- Technically, B-Pictures were the second feature of a double-bill, usually low-budget genre films. As film distribution habits changed, the term has become broader; its applied to genre pictures in general and to independently produced low-budget exploitation films.
- To understand ‘B-Pictures’ it is necessary to appreciate film as an industrial medium. Its economic basis is central to understanding its aesthetic, technology, ideology, audiences and politics.
- Following hey-day of Hollywood movies in the 1920s, the studio system had become ‘vertically integrated’ because the studios owned the means of production (creating movies), distribution (the domination of American films was down to its supreme ability to peddle its wares) and presentation (exhibition).
- By the 1930s, the industry was dominated by The Big Five: Warner Brothers, Loew’s MGM, Fox, Paramount and Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) and The Little Three: Columbia, Universal,United Artists
- B-Movies were the product of The Great Depression and the subsequent decline in audiences. The smaller studios fared better as they didn’t own theatres (and the subsequent mortgage costs). What had previously been a disadvantage, became an advantage, as they began to produce low-cost, low risk films to be presented in a two film programme to offer better value to cash-strapped audiences.
- During this period the majors had ‘b-movie units’ (recycling sets and costumes from block-busters) new companies emerged, producing cheap formulaic Westerns and action features with familiar characters, Hopalong Cassidy, Charlie Chan and MGM’s Dr Kildaire. 75% of Hollywood’s output in the 1930s were ‘second-features’.
- By the end of the 1940s, most of the writers and crew were moving into television, taking their serials with them. A combination of The Paramount Decree (the end of collecting up-front fees for films not in production), increasing costs and the advent of colour effectively put the traditional b-movie production out of business by the 1950s.
- The spirit of ‘b-movies’ continued in the 1960s through independents such as Allied Artists and American Pictures who appealed to the emerging teen-age market with counter-cultural themes of biker teen-pics, creature-features, gory horrors and nudie-cuties that were the staple of drive-ins and grindhouses.
- They’re not an exclusively American phenomena. There are examples from Latin America and Asian cinema that have emerged and infused the 90s indie boom thanks to the likes of Tarantino.The aesthetic of b-movies lives on in what have become big features too, such as ALIEN (1979)
PROF DOM-DIRK RECOMMENDS
“RKO made many b-movies after CITIZEN KANE (1941) nearly bankrupted them. My favourite b-movie is probably Don Siegal’s INVASION OF THE BODY-SNATCHERS (1956)”
MAIN FEATURE – THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (Corman, US, 1967)
- The seventh in Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle, and probably the best known of his collaborations with Vincent Price. It was a simple, but effective idea to take the recognised titles of Poe’s works and transform them into high-camp shockers. They had the added benefit of being out of copyright.
- Vincent Price brings his usual delicious ham to the role of Prince Prospero, a satanist, who presides over his principality with ruthless charm. He hears of the so-called Red Death a deadly plague, that has struck the local village thanks to a tarot playing figure who has promised that: “The day of our deliverance is at hand.”
- Prospero holes himself up into his decadent castle (with its tiny dancers and outrageous parties), bringing the delectable Jane Asher with him. She is taunted by Price and his jealous consort Juliana. He tries to teach her the ways of Satanism with some rather compelling arguments.
- During the initiation of Juliana there is a Corman-signature, crazy dream sequence.
- There’s a sub-plot involving a dwarf Hop-Toad who persuades Alfredo, a cruel guest at the castle, to wear a monkey suit to a masked ball. He taunts him and sets fire to him in an hilariously mad scene.
- Corman’s blend of sixties psychedelia, Edgar Allan Poe with a touch of THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) makes this an intriguing ‘b-movie’. With its elaborate sets and sumptuous cinematography (by none other than Nic Roeg) it looks and feels like a main feature. Its the lurid subject matter and high-camp that inject it with the spirit of the bs.
– Dirk Malcolm