It wasn’t so terribly long ago that a multitude of campy genre films descended on our multiplex screens and video rental shelves. The 1980s were a heyday for high concept, low brow entertainment from studios that looked to make a buck by offering a cheaper and more disposable version of the blockbuster. Star Wars spawned Star Crash and Battle Beyond the Stars. Indiana Jones brought Allan Quartermaine back to the big screen. Sylvester Stallone’s success birthed a string of Chuck Norris franchises and gritty Vietnam war movies. Somehow, we lived in a time when calling a film a “Michael Dudikoff vehicle” made sense. I think we might be headed back there.
Rather than throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at something like the Narnia films or The Golden Compass, film makers have hit the mark more closely with smaller budget fare where the directors and producers know their limitations and just focus on making the most entertaining pop art possible.
Outlander (2008) is a perfect example. The film’s log line is “vikings vs. aliens”–what else do you really need to know? Well maybe it helps to know that the film’s ridiculous premise is backed up by some tense Alien-inspired action, an adequate amount of gore, a fantastic creature design and even a character arc with some heart. The creature’s back-story, told in flashback, adds an unexpected amount of depth to a film that might have otherwise been a little too one-dimensional. Everyone IN the movie takes it deadly seriously, but the audience is allowed to have a little fun with it without groaning at the terrible acting and CGI. Outlander got dumped in limited release in the states, perhaps confused with the under-performing vikings vs. Indians flick, Pathfinder, but I suspect it will find fans on home video. There were dozens of forgettable Cannon films released for every good one, and Outlander feels like one of the “hits” that might have come from that studio in its prime.
I have a little bit of a hard time understanding how Outlander came from the mind of someone other than Neil Marshall, who seems to be the king of the current B-Movie revival. Doomsday‘s “everything AND the kitchen sink” approach to post-apocalyptic mayhem was outrageously fun with an audience. Although it seemed to be mostly misunderstood when I caught it in the theater, the smattering of laughter at inappropriately violent moments led me to believe that there is an audience for Marshall’s gruesome brand of humor. Centurion is a bit more restrained but it still throws so much blood and backstabbing at the screen that it works better than bigger-budget attempts at similar material. If there are any doubts that the producers of Centurion don’t understand the schlock and awe that makes their film fun, the campy comic-styled poster should dispel them.
Of course there’s a fine line between camp and spoof, something that Michael Jai White found out with the widely misunderstood Black Dynamite. The fact is, Black Dynamite and Machete make about as perfect a double feature as Death Proof and Planet Terror, but you can add the box office for all of those films together and it would struggle to eclipse the take of something as run-of-the-mill as Saw III. The movie-going public at large just doesn’t get these movies anymore.
Films like Slither are essentially a big middle finger at the multiplex culture of sameness that brings endless retreads, sequels, and safe bets. They challenge an audience to try something new, even if it’s something built on the familiar bedrock of Critters and Hell Comes to Frogtown. The tricks to making a film like Slither work are finding a solid cast who can make the material sing and spending enough on the production design to elevate it above typical straight-to-SyFy garbage. James Gunn’s Troma work didn’t do much for me but his leap to wide release body horror was hilariously creepy and satisfying.
Piranha’s formula of excessive grue and tasteless nudity was successful enough at the box office to prove that these films can work. Revival screenings of B-movie classics are going on in lots of places just as the early-80’s works of Roger Corman are being released on Blu-Ray. Every generation needs its own crop of B-movies that can burn into the subconscious and linger there, waiting for the right wave of nostalgia to hit. We need movies that aren’t quite polished but are still ripe with ideas. We’ll surely always get our share of inept films like The Room that inspire a cult following, but we need imaginative, ridiculous, sometimes distasteful movies like Piranha and Machete to keep the visceral cinema experience alive.
What makes these movies so charming is that they aren’t shooting for the 100 million dollar opening weekend. They aren’t banking on established stars to draw the Entertainment Tonight celebrophiles to the theater. They aren’t quite as worried about selling toys and about tying in with kids’ meal premiums as their big studio cousins, but they are made by people with a passion for entertainment that seems fresh. When Robert Rodriguez can take a fake trailer for a non-existent Mexican exploitation feature and turn it into a real film, that’s something worth celebrating. The fact that he somehow pulled Jeff Fahey out of Z-movie hell and paired him with Robert De Niro and Cheech Marin gives me hope that we’ll one day get to see Al Leong’s name above the title of a movie.
Ultimately 3D might help to give these kinds of movies an audience again. You can find a copy of Black Dynamite almost anywhere now–testament to the fact that Michael Jai White made a movie that people will find the time for if it’s presented to them in the right way. If the studios can find a way to release these films theatrically in a way that builds excitement (Paranormal Activity) instead of sending the signal that the film is DOA (Grindhouse) we might just get to see more of them. Hell, there’s a killer tire movie on the way, so things have to be looking up, right?