The history of low budget b-movie genre fare is the history of cinema itself. Since George Melies created the first sci-fi and fantasy movies, there have always been aspiring filmmakers with a lack of resources but an abundance of imagination clamoring for a chance to take audiences on a wild ride. The old serials such as Flash Gordon and Commander Cody were shoestring budget productions, but they still captured the rapt attention of a young audience, by having outlandish landscapes or crazy creatures.
The serialization style lasted well into the 1940s, but of course not every release was in that vein. 1946 saw the creature feature oddity The Flying Serpent released to an indifferent audience. When the 1950s rolled around, with the atomic bomb and fallout radiation dominating the collective consciousness, Rocketship X-M and Robot Monster, and their visible cardboard cutouts or obvious foam rocks, explored how families, or whole worlds, would be affected by such travesties. Attack Of The Eye Creatures and Monster A-Go-Go, with their cheap rubber suits, extensive use of stock footage, and eventual camp cult status, were offered up in the 1960s. The 1970s brought crazed medical experimentation and awful looking plant-people hybrids via The Mutations and post-apocalypses that strongly resemble demolished factories courtesy of Roger Corman.
“…military recruits need to learn how to fight a brand new kind of enemy…”
How do any of these titles connect to each other? Aside from the obvious low-budget constraints, each one influenced something greater than itself down the line. George Lucas being unable to get the film rights to Flash Gordon directly led him to create Star Wars. Those episodic adventures were such an influence that A New Hope was edited to mimic their style. Larry Cohen’s absurdly fun Q, The Winged Serpent (low budget genre fare unto itself) is a loose remake of The Flying Serpent. Rocketship X-M was the first sci-fi flick to examine atomic fallout, and that serious tone influenced main titles after its release, such as Interstellar. The familial hierarchy and interactions with the human survivors in Robot Monster can be seen as a template for Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space.
Of course, any discussion of these kinds of films would be incomplete if Ray Harryhausen wasn’t mentioned. Which movie of his? Does it matter? The godfather of modern special effects almost exclusively worked on b-movies, and all of his films are now considered classics from their era. Without Harryhausen there would be no computer-generated effects, the sense of adventure present in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy wouldn’t exist, and the name ‘Sinbad’ would only be associated with one of those sailors in antiquated stories.
“…it has enough idiosyncratic qualities to be engaging.”
Bearing all that in mind, today’s so-called silly movies being released direct-to-DVD or VOD might inspire a talented kid to make the next great genre movie that will influence pop culture for years to come. Writer/ director Mike Holligan’s Battalion, made for a reported $39,000, is one such silly movie. The plot-an alien invasion hits California (as well as the rest of the world, presumably) and recent military recruits need to learn how to fight a brand new kind of enemy- is predictable, with each character death telegraphed in advance. The writing is exposition heavy, and the dialogue isn’t as witty as it thinks it is. The action is executed blandly, and the CGI is astoundingly ugly, even considering the budget.
But don’t dismiss the movie entirely. One of its provocative qualities might inspire the next generation of filmmakers. Maybe it will be the distinctive story structure, flashing back and forth between the core mission to kill the aliens and the leads lives just prior to the invasion. This is done very well and amps up the stakes effectively as the movie progresses. Maybe it will be the rather memorable lead performances from Jesse Richardson and Ellen Williams; they share a sweet camaraderie and are easy to root for until the end. Maybe it will be the metallic, insectoid design of the aliens and their ships, which look unique and eerie. Maybe it will be the coalescence of all of those things.
If you are an impressionable thirteen-year-old with the itch to create a sci-fi movie, Battalion is a solid springboard. If you can overlook the bad dialogue, lousy effects, and uninspired action, it has enough idiosyncratic qualities to be engaging. For everyone else, there are certainly better, but also worse, things out there to watch.
Battalion (2018) Directed by Mike Holligan. Written by Mike Holligan. Starring Jesse Richardson, Ellen Williams, Michael Thomson, Leigh Walker, Katie Anderson.