Saturday, August 5, 2023

Film History #7 (Low Budget)

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 movie.

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 CGI alligators.

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.

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