However, Todd is best remembered for her cult-classic B-Movies, such as The Unearthly with Allison Hayes, John Carradine, and Tor Johnson; Frankenstein's Daughter with John Ashley and Sandra Knight; and Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, a film that aired on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 as episode #317. She took roles in these films 'until something better comes along'.

Beverly Garland (1929-)

Born Beverly Fessenden in 1929, Beverly Garland has sustained an amazing 50-year career in Hollywood, acting in numerous cult-classic B-Movies in the 1950s, then switching to television in the 1960s3. In 1949, before making her first film DOA with Edmond O'Brien, she married actor Richard Garland. However, the marriage didn't work out, and the couple dissolved the union in 1953, at about the point that Beverly Garland's career kicked into high gear. For the next six years, Garland worked hard, making more than 20 films and starring in the TV series Decoy, in which she portrayed a female undercover cop. Following her 1959 film The Alligator People, Garland cooled her film career.

Although audiences today largely recognise Garland from her prolific television work, cult film fanatics prize her horror/science fiction films from the 1950s. Her best cult classic titles include It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957), and The Alligator People (1959). But she actually made far more westerns, including Bitter Creek (1954), Gunslinger (1956), Badlands of Montana (1957), and The Saga of Hemp Brown (1958). That same year, she married businessman and developer Fillmore Crank. By the mid-1960s, Garland began making many television appearances and took roles in several successful series, including The Bing Crosby Show and My Three Sons. Garland has maintained her acting career to today, even with her business interests - Garland owns and runs the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in Los Angeles, just a few blocks from the entrance of Universal Studios. Garland's hotel is also the Los Angeles site of Ray and Sharon Court's famed autograph conventions.

What About....

The above is by no means an exhaustive list of B-Movies, the people who lovingly crafted them or those brave souls who starred in them. Do feel free to add your own favourites in this entries forum. Love them or hate them, one thing we can all agree on, the B-Movie gives us plenty to talk about.

1A similar system was employed by the record companies of the day. Most records (78s, 45s etc) had an A-side (good) and a B-side (not so good).2In more recent years the closure of many old-style movie theatres also saw the end of the Saturday matinee session.3Garland was billed as 'Beverly Campbell' in a few of her early film appearances.

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