Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
To say that the legendary 'king of the Bs' Roger Corman has had a long and varied career
would be a severe understatement. Having been involved in a vast array of weird and wonderful
projects in a career that has lasted over half a century it is often hard to remember or
pinpoint exactly what he is actually best known for. You could argue he in fact not remembered
for anything he has made himself but more for the influence he has had on all the major
artists who have worked in Hollywood. Having been mentors to the famous Francis Ford Coppola,
Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme and James Cameron who can
all boast more successful careers than his own, the phrase, 'those who can't do, teach' is
certainly relevant here.
But this is where the boxset steps in. Its purpose is to capture the genius and essence of Corman's own earlier works that spanned over a number of genres and were not secluded to any particular type of cinema. Anyone who has had a peak at the collection will notice the blurb of each case offers a very subjective critique instead of a basic synopsis. In my opinion the distributors are trying too hard to win over your favour. It is almost as if they have little faith in the material itself and are trying to convince themselves as well as you. The only objective quote they can muster is Time Out's "Roger Corman is a legend" and "A director whose energy and artistry enlivened a long string of drive-in classics" which are very vague indeed. With no special features in sight, and with none of the films ever stretching to 90 minutes, each feature a feels like an episode rather than full-blown theatrical release.
Having said that, this niche and appealing package gathers together six integral films and four of which have never been released on region 2 DVD before. The disjointed quality ranges from rather poor to very good and the severe lack of budget may be rather obvious but it is redeemed with a definite sense of atmosphere and imagination in certain works.
In the first of a double-bill of Corman's early westerns comes his directorial debut Five Guns West (1955). Often criticised for doing little to surprise those familiar with the western genre this charming little film punches above its weight it terms of its budget. Although perhaps dated it is still gripping and full of tension offering the basis of a plotline for the greatest war film of all time The Dirty Dozen (1967). Although the film does in fact lose some nerve and run out of steam when it turns out that the leading outlaw is in fact working undercover for the state police and subsequently woos over the woman, which is just too predictable.
Then we come to Gunslinger (1956), which is the only other western in the boxset. This very flawed film has too much emphasis on sex and violence than was customary at the time. In fact, Corman himself has recently admitted that it is clumsily plotted and has zero continuity. The premise is laudable as a feminist western where two women use men as deadly pawns to get what they want. Although other than its actual basis, which offers a challenge to the male dominated genre, the film has to be the poorest in the boxset. It is admirable in attempting to reverse the gender roles as men are portrayed as the overemotional weaker sex. But, ultimately, even though there is a female sheriff and a businesswoman, it is far too unbelievable as they are too scantily clad to be taken seriously.
Aside from westerns the boxset also contains three of Corman's infamous Edgar Allan Poe inspired horrors with Vincent Price. Although having said that, the first of the series Premature Burial (1962) does in fact star Ray Milland instead of the iconic Price. The film is often static and dull but the odd claustrophobic spine-tingle is effective. Especially in its finale when Guy's (Milland) fears actually come alive as he is buried alive. This entire, sometimes tiring, build up does in fact pay off. Hearing his thoughts pleading through the coffin that he is not dead while the rest of his body remains dormant is done far more resonantly than the recent Awake. Whilst breaking out of his grave he embarks on a rampage of revenge to find out that his wife was messing with his mind all along. With lavishly coloured insides, dark grey smoky lightning filled outsides many obvious comparisons to Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) cannot be denied.
But it is with The Masque Of The Red Death (1964) where the strength of the horror element of the boxset lies. In this adaptation of the Poe story of the same name, European medieval Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), invites his aristocratic friends to his ball whilst he terrorises the peasants who are plagued by the red death This is the first of Corman's Price-and-Poe films to be shot in Britain as well as being highly regarded as their best one. Shot on lavish sets filled with colour, then-unknown Nicolas Roeg was the cinematographer. A career defining performance from Price embodies evil as a devil-worshipping tyrant with an undercurrent of wicked humour in his mischievous antics. Although this is secondary to the doom ridden sombre tone derivative of Bergman that Corman creates terror beautifully, especially in the magnificently choreographed dance of horrors. This layered film begs the question what are we really ruled by, is it religion, disease, tyranny, or the threat of death?
Then we come to the last Corman and Price collaboration in the boxset called The Haunted Palace (1963). Although the film may be the title of a Poe poem this is in fact an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story, The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward. In yet another gothic tale, the spirit of a murdered great-grandfather, who used to subject local village people with medical experimentation, possesses Price. And Price plays two separate characters which gives us value for money as he is at his vengeful best as he tortures the town folk with fire. Not to mention horror veteran Lon Chaney as his servant offering chilling support, this may not be as magnificent as The Masque Of The Red Death but it is not too far off to provide a worthwhile viewing.
But it is the last feature of the boxset The Wild Angels (1966), which is by far the masterpiece of the collection. Blues (Peter Fonda) is a leader in a chapter of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang. When his friend Loser (Bruce Dern) is shot dead by the police in a robbery, the Angels break him out of hospital only to see him die. At the funeral the gang give him a major send-off by trashing the church in a booze, drug, priest bashing, and rape ridden party. Blues in the end becomes fed up with the way things are going and surrenders to the police as he lost without the solid companionship of his friend.
Cool and controversial, this was a major breakthrough, which paved the way for many contemporary classics that include the critically acclaimed Easy Rider (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Five Easy Pieces (1970). But what separates this from the latter is the added realism used in the filmmaking and the fact it was based on true incidents related to the Californian Angels. With a magnificent song by Davie Allan and the Arrows as its trademark tune and a cast of anti-establishment icons, Corman successfully brought to life a poignant tale of a disillusioned youth trapped in a contemporary American society.
With plenty graphic violence and rape this is definitely a daring film, which very much played on the political fears of people at the time. A youth without restraint let loose on society is where the true horror to this boxset lies. An army of leather suited and booted youths on their motorbikes terrorising small towns is a lot more chilling. So much so, Corman himself allegedly received death threats from the Hell's Angels themselves. The depressing final message also caused Corman's film to be banned in many countries. Wild Angels has the similar plot devices to his previous westerns but it has serious nerve and has no genre conventions to submit to. This daring paid off with a huge commercial success and by far the best DVD in the entire boxset.
Overall the lack of huge budgets and production values in Corman's work is obvious. But take this away and you would take away the charm of his work. His films may not be masterpieces themselves but it is due to his years in the industry that he has trained the world's greatest filmmakers. The boxset may seem a bit disjointed in combining a selection of his westerns and gothic horrors but it demonstrates the essence of the themes and imagination that run through all his works. These include the question of power, gender subversion, the fear of being trapped and restrained, religion and a distinct absence of God run through all his works. If you are a B-movie collector then the king of the genre's latest collection is an essential. It is inconsistently hit and miss with the quality of its content, but there are a few gems worthy of your attention that are challenging and influential to say the least.