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DVD Review: The Roger Corman Collection

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Quite possibly the most successful producer Hollywood has ever known as his autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, attests, Roger Corman is a legend in the business. His name is synonymous with low-budget B-movies, most notably Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which is rumored to have been shot over two days.

Even though most of his work doesn’t do much to raise the art form, he deserves a place in film history solely for providing apprenticeships to many who have, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Gale Ann Hurd, Joe Dante, James Cameron, and John Sayles. Aside from the hundreds of films he has produced, Corman directed over 50 films from 1955 to 1971. The Roger Corman Collection presents eight of them, which are thematically paired up, on four discs.

The first disc presents a double feature of films that looks at the hippie culture. Gas-s-s-s (1971) was Corman's antepenultimate directing job and his final film for distributor American International Pictures before leaving to found New World Pictures. The premise is a great idea for the counterculture youth market of the time as a gas created by the government is accidentally released and kills everyone over 25. With no adults, chaos inevitably ensues. The two leads, Coel and Cilla, try to find a peaceful way of life, but they run into odd groups like a town run by football jocks, and a group of bikers, led by a guy named Marshal McLuhan, that live on a county club golf course.

While the story is very weird, the film is well shot. Corman makes a lot of good choices as director that keep the movie interesting. The music was by Country Joe and the Fish and some future famous faces appear in supporting roles: Ben Vereen, Cindy Williams, Talia Shire, and Bud Cort

The flipside is The Trip (1967) written by Jack Nicholson. Based on Corman and Nicholson’s experiences with the drug, it is one of the better attempts to portray an acid trip on film in its depiction of discovery and exploration as well as paranoia. It made me wish I had taken something a couple of hours beforehand.

Commercial director Paul Groves, played by Peter Fonda, starring in his second film for Corman, is going through a divorce. While I can’t imagine that being a good mindset to start the proceedings, his friend John, played by Bruce Dern (in a role Nicholson was hoping to get), guides him until he runs away. Dennis Hooper appears as Max, the drug dealer, and Dick Miller makes one of his many appearances in the set.

Special Features for this film include an insightful and revealing commentary track by Corman about filmmaking and his drug experiences. “Tune In, Trip Out” is a cool making-of short featuring Corman, Dern, and cinematographer Alan Daviau from 2003. The cinematography is fantastic. There is a great use of lights, effects, and lenses to create trippy visuals, which the editing enhances. The work gets highlighted by Daviau during “Psychedelic Film Effects,” by an article from American Cinematographer March 1968 by Bob Beck, and by “Psychedelic Light Box” which provides six minutes of visuals that look great although the music doesn’t always fit.

Disc 2 is a vehicular double feature. The Young Racers (1963) is a very bad melodrama set amongst the European racing circuit. Joe Machin is a champion racer; Stephen Children is a writer, and former driver, looking to cover him and the sport; and Joe’s brother Robert, played by the film’s screenwriter R. Wright Campbell, is in love with his Joe’s wife.

There is some decent racing footage, which makes me think Corman got his hands on that and then found a way to wrap a story around it. The only notable aspect of the film is that an uncredited William Shatner looped all of Mark Damon’s dialogue, thereby making the film an answer to a tough trivia question for Star Trek fans since William Campbell later played two roles in the series. Coppola was the second unit director and had a brief cameo.

The Wild Angels (1966) is Corman’s take on the Hells Angels. Peter Fonda stars as Heavenly Blues, the leader of the Venice Beach Hells Angels with Nancy Sinatra as his girl and real-life couple Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd. The story is rather odd. The gang goes to recover Loser’s (Dern) stolen motorcycle from a Mexican gang. During the melee, the cops show up. Inexplicably, Loser takes off on a cop’s bike. He gets shot in the back for his troubles and is taken to the hospital under police custody. The gang busts him out, but they have no way to take care of him, so he dies. His funeral turns into an orgy.

Corman’s audience was young people, and this film certainly must have appealed to them in the late ‘60s, and still might today. There is a romanticism to the outlaw who determines his own path, and there are a lot of great shots of riding the open road, but it’s hard to comprehend what Corman’s view of these people is because he presents different sides. They seem like a loyal bunch, but most of the characters come off like idiotic animals. When a nurse discovers Loser’s breakout, not only does a biker subdue her, but he gets as close as probably was allowed to have been shown to raping her.

When the orgy breaks out at Loser’s funeral, his old lady is drugged and then raped by two fellow Angels. She later apologizes to his dead body. Everyone comes off terrible, so who is the viewer supposed to empathize with? A much better look at the Hell’s Angels is depicted in Hunter S. Thompson’s book on the subject.

Blues’ speech at Loser’s funeral has been used in songs by a number of bands, Primal Scream’s “Loaded” and Mudhoney’s “In and Out of Grace.” It continues the film’s duality of seriousness and farce regarding these subjects. When the preacher asks Blues what he wants, he responds, “We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that's what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time… We are gonna have a party.”

Disc 3 is a crime double feature. Bloody Mama (1970), most likely inspired by the success of Bonnie and Clyde is a southern exploitation film that tells the tale of Ma Barker, played by Shelley Winters, and her sons’ crime spree. The film is an odd mess. At the beginning of the film, Ma runs out of town after the boys rape a girl. Ma cuddles with her grown sons, but thankfully it’s not shown. After a county fair robbery gets bungled, Fred ends up in jail and develops, although never stated, a homosexual relationship with cellmate Kevin Dirkman who joins the gang upon release. In one of his first roles, Robert DeNiro plays son Lloyd, a junkie.

This is the weakest entry in the set. Corman and the gang failed to realize that although they were criminals, Bonnie and Clyde were appealing to watch and even root for. Every member of the Barker gang is an unappealing degenerate that garners no sympathy. It’s 91 minutes you’ll wish you had back.

Bucket of Blood (1959) also takes its inspiration from another film. Charles B Griffith used the premise of House of Wax (1953) to comment on the world of art. Dick Miller stars as Walter, a shy bumbling busboy working at a beatnik coffee house. He wants to be a sculptor although he has no skills. One evening he accidentally kills his landlord’s cat, and to hide what happened, he covers the cat in clay and turns it into a sculpture that impresses many people. One fan gives him some heroin unbeknownst to him, which is noticed by an undercover cop. When the cop tries to arrest Walter, he kills the cop and turns him into a piece. As Walter becomes increasingly successful, he is driven to create more “work.” The film fell into public domain and can be seen online.

Disc 4 is a Ray Milland double feature and the best disc in the set. Edgar Allen Poe’s Premature Burial finds Milland’s character obsessed with being buried alive after seeing his father prematurely interred. Avoiding that fate becomes the focus of his entire life, so obviously he’s going to have to deal with it before the movie ends.

Corman made a series of popular Poe films. He began this one not working with distributor AIP, yet they eventually bought their way back in. Vincent Price was going to be the lead, but was unable as he was under contract, which was probably for the best as Milland does a great job. Charles Beaumont, a successful teleplay writer over the entire run of The Twilight Zone, wrote the script. The disc includes a special feature of Corman interviewed in 2002.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes stars Milland as a professor who experiments with perfecting man’s vision. He experiments on himself and starts seeing through clothing, but continues seeing deeper and deeper, eventually heading to subatomic levels. The closer he gets to seeing the world as it truly is the madder he grows. The visual effects created to convey what Milland is going through, while economical, look very good. The movie has a very interesting religious subtext. The film includes an audio commentary by Corman recorded in 2001.

The Roger Corman Collection runs a wide gamut of genres and quality. The entire set is recommended for serious movie fans. Most people won’t be able to appreciate his accomplishments, but Corman movies are great to watch because they teach viewers what to do and what not to do when making movies. I would recommend seeing one or two before purchasing this set.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS