Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Roger Corman

This is the latest in my series called Getting Acquainted, where I, um, make myself acquainted with cinematic icons with whom I wasn't previously familiar. I watch three of their films during the month in question, then write about them here.

"It's like a Roger Corman movie." That's what I knew primarily about Roger Corman before last month, that he's known for making movies with a certain set of key components that makes people compare other movies to them. I'd heard his name most often in connection with films that had some kind of tawdry, exploitation quality to them. But I didn't know, just from that context, what flavor of tawdry they were, if you follow me.

I also didn't know if Corman was primarily a director or primarily a producer. The answer is "Yes." While has an astounding 398 producing credits listed on IMDB (and I'd have to really comb them to see what they constitute), he also has 56 directing credits. So let's just say he's been a busy man and he's done a lot of things. (He also has 34 acting credits and even six writing credits.) And he's still going today.

So I chose to watch two movies he directed and one he produced, all of which seemed to speak to some aspect of this man. And when I saw the following title, I just had to make it my first Corman movie of November ...

The Wasp Woman (1959, Roger Corman). Watched: Monday, November 7th

I wanted to immerse myself in the apparent B-movie glory of Roger Corman, so what better way to do it than a movie called The Wasp Woman?

As it turns out, this movie is pretty damn prescient. It's about the founder/president of a successful cosmetics company who has also been the face of the company throughout its years of success. However, she's getting long in the tooth -- in other words, she's in her early 40s -- and she wants a youth serum that will help keep her the face of the company without having to accept the compromise of her being an "old lady." As luck would have it, she is solicited by a mad scientist who has been working with bees, and has developed a way to reverse the aging process by extracting enzymes from the royal jelly of a queen wasp. Of course, there's a side effect -- from time to time, you develop the physical characteristics of a wasp. Or a sort-of cheap-looking wasp mask, at least. And then you start murdering people.

As I was watching, I was immediately struck by how well this movie might be remade in a Botox-obsessed culture like ours. (Well, we're obsessed with making fun of Botox, at least.) The desire for a fountain of youth has, of course, been an age-old defining characteristic of human beings, but somehow I found this serum -- which, like Botox, gets injected -- to seem a particularly timely form of commentary by the writers and director, even though they couldn't have anticipated the advent of something exactly like Botox. (As it turns out, the movie was remade in 1995, but that was also before Botox -- before we were culturally aware of it, anyway.)

The movie itself is pretty cheesy and is fairly minimalist in most respects. It's a scant 73 minutes in length, and only achieves that running time thanks to a prologue that was added by director Jack Hill when it appeared on TV two years later. (It's come to be part of the official version of the film, and features the scientist getting fired from his job as a beekeeper because he's interested only in experiments and not what he was hired to do.)

But damn it if this movie isn't also fun. As I was watching this movie, an impression of Corman started to form. Namely, that he's capable of giving audiences what they want (B-movie popcorn thrills that don't require too much mental capacity) on an exceedingly low budget (the wasp mask is pretty cheap looking and is only used in small doses). Still, this is not simply a monster movie -- it's got some sly social commentary woven into its fabric, and perfectly fine performances by Susan Cabot in the lead role and a variety of others who try to piece together Janice Starlin's secret, which relates both to her mysterious age reversal and the disappearance/death of several characters who try to get in her way. What isn't entirely clear -- though it probably doesn't need to be -- is how her face transforms into a wasp and back without any signs of the trauma of such a violent conversion.

The only way The Wasp Woman would have been more satisfying to me -- given my realistic expectations of what it was likely to be, that is -- is if it had had a bit more of the outrageousness implied by the poster. However, having watched a month full of Hammer movies in October, I was well aware of the huge gulf between what these pulpy movie posters promise and what the films are actually capable of delivering. (It's also interesting to note that the creature shown in this poster is pretty much the opposite of the wasp woman we see in the movie, who has a human body but a wasp head.)

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961, Roger Corman). Watched: Saturday, November 12th

When I was doing some quick research about Corman, the first thing I learned about him, after having his B-movie reputation confirmed, was that he also had a period of some critical acclaim that was very important to him. This was during the 1960s, when he was adapting Edgar Allan Poe movies. Speaking of Hammer movies, I feel like he should have been working for Hammer during this period.

Choosing The Pit and the Pendulum allowed me to a) familiarize myself a bit more with Poe's story, and b) see Vincent Price back in his heyday. However, I soon learned that the plot of this adaptation has more in common with Poe's The Premature Burial (an actual adaptation of which Corman directed the following year).

The story takes place in 16th Century Spain, where an Englishman named Francis (John Kerr) has come to the home of his brother-in-law Nicholas (Price) to inquire about the circumstances of his sister's recent death. He gets a variety of different stories before learning what appears to be the truth -- that his sister Elizabeth died of fright after becoming obsessed with the torture devices housed in the bowels of the castle, which once belonged to Nicholas' father, a notorious figure in the Spanish Inquisition. However, Nicholas himself has come to believe that his wife was not dead, that she may have been buried alive -- and that her ghosts walks the corridors of the castle at night. The only way a pendulum actually figures into the story is that its climax involves one of the characters (I won't say which, in case you want to see it) tied up underneath a swinging pendulum blade that is getting closer and closer to his torso. (Honestly, I think Corman just ripped this off from one of the Saw movies.)

I was suitably impressed by this movie. Although it too was likely made on the cheap, it seems to have a significantly higher budget than The Wasp Woman, and that presents itself in the form of some creepy atmosphere and decent sets. (In fact, the better comparison for this movie than The Wasp Woman is the Hammer movies, which also featured period stories and had period sets and costumes -- and I think this stacks up very well with those.) I was also impressed by how Corman didn't shy away from making it as scary as he knew how to. There's one corpse discovered in the movie that's frozen in a final primal scream, indicating that a certain character (I won't say if it's Elizabeth) indeed has been buried alive. The movie was made 50 years ago and it still gave me a chill. (Then again, I guess Alfred Hitchcock got there a year earlier with the reveal of the corpse of Norman Bates' mother.)

I found that Price gives a good performance. He has to experience quite a lot of anguish during the course of the narrative, and fears of losing his sanity, and that sort of thing. He goes big but not too big, and it never seems to be hammy. Not having seen much Price, I assumed he was a ham, but he seems here to have had real ability.

I also noticed that Corman had a good eye for detail in this movie. There was this one scene where Price is creeping down a winding stone staircase, and there's a rat standing on one of the stairs. I don't know why that moment stuck with me, but it reminded me positively of the effect created by Tod Browning in Dracula (which was another three decades earlier than this), where Dracula's castle is filled with all kind of odd and unsettling critters around the periphery of the action. It's not that seeing a rat is so odd and unsettling -- it's that someone had to think to put it there. (I can't describe the moment well enough -- you probably think I'm crazy for devoting a whole paragraph to it.)

Death Race 2000 (1975, Paul Bartel). Watched: Monday, November 28th

Now this is what I was thinking of when I thought of Roger Corman.

The idea I had of Corman was more based in the 1970s and more focused on exploitation. And thus begins the producing segment of my new acquaintance with Roger Corman: a science fiction film about a popular game/sport that involves killing people with automobiles, which inspired everything from Mad Max to The Running Man.

If you are currently balking at the notion that a low-budget Roger Corman movie could have been the inspiration for Mad Max (which is also low-budgeted, don't you forget), consider their release dates. Max didn't come out until four years after Death Race 2000. In fact, I finished watching the movie before I was done with my workout at the gym, so I watched an interview between Leonard Maltin and Corman as one of the DVD extras. Corman, sounding proud yet sweetly humble, said that George Miller basically credited Death Race 2000 with helping him create Mad Max.

The action occurs in the year 2000, when the United States is ruled from foreign shores by a malevolent figured called Mr. President, who is in the midst of a constant campaign to make boogeymen out of the French. (The satirical elements of this movie -- you could say that all its elements are satirical -- hit you from the first moment.) The most popular sport is a cross-continental car race where the drivers get points for killing pedestrians along the way. Oh, the pedestrians are duly aware of the danger -- they actually make games of trying to flirt with death and even take out the cars if they're able. The race is usually fatal for most of the drivers -- there are only five, and each has a navigator as well -- but the one who makes it to the other side (to "New Los Angeles") is richly rewarded and heralded as an international sports hero.

David Carradine plays the lead, a several-time winner and one of the only surviving drivers to win multiple times. He wears a full-body black rubber suit (a bit like The Gimp in Pulp Fiction) and is called Frankenstein, because his body has been pasted back together so many times. And guess who plays one of the other drivers -- Martin Kove! (You know, the evil sensai in The Karate Kid.) Or maybe you'd be more excited about this other driver: a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone! In the piece with Maltin, Corman talks about how this movie catapulted Stallone toward the stardom he has today. Carradine was contractually promised top billing, but since the film's release they've been able to credit Stallone with equal weight in subsequent advertising.

Simply put, this movie was a joy. It's everything you'd want from a great exploitation movie, with fast cars and violence, and a terrific B-movie quality despite its high-concept premise. I hadn't known for sure that this movie would have a sense of humor -- after all, what footage I've seen of the remake from several years ago starring Jason Statham, called simply Death Race (and also produced by Corman), makes that seem like a much more straightforward exercise in brutality and nihilism. There's plenty of violence here, as bodies squish magnificently in bloody messes under the front tires of speeding cars. But the satire comes first and foremost, as right from the start you meet a bunch of ridiculous talking-head media types, whose celebrity has derived entirely from the glee they get over the race and their apparent personal relationships with the drivers. (One awful female analyst refers to every single driver as "a close personal friend of mine.") The bloodlust for this sport is lacquered on thick, and it works terrifically.

And although Carradine and Stallone are both great -- funny to see Sly with such a baby face, and in the role of the villain -- the stars of this movie are the cars. It's the cars that made me feel most sure that George Miller must have been inspired by this film, even before Corman stated that in the interview. (Especially The Road Warrior.) Here, have a look at some of these babies:

(That includes Frankenstein's car twice, because you really had to see that one from the side.)

The speed at which they drive these things is truly phenomenal -- it almost seems like it should be digital -- and gives the film an extra sense of kinetics.

The film has this hell-for-leather attitude from start to finish. It's definitely crass, as most of the drivers are egotistical narcissists who will do anything to win, and there's a fair amount of nudity as well. This is of course in addition to numerous shots of people being run over by cars, with varying degrees of gore. But the great thing is that you don't have to feel guilty about enjoying the movie, because the exploitation is delivered with a brain on its shoulders. This is full-on satire of the thirst for violence inherent in many American sports, and of the logical future totalitarian incarnations of American jingoism. And by making the French the personification of all forces that oppose the United States, the film actually anticipates George W. Bush and Freedom Fries. (Favorite part: When Mr. President lists the crimes allegedly perpetrated by the French, and one of them includes "completely destroying our telephone system." I spat out laughter on that one, even as I was out of breath on the stairmaster at the gym.)

Okay, Roger Corman -- thanks for a fun month.

I was going to end 2011 with a final installment of cheap and tawdry cinema, but it turns out, almost none of the films of Russ Meyer are available on DVD through Netflix. (In fact, I could find none -- not even Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.)

So instead I'm going to end 2011 with a cinematic icon who will help even up the gender balance in the heretofore male-dominated Getting Acquainted series. The lone female thus far has been Elizabeth Taylor in June, but she'll have company after December.

See you back here after New Year's to discuss ...

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