(09/11/08) – Responsible for launching the careers of many of the key players in the US movie business (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovic amongst others) Roger Corman had the ability to turn profit on hundreds of films, earning him the title of ‘King of the Bs’. But Corman was also a film-maker himself, directing over fifty feature films between 1955 and 1971 (later briefly resurrecting his directorial career for Frankenstein Unbound (1990)) in a bewildering number of genres, normally exploitation ones, designed to be shown at the drive-ins and independent cinemas that couldn’t get studio pictures.
Corman’s work ethic on these films is legendary – miniscule budgets, punishing shooting schedules and a focus on getting the film in the can. Stuntman doesn’t show up? Roger or anyone at hand becomes the stuntman. Film finished before schedule? You’ve paid the actors, so make another one in the remaining time (as happened to Karloff on The Terror). What’s so surprising is that, while some of his output is genuinely poor, a large amount stands up well, alongside productions with considerably more resources. Picking six films from such a diverse output was bound to be tricky but the Roger Corman Collection offers an interesting taster of his films from this prolific period.
Corman’s first film as director (he had broken into the industry as a producer) was Five Guns West (1955) for American Releasing Corporation, later American International Pictures (AIP), the company for which he would produce the bulk of his output. Five murderers are pardoned in order to execute a special, and highly dangerous, mission for the confederacy in the midst of the American civil war – to capture Jethro, a confederate traitor on the way to spill the beans for $30,000. The five must apprehend his stagecoach and get the money. Taut plotting make this an engaging western and Five Guns West looks towards the kind of criminal mission films like The Dirty Dozen, mixing the backstabbing morality of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Naturally the criminals try to form alliances and, of course, they all have secrets to hide, but what really sets the film alight is the tensions created when the group arrive at a remote stagecoach stop and become infatuated with the owner, woefully unprotected by her alcoholic uncle. Although a little stilted at times, Five Guns West holds up admirably for a film that is over 50 years old.
Better still is Gunslinger (1956), a blistering revenge drama that plays like a low budget Johnny Guitar (1956). Rose Wood, played with focussed intensity by Beverley Garland, pins on the sheriff’s badge when her husband’s stint in the post comes to an abrupt and terminal end – gunned down by an assassin. Rose knows how to handle a gun and will stop at nothing to get vengeance. But standing in her way is Erica, the local saloon owner and a confrontation is inevitable. Despite the obvious exploitation angles in the story Gunslinger makes for a credible feminist western with Rose a tough and resourceful heroine. The script (by Corman regular Charles B. Griffith) takes in the ramifications about land purchasing and the importance of the railroad in the foundation of American society as well as acknowledging the resilience of the pioneering women of the wild west. Corman, in the space of a year (and about half a dozen films), is already showing his intuitive grasp of composition and pacing, particularly in the action scenes.
Often lauded as Corman’s most successful films, the Technicolor drenched horrors of the early sixties, particularly the Edgar Allan Poe cycle, are perennial favourites. Included in this boxset are two of his Poe films (Premature Burial (1962), The Masque of the Red Death (pictured, 1964)) and the Lovecraft adaptation Haunted Palace (1963), credited as a Poe film to increase the marketing potential. Adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward but titled after a Poe poem, The Haunted Palace sees Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price) and his wife Anne take up residence in an inherited property in the village of Arkham. Over a hundred years previously Charles’s relative Joseph had been lynched by the villagers for being a warlock and he placed a curse upon them. Now Charles seems to be adopting the mantle of his distant relatives and the Elder Gods are stirring in the pits of the haunted palace. Corman creates a real sense of Lovecraft’s themes of madness, decay and forces far beyond our comprehension in this atmospheric tale shrouded in fog and darkness. There are drawbacks in the over-reliance on mob justice as a plot device and a somewhat lacklustre Elder God but the macabre deformities, the foetid atmosphere and Price’s pitch perfect double performances make for a superior chiller.
Although blessed with a fine central performance from Ray Milland and some exceptional art direction Premature Burial is one of the weaker entries in the Poe cycle, mainly because the central premise (Milland’s Guy Carrell has a phobia of being buried alive) can’t really justify its feature length, a problem resolved in the later portmanteau film Tales of Terror (1962). However, The Masque of the Red Death remains one of Corman’s masterpieces, a glowing, colourful spectacle of the macabre. Vincent Price is in his element as the deranged Prince Prospero, throwing a grand decadent masque while his subjects are dying from a hideous plague. Superbly photographed by Nicholas Roeg the film is a widescreen triumph of excess as Price submits his subjects to cruel tortures.
Wild Angels (1966) was originally intended as an updating of The Wild One but instead Corman takes a look at biker gangs almost exclusively from the point of view of the bikers, looking forward to such counter-culture films as East Rider (Wild Angels even stars Peter Fonda as well as counter-culture favourite Bruce Dern) and exploitation cinema such as Satan’s Sadists (1969) and She-Devils on Wheels (1968). Blues is top dog of a Hell’s Angel gang, leading his bikers into Mexico to regain a bike stolen from his best friend Loser. The plan goes awry and Loser is shot by the police on a stolen bike having caused the death of one officer. Critically ill in hospital Loser faces life in prison, unless the Angels can break him out. Wild Angels is an uneasy film with its unapologetic use of Nazi imagery and brutal misogyny but it is, at times, downright bizarre and a fascinating look into a subculture of excess. Because the emphasis is so claustrophobic, concepts of morality are generated by the dynamic of the group rather than the wider world so that ultimately Blues becomes the ostensible (anti)-hero of the piece. It’s a bold and interesting piece of film-making.
The Roger Corman Collection offers six films (four first time DVD releases) that are essential viewing for anyone interested in low-budget films, even if the choice is somewhat eclectic. Considering their age and background the transfers are surprisingly good (a couple of shots show up the age of the prints but in general the quality is better than could be expected). Disappointingly there are no extras save the odd trailer, a shame as the stories behind many of the movies are as interesting as the films themselves.
The Roger Corman Collection DVD boxset is out now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.