Life & Liberty: The Big, Bad B Movies


Movies, claimed D.W. Griffith, would make war literally impossible. They would present such a compelling picture of the true brotherhood of man, argued this pioneer American filmmaker, that even the most untutored provincial could not fail to grasp its meaning.

Well,…maybe. It was in 1924 that Griffith made this optimistic prediction about the social impact of movies, and he didn't expect it to be realized in less than a century. But if he was right, a lot of contemporary film-makers are going to be looking for a new line of work. For there just doesn't seem to be much peace, love, and brotherhood in the movies, especially the "B movies" that are cranked out by the dozens every year.

Last year at Christmastime, mothers across the nation voiced complaints about TV ads for one of them, Silent Night, Deadly Night; it seems that their children were frightened by a fellow in a Santa suit who comes with an axe to punish bad children. Brian De Palma's recent Hitchcock thriller, Body Double, provoked the usual outrage among feminists; they are troubled by a movie in which the hero is a peeping Tom, a young woman is murdered with a very large power drill, and the clue to the killer's identity is found in a sleazy porn flick. And Terminator, which featured Arnold Schwarzenegger in 90 minutes of totally gratuitous mayhem, led the pack in box office receipts.

Of course, violence, sadism, and sexual perversion are not the only themes that characterize B movies. But it is the horror and science fiction movies—those populated by monsters, mutants, weird aliens, sex-crazed slashers—that generate the most outrage. Since the very first child had a nightmare after seeing Frankenstein at the matinee, the defenders of decency and good taste have condemned Hollywood for pandering to our basest instincts. And Hollywood has been forced to shoulder a good deal of the blame for violence, promiscuity, drug abuse, simple-mindedness, and other ills that beset society.

This is the simple explanation for the popularity of B movies, and the simple critique. But it just won't wash. B movies certainly aren't art, and they seldom present a very uplifting picture of human existence. But the history of B movies suggests that they provide audiences with something much more substantial than cheap thrills and that they are much more a symptom than a cause of the ills of society.

The B movies got their start in the 1930s, the depression era, when Hollywood had to tighten its belt along with the rest of the country. Producers discovered that there are many ways to save money on movies and still attract a sizable audience: reliance on formulas saves money on script development, actors need not be stars or even competent, and formula plots don't usually require expensive sets or locations. A genre film—Western, science fiction, horror, detective—can therefore be cheap to make and will usually attract a sizable audience simply because people know in advance what to expect.

Film genres are by and large the same as literary genres, and most of them have been around since the beginning of the movies. But in film, as in literature, genres evolve. And, not surprisingly, this evolution parallels changes in the worldview of B-movie audiences.

The typical horror and science fiction movies of the '30s and '40s drew extensively on the supernatural: vampires and werewolves were popular, as were other "unnatural" creatures like King Kong or Frankenstein's monster. But the evil depicted in these movies was of a thoroughly natural sort. Someone was overcome by uncontrollable impulses, to drink blood or to bay at the moon and consume raw flesh. Or someone meddled with forces that human beings were not meant to understand and control.

That such stories should be popular in the Western world is no surprise. Western culture has always exhibited an interest in subjecting "evil" human nature to the domination of reason and society and an insistence that there are strict limits to what it is right and proper for human beings to know or to attempt. In short, we have always been afraid of ourselves and of what we might do if we ever lose control and give in to our natural impulses.

This fear is not without justification, and this is what gives the horror and science fiction movies of the '30s and '40s, as well as the endless cycle of sequels, remakes, and updated versions, their continuing appeal. When nature overcomes reason, as in The Wolfman (1941), or when man probes too deeply into nature's secrets, as in Frankenstein (1931) or The Invisible Man (1933), there is never any doubt what the outcome will be. The audience knows what to expect, because viewers have been warned time and again by parents, teachers, and preachers.

By the 1950s, American audiences had found something to fear even more than themselves—the Red menace and the spectre of nuclear annihilation. This was the age of paranoia, of subversion from within and without, of the House Un-American Activities Committee. And the horror and science fiction movies of the '50s reflected this paranoia.

The B movies of the 1950s are typified by I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). This movie's plot is a paradigm of implausibility: Aliens from a species whose females have all perished come to Earth and take the form of men so that they can breed with human women. A naive young bride discovers this nefarious plot, but no one will heed her hysterical warnings because, of course, the aliens look "just like us."

The subtext, however, is considerably more plausible. Communist infiltrators look just like us: your new neighbor could be one, or your coworker or even your child's teacher. In the 1950s, evil was no longer identifiable by its appearance. To the hideous face of Dr. Frankenstein's monster and the obvious decay of Dracula's castle had been added the comfortable familiarity of The Thing (1951) and the human puppets of Invaders from Mars (1951). But evil is no less threatening for being pleasant to look at, and the message of these movies was clear: we must heed the warnings of those who know, and present a united front against threats to our way of life.

The '50s also saw the emergence of nuclear annihilation as an important theme in B movies. More often than not, it was some side effect of radiation, rather than nuclear war itself, that threatened the survival of the human race. The familiar character in Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1954), the giant ants of Them! (1954), and the creatures in Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) are all a product of radiation. Fear of Communist subversion was no greater than fear of the steps our very own scientists and military leaders were taking to defend us.

By the mid-1960s an increasing number of people believed that evil is a product not of human nature but, rather, of the artifices and constraints of society. The antihero became a stock character in the B movies of the '60s and early '70s. These movies reflected a naively utopian worldview: the goodness and decency inherent in human nature is repressed and corrupted by social institutions that demand conformity to "arbitrary" rules and standards.

The best of these movies—Easy Rider (1969) or Vanishing Point (1971)—evoked a terrible sense of futility and suggested that the only way to escape the status quo is a noble act of self-destruction. But movies like The Trip (1967), Wild in the Streets (1968), and a decade of biker movies did little more than sensationalize the sexual and moral corruption that lurked just beneath the surface of rebellion. As is usually the case, there was something for everyone in the B movies of the '60s: something for those who identified with the rebels and something for those who saw in rebellion the imminent collapse of the American way of life.

Then, in 1974, Tobe Hooper gifted the world with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This movie, despite the fact that it treats violence rather tastefully by contemporary standards, is notorious, and rightly so. It has become the model for the B horror and science fiction movies of the last decade. Evil is faceless in Hooper's movie: the killer is never seen without his crude mask of leather (human skin?). It is unstoppable: the teen-aged victims are no match for a psychotic with a chainsaw. And, perhaps most telling, it demands the sacrifice of innocents: one need commit no sin to suffer horrible mutilation and death at the hands of a stranger.

The elements of Hooper's movie occur again and again in the horror and science fiction movies of the last decade. In John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), in Friday the 13th (1980), in The Fog (1980), the story is always the same. Ordinary people are menaced by a faceless threat and can do nothing, either alone or together, to stop it. And one can be sure that there will be many innocent victims before the evil is bested or, more likely, simply disappears as mysteriously as it came.

Contemporary B movies are extremely nihilistic, and it is hard to believe that this is anything but a reflection of the worldview of the people who go to see these movies. The modern world is rife with dangers against which the individual is likely to feel helpless—nuclear war, pollution, terrorism. Indeed, many people doubt that even a concerted effort by the whole of society can do much to meet these threats. Small wonder, then, that people identify with the helpless victims in contemporary horror and science fiction movies.

And this attraction belies the view that B movies offer nothing but cheap thrills or that they merely pander to our baser instincts. These movies are entirely too unsettling and stir up fears that are entirely too real and pressing. They do not often challenge our intellectual, moral, and aesthetic preconceptions in the way that the best films can. They may not even be made with any imagination and attention to detail, although the best of them are. But this does not mean that they must be superficial or base, that audiences are looking for nothing more than cheap thrills or a validation of their own worst impulses.

Novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, in The Romantic Manifesto, defined art as the "selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." In other words, the artist selects certain features of reality and integrates them in a projection of how the world might be. B movies are certainly a "selective re-creation of reality"; there is a great deal more in the world than the violence and sadism of horror and science fiction movies, the mindless hedonism of teen-age sex comedies, the simple dichotomies of Westerns. But it is not the artist's projection of how reality is or might be. It is the audience's. B movies offer their audiences a stock of symbols and metaphors that represent a worldview already held. And, in so doing, there is little doubt that they provide a kind of validation of this worldview.

B movies are a wonderful example of the market at work: they give the customer exactly what he wants, and they do it cheaply, too. And the critics of the market, as they do with so many consumer products, put the worst possible interpretation on the popularity of B movies. Does the public want violence and sadism, mindless hedonism, and simple answers? The explanation must be that they are insensitive to the sufferings of their fellow human beings. They are too apathetic to grapple with complex intellectual and moral issues. They want vicarious enjoyment of the base and perverted things they are afraid to do themselves. And, of course, Hollywood just intensifies the problem by pandering to the demands of the public.

Maybe. But maybe audiences want to desensitize themselves to violence and meaningless pursuit of pleasures so that they can cope with these things in their own lives. Maybe they are disillusioned by high-minded rhetoric and ineffectual posturing and long for a time when simple answers produced immediate and direct action. Maybe they want to confront their worst fears and impulses and know that they can walk away unscathed.

One thing is certain: the fears of "serious" critics would make an excellent B movie. Attack of the Lowbrows (1985): Undead theater patrons infiltrate the board of the National Endowment for the Arts and divert millions of tax dollars to chainsaw manufacturers; survivors realize that all men are brothers under the skin.

John Ahrens is the assistant director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, in Bowling Green, Ohio. His views on movies do not reflect those of the Center or of persons of discriminating taste.