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Grade Z

by Steven Utley

It sometimes takes me years to fathom my own guilty pleasures. After decades, I still don’t know why I respond to Bobby Vinton’s rendition of “Blue Velvet.” I don’t think it’s associated with an erotic experience during my adolescence, now forgotten, because erotic experiences are not the kind of thing I am inclined to forget about my adolescence. But what other reason could I have?

And I’m still wondering why I love cheesy low-budget science-fiction and horror movies. By “cheesy low-budget science-fiction and horror movies” I mean really cheesy, really low-budget — the grade Z, or at least grades D through M, programmers of yore. Decades and eons ago, before the success of The Exorcist and Star Wars persuaded Hollywood that an audience existed for cheesy big- (or, anyway, bigger-) budgeted science-fiction flicks, the programmer was a movie-house staple, the bread and butter of drive-in theatres (back in the days when there were drive-in theatres), flowing continuously from middle- and bottom-tier Hollywood movie factories such as Columbia, RKO, Republic, Monogram, PRC, and American-International.

Now, at RKO, producer Val Lewton made a virtue of necessity, and the films that bear his stamp — Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Body Snatchers, Bedlam, Isle of the Dead — are rightly regarded as classics. Monogram and PRC, however, were Poverty Row companies, cranking out product; their hallmarks: dingy sets, music scores that seemed to have been recorded using a sliver of Coke bottle for a stylus, and inchoate scripts. In a typical example of Poverty Row Crap (as PRC entries were called), 1942’s The Mad Monster, George Zucco injects the blood of a wolf into a simple-minded gardener (played by Glenn Strange), producing a lycanthrope who mulches. Never mind why I should love that — how could I not love it?

Ranking even below PRC were the independent filmmakers who flourished, if that is the word for what they did, on chutzpah and a showstring. The most famous is Edward D. Wood, responsible for several works of sheer anti-genius: Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Bride of the Monster, Glen or Glenda? His The Violent Years is the only movie that has ever literally tumbled me, laughing, out of a theatre seat.

Yet there are movies — The Beast of Yucca Flats, Mesa of Lost Women, She Demons — by comparison with which the Wood oeuvre is almost Citizen Kane. Over the years, these programmers proved amazingly durable. Whenever your local television station had worked its way through the finite Classic Creature Feature catalogue (exemplified by Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and RKO’s Thing From Another World), you could be sure that the program manager would be dipping into the virtually limitless inventory of not-so-classic — frankly, bottom-of-the-trash-barrel — quickies, those utter wastes of film stock, that absolutely irredeemably godawful schlock which is so dear to every truly masochistic movie-lover’s heart.

Does anybody even try to make cheesy low-budget science-fiction and horror movies any more? Or does the sort of low-budget crap that once illumined drive-in theatre screens go directly to video stores, where it is swallowed up in all the other crap? Nowadays, the only time you hear about a low-budget flick is when it blows people away, e.g., El Mariachi and The Blair Witch Project. How is it no longer possible to make a bad movie for relatively few thousands of dollars when it has become standard practice in Hollywood to make bad movies for many millions of dollars? At least one well-monied filmmaker seems to score the latter achievement every few months; some years you can’t turn around without stepping squishily upon an overbudgeted epic freshly fallen from the tree.

Is it that film production costs have become so inflated that the term “low budget” simply doesn’t mean what it once did? Must even cheapjack producers scrape together Real Money before they can get meaningfully to work on the modern-day equivalents of Robot Monster, Teenage Caveman, and Fire Maidens of Outer Space? Or has the video camera provided an outlet for the sort of creative urge — actually a commercial urge shaped by an aspiration to a creative urge — that once gave us Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster and Zontar, Thing From Venus and, oh, a personal favorite of mine, Maniac (1934), directed by Dwain Esper. Stuffed into Maniac’s 51 minutes are one demented scientist, one demented actor who impersonates the said demented scientist, one revivified female corpse, one gibbering male sex fiend hopped up on “super-adrenaline,” two or three bare bosoms, some undigested psychology, and a catfight between two ladies armed with hypodermic syringes.

How could anybody not love that?

Copyright © 2007 by Steven Utley

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