November 13, 2008


The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love. Edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson. Da Capo. $15.95.

Into the Volcano. By Don Wood. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $18.99.

     Bad movies – good bad movies, that is – have charms all their own. Movies known to be of less-than-top quality, because of plot or acting or directing or all of the above, used to form the second features on movie theaters’ double bills. The double feature is nearly extinct nowadays (although it survives at a few theaters and some drive-ins), but the B movie not only survives but also thrives. Why? Some answers are to be found in The B List, but in order to find them, editors David Sterritt and John Anderson need to redefine the term “B movie” itself. For the films discussed in the 58 reviews and essays in this book range from ones whose titles makes their “B-ness” obvious (The Rage: Carrie 2, The Girl Can’t Help It) to ones that are out-and-out cult classics (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Night of the Living Dead) and others that are serious films whose inclusion in The B List seems, on the face of it, a touch odd (Reservoir Dogs, Platoon). The editors say they have defined B movies as ones “that fall outside the mainstream by dint of their budgets, their visions, their grit, and frequently – sometimes essentially – their lack of what the culture cops call ‘good taste.’” That’s a pretty broad definition, though, and would fit far more films than those discussed here. No matter; the book is a good starting point. But what is it the start of? Some writers describe the plots of the films in detail – a good thing, since many of these films were never in wide release or have long since been forgotten. Others assume readers know the movies already, as co-editor Anderson himself does in his article on The Last Seduction (1994), writing that actress Linda “Fiorentino has created a criminal genius/hottie-libertine who’s a moral bankrupt and can’t quite stay in her heels, and we arrive at the question of what the viewer, male or female, makes of her, knowing nothing about her except her voracious appetites for money and sex, and her use of the latter to attain the former.” And if that seems like a mouthful, consider co-editor Sterritt’s take on David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977): “Its idiosyncrasies bespeak the courage and tenacity of a screen artist exquisitely attuned to inner voices the rest of us may never hear, and eager to share their darkling echoes despite the likelihood that the conundrums, paradoxes, and enigmas they raise will be sounded by almost nobody and fathomed by fewer still.” Whew. These are B movies taken very seriously indeed. But if that is justified for Eraserhead (and it probably is), is it equally justified for I Walked with a Zombie, To Live and Die in L.A., or Red Planet Mars? Not all the writers feel they need the language of academia to discuss these films: Stephanie Zacharek writes of Grindhouse (2007) that some movies try to answer deep questions, “But what about our littler questions? Questions like, Can nuclear splooge really turn us into flesh-eating zombies?” The B List could do with more of that sort of humor – but it does have some to leaven its more serious essays, and the book as a whole offers its own kind of fun for fans of films that, in most cases, never quite made the A list because they wouldn’t be caught dead there.

     Into the Volcano would make a pretty good B movie itself. Don Wood’s handsomely rendered graphic novel, in which a not-very-attentive father hands over his two boys to people who may be family members, crooks or kidnappers, resulting in the boys’ traveling to an island nation (based clearly on Hawaii) and having an adventure inside an erupting volcano, has many of the classic B-movie elements: danger, lots of drama, serious but non-fatal injuries, a hint of sex (but only a hint), strained humor – and, unfortunately, a rather creaky plot. The boys, Duffy (the brave, athletic one) and Sumo (the scared one who turns heroic when heroism is most needed), get mixed up with some very unsavory-looking characters sporting such names as Come-and-Go and Mango Jo, and mystery follows mystery as the expedition on which the boys are made to go finds a way inside the volcano in search of – what? Well, that is one mystery. Another is why the boys’ father subjects them to all this. A third is who the good guys really are – even at the end, when everything seems happy enough, it is not quite clear whether there were ever any bad guys and, if so, who they were. The most interesting parts of Into the Volcano are not the action sequences – although those have the most immediate appeal – but the discussions of how volcanoes function, what their eruptions mean, how new volcanic islands are formed, and so on. The primary mystery turns out to revolve around a fictional material that supposedly has important scientific applications, such as making it possible to create “a room-temperature superconductor.” The mixture of fact and fancy is attractive here, the book is fast-paced, and the art is very well done, with a kind of noir cast to many scenes. It is best, though, not to examine the plot or the characters’ motivations too closely – which puts Into the Volcano, whether or not a film of it is ever made, squarely into the B-movie world.

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