B movies are an iconic part of American cinema. Everyone has their own favorite B movie, whether it’s a science fiction movie from the 1950s or a horror movie from the 1960s. But what makes a B movie unique, and what separates it from blockbuster hits or movies that were critically revered as genre classics?
It’s important to remember that the line between a big budget blockbuster or a critically revered movie and a B movie canoften be very thin. What people think will turn out to be a B movie sometimes ends up being a smash hit. Iconic classics and B movies can often look alike in terms of story as well. What separates them isn’t so much the material or the themes as it is the quality and skill with which it’s depicted. A skilled director and a good story can take B movie material and present it in a way that translates into a mega box office hit that is also respected as quality storytelling.
For example, the 1959 Vincent Price classic House on Haunted Hill and the 1963 film The Haunting, which was based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, are very similar in terms of general story elements as they are both about allegedly haunted houses. But while the former is viewed as anentertaining and fun movie by William Castle, the B movie King of the 1950’s and 60’s, the latter is considered a classic and one of the scariest movies ever made. The Haunting was another success by the film’s director, Robert Wise, who made some of the most respected movies of the 20th century such as West Side Story and The Sound of Music
At the time of both movies, horror, thriller, and science fiction genre films had typically been considered B movies as a whole for years. Horror movies in particular were considered the epitome of B movies. But in 1968, William Castle produced Rosemary’s Baby, a movie that was not only frightening, it waswidely respected critically and artistically, and Ruth Gordon won an Academy Award for her performance. The film was a landmark in several ways, one of which was that it took the paranoia and sense of unease that typically came with movies about haunted houses in the middle of nowhere, and instead set it in an apartment building in New York City. This gave the movie a sense of realism that had previously been unusual in scary movies of the era, and it’s significant because movies historically classified as B movies were not known for beingparticularly realistic. They were fun and entertaining, but no one walked away being particularly moved or shaken because what was depicted on screen could happen. The Haunting and Rosemary’s Baby were some of the first movies to take B movie material and make it seem not just possible, but frighteningly realistic.
That is what distinguishes a great film from what is considered a B movie of lesser quality. Countless great films could have easily been reduced to the status of a B film simply by its subject matter, but what separates an entertaining B movie from a game changing movie is the skill by which the film manages to make genre fiction like horror, thriller, action, or science fiction seem realistic and compelling. Arguably one of the best examples is Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie Jaws. By the sheer nature of its subject matter, Jaws could’ve easily fallen into the category of a fun monster movie. The fact that Jaws inspired countless imitators that are widely considered movies of lesser quality shows how easily Jaws could have gone the same way. So what makes this shark movie stand out above all the rest?
The answer is simple. Aside from the well-crafted suspense where the presence of the shark is hinted at as opposed to shone for most of the movie, what makes Jaws unique is the quality of the characters and the performance of the actors portraying them. These aren’t functional characters who simply occupy space on screen before they are attacked by a shark. They are real, flesh and blood people who could be your neighbors, and the town of Amity could be any number of American beach towns. The characters are not glamorous or stylishly dressed, with Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) being the most memorable example. Just like Quint’s boat does not look like some flashy, high tech, expensive boat. It’s tough, scarred, and battle hardened, just like him. And it’s that boat that provides the setting for what is perhaps the movie’s best scene, and that is saying something in a movie filled with great scenes. In the scene, it’s late at night while at sea, and Quint (Robert Shaw) tells the story of his experience on the U.S.S. Indianapolis to the two other main characters. There’s no special effects or epic flashbacks involved, as it’s just one man talking to two others, and it’s mesmerizing.
The resolutely ordinary nature of Amity is a significant part of the plot as well, because when the first shark attack occurs and nothing is confirmed, Mayor Vaughn and the other people of Amity don’t want to close the beaches because it’s summer, and the town is dependent on tourism and the revenue it brings in. This is the conflict that drives the story for the earlier part of the film. The mere rumor of a shark lurking around is enough to destroy the town financially, and the movie is how the town of Amity wrestles with that problem.
Amity and its people who find themselves facing off with the shark, and how that face off is portrayed on screen without seeming absurd or over the top, is why Jaws far transcended its B movie potential and changed cinema forever. Its resolutely middle class, middle American atmosphere is what went a long way in doing what very few films have managed to achieve. Four years later, Alien would employ a similar approach when the crew aboard the Nostromo looked just regular people, and the Nostromo itself looked and felt resolutely blue collar.
It’s no coincidence that Spielberg was also one of the minds behind the 1982 film Poltergeist, which is widely considered one of the best haunted house movies ever made. There are many entertaining haunted house movies, but only a few are truly in a league of their own. Aside from Poltergeist and The Haunting, Kubrick’s The Shining, and James Wan’s The Conjuring, are a few others. What sets these four movies apart is that like Jaws, the stories and characters are beyond relatable and terrifyingly realistic. A common criticism of haunted house movies is “Why don’t the characters just leave?” Well, in stories like The Conjuring where the characters are resolutely ordinary, the family in the haunted house can’t just leave because they can’t typically afford to or there is nowhere to go. Much like in Jaws, ordinary people can’t afford to leave their house for an indefinite period of time, especially if it’s made clear leaving the house won’t do them any good. So the people in the haunted house have no choice but to confront what is haunting them.
Nor is Spielberg the only director who’s taken various B movie subject matters and styles and done something unique with them. Over the course of his career, Quentin Tarantino has taken elements of film genres which were classified as definite B movie material in the past and featured them in his movies with a new spin that has been well received. Not only has one of his movies been called Grindhouse in reference to the Grindhouse films of the 70s, the film that catapulted him into the realm of massive success was called Pulp Fiction, a homage to the vintage pulp novels.
With this in mind, the difference between a B movie and it’s more respected counterpart is that B movie makes its subject matter entertaining, whereas it’s more respected counterpart movie not only makes its subject matter entertaining, it makes it realistic, compelling, and believable. The line between B movie entertainment and a critically acclaimed box office hit is determined by how seriously audiences take the story based on the skill with which the story is presented.
Grant Butler is the author of the novel The Heroin Heiress and his short fiction has been published in Sick Cruising, Mardi Gras Mysteries, Punk Noir Magazine, Horror Bites Magazine, Drabbledark II: An Anthology of Dark Drabbles, Dread Space: 23 Dark Military Science Fiction Stories, and The Siren’s Call. is the author of the novel The Heroin Heiress and his short fiction has been published in Sick Cruising, Mardi Gras Mysteries, Punk Noir Magazine, Horror Bites Magazine, Drabbledark II: An Anthology of Dark Drabbles, Dread Space: 23 Dark Military Science Fiction Stories, and The Siren’s Call.