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John Scalzi – In Praise of Dark Star and Other SciFi B-Movies

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And now, a list of reasons why I, as a movie fan, am really digging’s new B-movies site, on which you can watch “classic” B-movies from the comfort of your own laptop — why, yes, I am shamelessly plugging another portion of the AMC site, so just deal with it, pal:

1. The fact is, it’s almost impossible to find vintage B-movies on TV anymore. When I was a kid, I remember the local stations — most notably KABC, KCOP and KHJ (quick! Where does this mean I grew up?) — showing B-movies in the afternoons or late at night. I would come home from school, manually crank the dial and feast on flicks about biker gangs and/or musical beach parties and/or badly dubbed Japanese actors cowering as something rubbery stomps a city block.

Those days are long gone: Afternoons have been ceded to Oprah and stern retired judges who lambaste morons for angrily running over someone else’s property; late nights, on the other hand, are jammed with infomercials. Where does one go today for the best in B-movies? On television, nowhere.

2. No one actually makes B-movies anymore — at least not as they were originally intended. “B-movie” once meant the cheap, shorter flick with lesser-known actors that a movie studio packaged along with its “A”-movie, newsreel and cartoon short back in the days when people went to the movies for an entire evening. Later, once that practice went the way of the dodo, B-movies were the ones made by cheapie studios to fill up the second half of a double feature at a theater or drive-in. Those days too have been dodo-ized.

Today the closest thing you have to “B-movies” are direct-to-DVD cheapies, usually sequels to flicks that didn’t do well enough at the box office to support a theatrical release. In science fiction, I’ll direct you to the two Starship Troopers sequels, both of which are classically “B-movie” in production value, but which ultimately lack that essential B-movie vibe. It’s a different production and distribution dynamic, and it makes for a different sort of cheap, disposable movie. Not better or worse, just different.

3. B-movies are an excellent place to see people on their way up. My favorite example of this on the “BMC” site is Dark Star (see here), the first full-length feature by director John Carpenter — who would go one to rule the late ’70s and early ’80s with Halloween, Escape from New York and the remake of The Thing. Dark Star is also the debut of writer Dan O’Bannon, who co-wrote the script and would later go on to pen Alien, Lifeforce and Total Recall. Watching this flick, it’s easy to spot the elements that would define the two filmmakers later on in their careers.

4. Conversely, you can also see how some “legends” made their names. On AMC’s site you’ll find names like Sonny Chiba and Peter Cushing, which are famous now not because they started in B-movies and went on from there, but because they stayed in B-movies to become favorites of geeky kids who would then go on to become filmmakers. Chiba (you’ll find him on BMC in Invasion of the Neptune Men, see here) is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who name-checks his chop-socky hero in True Romance and created a part for him as swordmaster Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill. Peter Cushing, who wowed George Lucas in movies like The Hellfire Club (see here), earned himself a role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (itself a loving tribute to the B-movie adventures and serials Lucas ate up as a kid).

Neither Quentin Tarantino nor George Lucas are trivial filmmakers, and both have made inarguably classic and influential movies. Could we be missing something by dismissing these flicks (and their actors) as “B-movies”? Largely, no — most B-movies are in fact negligible entertainments, and cheesy fun at best. But it is also true that tastes change over time. In the case of both Lucas and Tarantino, they both made flicks that would have been indisputably “B” back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but which are now indisputably “A.” Tastes change, and these filmmakers helped change them, partly through their love of B-movies.

Having said that, I think I’ll get back to Dark Star now. I love me some beach ball aliens.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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