This article originally appeared at Den of Geek UK.
B-movies. Exploitation flicks. Genre cinema. They are as much a part of filmmaking history as prestige and blockbuster films. B-movies are not interested in being “respectable” award-winning films, and instead seek to shock or awe or make the audience cringe in horror or make them stupid with laughter. Often times, they even represent groups of people that don’t normally make it into more mainstream cinema.
Here is a list compiling the best of the today’s crop of filmmakers who are unabashed in their love of genres, and have honed their talents, producing enjoyable and sometimes great B-Movies. While all the movies they make may not be great, do not dismiss them. The seeds of great things are contained in their filmographies, and it would come as no surprise if one or two of these guys are able to attain the same heights as luminaries like Hill, Carpenter, Craven, and Corman.
One of the most consistent directors of mid-level Hollywood genre fare, Collet-Serra has quietly turned into a solid genre filmmaker without too many missteps or moves into more ambitious projects. Boasting a strong understanding of tension and atmosphere, he is a filmmaker who seems to enjoy doing unabashed, mid-range B-movies. House of Wax, Orphan, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night could never be confused with “great art,” but all are solid pieces of entertainment, elevated by solid performances and Collet-Serra’s strong sense of visual style and drama.
All of these films feature a strong sense of atmosphere and his horror output, in particular, displays a mean, take-no-prisoners attitude rarely seen in mainstream horror flicks. Orphan, an underrated entry in the “evil child” sub-genre, is notable for its last act twist, cold atmosphere, and queasy subtext, all of which help elevate the movie far above being just a gimmicky thriller. With the notoriety of cast member Paris Hilton consigned to the past, his House of Wax remake emerges as a solid genre offering with a memorably creepy aesthetic and a pre-Hostel emphasis on body horror.
And Collet-Serra’s talents are not limited to horror. Think of any of the good post-Taken Liam Neeson action flicks which have come out in the last couple years—most of them are Collet-Serra’s work. While they stretch credibility and have their naff moments, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night are enjoyable thrillers. With his latest, The Shallows, it appears that Collet-Serra is maintaining his place as one of the best, unpretentious makers of mainstream entertainment in Hollywood.
Who would have thought that the 5th and 6th sequels to an action picture from 20 years ago would be good? Keep in mind that Hyams’ Universal Soldier entries were both DTV releases as well. And yet both films never betray their origins. Lensed by Hyams’ father, genre director Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010, Time Cop), Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning (2012) are both inventive, enjoyable slices of b-movie goodness, and two of the better credits on Jean-Claude Van Damme’s recent CV.
Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning both feature terrific set pieces which would not look out of place in a big budget action flick, with excellent use of long takes—especially in how the films use moving camera-work to track and follow action (check out JCVD’s initial assault on the apartment block in Regeneration). It’s a technique that is rarely employed in Hollywood action movies, and it is remarkable how Hyams is able to pull it off. It’s creative choices like this which help make his films feel bigger and more cinematic. Showing considerable ambition and style on small budgets, it would not be a surprise if Hyams imitated his father and ended up behind the camera on a Hollywood action picture in the next couple years.
With his co-writer Simon Barrett, Wingard has moved to the front line of American genre filmmakers on the basis of the double-whammy of home invasion thriller You’re Next and excellent genre-bender The Guest. While You’re Next sprinkled touches of meta-humour among the thrills, The Guest is an exercise in reversing and rewriting expectations: it goes from thriller to comedy to action to horror without skipping a beat or feeling clunky. And it does so while providing terrific roles for Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe.
In a sign of how much his stock has risen, Wingard has several projects in development, including an English language adaptation of the manga Death Note and a remake of Korean uber-thriller I Saw the Devil. While one hopes that he will be able to make some original projects, it is good to see that his rise has not seen a “mainstreaming” of the types of films he wants to make.
Make no mistake, Evans is a B-movie director through and through. An heir to the great martial arts filmmakers of yesteryear, Evans combines an extremely visceral and developed visual style with an understanding of how to best shoot fight choreography for maximum impact. He also shows an understanding of action movie storytelling fundamentals, a lost art in today’s era of endless twists and bloated runtimes. In contrast, Evans keeps his stories lean and mean. The Raid is a simple siege movie, and while it has a few more subplots, The Raid 2 is an undercover cop movie in the mold of Yojimbo (with a hero coming between the various sides in a gang war).
Not afraid of extreme violence, weird humor, and offbeat characters (Mad Dog, Bat Man, Hammer Girl, and even the homeless assassin who is trying to pay his child support are all great), the day Evans goes legit will be a very sad day indeed.
Steven C. Miller
Miller had been plugging away for a few years, churning out DTV fodder like the Silent Night, Deadly Night remake starring Jaime King. While the scripts left something to be desired, as a director Miller was always solid—drawing as much out of his weak material as he could (including solid performances from his casts and a strong visual style). The Aggression Scale was where Miller found his voice—a by-turns comic and violent spin on Home Alone, the movie focuses on a child psychopath who has to defend his step-sister from a group of gangsters who killed their parents. At first glance, the set-up and central character do not sound that appealing, but Miller manages to play the material with an appropriate level of irony as this mini-Dexter goes about taking out the arrogant adults.
While the action is strong, Miller proves himself as a good actors’ filmmaker, keeping the focus on his odd couple of teenage performers—the development of the step-siblings’ relationship, from distance and confusion to genuine familial bond, is well-handled and surprisingly believable. While he hasn’t broken out just yet, Miller’s work thus far shows a welcome evolution that puts him in the frame as a potential contender.
The most overtly reverent filmmaker on this list, Ti West is determined classical in style—the style being that of the seventies and eighties films he loves. This goes to the extent of releasing his 2009 film House of the Devil on VHS. From House of through The Innkeepers, The Sacrament, and In a Valley of Violence, West’s determinedly old-school approach to cinematography, editing (like John Carpenter, West edits his own work), music, and pacing is no mere affectation, but comes from a genuine grounding in traditional film grammar.
West’s filmography displays a refreshing willingness to stick with what works, rather than going for flashier, more contemporary techniques. And with their varied tones, styles, and subject matter, West is clearly more than a one-trick pony. While House of the Devil is a play on the occult thrillers of the eighties, The Innkeepers is a ghost movie (with a welcome sense of humor), The Sacrament is a docudrama about a Jonestown-like cult, and his latest, In a Valley of Violence, is a low budget western in the mold of the beautifully economical westerns of Budd Botticher. If one filmmaker on this list embodies the new model for producing low budget genre fare, then it is Ti West.
Since the 90s, Florentine has carved out a niche as the best maker of traditional martial arts-based action movies on the DTV market. Most famous for his instalments in the Undisputed franchise and his collaborations with martial arts star Scott Adkins, Florentine shows a pleasing disregard for burdening his movies with extraneous elements like deep plots and complex character arcs.
Which is not to say that his films lack depth. While Ninja and its sequel are brainless fun, leavened by strong set pieces and simple plots, Undisputed II: Last Man Standing and, specifically, Undisputed III: Redemption are genuinely affecting—especially in the way they show the transformation of feared inmate Boyka (Adkins) from the antagonist of Last Man Standing to the hero of Redemption. It is a testament to Florentine’s abilities that both of these films feel more well-rounded than the original theatrical film—and that had Walter Hill at the helm. His focus on extended takes allows his performers to really show off their skills and pack more of a punch than most fight scenes in bigger budget fare.
Unlike so many directors making Hollywood blockbusters, Florentine has no airs about what kinds of movies he is making—he is in the business of making fighting movies, and he does so with economy and style.
The maker of the great Nazi zombie epics Dead Snow and its sequel, Wirkola is at his best working on R-rated splat-stick in the style of Raimi and Jackson. Opinions remain divided on Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, but Wirkola remains a rude, crude talent who knows how to mix gore and laughs with aplomb. Some may turn up their noses (rotting flesh is pretty smelly), but it is a hard balance to strike between making you laugh and making you scream.
Wirkola isn’t afraid to tackle this dynamic. Dead Snow and Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead are filled with insane, surreal set pieces and gags which defy description. Think of the toilet sex scene in Dead Snow or the battle between Nazi Soviet zombies (bonus points for the tank!) in the sequel—all terrific set pieces filled with inspired touches (a personal favorite is the scene from the first film where one character belatedly discovers that his intestines have become entangled between several trees).
Wirkola’s latest, a science fiction film called What Happened to Monday?, may be a stab at respectability, but still feels more like a genre piece. Here’s hoping Wirkola never forgets where he came from.
A throwback to the low-budget, high concept action flicks Cannon used to churn out in the eighties, The Purge franchise has matured from a fairly innocuous home invasion thriller into something really impressive with The Purge: Anarchy. With another installment out this year, DeMonaco has taken the initial premise of a yearly “purge” and used it as a springboard for the kind of dystopian action fare we used to get with Escape from New York and The Warriors.
With its dark humor, obvious political subtext, and inspired set pieces, The Purge: Anarchy is the kind of unapologetic big screen action movie we don’t get any more. And in Frank Grillo’s terse, hardbitten lead performance, a solid addition to the ranks of anti-heroic action heroes. While he has yet to make films outside of The Purge, the evolution in quality and ambition between installments show that DeMonaco could become a name in the mid-budget genre market.