Brow Beat

Your Next Shared Cinematic Universe: ’50s B-movie Classics

Film studio Cinedigm announced last week a maybe-insane and maybe-brilliant plan to create a 10-film franchise based on the sleaze-tastic 1950s B-movies of American International Pictures. With titles like Teenage CavemanGirls in PrisonThe Brain Eaters, and The Cool and the Crazy, the 10 films will “shoot back-to-back and share a single movie universe with a big recurring cast of antiheroes, monsters, and bad girls” according to producer Lou Arkoff, son of AIP founder Samuel Arkoff.

A lot of these original films can be found online, and they’re really a delight to check out. Here’s the trailer for 1958’s The Brain Eaters, which warns, of a rocket carrying an alien menace, “this giant, harder-than-steel piston disgorges strange creatures … twisting the emotions of women! Distorting our men!”  Awwww, yeah.

The announcement is a really fascinating intersection of pop-cinema’s past and present. AIP became legendary as purveyors of cheap, puerile, exploitation cinema aimed at teenagers, and churned out films on low margin for nearly three decades, many of which went on to become cult or camp classics. Their formula for success, as articulated by Arkoff in an acrostic of his own name, was:

            Action (exciting, entertaining drama)

            Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)

            Killing (a modicum of violence)

            Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)

            Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)

            Fornication (sex appeal, for young adults)

Though this might have come off as cheap and cynical to producers at the time, it’s basically not far from your standard 2015 blockbuster. (Indeed, AIP’s first release was a little film called The Fast and the Furious). The trendy twist of incorporating all these reboots into a shared cinematic universe is the wild card here. Though this strategy has been phenomenally successful for Marvel, and other studios have already announced plans to copy the tactic, it is unclear whether consolidation will work for AIP. DC is plotting its own decade-long slate of superhero movies, and Universal Studios is prepping a shared universe of movies based on its classic monsters properties. But these two franchises are still in their infancy. (On the other hand, Universal’s first entry, last year’s Dracula Untoldwas an international hit and grossed more than $215 million against a $70 million budget.)

As for the AIP-iverse, Cinedigm reports the franchise will embrace the very B-movie plan of shooting all 10 films at once starting later this year. Helmed by the weirdly high-brow-meets- low-brow dream team of Arkoff (producer of George of the Jungle), Jeff Katz (producer ofSnakes on a Plane), and Hal Sadoff (producer of Hotel Rwanda), this series could absolutely be a charming, modern B-revival and a tongue-in-cheek antidote to the increasingly bloated tentpole blockbuster.  Or, it could be an awkward, soulless cash-in that shoves Arkoff’s old titles into a new model for quick and easy profit. The producers seem to be sincerely aiming at the former. Said Arkoff: “These are very much, at heart, indie comic book movies. Unpretentious. R-Rated. It’s fantastic to have a distribution model that fits that sensibility.” Camp is a very hard tone to pull off intentionally, but if they can do it these could be some seriously fun flicks.