“Sharknado? More like Sucknado!” The Evolution of B-Movies in American Cinema


July 11th 2013 marked a milestone in the genre of “B-movies”-a genre that finds itself overlapping with and within other genres like Sci Fi, Horror, Exploitation, Teen Comedies and Distaster films. It was this day that two seemingly disparate sub genres became intertwined into what I can only hope becomes a sub-genre into itself: the weather disaster creature feature!

I never knew I craved such a film, but like it was for many others, the name Sharknado gave life to a world in my mind that I never imagined before but wished I had sooner: a world in which global warming brings hurricanes to California, and with them tornadoes that are filled with sharks of all shapes and sizes.

Sure the acting is bad, the effects are laughable most of the time (barely believable even when showing footage of live sharks swimming), and the plot leaves one wanting for substance, but movies like Sharknado are somewhat endearing. At least they used to be.

The B-movie is a concept that dates back to the Thirties and encompasses any number of genres throughout the years whether it be Westerns, Detectives, or Comedies. Initially, it was the second movie in a double feature that was made for peanuts compared to the “A” movie it preceded. Since they were made much cheaper and relatively quickly, the studios were able to churn these out at a rapid pace with some estimating that possibly 75 percent of films in the 1930s were B-movies.

This continued into the Forties and Fifties, with the demand for genre films ballooning with Westerns, Film Noire, Horror, Biker Movies, Atomic Noire, Juvenile Delinquent/Teen/Beach and Sci FI movies all doing well. Marketing for these Films became increasingly more sensational. The advertising and promo reels promised scarier monsters, bigger thrills, more titillation, and more suspense than the last (a “more, more, more” mentality that to this day has driven our culture industry in every way. That’s for another time.) After censorship rules were relaxed in the 60s, exploitation got more violent and sexual, begetting Sexploitation, and Blaxploitation as well. The Seventies saw the rise of Grind Houses, and midnight movies, a seedy home for seedy flicks. Martial Art films (notoriously poorly overdubbed) became popular and the Slasher film as a genre was born, providing more opportuntity for bloody violence and naked females (especially in the sub genres such as the “Women in Prison Films).”

By the 80s, a lot of films resembled B-movies in aesthetic, but with the financing of “A Movies.” This pushed the actual B-movies further to the peripherals. Luckily, the dawn of the Age of Home Entertainment with cable television and VCRs provided new avenues for creators of what was amounting to more and more schlock to reach their audiences. Now, people were choosing to spend more time and money watching movies at home, either choosing to own, rent, or spend extra to get that next tier up in cable packages. There was a demand for “cheapies” that would only grow exponentially.

Technology would be instrumental in fostering growth in exploiting genre and niches in this new entertainment marketplace, in terms of both reproduction and production. Films could go straight to video, factories pumping out plastic copies in hundreds of thousands and shipping them off to the local video store or Sam Goody where eager customers scooped them up or rented them for a week (or two days if it was a new release). As design and animation technology got more accessible with computer innovation outpacing itself every year, B-movies could be made for less and less, meaning bigger profit margins.

For years the ritual of walking up and down aisles and aisles scanning the covers of what seemed like an endless amount of shrunken movie posters was a common experience for many Americans. Sure there were 20 copies of Hollywood’s mega hits, but if you looked within genres you would find movies that while new, were unheard of outside of these brick and mortar shops. There was no television ad for Ice Cream Man starring Ron Howard’s weird looking brother, Clint. Sequels to movies that did just OK in theaters were plentiful in this era. It wasn’t limited to just Horror and Sci Fi now or anything ending in “-ploitation” either. Even Romantic Comedies and Teen Comedies in the lineage of Porkies and Revenge of The Nerds were made during this time, as well as a slew of action movies starring Dolph Lundgren or Steven Seagal (after they were no longer able to draw anyone into a theater of course). Movies that weren’t A movies were accounting for an ever more significant amount of films produced, also due to the rise of Independent film-making. Once the Blair Witch Project did well, it opened the door for movies to look cheaply made.

At the same time, cable television’s growth could be measured exponentially. Channels multiplied over the 30 years since its inception. Now even the Premiums which had been limited to one channel each for HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and The Movie Channel needed an increasing amount of content. to fill the programming of what is now 15 channels a piece. Also, many other channels became increasingly more specific in their formats. Lifetime catered to the type of dramatic movies that women apparently want, and there were channels devoted solely to Horror, Mystery, and Sci-Fi. Audiences knew exactly where to find what it is they wanted to see.

Now a lot of it was pure crap, and an even more was in a grey area between alright and catpuke, but society as a whole was beginning to celebrate campiness and since has made satire one of the more prevalent themes of humor in our society. Shows like Mystery Science Theatre 3000 gained cult followings by shining their lights on classic 50’s era B-Movie duds. Society was beginning to see the humor in watching things in order to poke fun at it, making “cheese” an aesthetic phenomenon. Suddenly, a movie like famous schlock masters Troma’s Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., didn’t seem so horrible. It seemed great!

Sgt Kabukiman

The more society embraced The Postmodern Perspective, either willingly or through the the slow yet ever so quickening march of time, the more sophisticated the satire became in terms of the B-Movie. Irony was now “the ethos of our age” according to Christy Wampole in the New York Times this past November. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (among others) have ushered in a wave of movies made to look like the Grindhouse movies of the past. These Neo Grindhouse movies work within genres such as Exploitation, or Car films (as well as Biker, and Kung Fu/Samurai) with great reverence, winking at the audience in the process. When one watches Planet Terror, they do so knowing that the director is inviting them to have fun WITH them. Well executed, these films co-opt the tropes that made the original B-Movies and Grindhouse flicks so enjoyable and worthy of the adoration that Rodriguez and company extoll on them. If one didn’t know better, they would assume that Hobo With A Shotgun was some unearthed, lost Troma classic. When done well, films looking back on the relatively lower end of the film spectrum from past decades came come across as smart, fresh, and well-crafted; appearing as the best of that era’s schlock in the case Hobo. Even a remake of B-Movie classic Piranha looks stunning in the capable hands of director Alexandre Aja.

By the end of the century’s first decade, video stores (archaically named at that point) had mostly shuttered their doors, their storefronts most likely vacant in a down economy. The way Americans were consuming movies was changing again, with many watching on streaming services like Netflix or Hulu. When wanting to see new releases (or if they are a fan of DVDs), there is always Redbox, just about everywhere and ready to give you some shiny plastic to take home. In addition, some cable networks like Chiller and Syfy fully embraced this societal shift. However, instead of producing carefully constructed, modernized takes on the B-Movie like the ones mentioned above, they instead make and promote movies that are more like the original B-Movies themselves: lower in quality in terms of production, effects, and acting than their bigger budget kin; stocked with “don’t know them” and “has been betters”; and telling stories that border on the ridiculous. Quality wise, today’s “B” is more like a “C,” “Straight to streaming” somehow worse than the crop of “straight to DVD” in the decades prior. Like food and music, our increasingly casual and lazy consumption of these films in continuously leading to a product that is substantially lacking.

Syfy in particular has become one of the most well-known purveyors of badly acted, D-List Celebrity-casted, ridiculously titled, orgies of bad. The past decade has seen the release of the following “Syfy Originals” (the gold seal of the laughably bad genre flick): Rage of The Yeti, Ice Spiders, Ice Twisters, DinoCroc,, Dinoshark, Supergator, Dinocroc vs. Supergator, Megasnake, Pirahnaconda, Raptor Island, Sharktopus, Frankenfish, Attack of The Sabretooth, Chupacabra vs. The Alamo, Malibu Shark Attack, Flu Bird Horror, and Mansquito (like The Fly, but a mosquito). These films have featured such “Celebrities” as Debbie Gibson, Brooke Hogan, Tiffany, Shannon Doherty and Danny Bonaduce; their involvement hopefully instrumental in ensnaring viewers who might not be drawn in by premise alone.

Social media has also helped to mainstream the Syfy original movie, transforming it into a social phenomenon. By connecting users worldwide, Twitter and Facebook have transformed the B-Movie experience into a shared one once again, despite the fact that we are still watching in our homes (a trend that has not yet been reversed). Sharknado, more than any other Syfy movie in recent memory, seemed to capture the minds of the general population who in the past might have just scoffed at the very concept. Some still did, but on the whole the movie achieved a “darling” status momentarily. Cable news outlets like Fox News even covered it before and after it aired, its presence impossible to ignore. It was even one of the top trending topics on Twitter the night it premiered which is not common for TV movies. Before it even aired, people were in love with Sharknado, as a concept if nothing else.

“Conceptually amazing” is as good as it would get, because it could never be anything but an amazing premise that works better in one’s mind than in the movie. With the exception of 2006’s Mammoth, the Syfy original movie is little more than a great title. Because how could it be? The evolution of the B-Movie has led to its aesthetic being all that matters. And even that has been watered down. Gone is the gratuitous nudity that made prior schlock more palatable. As society became enshrouded in the fog of irony even in the mainstream, the unintentionally bad has become intentional, and the “cheesiness “of it lost, which leaves just the crappy parts. To allude to my previous piece on Reality TV and Celebrity, it is almost as if Sharknado and the rest of the Syfy Original movies are merely simulations of past B-Movies.

The acting (as in almost every movie they green-light) is downright terrible. Tara Reid, the advertised celebrity despite her inability to act anymore (Or ever. Has she ever been good in anything really?), puts in one if the worst performances I’ve ever seen. Ian Ziering of Beverly Hills 90210 fame (and nothing else) plays the protagonist bar owner appropriately named, Fin. He isn’t very good, but compared to Ms. Reid he looks like Daniel Day Lewis. Even the dad from Home Alone makes an appearance as a drunken barfly who is obsessed with his stool (if only it was a poop joke), and while better in comparison to his costars, his time is ultimately too short to help turn things around (a Herculean feat even if in a starring role). The rest of the cast is made up of actors whose resume consists of hour long ABC Family dramas and other Syfy Original movies.

Ian Ziering in his previous California-based life

Viewers of Sharknado EXPECT the worst in every aspect, especially when it comes to normally important things like plot. They tune in knowing it will be lacking and it doesn’t disappoint. Well it does…but not like that. After seeing someone try to SELL the Sharknado, we meet Fin (I mean, really?), a surfer that owns a bar on a pier. While he is out catching waves with his friend, Baz, we start to get the feeling that something isn’t right. Profoundly, Baz claims that there is something unnatural about everything. It’s like he could see the digitally constructed sky behind him. After meeting Nova, the bar waitress who has some sort of personal hatred of sharks (that we have to wait until nearly the end to hear about) and George the drunk, mother nature turns the shark infested winds up to 11. It seems that our love of shiny plastic DVDs has caused global warming, one consequence of which is tropical storms hitting California (possibly a government conspiracy.) With the storms come tornadoes, and thanks to a fortuitous chain of events, the tornadoes suck up sharks. At this point the movie has some promise but it all falls apart…much like Fin’s bar after shark-force winds tear through it.

Sharknado then becomes a survivor’s journey as Fin and crew (even George) set out to rescue his ex-wife (Reid) and daughter. The road is tough and trouble is lurking everywhere as three shark filled tornados rip through Los Angeles. After recouping his wife and their teenage daughter (which seems possible given Reid’s age) from their flooded mansion, they set out to meet their adult son (much more improbable) at the airport where he is in flight school. This super convenient plot point is what ultimately leads to the insane ending that includes bombs being dropped INTO tornadoes (sorry…Sharknados), Nova getting swallowed whole by a shark, Baz finally dying after surviving multiple attacks, and Fin diving into a sharks mouth with a chainsaw…only to cut his way out. Oh and it was the shark that swallowed Nova too, so she lives after being pulled out by Fin.

If the plot and acting weren’t bad enough (and they were), then the effects and actual cinematography tipped the scale in favor of “truly awful.” Sometimes the sharks would be digital, sometimes man-made props like in Jaws, and other times it would be footage of actual sharks swimming. Apparently it didn’t matter that you could see the difference in three consecutive camera shots. The same goes for the cloudy weather and the rain. The rain was either a rain machine or animation, sometimes both at the same time. Even worse, the sky looked digital the entire movie, giving the appearance that the film took place in some other world.

None of this would seem so bad if it wasn’t abundantly clear that Sharknado was produced working within a context of being “laughably bad.” By making a movie in this way, it’s as if Asylum (the studio that spawned it) gave themselves a pass that lets them off the hook, because isn’t that what people want? I suppose this is true, their audience wants it to be bad, but to me this is what disassociates the Sharknados of today with B Movies of yesteryear. At least the people who made those were trying to make respectable movies. Albeit they did so frugally, but they were honest attempts at cinema nonetheless. The original Evil Dead was fun partly because it was endearing. It had soul which made laughing at the campy parts more wholesome and fun. Laughing at them was a natural reaction done in a loving manner. The movies today that trace their lineage back to those films have lost that soul and are just a concept and formula, laughing at them is what we are supposed to do. I fear that we only have our own excessive, jaded, mindless consumption to blame.

Still…Ghost Sharks does sound interesting.