Good-Bad or Just Bad? What's Happened to B-Movies?

What happened to good-bad movies? One must assume they still exist, but few B-movies these days boast that magic blend of crazed idea and crazed execution. The people who make genre films in Hollywood now are perhaps more competent that their predecessors in the '80s, '70s, and '60s, but they seem less idiosyncratically inspired, and the movies tend to follow suit.

Take Daybreakers (Lions Gate DVD and Blu-ray), for example. Writers/directors/brothers Michael and Peter Spierig obviously expended lots of effort and creativity dreaming up every last tiny detail of a world in which vampires have taken over and the few humans left are farmed for blood or live on the run. They even recruited a high-B cast—well, Ethan Hawke (as a reluctant vampire scientist looking for a cure) and Sam Neill (as the vampires' bloodmaster general) anyway. Yet the dialogue is flat, the action is unengaging, and the characters are lame. Willem Dafoe as a muscle-car driving ex-vampire named Elvis? Really? A waste of good art direction.

Five years ago, cult-fave director Neil Marshall struck B gold with The Descent, a cavebound female-bonding chiller that somehow wasn't totally ruined by the third-act advent of bloodthirsty humanoid cave beasties, aka "crawlers." Marshall didn't write or direct The Descent: Part 2 (Lions Gate DVD), but he did produce it, and therefore can't escape all blame for the most rote sequel imaginable. Hours after the events of the first film, spelunking sole survivor Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) has been traumatized into an unresponsive state by her experience, so naturally the authorities march her right back down into the hellhole she just escaped to help look for her missing comrades. The rescue party finds more treacherous caves, more crawlers, and more attritional doom. The cliché mismatched collection of rescuers here can't match the tensions of the all-girl frenemies of the original, but Part 2 provides glimpses of what made the first one so unnerving: a rescuer trapped among the boulders of a cave-in, characters squeezing through tight spots, all the nightmare claustrophobic scenarios that come with being trapped thousands of feet underground. Too bad the crawlers and every other horror cliché in the book take up most of the run time.

You could do much worse, though. You could watch Legion (Sony DVD and Blu-ray), for example. The guy who rented me a copy summed it up succinctly as an "angels with guns" movie, though that makes it sound more fun/cool than it turns out to be. Basically, Legion is a gloss on the Terminator flicks, with an angry God subbing for Skynet, Friday Night Lights' Adrianne Palicki as the Sarah Connor stand-in, and Paul Bettany doing his best Schwarzenegger stoic as a heavily armed heavenly guardian. For all the quasi-demonic shenanigans and full-auto gunfire, it's strangely boring. Almost every stock character trapped in the stock desert diner gets a stock little speech that starts, "You know, when I was a kid..." NO ONE CARES WHAT YOU DID WHEN YOU WERE A KID, STOCK CHARACTER. WHERE ARE THE ANGELS WITH GUNS? Also, seriously, the Terminator. You could make a drinking game out of it.

Wanna test my thesis? Rent Shock Waves (Blue Underground DVD), a 1977 cult fave recently restored to legit release. Where contemporary B-movie genre trash seems almost oppressively competent, this grindhouse-y number shows its low-budget roots like a bad bleach job, from the schlock synth score to the largely awful cast (horror icon Peter Cushing and Karen Allen doppelganger Brooke Adams notwithstanding). And yet, Shock Waves isn't easy to write off. A boat-load of tourists finds themselves stranded on a remote island that happens to be inhabited by a reclusive ex-Nazi (Cushing) and a cadre of undead SS supersoldiers that proceeds to work its way through the passengers and crew. So far, so ridiculous. But the Nazi zombies are genuinely creepy, forever lurking under the surface of the nearest water, rising up to implacably, silently off everyone they can get their prune-y hands on. A good film? Maybe not. Indelible? Most certainly.

Speaking of Nazis, North Face (Music Box DVD and Blu-ray) went all but straight to DVD in the U.S. market, and the swastika on the cover art gives it that exploitation-flick vibe that might make it easy to overlook or dismiss. In fact, it's a polished drama based on the true story of an ill-fated attempt to climb Alpine peak the Eiger in 1936. Yes, Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz (Florian Lukas and Benno Furman, respectively) are German soldiers, but their true passion is scaling impossible slopes. Grudgingly, they get roped into a propaganda drive to make members of the Master Race the first to scale the mountain's treacherous north face, but once the film gets past the set-up and a fictionalized storyline involving an opportunistic German editor (The Lives of Others' Ulrich Tukur) and a young reporter who also happens to be the girl Toni left behind (Johanna Wokalek), it quickly becomes a sphincter-puckering action thriller. Everything that can go wrong when one tries a difficult climb with early 20th-century equipment does, and as much melodrama gets heaped on the proceedings downslope, the mountainside footage is wrackingly taut and grim. This one is a real find.