The b-movie or b-picture was a product of the Golden Age of Hollywood (arguably the 1930s-1950s, more or less) and really took off with the introduction of the “double feature” at cinemas. The b-picture was the more cheaply produced, not always feature length, curtain-raiser at double feature events. Several genres were represented in the b-picture but often they tended to favour the horror, drama, sci-fi and thriller genres. Other than cheap entertainment, major production companies used the b-picture to train new crews while being able to churn out a film on a meagre budget. As an example, The Lights of New York cost a mere $23,000 USD in 1928, while other b-pictures could be produced for around $3000 USD. They were able to train new crew while still getting a return on the money spent.
Notable films during this time include: The Phantom of Crestwood (1932), The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), Think Fast, Mr Moto (1937), Dr Cyclops (1940), Man Made Monster (1941), Invisible Agent (1942), Attack of the 50-foot Woman (1958) and Earth vs. the Spider (1958). The b-picture fell into disuse with the rising attraction of television and more and more families owning their own television sets. There was suddenly less of a need to go to the cinema for entertainment. A few b-pictures were still produced between the ‘50s and the ‘60s, like: Slime People (1963), The Creeping Terror (1964) and Monster A-go go (1965), due to a boom in what are referred to as exploitation or grindhouse films. Exploitation films literally exploited the popular genres of the time to make easy money. These films were screened at grindhouses. Exploitation practices kept the b-picture alive long enough for it gain popularity once again, often in the form of the b-horror.
With the advent of VHS in the ‘80s, b-horror films were originally meant to be the cheaper option for film makers which could fill up video stores with movies to rent. Much like at the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, people were no longer needing to visit a cinema to get their movie fix. Some b-horror production studios were churning out as many as 20 movies a year. They were usually cheap to produce, with a small cast and terrible special effects, and often had pseudo-pornographic overtones. This was normally accomplished by having hot 20-somethings running around in their underwear with chainsaws, hacking men to death. As a result, the Scream Queen was born.
Cheaply produced b-horror usually saw beautiful, buxom young women who were able to control a sizeable pair of lungs to earn the title of Scream Queen. The most famous scream queens from the ‘80s are Linnea Quigley, Jamie lee Curtis, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer. These movies brought about a shift in feminine sexuality. Women were being portrayed as independent and strong, sexual beings who weren’t afraid to speak their minds and assert themselves as major role-players in the plot. They didn’t have to be hookers or slutty (though some film names may suggest otherwise), as they were most often comfortable with their bodies and, by extension, their sexuality. The Scream Queen was not only the star of these films – she was the ultimate Final Girl.
These films gave the horror genre a well needed humour injection, never taking themselves seriously. They were camp and over the top with ridiculous names. Some of my favourites in this (sub-)genre are: The Lift (1983), Monster Dog (1984), Silent Night – Deadly Night (1984), Chopping Mall (1986), Critters (1986), TerrorVision (1986), Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare (1987), Hobgoblins (1988), The Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988), Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988) and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988).
The ground work laid in the ‘70s and ‘80s lead to great ‘90s blockbuster releases with a new generation of Scream Queens, such as Neve Campbell in Scream (1996) and Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love-Hewitt in I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). When Scream Queen b-horror graduated, so to speak, to full blown teen slasher films, they kept just enough of the humour and the hardened femininity, as well as introducing an element of self-awareness, which resulted in a slightly more serious film. As time passed and the teen slasher dominated the horror genre, this self-awareness became the humour. Films got to the point where they were able to make fun of their own stereotyping and characters. They started playing to the audience’s expectations, like deliberately killing off the “token black guy” at the start of the film. Film makers knew that their films were formulaic and could not avoid admitting this to the audience.
If there was one thing that you could always expect and look forward to from an ‘80s b-horror, and by extension a ‘90s teen slasher, was gruesome deaths. Over time the deaths in these movies became comical. As much as the deaths were still gruesome, they had become so ridiculous that all you could do was laugh at them. As an example, Jason, in Jason X, kills teenagers by zipping them up in a sleeping bag and whacking them against a tree. Though horrible, there is no doubt that this scene was included for its comedic value as well.
We have currently reached a point in horror filmmaking where b-horror (and to an extent grindhouse) has become a genre in itself, with large distribution and production houses shelling out oodles of cash to produce big budget b-horror films, not that dissimilar from the b-picture during the Golden Age of Hollywood. That is to say that they are filled with beautiful girls, have a close to non-existent plot, and cheap looking special effects with far too much gore than is necessary. Some of my personal guilty pleasures of the genre include: Vampire Whores from Outer Space (2005), Dr. Chopper (2005), Ginger Dead Man (2005), Ginger Dead Man II – Passion of the Crust (2008), Bikini Girls on Ice (2009), Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009), Terror at Blood Fart Lake (2009), Sharktopus (2010) and Arachnoquake (2012). It would seem that the b-picture has become the feature film, no longer the less acclaimed filler of the “double feature”. It must never be forgotten that movies (b-horror or otherwise) are made to make money. This is also why so many modern teen slashers and b-horrors have spawned franchises and not just a single sequel, further assuring that the b-horror remains alive and well.