As long as there have been movies, there have been B movies. Traditionally low-budget, barely publicized affairs, B movies are usually genre films (sci-fi, Western, horror, etc.) featuring actors of little or no repute, often made by small specialty studios and cranked out as if on an assembly line.
Although lesser features, early 123movie B movies were popular, profitable, and produced their own separate group of stars, different than the major actors of the day. They also provided an entry into Hollywood for many European directors. Back in the Golden Age, a night at the movies usually consisted of a newsreel, an episode of a serial (such as Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers), several cartoons and a double feature of a B movie and the main feature-an “A movie.” B movies were the first movie and always considered the less important film.
In the 1930’s, the predominant B movie genre was the Western. In the ’40s, gangster movies and films noir became popular. In the ’50s, with the rise of rock and roll, the cold war, and the teenager as a social force, B movies exploded into a diverse range of areas: rock and roll flicks, juvenile delinquent and hot rod melodramas, sci-fi/horror pastiches with Red Scare overtones, and foreign films dubbed into English (e.g., the Japanese Godzilla, the Italian Hercules).
The ’60s B movies saw the rise of the Hammer Films from Britain, the “beach movies” with Frankie and Annette and company, the Elvis movies (which, although they starred the most famous singer in the world, were decidedly low-quality productions), Russ Meyer’s nudie cuties, and Roger Corman’s many low-budget masterpieces. Also, the radical social changes of the ’60s were reflected in the B films of the day long before they made it to the “legitimate” films. Of course, the most famous example would be Easy Rider.
The loosening moral attitudes of the ’60s also helped birth the first gore flicks, courtesy of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Though Lewis contributed greatly to B movies, his most influential film was Blood Feast, the first true splatter film. Though mild by today’s standards, at the time it was considered extremely disturbing. Movies such as this and his Color Me Blood Red paved the way for the current vogue of “torture porn” films, such as the Saw and Hostel series.
Although the seeds of exploitation were planted in the ’60s, they definitely came to fruition in the ’70s grindhouse scene. Martial arts films were a big favorite in grindhouses all over the country. Produced in Hong Kong, often by the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, and dubbed into English before being distributed in America, these films made stars of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and spawned a whole subculture that is still flourishing.