B movies. Lord knows I love ’em. You don’t write a list of the 100 greatest B movies if you don’t love ’em. For a savvy film fan, they’re easy to love. What’s hard is defining them.
Because honestly, there’s no working definition for what makes a “B movie.” Once upon a time, you could apply the title toward the cheaper second film stuck by a studio on its drive-in or grindhouse double feature, but those times are long since gone. “B movie” implies cheapness, or at least a lower budget than normal, but it doesn’t necessarily disallow a film from having a national release or box office success. It also doesn’t disallow quality—B movies may very well be BAD, but they may also be great. Perhaps they’re both, at the same time.
In the end, it may be more accurate to say that “B movie” is more of a genre movie aesthetic than it is a definition. It’s a visual look/aspect of production design that can be purposely sought out, as in the case of films such as Hobo With a Shotgun. Sometimes this works out well. In other cases, attempting to make something “fun-bad” results in a film that is simply “bad bad,” as in the case of all too many Syfy Original Movies and rushed mockbusters from The Asylum.
Netflix is a pretty deep resource when it comes to B movies … at least in terms of quantity. The streaming library is a little bit limited on old-school, classic B material, but it’s absolutely overflowing with modern, direct-to-VOD garbage. Personally, I don’t find many of these direct-to-VOD B movies quite as compelling as the theatrically released B movies of yore, so this list tends to skew a bit older. It also recognizes Netflix’s surprising depth in one random film genre: Old-school kung fu! Yes, Netflix turns out to be a treasure trove of classic kung fu, but there’s also plenty of horror, science fiction and action here as well. Let’s get to it.
20. The Brainiac (El Baron del Terror)
Director: Chano Urueta
I honestly wish Netflix had more films in the library akin to The Brainiac, and less of the modern horror trash. Seeing this weird old gem of ’60s Mexican zero-budget horror makes me curious how exactly it ended up on the streaming service—what’s the story behind how this random film, about a sorcerer who returns from the dead as a brain-sucking ape man, was deemed worthy? Did someone from Netflix actually watch it at some point, or was it accidentally uploaded as part of a package deal of some kind? Has anyone (besides me) ever streamed it? Who cares? It’s a film that looks like it could very well have been shot by a young Roger Corman, featuring some guffaw-inducing monster costumes and delightfully incompetent performers. All that it’s missing is a luchador hero, but you can’t have everything. — Jim Vorel
Director: Anthony C. Ferrante
B-movie geeks and bad movie fans are not kind to the original Sharknado, and I don’t think that’s entirely fair. It gets flak from that audience for being “purposefully bad,” but it is possible to make an entertainingly goofy film in this way … it’s just pretty rare. Now dragged down by an increasingly forced run of sequels, all of which I’ve reviewed for Paste because I’m a crazy person, it’s easy to lose sight of how slapdash (and thus amusing) the first film was. There’s absolutely no budget behind Sharknado, which makes the gaffes introduced by a tight shooting schedule all the more apparent and hilarious. The sky goes from dark to sunny in between shots in the same scene. The film idles in place for 20 minutes while trying to get kids out of a school bus, just to shamelessly pad itself out to “feature length.” Tara Reid tries to get dialog to come out of her mouth, and fails spectacularly. In short: There’s fun stuff here. Don’t be a bad movie hipster; embrace the original Sharknado. The sequels, feel free to ignore. – J.V.
Director: Jordan Rubin
Look, if you don’t know before you ever hit “play” exactly what you should be expecting from Zombeavers, I’m not sure how much I can help you. It’s a film about toxic waste-spawned zombie beavers, people. It’s halfhearted as both a horror film and a comedy, with a preponderance of jokes that thud and just enough that will draw an ashamed chuckle. It feels like a throwback to the straight-to-VHS horror schlock of the ’80s and ’90s—simple, kitschy premise, plenty of gratuitous nudity, lots of attempts at humor. By the time people start turning into WERE-BEAVERS near the film’s end, you’ll have settled into a good groove of mocking its flaws and enjoying its alternating shamelessness and reverence for the genre—because at least they attempt some interesting practical effects. Good on you, Zombeavers. It’s trash, but a step above the bottom of the barrel. — J.V.
Director: Chang Cheh
It’s hard to go wrong with any Shaw Brothers kung fu movie directed by Chang Cheh, even if Five Shaolin Masters isn’t necessarily in the upper echelon of the legendary director’s work. Like so many other “Shaolin” films, it revolves around the legendary destruction of the Shaolin Temple by the Qings in the 19th century, and in this case follows five fighters as they escape the burning of the temple and plan their revenge. The story gets downright opaque in the middle, as it becomes difficult to remember what the hell is going on and keep the characters straight, but everything comes together satisfactorily when the exiled Shaolin return to the ruins of their temple to train and take on the bad guys. Those last 20 minutes of action are definitely worth the price of admission. – J.V.
Director: Ted Post
The ’70s were a weird, weird time for Chuck Norris, who somehow managed to look older in his films here than he did 20 years later in Walker, Texas Ranger. It may have to do with his seeming lack of understanding of facial hair during this period, as he seemingly has no idea how to wear anything other than a crop-duster mustache. Regardless, he plays a CIA assassin/black ops soldier in this one named John T. Booker, which is coincidentally the same role he would reprise decades later in The Expendables 2. It’s standard fare: A governmental employee with a grudge sets up Norris’ team to take a fall/be eliminated, and he’s slowly drawn into the plot with a will for revenge. It sounds like the setup for an action spectacular, but Good Guys Wear Black is honestly more like a spy movie at times, and there aren’t as many overt “karate scenes” as you would expect from a film starring a guy who initially rose to fame as a karate champion. It does, however, have a couple of spectacular moments that make it stand out, and worth a watch. I won’t spoil them, but “Chuck Norris vs. guy in car” is a fair description of the highlight you’ll be remembering later. – J.V.
Directors: Kevin Smith, Gary Shore, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Scott Stewart, Nicholas McCarthy, Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, Sarah Adina Smith and Anthony Scott Burns.
Holidays is a painfully generic name for a horror movie in 2016, even an anthology, but at least this one has a bit more under the hood than you might expect upon first glance. Beware the names being used to sell it: “Kevin Smith” in particular might appear first on the list, but his segment is as lazy as you would expect—no attempt at setting any kind of real atmosphere, just some scatalogical humor meant to cover up a lack of ambition. The earlier pieces, though (this one is a bit top-heavy) are often genuinely interesting, and feel like a classic throw-back to the horror anthologies of the ’70s and ’80s from Amicus in Britain and independent producers in the U.S. The opener, “Valentine’s Day” by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, is particularly well shot and immediately engrossing in its visuals and casting—these guys went out of their way to find interesting faces to bring their tale of high school violence and obsession to the next level. The rest is uneven, as you see in the description of nearly any anthology, but the good segments make wading through the uninspired ones worthwhile. – J.V.
Director: Roger Vadim
Barbarella was a unique film when it was released in 1968, and it remains something very unusual as it approaches its 50th anniversary: A blend of science fiction, fantasy and erotica that plays itself both campy and straight, depending on its mood. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella is a young space vixen trained in the “art of love,” but she’s also something of an ingenue without any experience in the real world. The sets, costumes and production design rightfully earned the film attention upon its initial release, being fabulously lush and colorful—gothic grandeur in space, with more boobs, and Space Mutiny’s John Philip Law to boot. The film may have sold itself upon a vaguely defined promise of titillation, but those artistic flourishes ended up proving more influential for the next generation of ’70s science fiction. Barbarella is never going to be a film afforded much respect, but B-movie directors of the time period can testify to the lasting impact it had on both exploitation and tawdry science fiction in its day. – J.V.
Director: Lau Kar-leung
If you remember the story of Pai Mei, the white lotus, that David Carradine tells to Uma Thurman around the campfire in Kill Bill, then you essentially know the story of this film. Tarantino’s double-film is filled to the brim with references to classic kung fu cinema, not least of which is Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei character, who is an absolutely iconic villain in Executioners from Shaolin. A true monster, he butchers the monks of the Shaolin Temple with his nigh-invincibility, and is only brought down eventually by characters who have trained for decades specifically to find his few vulnerabilities. Pai Mei’s mastery of his bodily functions, referred to as “internal kung fu,” make him one of the most imposing villains in the history of the genre, and make this film a classic element of the genre’s lore. Bonus: Gordon Liu appears as a badass monk in the beginning who sacrifices himself against a small army of fighters to help his Shaolin brothers escape. —J.V.
Director: Lowell Dean
Wolfcop is full-on horror comedy, and it’s delirious good fun. When an alcoholic small-town Canadian cop gets cursed and turned into a werewolf, he retains all of his human faculties—above all, a respect for the LAW. Using his newfound werewolf superpowers, he opposes the local cabal of reptilian shapeshifters. Yep. That’s your film. It’s one of those carefully calculated modern, indie horror-comedies that was created explicitly in the hopes of someday being labeled “cult classic,” but it does its job better than most. It feels at times a bit like the neo-grindhouse aesthetic of Hobo With a Shotgun, perhaps thanks to the gore effects, although it’s nowhere near as nihilistic. More than anything, you feel a very genuine love for the utter ridiculousness of the premise. It’s a film that people clearly enjoyed the hell out of making, which makes that fun infectious to the viewer. — J.V.
Director: Chang Cheh
Another “Venom Mob” film from Chang Cheh (his recurring stable of performers), and one of the best. It mixes up the usual casting somewhat by putting the beefy Lo Mang as the titular “Kid With the Golden Arm,” who is the primary antagonist and not the hero as one might expect. It was a shift for Lo Mang, who usually played characters who were sort of powerful, likable galoots, but he shines by giving what is likely his best performance in a story about a gang of outlaws who plot to intercept a large shipment of gold. The heroes are a team of familiar Chang Cheh faces assembled to stop Golden Arm and his gang: ever-present hero Kuo Chui is a drunken master, while there’s also some fighters specializing in sword and axe combat. Honestly, Kid With the Golden Arm isn’t particularly complex or even all that original, but it’s pure, unadulterated old-school kung fu fun. —J.V.
Director: David Sandberg
Kung Fury is an amazing example of how modern CGI, home computing and crowdfunding have transformed the abilities of independent filmmakers to create types of movies that would have been completely out of their grasp a few decades ago. Starting with a fan film trailer, the project raised $630,000 on Kickstarter en route to producing a 30-minute final product that is sure to rock the world of any lover of over-the-top ’80s action. Drawing heavy inspiration from Double Dragon and Streets of Rage-style beat-em-up arcade games, every second of Kung Fury is alive with color, humor and outrageous violence. It reaches a level of absurdist camp that almost shouldn’t be able to work, but somehow it does, with effects work that is mind-blowing for the budget and small crew. Ultimately, it was perhaps a blessing that the film didn’t make even more on Kickstarter and end up as a full-length feature, because 30 minutes feels like the perfect, bite-sized portion of Kung Fury for a movie night or film festival. It perfectly translates its insane premise into one of the most entertaining half hours you can find on Netflix. – J.V.
Director: Lau Kar-Leung
Gordon Liu is our hero in the classic Heroes of the East, but it’s not quite the Gordon Liu we’re used to. Quite honestly, the Gordon in this movie is a dick—he marries a Japanese woman and tries to convert her to more “ladylike” martial arts before offending all the prominent martial artists in her country and ending up in a series of duels with them. The film is unconventional in portraying the Japanese not as outright villains but simply aggrieved, honorable fighters. What we get from that set-up is a fascinating contrast in styles, and fights that pit balanced elements of combat against one another—for example, Chinese drunken boxing vs. Sino-Okinawan karate. Or Japanese weapons such as the sai against Chinese butterfly swords. It’s simply fun, classic stuff, and a story that doesn’t feel like it’s been told a million times before. Personal favorite: Gordon takes on a ninja-looking dude wielding “the Japanese crab technique.” It involves a lot of scuttling side-to-side and tiny little shuffle-steps, and it will probably make you chuckle. —J.V.
Director: François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell
Turbo Kid is a joyous experience, the kind of insane indie wish-fulfillment that I can only imagine inspires other indie filmmakers to say “Well if that guy can pull off this movie, then I need to make a movie of my own.” Many of the same compliments we paid to Kung Fury also apply to Turbo Kid, but this is a true feature, and it’s not quite as tongue in cheek. With that said, though, it’s still a gloriously absurd ode to ’80s era kids movies, apocalypse fiction and gore-centric horror, full of neon colors, people on bicycles and exploding heads. The hyper-bloody ultraviolence in particular is insanely impressive, on a level rarely seen outside the likes of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. Add a twist of Michael Ironside, playing a ham-fisted parody of his villain roles in movies like Scanners and Total Recall, and you have a serious cult classic in the making. Turbo Kid sells itself on its premise and iconography, but it’s far better than it truly has to be. – J.V.
Director: Jim Monaco
This is easily the strangest selection I’ve chosen for this list, but I can’t help but love it because it represents everything missing from the horror and B-movie selection on Netflix streaming. I seriously have no idea how it made its way to the streaming collection, but Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell is essentially a feature-length collection of vintage, ’70s-era grindhouse horror trailers. They’re presented in a crumbling theater by Nick, a nebbish-looking ventriloquist accompanied by an annoying puppet named Happy. “Mad Ron” is the projectionist, if you were wondering. What follows is the weirdest jumble of silly puppet shtick and super violent, gory trailers you’ve ever seen. Seriously, it’s trailers for the likes of I Drink your Blood and Blood Splattered Bride and I Dismember Mama, followed immediately by bad ventriloquist hijinks and zombie audience members pouring blood on their popcorn. The whole thing feels like something Netflix added completely by accident, and I sit here desperately hoping they don’t realize their mistake. The actual meat of the content is the trailers, and there’s some wonderfully, horribly icky stuff, all reminders of the kinds of films you’ll never see on this streaming service. It would be a great movie to put on during a Halloween party, provided your guests have very strong constitutions. —J.V.
Director: Chang Cheh
This was Cheh’s swan song with the Shaw Brothers, as tastes were changing and leaving the costumed period pieces behind—but man, it’s a doozy. Responding to the out-there stylistic choices of the town, the director apparently said “I’ll just outdo everyone,” and he produced one of the most ludicrous (but awesome) kung fu films ever made. This is the essence of Saturday morning kung fu theater in America, but if you only saw it that way, it’s doing the film a disservice, because you’re likely to miss out on the surprising and sometimes comical gore of the fight scenes. The story revolves around a few young fighters seeking vengeance against a ninja clan that massacred their classmates, but it’s the villains that really stand out. Each group of ninjas has their own absurd costumes and ridiculous quirks. Gold ninjas use their shields to blind enemies. Water ninjas use snorkels and pull opponents down underwater to drown them. Fire ninjas use smoke shields to hide and move. Wood ninjas pose as trees and use claws to slash and tear. And finally, the supremely goofy Earth ninjas are somehow able to tunnel through solid soil like freaking earthworms and explode out of the ground with an almighty bang. Five Element Ninjas is as crazy as kung fu gets, but you’ve got to love it for its entertaining excesses. —J.V.
Director: Chang Cheh
This is what vintage kung fu—and martial arts cinema, with it—is all about. The mythology alone is exquisite: Five Deadly Venoms is the first Venom Mob film, and gave each of them a name for the rest of their careers. There’s the blinding speed of The Centipede, the trickery and guile of The Snake, the stinging kicks of The Scorpion, the wall-climbing and gravity-defying acrobatics of The Lizard and the nigh-invincibility of The Toad, along with the so-called “hybrid venom” protagonist, who is a novice in all of the styles. It’s a film typical of both Chang Cheh and the Shaw Brothers—high budget, great costumes, beautiful sets and stylish action. Is it on the cheesy side? Sure, but how many great martial arts films are completely dour? Five Deadly Venoms is emblematic of an entire era of Hong Kong cinema and the joy they took in delivering beautiful choreography and timeless stories of good vs. evil. It’s everything that’s wonderful about martial arts. —J.V.
Director: Kurt Neumann
David Cronenberg’s 1986 Fly remake with Jeff Goldblum is great (it’s not on Netflix streaming), but it’s much more visceral in tone when compared with the camp of the 1958 original, much like the 1980s remake of The Blob. In fact, the original probably isn’t quite the film you might expect it to be—the camp and ’50s sci-fi charm is indeed there, but there are also some solid performances and an intriguing structure. In many ways, the film is more of a mystery than the sci-fi or horror it purports to be, revolving around the police investigation of why a woman killed her husband with a hydraulic press. Eventually it’s revealed that it was her only recourse after he developed a bad case of fruit fly-head, but the build to that reveal is both effective and suspenseful. It’s one of the finest and most rewatchable films in the 1950s sci-fi/horror canon more than half a century later. Also: Vincent Price is there, so we rest our case. You can’t go wrong. —J.V.
Director: Chang Cheh
In a time when exploitation cinema seemed the standard for cheap movie houses the world over, no martial arts flick got much better than this Shaw Brothers staple, which eventually adopted the much more PC title, Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms. The blind one, the deaf mute, the one without legs, and the brain-damaged “idiot”: together, they make an unstoppable force of vengeance against the local martial arts master who crippled them, and his son, who ironically lost his arms at a young age, and so sports dart-shooting cast-iron facsimiles. In other words, Crippled Avengers plays it cool, allowing our disfigured heroes few but important victories for most of the film, building up to its final 25-minute series of fight scenes, in which a blind man, a deaf mute, a man with iron prosthetic legs, and an acrobatic “idiot” combine their individual strengths to defeat a kung fu master with, basically, robot arms. Movies like this are the reasons we get up in the morning. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Lau Kar-leung
And this is why any kung fu fan will always love Gordon Liu. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as classic as it gets—the definitive Shaolin movie, without a doubt, and the source of Liu’s nickname, “Master Killer.” He plays a young student who is wounded when his school is culled by the Manchu government, so he flees to the refuge of the Shaolin temple. After toiling as a laborer, he is finally granted the right to learn kung fu, which begins the film’s famous training sequences. It’s the rare film where those training sequences actually outshine the traditional fights, because they’re just so beautiful, fluid and inventive. In each of the 36 chambers, San Te must toil to discipline his body, mind, reflexes and will. They make up the whole center of the film, and are unforgettable. The film just has a gravitas—it imbues kung fu with a great dignity, because true kung fu can only be attained through the greatest of sacrifice. —J.V.
Director: Robert Wise
I expect there may be a few hardcore fans of classic science fiction out there who might take offense to The Day the Earth Stood Still being described as a “B movie,” but that’s really what it is—and it’s simultaneously one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. At the time of its release, it was only moderately successful, both at the box office and in the mind of critics, but has since blossomed into a reputation as one of the crown jewels of 1950s spacefaring science fiction. The tale of an alien come to Earth with a mission of explaining man’s folly was a morality tale of the post-atomic age, and his subsequent harsh treatment by world governments a damning criticism of Cold War-era petulance between the superpowers. Also leaning on some heavy and clever Christian allegory, it does what all great sci-fi does, even “soft” science fiction—it simultaneously entertains its audience and engages them with social discourse that lingers long after the film has gone. To get that kind of long-lasting cultural impact in the shape of a B movie is a great boon. And it’s on Netflix! Go watch. – J.V.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer who eats bad movies for breakfast, and sometimes cereal as well. You can follow him on Twitter, but lord only knows why you would.