The Elusive Brilliance of Grade B Movies

Posted: April 5, 2012 in Culture, Movies, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

Now here’s a Zen question, as profound in its own way as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Is it possible to intentionally make a grade B exploitation film?

I found myself asking this question after coming across a review on the blog “Stabs in the Dark” concerning a tribute to an ’80s-style slasher film, complete with an accompanying VHS issued for added “authenticity.”

Stabs in the Dark didn’t give the film a very high rating, which doesn’t surprise me. And the reason it doesn’t surprise me largely comes down to the quotation marks I felt obliged to put around the word “authenticity” in the preceding paragraph.

As I guess you’ve inferred from the mere fact that I’m writing an entry on the subject, I’m a fan of the old grade B exploitation films.

Yes, I enjoy laughing at the sheer incompetence of wretched movies such as “Manos: Hands of Fate,” which provided Mystery Science Theater 3000 with fodder all of those years.

But I’m not just talking about ironic goofing on bad movies. This isn’t exactly a strikingly original insight, but there’s plenty of great stuff to be found among the ranks of low-budget horror movies, exploitation flicks and martial arts films from decades past

In his piece “A Hard-On for Horror,” writer Joe R. Lansdale examines what makes for a truly good low-budget exploitationer, such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In Lansdale’s assessment (and I hope to God I’m interpreting him right), it lies in the unpredictable juxtaposition of genuine artistry and low-budget schlockiness.

If slick Hollywood productions and straight-to-video craptaculars tend to share one trait, it’s their scarcity of surprises. But films that fall somewhere in-between – “Phantasm” and the original “Last House on the Left” come to mind – tend to keep you off-balance. They have an unpredictable, roller coaster quality that makes viewing them a legitimately exhilarating and scary experience.

The bitch is: that’s so hard to do intentionally.

A lot of filmmakers have tried it. It’s easy to find homages to exploitation cinema. The kind of fare made by film students with minuscule budgets and boundless belief in their own cleverness, bearing titles like “Vampire Biker Babes With Chainsaws!” I’ve seen a number of these that turned out to be yawners consisting of little more than a splashy title and lots of “ain’t this zany?” references to exploitation films from past eras.

A few filmmakers have even pulled it off, to some degree. For example, there’s the great “Grindhouse” and two equally great films that it inspired – “Machete” and “Hobo With a Shotgun.”

But much as I enjoyed all three of those movies, they still seemed a little hollow at their core compared to their source material. That’s because their rough-hewn qualities were calculated, rather than incidental. It’s the difference between torn jeans worn on a construction site, and jeans that already had the tear in them when they hung on a rack at a hipster boutique and bore a $200 price tag.

If I was to think of an analogy for the combination of incompetence and skill that comprised the best of genuine grindhouse cinema, I’d evoke a very different type of entertainment.

The early days of television consisted largely of live broadcasts. Occasionally, very talented performers would flub their lines. Sometimes, they’d come up with ingenious improvisations to cover for it. Even when they didn’t, those occasional flubs would give the broadcasts an exhilarating, performing-without-a-net quality that the slicker productions of today – for all they have to offer – simply can’t provide.

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