The term B-movies has a specific definition. B-movies are commercial films that aren't features but aren't pornography or arthouse movies either. The actual term B-movie refers to the second or B half of a double feature where theatre owners would put the less popular title.
A B-movie is not necessarily a bad movie, though calling a film a B-movie these days is a kind of insult. When you combine B-movie status with a low budget, you've got a collection of what some would call the worst commercial films ever made. Of course, these movies also develop a kind of cult following, a group of fans who enjoy the movies out of a sense of irony or a distaste for the formulaic movies Hollywood stuffs down our throats.
Some B-movies and some low budget movies have taken their place among the more popular or successful films in Hollywood history. Think of The Blair Witch Project, which was filmed for about $60,000 and eventually earned hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. Unfortunately, movies with a low budget and B-movie status hardly ever have that kind of success.
Here are eight of the best low budget B-movies of all time.
1981's Just Before Dawn came and went without making much noise at the box office, but is now considered a classic of the slasher genre. Not really gory enough to be a true slasher film, Just Before Dawn is a cult classic featuring above-average acting, a bizarre score by a young Brad Fiedel (who would go on to score big movies like The Terminator and Fright Night), and a totally eerie atmosphere. The movie was so good (some would say good-bad) that Universal was in talks with the distributor to buy the rights for the movie. That deal never happened, and Just Before Dawn faded into relative obscurity. Pay attention to one of the creepiest skinnydipping scenes ever filmed.
Released in 1963, Blood Feast earns the distinction of being the first "splatter film" ever made. With a running time just under 70 minutes, and a budget of just $20,000, Blood Feast is a non stop gore fest, a big part of the film's cult appeal. Blood Feast tells the story of an Egyptian man who murders people to include their body parts on the menu of his catering business. There's plenty of ritual sacrifice and murder along the way--B-movie fans often cite Blood Feast as the first movie to show people dying with their eyes open, though this isn't totally accurate.
So called "King of the Nudies" Russ Meyer made Motorpsycho in 1965, just before the more famous campy exploitation movie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Motorpsycho is your typical motorcycle gang B-movie, and would have faded into total obscurity if not for cult movie fans and the inclusion of the first recorded example of a "deranged Vietnam veteran" character.
God Told Me to Kill is your standard Larry Cohen movie: part horror, part sci fi, and part police procedural, this movie is the stuff of low budget B-movie legend. B-movie cult hero Tony Lo Bianco stars in God Told Me to Kill as a detective investigating grisly murders committed by people who claim that God instructed them to kill, hence the film's title. Look for a cameo by Andy Kaufman, playing a possessed cop who goes on a shooting rampage against the backdrop of the St. Patrick's Day Parade. God Told Me to Kill is in the public domain, meaning that no one owns the copyright and the film has been cut to bits and recycled extensively in student films and arthouse movies, appropriate considering that Larry Cohen stole big chunks of the TV show Space:1999 and inserted them in God Told Me to Kill to save money on special effects.
Bob Clark, director of Deathdream, would later create some of the best Canadian films of his time, including Porky's and A Christmas Story. Deathdream is his second film, a movie loosely based on the W.W. Jacobs' story "The Money's Paw." The budget for Deathdream isn't precisely low (around $250,000) but for a movie that earned so much critical acclaim, that's pocket change. Critics love Clark's staging of the domestic scenes and his "reaction" shots, a key element of any horror movie. What Deathdream does well is to echo the best features of classic 1950s horror: the shocking ending, dark and morbid comic relief, and an eerie sense of revenge from beyond the grave.
A Jaws parody, creature feature, and campy horror movie rolled into one, Piranha was a Roger Corman movie about a swarm of (what else) deadly piranhas. A budget of around $500,000 may not seem low for some people, but compared to the $8 million that Jaws had in its war chest, this Spielberg parody got by on very little cash. Director Joe Dante is no stranger to B-movies, responsible for Piranha as well as Hollywood Boulevard and Rock n Roll High School.
1988's Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a comedy horror movie, a film aimed at cult audiences. In Killer Klowns, a race of aliens (that just happen to look like creepy clowns) come to Earth to gather humans to use as a food source. John Massari was responsible for the creepy score, a big part of the scare factor in this laffer from the Chiodo Brothers--Massari is now famous as the sound designer for Lady Gaga's albums and live performances. Cult movie fans will be pleased to know that the Chiodo Brothers are in talks to create a sequel.
No doubt the best low budget B-movie of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space is Ed Wood's 1959 masterpiece of failure. Everything that could go wrong with this movie did go wrong--Wood used silent clips of Bela Lugosi that he'd made for other projects and spliced them into this cult classic rather than hire a new actor. Several scenes are reused over and over again, after Wood ran out of funds to continue filming. Continuity problems abound. There's a long monologue at the beginning of the movie that leads nowhere. You must see Plan 9 From Outer Space to appreciate just how awful (and wonderful) this B-movie classic is.