The term B movie was first coined in Hollywood’s Golden Age which ran from the 1930’s through till the late 1950’s. Double features were the norm, showing a main feature, usually a big budget studio picture with star names, and a B movie afterwards. The B movie would usually have a much smaller budget and no star names. The films were usually genre pictures: westerns, science-fiction and horror being the most popular.
At the end of the 1950’s the double feature faded away and along with it the need for B movies, nevertheless, the term B movie stuck and is still used today. Generally referring to a low-budget film that lacks artistic ambition, instead trying to please its audience with spectacle, titillation and violence.
In the 1960’s and 70’s exploitation cinema revitalised the B movie. When the Hollywood Production Code was abolished, filmmakers were free to push the boundaries of decency and good taste to the limit. These films were shown in what’s became known as Grindhouse cinemas across America. These cinemas were generally in the rough part of town and had no inhibitions to the type of films they showed, giving B moviemakers the freedom to make anything their deranged imaginations could come up with.
By the 1980’s, home video and cable movie channels had arrived, this spelt the death of the Grindhouse cinema. The explosion of the video rental market meant the B horror movies flourished like never before or since.
The films reflected the times, in the 70’s B horror movies were grim and nihilistic, like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) and “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977). In the 80’s they were bright, colourful and a lot more fun. They featured heaps of neon lights, over the top particle effects and musical scores filled with synthesises and rock music.
The most notable change was the inclusion of comedy, especially among the lower budgeted films, this might have been done to appeal to a larger audience, or perhaps to compensate for cheap special effects that couldn’t be taken seriously anyway.
The phenomenal success of “Jaws” (1975) and “Star Wars” (1977) blurred the lines between mainstream and B movie subject matter. A film about a giant murderous shark and a space opera were traditionally B movie subjects. In the eighties science fiction and horror became mainstream, B movies had to offer something different, so their subject matter and plots became more extreme and more bizarre.
The definition of a B movie remains ambiguous. Some people might consider all horror films to be B movies. For a horror film to be classified as a B movie, it needs to be produced on a low-budget, by an independent studio, and it also needs a unique concept. A concept so outrageous or grotesque that the major studios would never dare attempt to produce it. We have sifted through a large mountain of old VHS tapes to find some unpolished gems that are waiting to be rediscovered.
20. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (Stephen Chiodo, 1988)
Tagline: In space no one can eat ice-cream.
A brilliantly original concept that is efficiently summed up in the film’s title. A race of aliens who happen to resemble clowns, and travel across the galaxy in a spaceship that looks like a giant big top. They arrive in a small sleepy town intent on harvesting its inhabitants for sustenance. The film is essentially a string of visual circus gags connected by a thin thread of a story. The gags involve cotton candy cocoons, acid pies and lethal puppet shows. All ending with the demise of unwitting town folk.
The films is made by The Chiodo Brothers, special effects artists who made their name working on films such as “Critters” (1986). This was their first and last directorial effort. The Klown puppets are marvellously done, they are cheerfully creepy and deeply sinister. They have gritty worn pockmarked faces and evil grins that make them the stuff of nightmares. Despite this the Klowns are engaging and entertaining.
The human cast are pretty forgettable with the exception of John Vernon, who plays a grumpy cynical police officer, who believes the entire invasion is one big practical joke being played on him. The film has a gleefully surreal tone, a pitch black sense of humour, and is mostly played for laughs. The plot is a homage to the B movies of the fifties, only instead of pod people you’ve got psychotic alien clowns.
19. Chopping Mall (Jim Wynorski, 1986)
Tagline: Where shopping costs you an arm and a leg.
A large shopping mall decides it’s a good idea to invest in a new state of the art security system. The system is comprised of gigantic steel security shutters and three high-tech robots that can patrol the mall, and shoot laser beams to stun or kill would-be thieves. Eight teenagers who work in the mall decide to have an after-hours party in a furniture store.
Outside there’s a massive thunder storm, the mall is stuck by lightening, short circuiting the new security system and sending the robot security guards into kill mode. The group of teenagers, who have been drinking and partying in the furniture store, start being hunted down and picked off by the new security guards.
The film is undeniably goofy and while it’s never meant to be taken too seriously, it’s made with real focus and purpose. It tries its best to entertain and thrill its audience and never resorts to mocking itself like so many modern horror films. The robots themselves look like beefed up militarised versions of Johnny 5 from “Short Circuit” (1986).
Although most of the time the robots come across as comical, there are moments when they are genuinely menacing. Once again, the human cast are pretty forgettable and are only memorable for the manner of their deaths. An exploding head being the one that sticks in the mind. The film is produced by B movie legend Rodger Corman. The energy and invention associated with his films are undeniably present in this production.
18. Strange Behaviour (Michael Laughlin, 1981)
Tageline: Good kids turned killers.
Set in small town American. The local high school students have found a quick and easy way of making some money, they volunteer as test subjects for the local universities psychology department. Unfortunately, the treatment appears to turn them into machine like killers that can be programmed on demand.
The local sheriff (Michael Murphy) has a vendetta against the universities psychology department, who he blames for the death of his wife. The latest students to be turned into a brainwashed killer just so happens to be the sheriff’s son.
Director Michael Laughlin intended this as a homage to fifties B movie horror. It was meant to be part of a trilogy, which was never completed. The film successfully combines the eighties slasher with the mad scientist films of the fifties. The cast is surprisingly competent, Fiona Lewis stands out as the, equally alluring and terrifying, head of research, who lobotomises and brainwashes teenage boys for fun.
The film has some genuinely surreal and creepy moments that are reminiscent of the early work of David Cronenberg. There are other little touches that set it apart from its contemporaries, like a killer who wanders around in a Tor Johnson mask, a murder scene shown entirely through shadow-play, and an impromptu dance sequence at a teenage costume party.
17. Class of Nuke’ Em High (Richard W. Haines, Lloyd Kaufman, 1986)
Tagline: Readin’ Writin’ and Radiation.
Troma Pictures is a legendary B movie studio founded in the middle of the sixties exploitation era. Although their most successful period was in the eighties, with their best known film being “The Toxic Avenger” (1984). They took B movies to the next level of automatism and absurdity. “Class of Nuke’ Em High” is one of their most enjoyable and accessible films. Tromoville High School is situated right next door to a nuclear power plant. Needless to say the students have been acting strangely.
The school honour society has transformed into a gang of punk rock thugs, who terrorise their fellow students with impunity and sell them radioactive drugs. These drugs are grown in the yard of the nuclear plant. The toxic drugs have radical effects on the student population, giving them heavy-duty hallucinations and radioactive super strength. There is also a creature growing in a vat of nuclear waste in the schools basement.
There was an idea at the time that punk rock signalled a terminal stage in the decline of western civilisation. The films punk rocker thugs seem to embody this idea, a cautionary example of what exposure to toxic chemicals might do to the youth of America. Although, nothing in the film should be taken seriously.
The film is a farcical take on the high school experience and radioactive contamination. The performances in the film are so over the top they transform form just being bad to almost becoming performance art. The film has a manic energy, loads of over the top gore, and a light touch that keeps it humorous and entertaining.
16. Ghost Town (Richard Governor, 1988)
Tagline: The good. The bad. The satanic.
The film is an interesting fusion of genres and concepts, a horror western with some time-travel thrown in. A runaway bride’s car breaks down in the desert. She is abducted in a mysterious and supernatural sand storm. A local lawman (Franc Luz) finds her abandon car, as he continues to search for her in the desert he comes across an abandoned ghost town.
Although it’s not really abandon, is populated by dozens of ghosts. A curse was put on the town, a hundred years ago, when its sheriff was brutally murdered by a wicked outlaw named Devlin (Jimmie F Skaggs). The outlaw and his gang still hold the townspeople hostage in a cycle of fear.
This is a forgotten B movie gem with a unique concept. Horror westerns are rare and seldom work, but in this instance they are able to find the right balance. The film is notable for its excellent cinematography that combines a Sergio Leone feel with an unworldly haunting atmosphere.
There are some great eerie scenes where the dead town folk wander the desert wasteland lost in limbo. The plot is that of a familiar western, where an evil tyrant terrorises a small town, only in this case he’s dead with supernatural powers. There are a few decent scares infused with plenty of gun slinging action.
15. I, Madman (Tibor Takacs, 1989)
Tagline: Lose yourself in a good book.
Virginia (Jenny Wright) is a timid second-hand bookstore clerk who becomes obsessed with a dead pulp horror author Malcolm Brand. The author was a deranged murderer who fell in love with a movie star and then started removing parts of his body and offering them to her as tokens of his love.
After finally tracking down a copy of Brands’ last novel “I, Madman”, Virginia soon discovers that elements of the book are seeping through into her real life. Murders described in the book begin to happen all over the city and then to people close to her. It appears that Brand himself has returned from the dead, and he believes that Virginia is the movie star that once jilted him.
The story-within-a-story convention works well for the movie, allowing the film to create a creepy pulp horror atmosphere. The movie slips inventively between reality and imagination, between the book she’s reading and the things that happen in her real life. It gives the film a dream logic where you are never quite sure what is real.
A fine performance from Wright in the lead role carries the film along and keeps you sympathetic to her plight. The villain is an original take on the madman and is genuinely creepy. The film has an inventive visual style that works perfectly for the material as well as a dark sense of ironic humour.