If you’re a director, and you’re on this list, then it’s a fairly safe bet that the cumulative output of your film career did not set the critical world ablaze, except perhaps with the light of hastily assembled torches (and pitchforks).
And yet, as we’ve already discussed at length in Paste’s ranking of the 100 Greatest B Movies, critical adoration isn’t what’s important when it comes to judging the weird, the unconventional and the exceedingly low-budget. What matters is entertainment. Whether that entertainment is derived from genuine, primal wish-fulfillment or giggling over a film’s obvious flaws is inconsequential. B movies make us happy because they give us something to enjoy, either sincerely or ironically—both are equally valid.
The greatest B-movie directors, then, are the ones who have produced a legacy of entertainment. These are the directors who have given us some of cinema’s strangest, cheapest—and in some cases, yes, worst—films. They’re the landed elite, B-movie royalty. Make sure to afford them the respect they deserve!
Honorable Mentions: Joe D’Amato, James Nguyen, Tommy Wiseau (Sorry Tommy, but you probably need more than one film to qualify, even if that film is The Room.)
Easily the most bizarre director on the list, and probably the one to produce the most unwatchable films, but damn if Donald G. Jackson isn’t a fascinating individual. After beginning his career with movies that were almost “conventional” and mainstream, including the Rowdy Roddy Piper vehicle Hell Comes to Frogtown, he went off the deep end of his own personal filmmaking philosophy and started cranking out the likes of The Roller Blade Seven or Guns of El Chupacabra. Alongside frequent collaborator and actor Scott Shaw, he espouses “Zen Filmmaking,” which essentially means directing feature films with no script. As Shaw explains, this process “allows for a spiritually pure source of immediate inspiration to be the only guide in the filmmaking process.” And when you’re casting actors like Joe Estevez, you can imagine how well this works out.
Notable film: The original The Roller Blade Seven perfectly encapsulates the look and aesthetic of a Donald G. Jackson film made with zen filmmaking. It’s practically indescribable, a chaotic mess of post-apocalyptic fever dreams and Scott Shaw chopping at things with a katana. Also, Frank Stallone is there.
Pyun is one of those guys who makes a dozen films revolving around the same topic, then says “Oh, I was never really interested in that topic; it just let me make films.” For Pyun, those sources of “inspiration” have often been cyborgs and post-apocalyptic settings, such as on the “classic” Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle sporting the Cyborg name. He also directed the ill-fated 1990 Captain America adaptation that starred Matt Salinger, the son of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, as well as the MST3k film Alien from L.A. with an unbearably annoying Kathy Ireland. He’s still making movies today at 61, but his recent films haven’t made quite the impact of his late ’80s/early ’90s output.
Dollman was one of Pyun’s most ambitious concepts, a sci-fi action picture about an interplanetary alien space cop armed with the most powerful gun in the universe. Only problem—when he crash-lands on Earth, he discovers that compared to the human locals, he’s only 13 inches tall. It’s gory, funny and features a young Jackie Earle Haley as the villain. Everything about it screams “early 1990s straight-to-video.”
It’s certainly a close call, but I’m pretty sure Jim Wynorski is the “sleaziest” director on this list. He began his career by cranking out some classics of the B-horror genre such as Chopping Mall before moving into horrifying children’s fare such as Munchie (Dom DeLuise and Jennifer Love Hewitt in the sequel to a Gremlins knockoff!) and action movies like Demolition High with Corey Haim. In the last 20 years, he’s specialized in softcore porn mockbusters with hilarious names like Cleavagefield, The Bare Wench Project and Para-Knockers Activity. There was even a documentary made about Wynorski that chronicled his attempts to shoot The Witches of Breastwick in only three days.
Notable film: Tough choice, but if you really want to see Wynorski at his best opposed to worst, it’s Chopping Mall. In some ways it’s the quintessential 1980s B-horror movie, with a hilarious satire on the contemporary teenage mall culture, plus lots of gross effects and rampaging killer guard bots. The original title was Killbots, which is actually a lot more accurate but much less awesome-sounding.
Fred Olen Ray is actually pretty darn similar to Jim Wynorski, although his filmography probably isn’t quite as well known. Like Wynorski, he made his early name in horror with films such as Alien Dead before moving into lots and lots of action movies and exploitation flicks of the straight-to-video variety, with titles like Bikini Jones and the Temple of Eros or Tarzeena: Jiggle in the Jungle. I’m particularly fond of Dinosaur Island, which is a hilariously cheap rip-off of Jurassic Park with tons and tons of T&A thrown into the mix. Fred Olen Ray is still very active, with three films directed in 2014 already. He’s even done some pro wrestling as “Fabulous Freddie Valentine”—how awesome is that?
Evil Toons is hilariously cheesy stuff, essentially what Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would look like if it collided with a softcore horror flick. You’ve got David “Kill Bill” Carradine and an animated killer wolf stalking a bunch of nubile young ladies, what more could you want?
David DeCoteau makes magically terrible films. If you’re a B-movie director, you might accidentally make a bad film or two, but you’re never going to luck into making something that is Dr. Alien bad—it’s just not going to happen. His career began much like contemporaries Wynorski and Olen Ray, doing some minor classics of the sleazy 1980s horror movie mold, such as Creepazoids and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. His most famous contributions/associations are likely as a director of several films in the Puppet Master franchise. He even gets referenced pretty extensively in Greg Sestero’s book about The Room, because Sestero starred in 1999’s Retro Puppet Master prior to the filming of The Room.
Notable film: Most of these guys did their best “bad movie” work back in the 1980s, but DeCoteau laid low until 2013, when he sprung an incredibly bizarre movie on the world: A Talking Cat!?! That’s the actual title. It’s a zero-budget “children’s film” featuring Eric Roberts as the voice of the talking cat, who can only speak to each person in the film one time, presumably because Roberts was only available for a single, 45-minute soundbooth recording session. It is the single most disinterested-sounding piece of voiceover work by a “star” that you will ever hear.
In the schlock pantheon, Godfrey Ho would sit on a special throne made out of tinfoil, compost and detritus that washed up out of the sea onto the shores of his native Hong Kong. Nobody’s ever cranked out so many z-grade movies in such a short period as Ho, who produced literally hundreds of films (nobody knows how many) under various pseudonyms, largely in the 1980s. At least 90 percent of these films were about ninjas, most with “ninja” somewhere in the title. To achieve his artistry, Ho typically stitched together footage from several unrelated films, which results in some of the most surreal action sequences you’ll ever see. His supernatural genre benders such as Robo Vampire have a little bit of everything: Blatant Robocop rip-offs, hopping Chinese vampires, superpowered gorilla men and the single worst stunt double in film history. Watch as a blonde, Caucasian woman jumps out a window and becomes an Asian man in a short, gray wig. Unreal.
Notable film: It sort of depends what you want. Something like Ninja Terminator is quintessentially Ho, the type of pieced-together ninja babble he produced for most of his career. But I also recommend Undefeatable, one of his rare “bigger budget” action movies that stars karate lady Cynthia Rothrock. It’s mostly famous for the insanity that is its final fight sequence.
For too many years, Ed Wood’s reputation was that of the “worst director” of all time, but if we’re talking in terms of entertainment value, Wood doesn’t even come close to the bottom of the barrel. He’s certainly no Coleman Francis, for instance. Rather, his films have a delightful naïveté to them, the look of a product made by an overgrown child who really thought that a sincere desire to make films would be enough to make a great picture. It’s bizarre how similar most of his movies are to each other—he seemed to have certain ideas that just got stuck in his head, which resulted in using the same scenarios and settings over and over, hoping for a different outcome. Not one of his films is objectively good, but every one is an easy watch, with the possible exception of The Sinister Urge.
Notable film: The more you read about Wood, the more Plan 9 From Outer Space takes on mythic proportions. In many ways, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for him, a project he had sky-high hopes for that just went nowhere. It’s the film that he poured his heart and soul into, and although it’s undeniably terrible, it’s the least offensive brand of terrible imaginable. It’s terrible in the same way a feature film shot by your six-year-old nephew would be terrible, but charming all the same.
Neil Breen is still quite obscure outside of “bad film geek” circles, but don’t expect him to stay that way for too much longer. His cult is already well underway, and in five years he could be seen with the exact same infamy as Tommy Wiseau. In many ways, Wiseau is the most accurate comparison for Breen, a mysterious former real estate agent who one day decided to start making astoundingly bad, ineptly constructed films with himself as the star, typically portraying a Christ-like figure. Like Wiseau, he seems absolutely sincere and blissfully immune to any form of criticism. And as anyone lucky enough to see his newest film, Fateful Findings, has attested, his features are really something one needs to see to believe.
Fateful Findings is new but practically impossible to find unless Breen happens to personally bring it to your town for a screening. Your best bet is to find his 2009 film I Am Here…. Now, in which Breen plays an alien deity who returns to Earth and considers destroying it for mankind’s various failures. But wait! Maybe if the stripper he hired to play the female lead will agree to touch him on camera, the human race could be saved!
Almost every one of the guys on this list has suffered through being called “the next Ed Wood” or something of that nature in the course of their careers, but it’s actually fair to call Charles Band “the Roger Corman of 1980-present.” Simply put, nobody has had a wider influence and impact in B movies in the last 35 years, except maybe Lloyd Kaufman. Band’s various companies, be it Full Moon Features or Empire International Pictures produced so many well-known B-movie series, from Subspecies to Ghoulies to Puppet Master. Band has also been exceedingly prolific in the director’s chair since the early 1980s, shepherding such “classics” as Trancers and The Gingerdead Man. Most importantly though, and like Corman, Band’s productions have given a first chance to dozens of young directors and film crew personnel who went on to make films of their own.
Notable film: There’s just something about Evil Bong that makes it the most Charles Band of all the Charles Band features. Perhaps it’s Tommy Chong in a starring role, or the killer strippers, or the fact that it blatantly steals a few bars from the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack in its trailer. Or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s a film about a killer bong, a horror film made specifically for a stoner market. That’s Charles Band—he knows precisely who he’s making movies for.
At some point in his youth, Iranian director Amir Shervan apparently studied theatre in Pasadena, Calif., but even that knowledge does little to explain the line of reasoning that eventually led him to make some of the most ridiculously bad, z-grade action movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Very little is known about Shervan to this day, but his idolatry of the “buddy cop” formula of films like Lethal Weapon is all too clear in pretty much every feature he completed. They all end up looking like high school film projects that are attempting to parody the buddy cop genre, except Shervan isn’t at all in on the joke. There isn’t a single original thought, just a mash-up of whichever clichés must have drifted through his field of vision.
Notable film: Shervan’s best-known film is Samurai Cop, and it’s rightfully hailed as his terrible magnum opus. It’s bad on a level that sits in rarified air, with performances and dialog that make one question whether a script even existed. At one point during filming, the titular Samurai Cop, Matt Hannon, ended up shaving his mane of long, Fabio-esque hair, so it was replaced with a silky brown wig that looks nothing like his hair in previous scenes. The whole thing looks like a movie aliens would make if they were lacking some sort of crucial understanding of how human beings communicated with one another.
One might call Lloyd Kaufman the godfather of tastelessness. For 40 years, his creation, Troma Entertainment, has been a refuge for some of the sickest minds in comedy and horror filmmaking. He’s a man who truly understood and embraced the age of home video, recognizing that there was a market out there for more extreme films that blended incredibly juvenile slapstick and scatological humor with grisly gore and intense sexuality. The list of films he’s directed for Troma speaks for itself: The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., Tromeo and Juliet, and more. He has become the sort of beloved genre presence as an actor that a simple cameo by Lloyd Kaufman in your cheapo horror flick is like a rubber stamp of approval.
Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead is among the best-made Troma features, a “comedy horror musical” about cursed native American burial grounds causing the reanimation of fried chicken at a KFC-style parody restaurant. It’s every bit as tasteless and offensive as any other Troma picture, but like most of them it contains a subversive streak of clever satire, as well. Just don’t watch it for at least an hour after eating.
Call Sidaris a hack, but the man knew exactly what kind of movie he wanted to make, and he succeeded big-time—12 times over, in fact. A former seven-time Emmy winner for producing sports (the man produced an Olympics!), he decided late in his career to get into feature films. What follows is an epic string of trashy, juvenile action movies starring former Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets, collectively known as his “Bullets, Bombs and Babes” series. Almost every one of the films involves buxom secret agents fighting drug smugglers or gangsters in tropical locales, and they’re an absolute riot to watch. They typically go beyond “gratuitous” nudity into absurd, non-erotic nudity, and feature some of the most wooden acting ever seen on Cinemax or USA Up All Night.
Notable film: Most of the Triple B series is very entertaining, but Hard Ticket to Hawaii is on another level. This is a film where the B plot revolves around a killer snake “infected with toxins from cancer-infested rats.” That’s actual dialog. Also: This action sequence. Just a man, a skateboard, a machine gun, a rocket launcher and an inflatable sex doll. Buckle up.
The greatest pure showman on this list, Castle would have been right at home alongside the likes of P.T. Barnum. The weird thing is, he’s remembered primarily for a very small chunk of his directorial career, which stretched more than 30 years. Before the late 1950s, he’d been making westerns and action movies for years, but once he was given the reins to produce and promote his own films, he kicked off a stretch of cheesy horror movies that are cherished today as both sincere spook-shows and camp classics. He became famous for his marketing gimmicks—for Macabre he offered insurance policies to viewers in case they died of fright. For The Tingler he had buzzers installed in theater chairs to replicate the touch of the film’s creature. For Mr. Sardonicus, he appeared on screen to poll the audience on what the villain’s fate should be. Nothing was too cheesy for Castle, which is what made him so great—his showmanship is totally fearless.
Notable film: It’s hard to sum up the cheesy delight of William Castle’s horror movies any better than in House on Haunted Hill. There’s a reason it was remade (stupidly) in 1999, and that’s because there’s still so much goodwill toward the original. It’s ham-fistedly acted but has beautiful sets and compelling characters, especially the wonderful Vincent Price in one of his most iconic roles. It is the classic 1950s horror film.
For the great popularity the genre enjoyed in the 1960s-1980s, martial arts/kung fu never really produced a ton of famed directors. Chang Che is one of the glaring exceptions, maybe the greatest and one of the most prolific martial arts movie directors of all time, working in the most classic period of Hong Kong kung fu films. His second-ever feature was 1967’s The One-Armed Swordsman, which kickstarted the entire genre and even created the “cripsploitation” subgenre. Che then directed countless classic Shaolin films before producing two more all-time classics, The Brave Archer and Five Deadly Venoms in the late 1970s. The latter assembled a group of skilled martial artists who became known as the “Venom Mob” and went on to create many more classic kung fu pictures.
Five Element Ninjas is just about as close as a film has ever come to completely embodying a video game on screen. The characters are so broad and cartoonish, as are the different breeds of evil ninjas: Fire ninjas, water ninjas, earth ninjas, wood ninjas and gold ninjas. It’s completely, utterly over the top all the way up to the final boss fight, with action sequences that are unexpectedly and shockingly gory for a Shaw Brothers production. It looks like the best parody of kung fu movies you’ve ever seen online, except it’s gloriously real.
55 films directed. 385 films produced between 1954 and today. Still producing films at age 88. Any way you slice it, Roger Corman is the man, the undisputed king of B movies. From the original Little Shop of Horrors to his “Poe series” of films with Vincent Price, his influence has echoed through cinema in the decades since. More important than the films he directed himself were all the actors and directors he gave first-time chances to. The list of “Corman Film School” graduates is a who’s who of future Oscar winners and influential names: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and many more. They all got their start working for Corman, the ultimate Hollywood opportunist.
Notable film: Corman sold The Haunted Palace as one of his Poe films, but that’s only because he was a master marketer. In reality, it’s a horror story loosely adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” Vincent Price is once again at his best, and the unusually high budget and lush, Technicolor sets make this one of Corman’s objectively best-looking films. It looks like an American version of a British Hammer Horror film, in the best possible way.
Jim Vorel is a Central Illinois-based entertainment reporter and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.