B-movies began in the 1930s as the low-budget counterparts to major Hollywood studios’ A-pictures featuring movie stars and high production values. Many of the early B-movies were Westerns or crime stories, and appeared alongside A-movies back when theaters regularly had double features.
Decades later, maverick independent producers such as William Castle and Roger Corman had great success cranking out their own brand of schlocky B-movies, which included everything from so-called “creature features” (horror and sci-fi movies featuring rubber-suited monsters) to biker gang flicks.
Our first pick in this special edition of our Netflix column is Death Race 2050, which comes at you straight from the still-going Corman factory. It’s a loud and energetic revamp of a mid-‘70s Corman hit that featured a young Sly Stallone. The film’s premise is that the whole country is fixated on a popular and deadly car competition. It also throws a barrage of satirical shots at how American society deals with religion, race, sexual orientation, not to mention how we’ve all become mindless zombies numbed by brain cell-killing entertainment.
John Dies at the End is our second recommended film. It’s a fun and weird ride involving superpowers, nightmarish visions, and unexpected laughs. The 2012 flick is also a fine example of how B-movies allow filmmakers to tell stories that might be too risky for conventional Hollywood.
Up next is Detour, which hearkens back to classic noir cinema. In fact, the film directly references the heralded 1945 B-movie of the same name in one early scene. This treacherous tale of revenge and desperate measures also happens to be a visual treat, proving that despite their modest budgets B-movies can be sleek.
Our fourth pick, Raze, follows in a long line of women in prison B-movies that were at the height of popularity in the 1970s and which continued well into the ‘80s. But this is a new incarnation — dark, bloody, and super violent.
While our last recommendation, Diamond Cartel, doesn’t fit neatly with the martial arts action genre that had its heyday in the 1980s and ‘90s (when you could rent endless direct-to-video B-movies with the word “Ninja” in the title), it does feature a few well-known actors from that bygone era. The oddball Kazakhstan production is a hybrid of crime meets romance meets action, but most of all, it’s a B-movie (some might say C- or D-movie) that thinks it’s a summer blockbuster, often with ridiculous results. In other words, it falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category.
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
Death Race 2050 (2017)
Starring: Manu Bennett, Marci Miller, Burt Grinstead, Folake Olowofoyeku, Malcolm McDowell
Director: G.J. Echternkamp
Genre: Action, Comedy
This remake/sequel/update/whatever you wanna call it is the second go-round at re-doing the 1975 Roger Corman production Death Race 2000, which was directed by Paul Bartel and featured David Carradine and an up-and-coming Sylvester Stallone. In 2008, Jason Statham starred in Death Race, turning the original version — a scathing satire on society’s love of violence for entertainment’s sake — into a straight-up action movie.
This time around, the (really) dark humor is plugged back in, and the filmmakers up the ante with unlimited carnage. Death Race 2050, both metaphorically and literally, rarely takes its foot off the gas, moving at a breakneck speed right from the start. If you don’t like the first five minutes, don’t bother with the rest.
The plot, if you can call it that, is that the drivers are not only trying to outrace each other, but they have to kill as many humans as possible on the road to victory. And while plenty of victims are mowed down in graphic yet cartoony detail, the biggest hits are when the film takes aim at all our current social and political ills, letting no one off the hook.
John Dies at the End (2012)
Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman
Director: Don Coscarelli
Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi, Comedy
First things first, this movie is all over the place. But that doesn’t stop it from being entertaining. Based on the novel by Jason Pargin and directed by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm fame, John Dies at the End follows two smart aleck buddies who in their spare time are “spiritual exorcists” (think amateur, third-rate Ghostbusters without the dope proton packs). Their dealings with spirits and other supernatural phenomenon lead them to a strange drug that unleashes alien bugs and gives users mind-reading powers.
Eventually, the two anti-heroes peel back the layers of other dimensions, but viewers are advised to pay close attention to their informative and joke-filled conversations to get a grasp of what’s going on, which might prove difficult if you happen to be stoned — and you probably will be; this is that kind of movie. But even if you don’t know all the exact details, the narrative just feels like it makes sense in the world it inhabits. The best advice is to let the movie weave its peculiar magic on you and just go with the flow — and don’t bogart the blunt.
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley
Director: Christopher Smith
Genre: Drama, Noir, Crime, Thriller
In a way, all B-movies seduce their audiences. A good B-movie keeps its audience spellbound either through punchy writing or dynamic editing and pacing that keeps viewers from noticing the film’s budget constraints. Director Christopher Smith pulls off a few tricks of his own in his fantastic-looking neo-noir Detour, about a preppy millennial who is convinced his stepfather orchestrated his mother’s near-fatal car accident. His desire for revenge takes one step closer to reality when he crosses paths with a low-life criminal who is more than willing to get rid of the stepdad for a price.
Detour glides along confidently from beginning to end, employing split screen and serenely beautiful cinematography to great effect. But cool visual stylings aside, this is a simple story straight out of some pulpy 1940’s paperback. It’s great to look at and just clever enough to fool you into believing — for while, at least — that there’s more substance to it than there actually is. But you should still check it out for the first-rate acting by lead Tye Sheridan (one of the kids in Mud all grown up now) and Emory Cohen, two promising talents with careers that seem to be on the right path.
Starring: Zoë Bell, Rebecca Marshall, Tracie Thoms, Bailey Anne Borders, Sherilyn Fenn
Director: Josh C. Waller
Genre: Action, Exploitation
Women in prison movies usually have borderline/ full-on sleazy titles. Hell, look no further than Jailbait (2014), another film currently streaming on Netflix, to see how important the titles are in selling these kind of movies. So, yeah, Raze has to be one of the worst titles imaginable for a movie about women in prison. It's certainly no Orange Is the New Black, to say the least.
Then again, Raze is not your average ordinary jail flick. It eschews the traditional lurid formula. There’s no steamy shower scenes or gratuitous female-on-female sex to be found here. It’s all replaced with non-stop extreme violence in a story about falsely imprisoned women who are forced to fight each other to the death.
If you can stomach all the head-bashing, this is one gripping flick. Famous stunt double Zoë Bell is awesome in her physically demanding role. (There’s even a mini-reunion with her Death Proof co-stars Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson, who appears in a brief cameo.) But it’s Rebecca Marshall who almost steals the show as a shit-talking, bad-ass villain amongst the captured women.
Diamond Cartel (2017)
Starring: Armand Assante, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova
Director: Salamat Mukhammed-Ali
If Tommy Wiseau’s infamous cult classic The Room (2003) had been an action flick, it might’ve turned out something like Diamond Cartel. This mind-boggling, bizarrely entertaining film, which is needlessly complicated, features a rare diamond and a love triangle with no chemistry. But none of that stuff matters. What does is waiting for folks like Michael Madsen, Tommy “Tiny” Lister and Lawrence of Arabia star Peter O’Toole (in his swan song) to appear out of nowhere, spend 90 seconds max on screen, then vanish, never to be seen again. Aging action stars like Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Bolo Yeung, who back in 1988 engaged in an infamous battle with Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport, have more screen time, but get cut off before things even heat up.
To their credit, Armand Assante, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and Nurlan Altayev seem to know they’re trapped in a shit-show (example: everyone’s dialogue is dubbed and echoes for some reason) and have as much fun as they can. And there’s actually moments that make it seem like the filmmakers are also in on the joke. But the film’s overbearing, pretentious voice-over and goody two-shoes message that people don’t need money to be happy are proof that this passion project is a genuine fuck-up of epic proportions that has to be seen to be believed.