Sorority babes in slime

The B-movie is the heart of American film. B-movie queens are its lifeblood. They die to live. By Nick Hasted
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The Independent Culture
Drew Barrymore is standing in the night-clothes she was wearing when she ran from the sleazy New Mexico hotel in which she'd been hiding from the law. Black mascara oozes down her face. Sweaty with desert heat, she points a gun at her teenage lover. Blinking back tears, she squeezes the trigger. It's hard to connect the character Barrymore plays in Mad Love, her new film, with Gertie, the innocent little girl of ET. But to anyone who has followed Barrymore's subsequent career, it will not come as much of a surprise. In films like Poison Ivy (1992), Gun Crazy (1992), Doppelganger (1993) and Beyond Control (1994), Barrymore has revelled in sex and sleaze and peeled off her clothes to an extent that would make most actresses blanch. It is not a phase which seems set to last (she is currently working for Woody Allen, and even Mad Love, in which she plays a manic depressive, is more serious than it looks). But for now, Drew Barrymore is a B-movie queen.

It may seem a strange title to confer in 1995. The B-movie is a tradition, after all, that is widely considered to be dead. When Quentin Tarantino papered his Pulp Fiction restaurant with fading posters for Wasp Woman and Confessions of a Sorority Girl, it was assumed to be a homage to the kind of trash they just don't make any more. But scan the top shelf of your local video store and you'll see that the B-movie, like some flame-resistant Frankenstein, is still alive. It has been wounded by Hollywood's theft of its values since Star Wars made pulp culture mainstream. It has been denied the cachet afforded to its Fifties forebears by the likes of the nostalgic Tarantino. It has stood helpless as the gap between its budgets and the majors has become a chasm. But still, the B-movie lives.

It has adapted. It now makes explicit, with heavy self-reflexive irony, what Roger Corman in his pomp only implied: that its audience is watching rubbish (Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-rama is one rather knowing Eighties title). But in essence, the B-movie has not changed. Its most popular recent genres - erotic thrillers and martial-arts films - differ from A-pictures as they have always done, in their blatancy. Distractions like plot and production values are not necessary here. What matters is starlets stripping, and bones being broken. B-movies give it to you on the cheap. And so when women arrive in Hollywood, bursting with dreams that Paramount will not fulfil, the B-movie is ready to offer an alternative fulfilment. It will always find work for anyone with talent, and/ or good breasts.

Women enter this world today for a variety of reasons. Some are working mothers, picking up quick money, or models and actresses, desperate for stardom. A few, like Barrymore, have already tasted stardom, and are exploiting its residue in less demanding waters (ex-Charlie's Angel Tanya Roberts, for one). The attitude of producers is summed up by one-time B-star Sharon Stone. "Just do your hair, stand over there and look good. And could you do it in a bathing suit?" Down here in Hollywood's basement, the likes of cute karate kick-machine Cynthia Rothrock, queen of erotic thrillers Shannon Tweed, embarrassed ex-porn star Traci Lords and Linnea Quigley, the game "Goldie Hawn of Gore", play everything from prostitutes to vampires, all of whom take their clothes off. It is a world that Barrymore, with real talent, is just passing through. But to these genuine B-queens, it is all they have.

The career of Michelle Bauer - aka "the Empress of Exploitation" - is typical of a modern B-queen's life. Bauer entered Hollywood in the early Eighties under the alias Pia Snow, appearing in soft-core fetish videos and porn magazines. She graduated to acting via porn-cult favourite Cafe Flesh (1982), which Time Out deemed "terminal trash". From there, Bauer entered the world of true B-cinema. Her peak was Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988), in which she played a teenage runaway seduced by a chainsaw cult. In the scene that best represents the energy that can make such work worthwhile, Bauer covers the Elvis wallpaper in her room with plastic, stripping as she does so, in order to protect the King from stray spurts of gore from the bloke she is about to hack to bits. Even Variety could not hide its admiration. Bauer recently announced her retirement. She left some parting words of advice. "You can do B-movies without any experience. All you need is a great body and you'll get work for a very long time. Hollywood is pretty mean and sad, but if you have the right attitude, you'll be fine."

Bauer's remark hints at the exploitation that can mar a career in B-movies. But viewed from the outside, the feeling this world evokes is, oddly, one of innocence. Fan magazines, though stuffed with semi-nude stills, are sympathetic to the "celebrities" they honour. And the women that these magazines interview are a cross-section of the town's heart, wrestling with the price of potential fame (will taking off that bra lead to stardom, or condemn me to sleaze? Should I pay for that acting class, or that new pair of breasts?). It is hard not to warm to these women, struggling in the outskirts of success.

Nor can Hollywood's "A" stars act superior. Sharon Stone had this to say on her decision to take the part in Basic Instinct, the film that made her name. "I realised that in order to have access to great material, I needed to be a movie star. And I was so old I was gonna have to do something fast to make that happen." And in modern, mainstream Hollywood, where good female roles have never been fewer, what Stone needed to do was simulate sex and flash her vagina. Poverty-row B-queens across Hollywood knew exactly how she felt.

n 'Mad Love' opens on 27 Nov; Michelle Bauer will appear at a screening of 'Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers' at the Everyman Cinema, London NW3, on 2 Dec. Booking: 0171-435 1525