Click here to read reviewer Dave Roy's take on The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love.
You gotta love a book that comes with a set of 3-D viewing goggles so you can see the front cover, with that big "B" jumping out at you. You know you're already in Cooltown when you read the subtitle: "The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love."
This is one of the most quotable books I've read in a long time, beginning with the intro in which editors Sterritt and Anderson refer to the B flick as "the Hollywood stepchild, the underbelly of the double feature, the scrambling lab rat of cinematic innovation." And it only gets better. The movies reviewed in the book are either "important for what they are" or "important for what they aren't." But we, the fans, already knew that, because despite Hollywood's best attempts to make us love movies by throwing money at them, most people's real favorites lie somewhere south of Hollywood's grandiose expectations. The editors make the point that the overdone myth of the Great Man who, with his moral superiority, can ultimately save civilization just goes berserk in the B movie, confirming our underlying suspicion that this world is not quite what it seems.
Few movies so blatantly suggest that society has already gone to hell than the cult classic
Night of the Living Dead. Made on a modest budget of $114,000, filmed in black and white with few shades of gray, it frightens like no other movie with amateur actors, no special effects, a very simple set and even simpler set of parameters. The world has been taken over by zombies and, once bitten, always smitten - the victims become zombies, too, a rule as well-known to horror film fans as the rule that the dumb blonde teenage girl always gets killed first. In this case, after a long, terrifying night in which everyone, blonde or not, goes down to the zombie team, the black guy seems to be the last hold-out, the one character not infected by zombie-itis
- but, in the morally askew world of 1968 when the film was made, he becomes the
victim of zombie vigilantes. As reviewer Desson Thomson says, "the undertones of lynching are impossible to ignore."
Though the directors of most grade-B flicks are little-known names, some of the greatest stars in the directorial pantheon got their start or threw away some of their time and money on a B movie. David Lynch, best known for noir-ish but profitable productions like
The Elephant Man and Wild at Heart, cut his teeth with a truly bizarre short film called Eraserhead, about a beheaded bastard baby that reincarnates in an eraser factory. Or something like that. While critics ponder its precise meaning,
Eraserhead belongs to the ages. Other good directors whose names grace the B-film marquee are Quentin Tarantino for
Reservoir Dogs, Francis Ford Coppola for The Conversation, and John Huston for
Beat the Devil, one of those films "made up on the spot" with a cast over-laden with stars - Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre - and dialogue pasted together on a daily basis by temperamental Truman Capote, who left the location at one point to fly to Rome and console his pet raven. That makes sense.
The B List is separated into genres including "Whole Lotta Shakin - Rock Pop and Beyond" and "Burning Up the Blacktop - Road Movies." Unless you have been living on Red Planet Mars, you will have seen at least one, if not many, of The Core B movies critiqued in this amusing and thought-inducing collection, and will want to rush out to your nearest Videodrome to pick up copies of those you haven't yet explored. Buy plenty of microwave popcorn and be prepared for an experience Stranger than Paradise.