Poor But Honest Entertainment
I’ve always preferred honest B movies to under-ambitious and oversold A movies. Watching [Rec]4 last night brought that home as I sat there thinking ‘Outboard-toting heroine fights rabid monkeys on a detonating ship – what’s not to love?’
The [Rec] series has a certain amount of originality and rings enough changes to intrigue, but originality isn’t everything. Almost any haunted house movie gets my attention, although The Conjuring is actually terrible, and my favourites include Skeleton Key, Stir of Echoes, Burnt Offerings and Session 9.
The B movies that once accompanied main titles in double bills don’t even go direct to video anymore; they slide past to streaming channels looking to fill out product lines, and what would once have been considered A movies are not getting released in crowded theatrical schedules. There was never any question that the creepy Clown (about a haunted suit that turns a man into a homicidal circus performer) was ever going to get a theatre release, but Can’t Come Out To Play is a gripping medical suspenser starring Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon and Peter Fonda that has passed to DVD because it’s considered too quirky for big screens. It shares its roots with Misery and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, but those films belonged to a time when B movies got A releases. All of which makes the hunt for great Bs more complicated than ever.
The Carry On films used to offer shameful fun but I find them very hard to watch now, except for Spying, Up The Khyber, Cleo and Screaming. They belong to a time when British filmmaking was impoverished but just about enjoyable despite (or because of) its darned-together feel. From the 1950s, the St Trinian’s films were considered lower class than Ealing comedies, but now seem extremely well-written. Some of the minor live-action Disney films, especially those steeped in Americana, fascinate in the light of the era’s politics that surrounded them. But Old Yeller, In Search of the Castaways and The Absent Minded Professor seem to belong to the late Victorian period.
Ever since Ronald Reagan looked for his legs in King’s Row, movies were where the shameful plots could be found. My partner has an astoundingly high tolerance of bad comfort TV, and just watched Extant, in which one character, consigned to a mental health clinic, screams, ‘You can’t rubber-stamp me into a rubber room!’
Final Destination, Hellraiser, Saw, Resident Evil, Fast and Furious, Mimic and The Butterfly Effect were all turned into franchises because at the core of each was a smidgen of originality, albeit of a trashy kind. I’ve never understood Clive Barker’s cult reputation although I’ve enjoyed some of his short fiction, but much of his prose seems to fall into this pretentious zone of mock-classic status. Hellraiser was an honest B movie that somehow gained enough traction to almost be taken seriously.
But of course there’s a line between guilty pleasures and simply bad writing. That line, like the definition of kitsch, is clearly defined. When something masquerades as having pretensions to quality it’s false and bad (for example, in the way that Sharknado wants to be regarded as a cult classic), but when it honestly delivers what it promises you can find yourself with a gem.
Integrity is the key – it’s rather like the Pot Noodle commercial that describes it as ‘The slag of all snacks’. That ad matched the honesty of its shill with production values referencing the opening sequence of Death Line right down to the music – Death Line was, after all, genuinely intended B movie. So a B film can have more integrity than an A. I often find it hard to watch sentimental biopics like The Butler, because they take something serious and debase it with manipulative sentiment.
In years to come it seems we’ll look back on Marvel movies in this way. Marvel provides plain, honest superhero action, turning its also-ran lines into major franchises thanks to their decision to let audiences understand they’re offering nothing more than live-action comics. The opposite attitude infects DC, who told us that we were seeing bigger, more important works – the pretentiousness of Batman and Superman will come to look bizarre and overblown.
I hate being told to regard certain films as masterpieces when they’re quite obviously not. Now that we look back on the nineties and noughties we can see that many of the entertainments we were being sold as clever were merely ironic – ie. filled with references anyone who watched a lot of TV felt smart about understanding.
It feels as if we’re moving back into an era of plain story-telling, and this could be good for entertainment at every level.