By Bruce Dettman

There has always been, particularly among those under the age of forty, some confusion regarding so-called "B" movies. Over the years many younger film fans have come to believe that in earlier days one consciously decided to go to the movies to see a certain "B" movie realizing ahead of time it was a second rate production, a western perhaps or a formula mystery effort such as were found in series movies featuring the likes of Boston Blackie or the Falcon or Charlie Chan. Left out of this equation is the fact that "B" production were not released independently but rather were the second tier of the standard double feature fare of the time.

In those bygone days, before certain anti-monopoly legislation outlawed such practices, the major studios owned the theatre chains where their productions were screened. To this end, the double feature (plus a newsreel, cartoons, coming attraction and sometimes short features and/or a cliffhanger chapter) showcased a main feature followed by a second production, produced on a much smaller budget with less marketable talent, necessary to fill out the bill. The secondary entry provided great training ground for up and coming directors, screenwriters and fledgling actors.

And quite often, rarely intended as such, the second movie was more entertaining than the "A" feature that accompanied it and led to the rapid advancement of both players and production staff. If both films were disappointments, of course, it could be a very long evening and I remember more than once going to the movies with my parents and falling asleep during the second feature.

In the 1950s, however, things began to change a bit. There was prosperity, a growing middle class and suddenly kids had allowances, mullah and more recreational money to spend. Madison Avenue began to take note. The single 45 record was born (cost only a buck) and clothing manufactures started to target the youth market. Before this kids had dressed, well like kids, until a certain age and then they adopted the adult styles of their parents. Now there was an interim period, the teenage years ripe for the picking and American manufactures were happy do the picking, lots of it.

The movies were also taking notice. The new brat on the entertainment block was television and it slowly began to swallow up hordes of viewers who just a few years before would have been shelling out their hard-earned dollars to see a double-feature, sometimes several times a week in the days when theatre marquees changed multiple times over a seven day period. Why go to the movies and pay for a western when there were dozens of them to watch each week on the tube for free? Numerous character and personalities from both film and radio -- from Jack Benny and Burns and Allen to Superman, The Lone Ranger and Captain Midnight -- had also migrated to TV as well.

Both for economic reasons and because the kibosh had been put on studio-owned theatres, the double-feature began to die. Also contributing to this was the decline of the studio system which had structured much of it output around their "A" and "B" units. Instead, major Studios, trying to compete with the Boob Tube, started producing epics that in scope and breath would lose much on the small screen, productions such as Ben Hur, Spartacus and El Cid in addition to introducing various gimmicks such as Cinerama and 3-D. Many of these were money makers but they didn't impact the growth or popularity of television.

However, for Baby Boomers such as me, the double feature began to take on new meaning. Suddenly it had little if anything to do with two tiers of production or of comparative quality. For the most part it simply meant two things: two films for the price of one and monsters!

The horror double feature, often a duo of films produced by two different companies -- sometimes by major studios, sometimes by independents -- but often packaged together by third party distributors  became extraordinarily popular during the late 1950s and early 60s. These mixed pairs of films were distributed across the country at the same time, the reason why aging film fans, one raised in the Bronx, the other in Seattle, can get together and compare notes on the same two films they saw as a pair back in 1960.

I suppose I spent half my youth going to horror and science-fiction pictures back during that era. I was usually with my best pal Mike, two years my senior, because he was as much a monster aficionado as I was, but on other occasions, when Mike wasn't available, I'd bring other school pals along. We were tipped off as to what the next set of horror films would soon becoming our way by the coming attractions we'd be peppered with at the theatres, by gloriously over-the-top print ads appearing in our hometown newspapers and by articles that we'd find in monster magazines of the time such as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Worlds Famous Creatures and Castle of Frankenstein. Usually the still photos from these movies ended up being better than the films themselves but we didn't care.


Even though there was usually one of the two movies being shown that was better known or more actively exploited by the press or producers or even by word of mouth, it was still the allure of two pictures that really got our engines racing. The distributors of these films knew what they were doing too as did the theatre owners because I never went to a horror double feature where the kids werent practically hanging from the rafters. It might have been a loud, rowdy goldmine but it was a goldmine all the same, even at such a quarter a pop.

Some of the double features that I remember best were Revenge of Frankenstein and Curse of the Demon (we went to see Revenge but it was Curse that we came away loving), The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (the stupendous Allison Hayes as the giantess strategically covered with bed sheets) and something called War of the Satellites, The Fly (probably the most promoted film of its kind that year) and Space-Master X-7, The Alligator People and Return of the Fly (my buddy Doug got sick halfway through the first film and went home but I stayed anyway), Gigantis The Fire Monster (actually Godzilla in his second film) and the bargain basement Teenagers From Outer Space, The Angry Red Planet and The Hideous Sun Demon, The Screaming Skull and The Brain Eaters and what was perhaps for me the oddest cinematic pairing of Moby Dick and Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy. So many more.


Some of these, such as Teenagers From Outer Space were terrible even by the standards of a ten year-old. Others, such as Curse of the Demon, were brilliant little gems which even today still standup as impressive cinematic achievements.

But whatever their merit, their budgets, their chintzy special effects, their bottom of the barrel titular stars or the scares and thrills, promised by the ad men, that often never lived up to expectations, these double features of horror were always wonderfully anticipated and always worth that precious but glad fully surrendered two bits.

I can still smell the popcorn and feel the sticky theatre floor under my high-topped Keds just thinking about them.

Them were the days.


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