One of the beau­ties of writ­ing about cult cin­e­ma is the free­dom you have in describ­ing the expe­ri­ence to oth­ers: it’s not tak­en as seri­ous­ly as main­stream cin­e­ma so fans and crit­ics have a lot of lat­i­tude when it comes to how they choose to define and explain their cin­e­mat­ic expe­ri­ences.   Unfortunately, the lack of well-defined rules on dis­cussing this sub­ject also leads to a cer­tain amount of clichés that have become wide­spread in cult-film cir­cles.  Sometimes the­se descrip­tive terms fil­ter back to the main­stream, where they become tru­ly annoy­ing to any sea­soned cult film pro­fes­sion­al.

A good exam­ple is the use of “cheesy” as a go-to adjec­tive for describ­ing any pop cul­ture arti­fact that is either strange or doesn’t work the way it is intend­ed to.  There is no direct con­nec­tion between this adjec­tive and what it aims to describe.  It doesn’t tell you any­thing about the work in ques­tion oth­er than the per­son using this word is look­ing down their nose at it and the lack the descrip­tive abil­i­ty to explain why.  Thus, they fall back on a neb­u­lous term that offers an easy form of men­tal short­hand to the sim­i­lar-mind­ed.  There are plen­ty of bet­ter, more illu­mi­nat­ing word choic­es you could use but, let’s face it, most peo­ple are lazy.  Especially when it comes to sub­jects they con­sid­er friv­o­lous.

That said, there is one hyphen­at­ed expres­sion often thrown out to describe a cer­tain sec­tion of cult movies that is worse than a cliché — it’s just flat-out wrong.  The descrip­tive term I’m refer­ring to is either “B-grade” or “grade-B”.  This expres­sion is root­ed in either cul­tur­al mis­un­der­stand­ing or men­tal lazi­ness, depend­ing on who is using it.  When peo­ple say this, what they are real­ly try­ing to say is sim­ply “b-movie.”  That is a legit­i­mate cin­e­mat­ic descrip­tion with an actu­al his­to­ry — and explain­ing its mean­ing will shed some light on the “b-movie”/“B-grade” con­fu­sion.

The term “b-movie” refers to the film that occu­pies the sec­ond half of the bill on a dou­ble fea­ture.  This dates back to the stu­dio sys­tem era when going to the movies was a cheap pas­time and stu­dios would give view­ers plen­ty of pro­duct to keep them com­ing back to the the­aters week after week.  The dou­ble fea­ture was the most com­mon way of releas­ing movies for both major stu­dios and inde­pen­dents.

The “a-movie” was usu­al­ly the main attrac­tion and the more expen­sive of the two films on the bill.  The “b-movie” was usu­al­ly made quick­ly and inex­pen­sive­ly to flesh out the expect­ed dou­ble bill.  Making b-movies quick­ly became a wide­spread prac­tice at both major and indie lev­els of the busi­ness: the major stu­dios could use them to max­i­mize their invest­ment in facil­i­ties while test­ing out new tal­ent in a low-risk way and small­er stu­dios and indies focus­ing exclu­sive­ly on mak­ing b-movies to carve out their own less-expen­sive niche in the busi­ness.

Unfortunately, “b-movie” became a word that peo­ple often throw around with­out learn­ing what it means, instead guess­ing at its mean­ing by the con­text in which it is used.  This has led to a lot of peo­ple — includ­ing peo­ple who gen­uine­ly like the­se movies —  wrong­ly refer­ring to them as “B-grade”/“grade-B.” Not only is this his­tor­i­cal­ly incor­rect, it’s short­sight­ed if you take its mean­ing at face val­ue.  Think about it: if a movie was to be assigned the grade of “B,” that’s not too bad of a grade.  How often do you see a movie that actu­al­ly earns an “A”-level rat­ing in the minds of most peo­ple?  Considering the large amount of junk cranked out by the major stu­dios each year, most of their out­put would qual­i­fy for a “C” or worse.

If you call a movie “B-grade” because it was made cheap­ly, you’re still wrong.  This means you define the qual­i­ty of a movie by how much was spent on its pro­duc­tion and that’s a stun­ning­ly igno­rant yard­stick for judg­ing the qual­i­ty of enter­tain­ment.  Does this mean that the Transformers movies are A-grade and a low-bud­get but extreme­ly influ­en­tial film like Night Of The Living Dead has to set­tle for a B-grade sim­ply because of the mon­ey involved?  Plenty of film his­to­ri­ans would be will­ing to argue that point.  If you use “B-grade” to refer to a film with weak sto­ry­telling or act­ing, those cri­te­ria could apply to plen­ty of “A-movies” as well (again, con­sid­er the Transformers exam­ple).

In short, if you describe a movie a “B-grade”/“grade-B,” you are using a term that is as inac­cu­rate as it is impre­cise.  Either use “b-movie” or, bet­ter yet, use a com­bi­na­tion of cre­ativ­i­ty and research to come up with some­thing bet­ter.  There is a big, col­or­ful lex­i­con out there full of terms wait­ing for peo­ple to use them inven­tive­ly.  This goes dou­ble for those of you who actu­al­ly like the­se movies so much that you want to write about them… after all, haven’t our beloved b-movies already been dis­re­spect­ed enough?