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Cat’s Cradle: Why B-movies Matter

The recent release of “M3GAN” has been met with critical acclaim. Erin Maxwell of L.A. Weekly places the films somewhere between horror and humor, which fills a specific B-movie niche left vacant in the horror genre.

B-movies are often overlooked pieces of film history added to the annals by late night personalities and the occasional cult status. However, behind the scenes of every B-movie is a director with a strong vision. 

B-movies traditionally were the second of a pair of films sold to theaters for late night double features. These were often genre pictures, made for cheap and lacking the studio constraints of larger productions. These can be seen in films like “The Giant Claw” and “Them!.”

By the late '60s, B-movies took on a new dimension since they became a part of exploitation cinema. These are seen in films like “Psycho” and “Blood Feast,” where cheap productions promoted discussions around violence and content. 

Through the '70s and '80s, B-movies took form within a larger popular culture. This can be found in the opening song of  “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” whose lyrics allude to the B-movie history that inspired the film. While the protégés of Roger Corman—synonymous with B-movies—took over Hollywood. A famous example is Francis Ford Coppola, who, before directing “The Godfather” made “Dementia 13” under Roger Corman. 

Not all directors were pulled into the Hollywood machine. Notably, playwright turned director Bill Gun wasn’t enamored with the Hollywood system, and when approached to make a blaxploitation vampire film in the vein of “Blacula” he nearly turned it down

Gunn made the film, “Ganja & Hess” which reinterpreted the vampire myth through the lens of a contemporary black experience and history. Gunn’s film is an artistic and moving piece, which avoids shock for three dimensional characters

Specifically, Hess is mistaken to be the servant in his own home, by Ganja. On the realization that he owns the home, her demeanor changes towards the servant, patronizing and rude to the man, Gunn conveys this through dialogue.  

Behind the camera, Gunn utilizes a unique use of framing and visuals. A key moment is when Hess goes into the city to find a new victim. As he enters the house, we cut back to Ganja entering Hess’ manor. While looking for wine, she discovers the body of her late husband. Cut back to Hess, who is sitting in the bed beside his latest victim.

Instead of reiterating the vampiric process, Bill Gunn cuts away from it to not only catch-up Ganja on the plot, but to telegraph the events to the audience. The scene of Hess sitting in the apartment has a Renaissance composition, with the inclusion of religious imagery.

The '80s B-movie was bolstered by midnight screenings and later video rental, with the shock value of the films bringing in viewers. The low budget slasher, “Maniac,” was the leading film of the decade. It’s use of cheap practical effects demonstrated the possibilities of a new era of B-movie, which were often cheap and excessive, which films like Basket Case capitalized on. 

Basket Case” is the premier film of '80s B-movies. Made on a budget of $35,000 in 1982, $129,635.47 dollars today, the film is a fourth of the budget of most cheap productions like “Saw.” 

This in mind, the direction in the film shows some true talent in scenes like the first appearance of the film’s killer Belial. The scene is shot through a doorway, the wall between us and the victim placed in shadow. The use of the wall as blocking allows viewers to imagine what could be lurking in the dark before the reveal. 

Though B-movies declined after the '80s, with B-movie creators being folded into the industry, the films still hold importance in the history of film. In recent years the Museum of Modern Art has made steps in restoration and preservation of “Basket Case” and “Ganja & Hess.” 

B-movies are an outsider art within an industry capitalizing on the artist. B-movies are often high concept, low budget shlock that shouldn’t be mocked for its look but applauded for its style. 

Benjamin Ervin is a senior studying English literature and writing at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Benjamin know by emailing him

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