The term “B-Movie” is often used to dismissively describe low-budget schlock, and to an extent, that’s true. Companies like The Asylum peddle in low-rent “Mockbusters” (Transmorphers, Alien vs Hunter) and films with high-concept titles, but little respect for the craft of filmmaking (Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus). On the other hand, films like The Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Blob, undisputed classics though they may be, definitely qualify as B-Movies, as they were low on budget, but high on imagination and a boundless love of the art.
Let’s take a look at solid, quality films from the (more or less) modern era which capture the righteous spirit and creative wonder of B-level cinema, while being fully watchable in their own right. So, sorry, Carnosaur.
Here are 15 Awesome Modern B-Movies You Need to See.
Val and Earl, local handymen in the small town of Perfection, Nevada, do battle with giant, man-eating worms. Tremors makes no attempt to hide what it is: a fun ode to the 1950s monster movie, about humans banding together, bickering like children, and throwing dynamite at monsters. Tremors was elevated by its love of the genre, as well as enjoyable performances from Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, and Michael Gross, playing the exact opposite of his character from beloved 80s sitcom Family Ties; he went from sweater-wearing liberal to right-wing survivalist. The first sequel, 1996’s Tremors 2: Aftershocks, was a worthy follow-up, as was Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, the prequel which had no right to be as enjoyable as it was. Tremors 3 and 5, however, are decidedly… lesser.
In 2015, it was announced that a new Tremors TV series was in the works (Part 3 led to the short-lived Tremors: The Series, which was canceled after one half-season), and that Kevin Bacon would return to play Valentine, who hasn’t been seen since the first film. Here’s hoping the project makes it to the right network!
14. Tucker & Dale vs Evil
Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine are a match made in Redneck Heaven in Tucker & Dale vs Evil, possibly the cutest horror comedy ever made. It’s as gory as they come, but the core theme, about the folly of judging a book by its cover, resonates strongly in today’s divisive America, and the cuddly-cute performances from Tudyk and Labine make Tucker & Dale a modern classic, and a great example of a post-modern and self-aware B-Movie.
Tucker and Dale are two saccharine-sweet hillbillies who are mistaken for psycho killers by a group of dim-witted college kids who constantly die in hilariously horrific accidents, for which our two adorable leads are blamed, because, well, they look like what we would expect the killers to look like in a movie such as this. In flipping genre conventions on their head while simultaneously embracing their inherent charm, Tucker & Dale is surprisingly profound on many different levels.
13. Eight Legged Freaks
2002’s Eight Legged Freaks is a celebration of old-timey monster movies, with the only difference being the much-improved special effects… Though some of them fail to hold up in 2016, which, incidentally, makes them all the more endearing. The characterization, the direction, and the acting are all lovingly lifted from low-budget 1950s creature features, while the script is happy to throw in tons of silly jokes and make the killer spiders behave like both mutant monsters and Looney Tunes cartoons, usually within the same scene. It’s campy madness at its most ridiculously insane, and it’s a blast to watch, especially the massive battle between the townsfolk and the spider-hordes at the town mall.
Eight Legged Freaks definitely falls more on the “exploitation” end of the spectrum than Tremors, but it’s still a rollicking good time, anchored by an earnest and charming performance from David Arquette, as well as an early appearance from Scarlett Johansson as a teenager caught up in all the shenanigans.
Metal Gear Solid star David Hayter’s directorial debut was 2014’s Wolves, starring Lucas Till and Jason Momoa. Its low-budget, modern take on the well-worn werewolf mythos is distinct for how deadly-serious it takes its often snicker-inducing subject matter and its soap opera-like story. It’s basically an R-rated version of Teen Wolf, but with an excellent performance from lifelong scene-stealer Stephen McHattie.
The effects aren’t particularly convincing (especially compared to the Oscar-winning work in 2010’s remake of The Wolfman), but the prosthetic werewolf makeup is certainly enough to get the job done. Although Hayter the writer has more control over the film than Hayter the director, Wolves still works just fine as an edgier alternative to the tween-friendly monsters which seem to be popping up everywhere these days.
11. Hobo With a Shotgun
Rutger Hauer is eerily convincing as a drifter who decides to solve all of his city’s problems with a shotgun. Hobo With a Shotgun takes the “angry dude fighting thugs in the street” genre and takes it to the extreme. This film is like Death Wish on PCP, and it’s filled with over-the-top violence (take a drink every time someone’s head explodes) and is so graphic, it’s almost a parody of the films it pays homage to.
Interestingly, as the conflict escalates and the stakes are raised to literally biblical proportions, the film is able to distinguish itself as more than just another shoot-’em-up exploitation flick. It never loses its focus on the blood and guts, but what makes Hobo With a Shotgun special is that it also brings more to the table than just its title.
10. Big Ass Spider!
This tribute to giant monsters attacking cities is definitely a cut above the average straight-to-video schlock to which it was compared when it released in 2013. The difference between a film like Big Ass Spider! and something like, let’s say, Sharknado is its love for the genre, as opposed to its love for itself. Big Ass Spider! is an inherently funny film, but has far more than its concept to lean on, starting with awesomely hammy performances by Greg Grunberg, Lombardo Boyar, and Ray Wise. They don’t mug for the camera or otherwise make it known that they’re in what would be regarded as a “lesser” film; they’re troopers, and they treat the work like an actor should.
The effects, likewise, while not of the quality of massive Hollywood blockbusters by any stretch of the imagination, definitely received much more care than one might expect from such a low-budget straight-to-video release. Big Ass Spider! is an exercise in love, of schlocky sci-fi, and of filmmaking itself.
Before he led Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy to becoming the most unexpected smash hit of 2014, James Gunn made his directorial debut with 2006’s Slither, about space worms from outer space who invade a typical American suburb, and only small-town sheriff Nathan Fillion can save the day. Loaded with references to monster movies from Shivers to Tremors, Slither is an R-rated love letter to creepy crawly monsters and zombies, as well as the plucky adorkable heroes who defy the odds and beat back the terror.
Equal parts comedy and genuine horror, Slither was too unmarketable to become a box-office success, but it has since become a cult classic, thanks to its comically insane levels of gore, and an awesome cast which includes Jenna Fischer (Gunn’s then-wife), Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, and Gregg Henry. Rooker and Henry have since become regulars in Gunn’s subsequent works, which include Super and Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as the cult videogame, Lollipop Chainsaw, for which he wrote the script.
8. Machete Kills
Machete started life as a fake trailer within the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez mashup project Grindhouse and eventually found life on its own. Billed as the first “mexploitation film,” Machete embraced its grindhouse roots with over-the-top violence and awesome casting. Don Johnson as a racist militia leader? Yes, please!
But it was the sequel, Machete Kills, which ratcheted up the insanity to absolutely ludicrous and glorious levels. For one thing, the film has an ingenious introduction, opening with a trailer for the third film, Machete Kills Again… In Space, which seems like an impossibly bizarre premise for a film… Which Machete Kills then proceeds to builds towards with fearlessness and joy. This crazy sequel also boasts an an all-star cast, with such newcomers to the series as Sofia Vergara, Charlie Sheen, Demian Bichir, and a perfectly cast Mel Gibson as an evil arms dealer bent on destroying the world.
Machete Kills bombed at the box office upon release and was met with confusion among critics who were unsure just what they had witnessed, but the fans loved it, and its following has grown since its release on home video, as is so often the case with this type of film.
7. Piranha 3D
Piranha 3D is an exploration of our obsession with sex and violence disguised as a B-Movie. The filmmakers make clear their contempt for the idea that the audience for this type of film desires nudity and bloody death in equal measure. Piranha 3D begins as a heightened version of the first act in any horror movie, offering us gratuitous levels of titillating teenagers and a bizarre synchronized swimming sequence (which caused walk-outs at preview screenings!)… And then the piranhas show up.
The film takes a huge turn when the deadly fish ruin spring break for the party-goers of Lake Victoria. Though the piranha had already been established as a violent threat, and their kills to this point had, indeed, been brutal and R-rated, the intensity is turned up to its absolute extreme in the water park attack, an unrelenting massacre which completely drops any pretense of tongue-in-cheek comedy and forces the viewer to indulge in exactly what they thought they wanted: bloody violence. And it doesn’t stop. Piranha 3D takes pleasure in scolding the audience by showing disturbingly graphic and seemingly-realistic sequences of spring breakers being completely eviscerated by the deadly predators.
The best shot of the film has a steel high-tension cable snap and tear right through a gorgeous woman (played by porn star Ashlynn Brooke), causing her bikini top to fall down and expose her bare breasts… And then the entire top half of her body falls off. The audience wanted nudity and killing, and that’s exactly what we got. Be careful what you wish for.
6. Bitch Slap
Rick Jacobson made his bones directing episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, the ultimate B-level syndicated television series, as well as episodes of Baywatch, Cleopatra 2525, and She Spies. Basically, the man knows his way around B territory. In 2009, he directed and co-wrote Bitch Slap, an ode to the Roger Corman/Russ Meyer schlock classics of ages past, about a trio of sexy women who get into shamelessly erotic fights that usually involve clothes being torn off. The legendary (and still very watchable) Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! is the most obvious influence here, but Bitch Slap offers enough visual variety and stylistic choices to stand out somewhat from its influences.
The plot is hilariously contrived and full of out-of-nowhere twists and needlessly complicated story developments, but it’s just too much fun to look away. Plus, it features minor roles for such B-list legends as Lucy Lawless, Zoe Bell, and Kevin Sorbo, so its got the pedigree. Bitch Slap is chick-sploitation at its most raw, and it’s a blast to watch.
The most beloved film to come out of the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck reality show Project Greenlight, Feast is a clever and self-aware monster movie with copious amounts of blood and gore, and some unique bells and whistles. None of the characters have given names, but are referred to by what the genre dictates their character archetype to be, so the characters are called “Hero,” “Honey Pie,” and “Bozo.” The film then takes pleasure in subverting their presumed roles, killing off “Hero” and other characters with a high life-expectancy, but then ultimately reverting and killing off just about everybody else. It’s a bloody good time. Very bloody. Plus, it’s got Jason Mewes playing himself.
Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino teamed up to create 2007’s Grindhouse, a loving tribute to the B-Movies of their youth. Rodriguez’s half, Planet Terror, was a zombie apocalypse scenario with hammy acting and gloriously gratuitous blood and gore, while Tarantino’s half, Death Proof, is a much more restrained film about a serial killer stuntman (Kurt Russell) who gets more than he bargained for when his latest prey turn out to be a group of friends… Who are also stuntwomen.
When Grindhouse was released on home video, both halves were released as individual films, with the fake trailers (by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth) removed and the excessive scratchy film excised from Death Proof. The more cynical among us might infer that this release strategy was an effort to recoup some of the money that was lost after the double-feature extravaganza under-performed at the box office, and they’d probably be right. That being said, Planet Terror works just fine as a stand-alone director’s cut. Though the additions are fairly minimal, they certainly round out the film. Opinions are more mixed on Death Proof, however, as some feel like without the Grindhouse novelty, it loses much of its quirky appeal. Either way, most agree that the best way to view the films is as a double-feature, the way they were created to be viewed.
3. Bubba Ho-Tep
If it weren’t for the mummy devouring peoples’ souls, Bubba Ho-Tep might not even be considered a B-Movie. Bruce Campbell gives an award-worthy performance as an elderly Elvis Presley stuck at a nursing home, looking back on his life with more regret than pride, having allowed himself to become a mere shell of the great artist he once was. It’s surprisingly powerful stuff, even when a soul-eating undead abomination begins stalking the elderly residents of his nursing home. Especially then!
Elvis then teams up with Ossie Davis’s character, who believes himself to be John F. Kennedy, dyed black to hide his identity, in an effort to fight back against the mummy and save the helpless souls of the old folks’ home, including his own, both literally and figuratively. Despite its deliberately outlandish premise, Bubba Ho-Tep tells its story with sincerity and conviction, and is easily the best Elvis movie this side of King Creole.
2. They Live
No B-Movie list would be complete without a John Carpenter film. Halloween, Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China… The list goes on and on. For our list, however, we’ve decided to honor his most overtly schlocky film to date, the themes of which still resonate strongly to this day.
1988’s They Live is a a scathing indictment of Reaganomics and the shameless consumerist culture it celebrated. Roddy Piper plays a construction worker who finds a pair of sunglasses which reveal the truth behind consumerism: we’re all being controlled by aliens who are keeping us complacent so they can drain our resources before using up the Earth and moving on to other planets. Cue a massive action-rampage through the city.
The film’s visual identity was an affectionate parody of 1950s sci-fi films, and looked endearingly hokey for 1988, which, in turn, has helped They Live withstand the test of time and remain more-or-less viable in 2016. The film also contains what is regarded as one of the greatest fight scenes of all time, Roddy Piper vs Keith David. Their epic scuffle has been parodied numerous times, such as in the “Cripple Fight” episode of South Park and in the videogame Saint’s Row IV, with featured both Piper and David playing themselves.
1. Return to Nuke ‘Em High
Troma is the ultimate independent production house. James Gunn got his start there, writing Tromeo and Juliet, and he later paid tribute to his roots by featuring his mentor, Lloyd Kaufman, as an extra in Guardians of the Galaxy (look for him in the space prison!). Kaufman is the best in the business at what he does, creating gross and hilarious gore-fests with unlikely protagonists and thoughtful messages… As well as copious amounts of sex, nudity, and foul language. His most endearing classics are The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High.
Both titles spawned a slew of sequels with varying degrees of quality, but Nuke ‘Em High came back in a big way with Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Volume 1, a righteously angry, almost George Carlin-esque play on the defunct state of Americana in the 21st century. Kaufman laments the fact that only in a Troma film can the protagonists of an action/horror/comedy be two exploitatively hot lesbian bloggers protesting against environmental devastation.
Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High AKA Volume 2 was delayed several times, but is expected to see release by summer 2016. We can’t wait!
What are some of your favorite low-budget, high-quality B-Movies? Sound off in the comments below!