A good B movie is great fun. The format is officially dead, but the label lives; and now people use it to refer to a genre film (usually horror or science fiction/fantasy) with a small promotional spend as much as they use it to describe one with a low budget. If a non-blockbuster non-cult non-art-house non-sequel tests like a turkey, it won’t be sold so aggressively to prospective spectators and the cast will be less keen to make their contribution to its marketing, so it’ll end up on the B movie ghetto by default.

B movies are more than merely entertaining ways for multi-millionaires to hide some of their capital gains away from government revenue services. There are artistic freedoms that come with embracing B-moviehood. When it’s deliberately produced to a price, a production can decide in advance to take risks that blockbusters can’t, it can aim itself more directly at connoisseurs of its niche; plus, as a viewer, your expectations are so much lower that you are more likely to enjoy the results. This is also a segment of the business in which British filmmakers have often prospered, for a while at least.

Of course, even when we aren’t talking about straight-to-video releases, there are plenty of bad contemporary B movies—for example, the oeuvre of the infamously tax efficient Uwe “Worst Director In The World” Boll. This is one reason why, when I drop a B into my disc drive and I enjoy the ride despite myself, it’s as satisfying as eating a well made burger. In no particular order, here are three 21st-century “B”s that I have enjoyed on DVD over the past few months.

Pandorum [made in 2009 for $33m] was subsidized by German regional and national film funds and there was a substantial British contribution to its production, but its one genuine star and overall feel is American. Amongst the harsh criticism at Rotten Tomatoes, many reviewers complain that it’s derivative. Yes, the film takes your money in return for science fiction (and horror) old rope—it seems to be aimed at fans of the genre(s)—but what impressed me about it was that these frayed strands were woven into something original and, ultimately, surprising.

Reign Of Fire [made in 2002 for $60m] is a borderline B movie, almost not qualifying because it stars two bona fide Hollywood A-listers (Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale), but it’s a film that cost less than $100 m, is set in Britain, and tries to tell an anachronistic tale of a world taken over by dragons—thereby combining science fiction, fantasy, and horror—with something like grit. Indeed, I was shocked that Sean Bean didn’t appear in it. Fortunately, keeping it real didn’t mean keeping out exhilarating action sequences.

The budget of the cheapest of these three, Skyline [made in 2010], $10.5m was so low it’s hard to believe. You can see the joins at times, but the CGI is stunning. Shame about the plot, yes; but the concept is solid, namely: “This ain’t your grandpa’s alien invasion.” If you were to look for a antecedent from the B movie golden age that summed up its mood, then you’d describe it as more a schlock-horror Invasion of the Bodysnatchers than a whizz-bang War Of the Worlds.

UPDATE [27May11]: Tim Almond suggests I add Crank [made in 2006 for $12m]. Good idea. I haven’t seen it recently, but it fits the bill perfectly: cheap, daft, fun. The plot has negligible respect for physics or physiology—its sequel even less—but it is occasionally hilarious and always impossible to be bored by: dirty, potty-mouthed, violent, extreme slapstick engineered for the adolescent males who were officially forbidden from watching it in the cinema to rent on DVD.