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The term B-movie originally referred to a Hollywood motion picture designed to be distributed as the "lower half" of a double feature, often a genre film such as a Western "cowboy" film, a gangster movie, or a horror film. In the 1930s and 1940s, during the age of the "studio system," this also gave rise to the practice of referring to "A-list" or "B-list" stars.

The major studios had "B-units" that made their B-movies. These B-units provided a function analagous to a "farm team" in professional sports, in that they provided a testing ground and training opportunities for new talent. In addition, there were small studios such as Republic Pictures and Monogram Pictures which specialized in making B-movies. Some actors made a career out of acting in B-movies, such as Ronald Reagan. When the "Golden Age of Hollywood" came to an end, it took the studio system with it, and double features — the raison d'être of the B-movie — became a rarity.

The B-movie industry has had an important role in the film industry, because it created an additional point of entry into the film industry. Directors such as Jonathan Demme and John Sayles learned their craft in B-movies, and the B-movie industry provided work for émigré directors from Europe such as Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer during the period when they were still unknown to North American audiences. As well, actors such as Jack Nicholson and John Wayne got their start in B-movies. B-movies also provided work for former A-movie actors whose careers were on the downturn, such as Vincent Price.


B-movies: 1930s - 1980s

"B-movie" has come to refer to any low-budget commercial film, with lesser-known actors (B-actors). These films are often formulaic and rely on "stock" characters and themes, especially in the genres such as Westerns and horror. However, B-movies are distinguished from Z-movies in that B-movies are professionally-made commercial products. Fans of B-movies stress that the lower budgets, lower degree of oversight by studio managers, and diminished focus on box office returns may allow for creative risk-taking, energy, and originality not found in big budget Hollywood films.

This was especially true in the years following World War II, the Eisenhower era, During this period, movies with big budgets and top stars were often conservative and conventional (Around the World in Eighty Days, The Greatest Show on Earth) while B-movies explored a wider range of themes that touched on the 1950s xenophobic anxieties and fears of atomic radiation, such as (The Thing from Another World and It Came from Outer Space). The most creative B-movie directors influenced filmmaking in the A-movie system. Some 1950s B-movies, especially in the science fiction and horror genres, are still popular among film buffs today.

One of the major producers of B-movies was American International Pictures (AIP), a US company founded in 1956 by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. Its films include works by Roger Corman, Vincent Price, Herman Cohen and the early efforts of then-unknown figures such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Jack Nicholson.

Roger Corman is often credited as being "King of the B's," although in Corman's book "How I Made 100 Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime" he claims he "...never made a "B" movie". He says that since B-movies were a phenomenon only up to the early 1950s, "...the B's had died out by the time I began directing." Corman describes his films instead as "low-budget exploitation films."

In the 1970s, film companies such as Independent-International Pictures, Film Ventures International, Charles Band Productions, Cannon Films, New Line Cinema, Golan-Globus, and others created a new generation of B-movies. Most of these companies were unable to continue as budgets soared in the early 1980s and even a comparatively low-budget, low-quality picture would cost millions of dollars, due to the public's increased expectations (e.g. for color filmstock, original music scores, and realistic special effects). However, the 1980s saw the production of a great deal of low-budget genre films, such as horror and "slasher" movies including The Fog and Slumber Party Massacre and apocalyptic/futuristic genre films such as Escape from New York.

B-movies: 1990s and 2000s

Today, the distinction between "A-movies" and "B-movies" is not as clear, but there are still different tiers of perceived quality for movies. The subjective assessment of quality no longer depends entirely on production values or the reputation of actors. For example, a high-budget, popular action blockbuster with well-known actors may be classified by mainstream audiences as a "quality" film, whereas critics may dismiss it as a poorly-made film. The converse is also true in some cases, where a low-budget, yet artistically daring film with unknown actors may be dismissed by mainstream audiences, yet lauded as a masterwork by critics.

In recent years, the production of B-movies have seen a resurgence. In part this is due to recent technological developments in film production. Although there have always been lower cost methods of shooting movies, such as 16 mm film in the 1970s or video cameras (recording onto analog video tape), these methods could not produce films that could rival 35 mm film quality. In the 2000s, the development and widespread usage of digital cameras and digital production methods allow even lower-budget filmmakers to produce films with good image quality. In particular, High Definition (HD) digital filmmaking allows filmmakers to produce 35 mm-quality films.

Another factor is a shift in audience and critical preferences. As indicated above, B-movies allow for greater creative freedom, which allows B-movie filmmakers to tackle themes or topics that are less saleable in the mass market feature film industry. As North American and European populations are becoming more diverse, the moviegoing population is seeking out a broader range of themes and stories. As well, some actors such as Bruce Campbell and Eric Roberts have embraced their role as B-movie actors.

The resurgence in interest in B-movies can also be seen in the production in 2005 of the mainstream feature film Snakes on a Plane, about a murderer who attempts to kill his victim by releasing snakes on a jet plane. Starring A-list actor Samuel Jackson, this film's premise and title cribs heavily from the B-movie tradition.


According to cinema website editor Tom Mes, films were “... divided into degrees of importance, and then the studio would control and monitor films according to the whether a film as an A-movie, B-movie, or C-movie. Since C-movies were not important to the studios, the director of a C-movie typically had more freedom than directors of A- and B-movies [1].

Ed Wood has been called the master of the C-movie [2], although the term better applicable to his work might be "Z-movies". David A. Prior and Mario Bava have also been called prominent figures in the C-movie industry.

In the 1980s, with the growth of cable television, the C-grade movie designation also began being used to refer to low-quality genre films such as horror and science fiction films were used as "filler" programming for late night television programs such as the 1990s television series [3] . The "C" in the term may refer to the "C" in the cable TV destination of many of the films or to these films' below-B-movie standards.

With shows such as Mystery Science Theater 3000, poor quality horror and science fiction films were edited for brevity and presented with sarcastic commentary voiceovers that highlighted the films' scriptwriting or production shortcomings. The Elvira - Mistress of the Dark syndicated horror series, which starred Cassandra Peterson, also used this same approach of screening genre films with sarcastic commentary, but it focused on the horror genre.

By the 2000's cable and satellite companies were offering hundreds of channels catering to many niche interests. To cut costs, channels often program "direct to video" movies - modest-budget genre films (action, war-action, horror, etc) that were shot on video and never released in theatres.


A Z-movie (or "Grade-Z movie") is term used to describe low budget films with quality standards far below those of B-movies and C-movies. While B-movies may have mediocre scripts and lesser-known actors, they are typically competently filmed, lit, and edited. C-movies may be thematically or conceptually more unusual, due to the greater latitude afforded to C-movie directors, but C-movies are nonetheless products of the commercial film industry, and so they still adhere to a number of production norms.

In contrast, Z-movies are typically made outside of the mainstream studio system. Without the financial backing of a studio, Z-movie directors usually have very small budgets. As a result, scripts often include errors, continuity errors are made during shooting, and non-professional actors are cast in some roles. As well, the films are typically poorly lit and edited. Z-movies of the 1970s are often characterized by the inclusion of violent, gory, and/or sexual content that is not counterbalanced by redeeming artistic or creative elements in the script or cinematography.

Directors such as Ed Wood and Vic Savage shot films that are considered to exemplify the Z-movie genre:

  • Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space has an incoherent plot, bizarre dialogue, inept acting, and shoestring special effects and sets. Stock footage is often used in place of newly-filmed sequences, scenes are used more than once to cut costs, boom mics are visible in the finished film, and some actors appear to be reading from cue cards.
  • Vic Savage's The Creeping Terror uses inexpensive effects and production techniques, such as stock footage of a rocket launch played in reverse as the visuals for the landing of an alien rocket ship and what appears to be shaggy carpet draped over several slow-moving people for the alien 'creeping terror' referred to in the title. The movie also use a technique that has come to be synonymous with Z-movie horror: narration voice-overs that paraphrase the dialogue that is silently occurring onscreen.

Troma is probably the best-known producer of Z-movies. Since its founding in 1974, Troma has become associated with films that contain shocking imagery, overt sexuality, graphic violence, and gore. Troma film releases include Redneck Zombies,Surf Nazis Must Die, The Class of Nuke 'Em High series, Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD, Cannibal! The Musical, Terror Firmer, Blood Sucking Freaks, and Vegas In Space.

Some Troma films are produced in-house, and others are purchased from other studios and re-released, especially when such films represent the early work of anactor that subsequently becomes famous. A good example of this is Sizzle Beach U.S.A., one of Kevin Costner's first films, which was purchased by Troma and re-released to capitalize on his popularity in Silverado and the then-upcoming The Untouchables. Troma has produced or acquired early films with Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, James Gunn, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Troma's most notorious film is The Toxic Avenger, a 1985 film about a man who mutates into an ugly creature with enhanced physical strength (the "toxic avenger" referred to in the title). After this film's release and the subsequent media attention, the toxic avenger character became the Troma Entertainment's symbol.

Just as B-movies introduce themes, plots, and genres that are sometimes later used in big-budget A-movies, sometimes even the unusual material in Z-movies is picked up by the major studios. The plot from a Z-movie called Parts: The Clonus Horror was used by DreamWorks' to produce a big-budget film entitled The Island in 2005.

Psychotronic movies

"Psychotronic movie" is a term coined by movie critic Michael J. Weldon to denote movies which are generally ignored by the critical establishment, whether because of obscurity or of mediocre quality as judged by mainstream taste. He got this term from the Chicago cult film The Psychotronic Man about a man who develops the bizarre ability to kill using psychic energy. According to a Psychotronic Film Society in Chicago, the term "psychotronic" can be defined by breaking the term into its two subcomponents: "'psycho-' as in horror, '-tronic' or electronic as science fiction".

Weldon published The Psychotronic Guide to Film and Psychotronic Video Magazine using the term "psychotronic" in this sense. According to the Washington Psychotronic Film Society, the term "psychotronic" is as broad as the music genre label of "alternative music", in that it refers to "...just about everything except the Norm".

B/C/Z-movie directors

William Beaudine
Uwe Boll
Edward Cahn
David Decoteau
John Gale (director)
Michael Legge
Donald G. Jackson
Paul Morrissey
Nicholas Musuraca
Jean-Marie Pallardy
Fred Olen Ray
Vincent Sherman
Andy Sidaris
Phil Tucker
Ed Wood

Selected B/C/Z-movie actors

Daniel Baldwin
Valerie Bertinelli
Karen Black
Bruce Campbell
Lynda Carter
Damian Chapa
Sybil Danning
Joe Estevez
Mark Hamill
C. Thomas Howell
David Keith
Sylvia Kristel
Christopher Lambert
Lorenzo Lamas
Traci Lords
Dolph Lundgren
Brigitte Nielsen
Chuck Norris
Lou Diamond Phillips
Linnea Quigley
Eric Roberts
Mickey Rourke
Steven Seagal
Tony Todd
Shannon Tweed
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Casper Van Dien

See also


  1. ^ Tom Mes, editor of Midnight Eye
  2. ^ Journal of American Studies of Turkey 3 (1996): 133-134
  3. ^ DAVID PAYNE: DO FEAR THE REEKER by Eric Campos (2005-12-27)

External links

Home | Up | B-movie | Biographical film | Bizarro fiction | Black comedy | Blaxploitation | Buddy film

Movies, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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