Hollywood has helped to define American culture for almost 100 years. Movies like Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, and other great titles are recognized the around the world. Each year, the Oscar awards presentation is viewed by millions of people worldwide who want to watch their favourite movie from the previous year win the most prestigious award Hollywood can bestow.
However, there is a class of movie that will never be represented at the awards. These are the lesser class of movies, or more commonly known as 'B' movies. They usually don’t star any famous actors, and the director’s names have become synonymous with bad movie making. Names like Ed Wood and Roger Corman have contributed a large body of work to the collection of bad movies that have been viewed over the years by unsuspecting movie goers.
In the realm of ‘B’ movies are the famous offerings from Japan featuring Godzilla, Megalon, and Mothra who are known to legions of fans. These movies feature stuntmen dressed as voracious monsters that fight each other while destroying dozens of dollar’s worth of model cities. Another popular collection of 'B' films is the 'big bug' movies of the 1950s that featured giant ants, grasshoppers, and in one case, a giant praying mantis. These movies may not be great, but they represented a common fear that pervaded American society in the 1950s. This was the atomic age, and science had just presented the world with the atomic bomb at the end of World War II. The ramifications of this new technology could only be speculated upon during this decade, and society’s fears manifested themselves in these movies. Large insects mutated by radiation that wreaked havoc on helpless cities and towns addressed these fears. They allowed people to experience a cathartic release when the menacing insects were inevitably destroyed at the end of each movie. These movies, while securely ensconced in the ‘B’ movie category, do offer a glimpse of societal fears and beliefs that were common during the eras in which they were made.
What Could Be Worse?
Beyond these movies are another grade of film that I have dubbed ‘C’ movies. These movies do not represent any other impetus for being made other than to make a quick buck. In spite of the modern proliferation of big budget movies featuring intricate special effects and grandiose plots, these ‘C’ grade movies are still being made today. They usually bypass the movie theatres in favour of the video format, where they enjoy a limited audience and even more limited revenue.
There are several basic flaws that characterize these types of movies: weak scripts, poor direction, and primitive special effects. With these flaws, it would be hard to see any redeeming qualities that these movies might have. However, the gold nugget is there. It just has to be mined.
I will examine two different ‘C’ movies: Space Mutiny, a futuristic fantasy film that was made in 1988, and The Touch of Satan, a horror film made in 1970. Each of these movies contains the classic flaws mentioned above, but they also possess qualities that make them worth viewing (if only once.)
The 1980s was a decade of excess and greed. Ronald Reagan’s economic policies widened the gap between rich and poor. The fashion trends of the decade offered plenty of glitz, neon colours, and sequins. Music was slick and polished, and so were people’s hairdos. The time was ripe for movies that reflected this futuristic trend.
Space Mutiny was made to exploit the space fantasy genre. It stars the typical unknown actors (Reb Brown, John Phillip Law and Cameron Mitchell; Reb Brown has a website with his full filmography and pictures of him as Captain America, which makes it worth a look.) performing what can only be characterized as a hastily written script. It was directed by David Winters who is responsible for several 'B' to 'C' movies including Alice Cooper: Welcome To My Nightmare (1975). Space Mutiny, also known as Mutiny in Space, was released to straight to video and screened as episode 820 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 during it's Season 8 run in 1997.
The script for Space Mutiny is a confusing story of a planned mutiny aboard a space ship that has been flying through space for 400 years looking for a planet on which to live.
Our hero, David Ryder, is a big, beefy man who is called upon by the ship’s commander to squelch a violent mutiny. His love interest, Leia, appears to be at least fifteen years older than David, but wears tight revealing body suits that constantly test the viewer’s patience. The villain, Calgan, is a tight-faced individual who is trying to overthrow the ship so he can land and gain power. (Why he can’t just take over the ship and gain power without landing somewhere is never really explained.)
After several hundred battle scenes, the movie’s climax shows David and Calgan chasing each other in small carts that resemble floor waxing machines. As they reach dizzying speeds of five miles per hour, Calgan is defeated when his cart turns over and explodes. Of course, we discover that he’s still alive as we see him burned and pissed off sitting next to a boiler at the movie’s conclusion.
Examining poor direction in Space Mutiny could fill an entire book. Suffice to say, the bad direction in this movie not only extends to the actors, but also to the stunts and the blocking as well. The bulk of the movie is spent watching hapless extras being tossed over railings and balconies to their deaths. Actors wander in and out of scenes for no apparent reason, and in one classic scene, a woman who was killed in a previous scene is shown calmly working at her desk on the ship’s bridge. That has to be better than collecting unemployment!
Primitive Special Effects
The special effects in Space Mutiny aren’t too awful, unless you look closely at the Atari-like computer graphics on the bridge’s computer. The most baffling part of the movie is the fact that the bulk of the ship seems to be a giant boiler room where most of the action takes place. Apparently the ship consists of two finished decks and fourteen unfinished ones. This makes for lots of dank action scenes, but doesn’t seem like the wisest design for a space ship.
The Touch of Satan
The 1970’s offered many fine examples of horror films, including The Exorcist, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Omen. The Touch of Satan was made before any of these, which might suggest that the filmmakers were ahead of their time in predicting the 1970’s horror craze. Unfortunately, as directed by Don Henderson (aka Tom Laughlin) they didn’t capitalize on this remarkable foresight. As with many similar low budget movies it acquired several different titles; Curse of Melissa, Night of the Demon and The Touch of Melissa. Cast and crew are listed in Daddy O's Drive-In site, surprisingly enough many of them have worked with 'A' class projects before and since. The MST3K Critic's Compilation Guide contains praise; 'An engrossing but not too gross tale...'. And, disdain; 'Dull, tedious romance..'
slow-moving plot is fairly simple. Jodie, a young man travelling alone,
stops at a pond to have lunch and meets Melissa. She invites him home to
meet her parents and her great-grandmother, Lucinda, who also happens to
be a homicidal maniac. One of the strangest parts of the story line is
that Melissa’s “father” is a walnut rancher. He’s constantly baling hay
and working on the farm, but we’re told repeatedly that they raise walnuts.
How much hay does a walnut eat?
After a series of halting dialogues in which Melissa tries to convince Jodie that her family is cursed, he learns that her great-grandmother is actually her sister who was almost burned alive at the stake 100 years ago. Melissa made a deal with Satan to save her sister’s life, and she’s been responsible for her ever since. At the end of the film, Melissa begins to age while she and Jodie are making love. Jodie, horrified by what he sees, makes another deal with Satan to keep her young forever. One hopes that the relationship doesn’t sour since they’re both headed for eternal damnation because Jodie wanted to keep the lovemaking session going.
The most obvious sign of poor direction in The Touch of Satan is interminable pause after practically every line of dialogue. One wonders if the script was too short causing the director to tell the actors to speak slowly and pause whenever possible.
One of the classic scenes shows Jodie and Melissa getting to know each other down by the pond after dinner. Jodie kisses her and Melissa runs away. When Jodie catches up to her, Melissa is staring into the pond. She blithely announces that “this is where the fish lives”, after which they resume their bizarre dialogue about Jodie’s life. This is probably the strangest line ever uttered in a movie.
Primitive Special Effects
There aren’t really very many special effects in The Touch of Satan. The final scene does show great-grandmother Lucinda bursting into flames after Melissa curses her. One wonders why at this point she chooses to burn Lucinda after rescuing her 100 years ago, but I guess she doesn’t feel guilty about that after watching her dispatch countless local farmers and police officers over the past century.
So Where’s the Gold Nugget?
After watching these movies, you might
wonder exactly what you could have been doing for those precious two hours
that you’ll never get back. Actually, bad movies offer more than you think.
However, as children, we enjoyed films that probably weren’t considered quality films because we didn’t know any better. As we watched more and more movies, we learned to distinguish good acting from bad, well-crafted special effects from clumsy effects, and engaging stories versus plots that drag on for an eternity. Gaining a true appreciation for fine films involves experiencing truly bad films. Only by suffering are we really qualified to gauge what is worth our viewing time.
One must also realize that some of these movies are made just for the sheer love of the art. Ed Wood, who is considered one of the worst directors in history, (although I would disagree), truly loved the art of making movies. This love of the craft really does come through in his movies. They were made because he was dedicated to the art of cinema. Not all ‘C’ movies can boast this dedication by the principal artists involved, but I’ll bet that many of them can. (See Schlock-O-Rama ! the book about Al Adamson who made 'B' movie making a lifestyle.)
These movies also offer one more unintentional by-product that I consider the true gold nugget: they’re hilarious. Neither movie was made with comedy in mind, but they’re worthy of a real belly laugh. The death-defying chase scene at the end of Space Mutiny is one of the funniest bits of cinema I’ve seen in years, and when Melissa announces that “this is where the fish lives”, you have to just grin. Many of these movies offer laughs that the director and the actors never meant to convey, but they’re worth finding.
Not all ‘C’ movies offer gems like this, but the ones that do are really worth the effort. Be warned that if yourent one of these ‘films’ at your local video store, you may or may not be in for a good time. Patience, dear viewer, patience!
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