By Tim Kalinowski
I have always considered myself a bit of a connoisseur of cheesy, B+ movies, especially in the Sci. Fi and Fantasy genres. What do I mean by B+? I mean movies that are nearly good enough to be mainstream movies, but for various reasons, usually budget constraints and cheaper casting due to budgetary constraints, did not quite make it. However, they also might have been produced without the blessing of the Hollywood studio system, and so did not have the marketing budgets or distribution deals needed to drop their films in higher end theatre chains. Some also bombed in theatres and went on to have a cult following in the video rental afterlife.
All that explained, and without further ado, here are some of my favourite B+ movies in no particular order.
One of the biggest things for me in watching these kinds of films is watching who is cast in them. Sometimes we see younger stars who later became A-listers.
No film is better in that respect than director John Boorman’s “Excalibur” from 1981. It has become one of the best known retellings of the King Arthur story, but Boorman, who is English, did not have the budget to bring in big stars to play major roles. He decided to tap the best actors he could find in the British television drama and Shakespearean theatre world instead. It turned out to be incredibly far-sighted on his part.
Not only is this one of the first ever film roles where we find Sir Patrick Stewart, (a.k.a Capt. Picard of Star Trek and Prof. Xavier of the X-men franchises), it is also the film debut for a young Liam Neeson and an early starring role for Dame Helen Mirran.
Another B+ movie I like very much is the post-apocalyptic, but little known, “Six String Samurai.” The premise is creative and absurd. In an alternate reality Elvis Presley never died and actually became the real king of America after a nuclear holocaust. When he dies musicians/ martial artists come from all over North America to try to claim Elvis’ Las Vegas throne. The unnamed hero, (a dead-ringer for Buddy Holly), has to fight his way with guitar and sword in hand across a desert wasteland to prove his worthiness. His main opposition is an evil Slash (of Guns and Roses fame) look alike who continually puts enemies in his way. Great fun and surprisingly well done for such a low budget film.
Speaking of far-fetched and creative, the Wes Anderson comedy “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” has become a personal favourite of mine. It had the budget and it had the cast, (stars Bill Murray, Anjelica Houston, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum), but for some reason it didn’t quite hit it off with audiences. Probably because of its bizarre, intentionally fake-looking special effects, Euro-music soundtrack and weird storyline. The film is a parody of famous underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau’s documentary films at heart, but also somehow manages to make you laugh out loud at times and cry at others. A great movie, but be prepared for some jarring stylistic elements.
One of my absolute favourite childhood B+ movies which has stuck with me since then is Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. This updated, screwball, comedy version of “Robinson Crusoe” has Crusoe as an American navy pilot, (played by Dick Van Dyke of “Mary Poppins” fame), crashing his plane and washing up on an island paradise. Classic scenes include a drunken poker match between Crusoe and his orangutan companion, who likes to cheat. An explosives laden fight with some shady, island cannibals and their beautiful daughters. And the most inventive way to send messages in a bottle ever put to film.
Others that make my short list include: “The Big Bang” (starring Antonio Banderas in a bizarre, modern take off on the classic Chandler detective story “Farewell, My Lovely”), “The Sword of the Valiant,” (which has surprising cameos by Sean Connery and John Rhys-Davies), and the Bill Murray Cold War spoof “The Spy Who Knew Too Little.”
Never be afraid to show your true geek colours. We all have to be known for something afterall. But also remember, even amongst the drudge and cheese of B movies, there is sometimes a little gold to be found. It is those sparkles of gold flecks amongst the muck which differentiates a run-of-the-mill B movie from a great B+ movie.