When it comes to “low art” films that are not considered masterpieces or even solidly professional products, they can offer something useful for the greater cinematic universe: risk.
When a filmmaker makes something on the “small” side and
that word is in quotes because even cheap movies cost a lot of money. But when that
happens and a director is operating under the radar instead of a large studio,
they can take more chances with the material. Sometimes, many times, they have no
choice but to take chances and find creative ways to make and finish a movie
because the financing isn’t available.
But working this way with a certain amount of freedom is
more liberating than tightly controlled film products with enormous budgets
like in the Marvel cinematic universe.
One thing about watching the Alligator (1980) movie is
that it shows what’s possible on a smaller scale. Granted, the story,
characters, and situations are not unique, but the homegrown quality of the
film has its charms, like the alligator itself, which is not seen for most of
the film. This is like another much more famous film, Alien.
And when the alligator is seen, it is not a bad representation of the creature. The director is shrewd in how and when and how much to show of the reptile. This is strategic and keeps the viewer interested in what’s going to happen next – not because the effects are amazing, but rather, seeing how the director employs what he must use. There is a bit of a Mystery Science Theater quality to all of this.
The interest in the film is how well everyone can pull it
off. It’s not the acting or the writing, so it has to be the creature and how
they use it.
This brings us back to risk. It takes risks to do this. Why
produce another rip-off of Jaws? Because there might be something in the
effort and because it could make some money leading to other projects.
According to Wikipedia, Alligator cost $1.7 million to make and took in $6.5
million Alligator (film) - Wikipedia. Not bad for a bad
But here is where the idea of risk comes in. If you’re a prospective
director or producer, you have a template that works before you, something you
can experiment with and make successful. You can take chance on different
material because you know it’s possible and manageable.
When you think about it this way, you begin to realize how
foreign an idea it would have been back in the golden age of Hollywood when
everything was such a huge production – even the B films. In the world of Alligator,
while it’s still professional, it is not the same as those earlier films. It
feels and looks like something different.
Another point about these “low art” films is how they get to the point. They bring tension, thrills, even if they are crude. They don’t fiddle around with questions like “Are you happy” in Chronicles of a Summer or present a relationship film like Faces, which is homegrown and low-tech, but also highly pretentious when you think about it. No, a film like Alligator knows what it is and delivers with all its crudeness, bad acting and rubber reptile.
Now, in Crawl (2019), it’s possible to see how
far the craft of filmmaking has come since 1980. Still low budget by today’s standards,
but one could argue much better executed than Alligator. And yet, another
story that is not high art, but basically an action flick in a crawl space with
The film works, but again, the characters do some
implausible things, and the likelihood of survival is nil, but that’s not why
we watch. We watch it because the movie is like a rollercoaster ride, and we are
getting on for the thrills. Forget about reality, this movie is about fun, to
see if they can make it out alive, and it costs much less than a Marvel movie.
But a cheaper film can also have a message like The Conjuring
– this one in the horror genre – that tells a supernatural story, but also
touches on America’s past with slavery.
Again, this is where these less expensive films can take
risks because there is less money at stake. If they deliver what the audience
needs to be entertained, then they can make money, and more films can be made.
That might explain why 28 Days Later – a film about
an epidemic – did so well. It was terrifying and also very real as anyone who just
lived through the pandemic can attest.
It’s also worth noting that audiences desire results. Historically,
making money keeps things going and that means finding ways to interest audiences
and keep them coming back. When money is in short supply, one could argue,
there is less time to be too cute or clever. You must reach the bottom line and
that is entertaining people even if the effects are less than perfect.
A healthy film eco-system depends on big budget films, but also more independent movies as well. One can inform the other. What’s interesting is that a film like Crawl, if it was made in 1980, would be considered high-end entertainment.