DVD Review: Blood, Beasts, and Boobs, Corman Style (Plus, Gamera)

Roger Corman more than earned the honorary Oscar he picked up last year. He wrote, produced, and/or directed some terrific flicks, from Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) to The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Trip (1967) that, let’s face it, were never close to contention for Academy Awards. He employed up-and-coming talent, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, and Jack Nicholson, who have filled their trophy cases based on what they learned on the job. And no filmmaker kept me up later on a regular basis.

Before 1983, when my family got its first VCR (a “videocassette recorder” for our younger readers), if I wanted to watch a certain favorite on cable, I had to man up and do the work, which consisted of parking myself in front of the TV on Friday and Saturday nights and waiting for it to air—and waiting and waiting, sometimes as late as 2 or even 2:30am, 4am being my absolute limit for staying awake. Corman’s earlier films for American International Pictures often ran on ABC-NY’s “4:30 Movie,” so those were covered, not that I realized what damage commercials and panning/scanning did to their integrity (the Poe adaptations still enthrall, 50 years later). But the raw and raunchy pictures churned out by his New World Pictures in the 70s and early 80s—those you had to caffeinate for.

Your reward for burning the midnight oil was a guarantee that you wouldn’t fall asleep once the movie came on. More often than not the Corman assembly line delivered the goods, turning out economically, often ingeniously produced films that rarely ran over 90 minutes, the better to squeeze in showings at the drive-ins and grindhouses of the time (none played the malls nearest to me in northern New Jersey, adding to their allure as forbidden fruit). R-rated gangland gal movies like Big Bad Mama (1974), with the bodacious Angie Dickinson, and The Lady in Red (1979), starring Pamela Sue Martin, were important, umm, “formative” experiences, mixing T&A with maximum blood squibs and a bit of social commentary. With apologies to the ladies, however, my favorites were the one that came packaged in sci-fi/horror wrapping. That’s where Shout! Factory’s ongoing series of DVDs and, who would have thunk it, Blu-rays, is currently concentrated.

“Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” is a positively mind-blowing collection of debuts and reissues that will encompass some 50 (!) titles. With a nod to its music programming Shout! got the ball rolling with the Ramones in Rock ‘N’ Roll High School (1978) and Penelope Spheeris’ punked-out Suburbia (1984), then plunged into the nitty gritty. Its re-release of Death Race 2000 (also on Blu-ray) is a 35th anniversary edition of one of his biggest hits. Paul Bartel, who directed, had more experience than the typical Corman hire (he would go on to the rib-tickling Eating Raoul in 1982) and with the help of Little Shop scribe Charles B. Griffith turned a serious story by science fiction veteran Ib Melchior into an outrageous satire, which the author ultimately liked more.

How could he not? As the 2008 remake showed, done straight the storyline translated into a mildly self-important pile-up. The original has all the Corman hallmarks—a nifty premise with some bite to it (a hugely popular cross-country road race where the drivers rack up points by mowing down pedestrians) that posters, trailers, and TV and radio spots could play up to the hilt, an enthusiastic cast of familiar and soon-to-be-familiar faces (including David Carradine, as the inscrutable anti-hero Frankenstein, and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone, hilarious as his main competitor), and a seat-of-the-pants production that somehow flies. Sometimes it was serendipity (the cool plane that divebombs Carradine at the climax was an experimental craft that happened to be airborne on the day of filming, and Corman was able to persuade its owner to buzz by for a few shots) and sometimes it was the producer enforcing the camaraderie that got these pictures finished in a jiffy. In a startling anecdote in one of the excellent supplementary interviews, costume designer Jane Ruhm, a fledgling at age 23, recalls that Carradine, unhappy with one of her distinctive outfits, tore it up in front of her and told her to go fuck herself. On another set, that might have nipped her career in the bud—but an appalled Corman fired Carradine instead. Backtracking, the actor serenaded her on his guitar for a couple of hours, and the show went on.

The lesson: No one threw his weight around on a Corman production except Corman. But it didn’t always work out in a filmmaker’s favor. Corman had a fetish for monster rape, at least as far as the boxoffice was concerned, and by adding or augmenting scenes of same to 1980’s Humanoids from the Deep (on DVD and Blu-ray) and 1981’s Galaxy of Terror (on DVD and Blu-ray) he burned bridges with their directors, who made no other features. I’m not sure what that says about Corman, but what does it say about me that these are among my very favorite Corman pictures, and that I side with him in these artistic disputes? Look—Humanoids director Barbara Peeters must have known that she left the door open to “creative differences” when she agreed to helm a movie about mutant salmon driven to mate with human women, and the unpleasant assault sequences (which repelled even me, at 3am to boot) deliver squarely on the premise. There’s no coyness about what the thing is about, even if the explicitness (this is an unrated cut, with plenty of unrated nudity in the extras, too) will for some undercut the simpler pleasures of outstanding monster costumes (by Rob Bottin, preceding his groundbreaking work on The Howling and The Thing) and a shivery, atmospheric score by another up-and-comer, James Horner.

In the superb hour-long documentary that accompanies Galaxy of Terror, co-writer and director Bruce D. Clark and co-writer Marc Siegler wash their hands of the picture. They’re wrong to do so—it’s one of the best of the Alien clones—but I have to say that the writing and direction are its weakest links. As he admits Clark didn’t capitalize on a great supporting cast as well as he could have, and the script is needlessly pretentious. Astronauts from Xerxes, which is ruled by a games-playing “master,” blast off to a dangerous planet, where a force emanating from a pyramidal structure taunts them with their greatest fears. The plot is unsatisfying; we don’t know enough about these explorers or their societal structure to care, and as no one has much to say about it in the documentary or the commentary I guess everyone chose to tiptoe around its underdevelopment and loose ends.

Besides, there’s so much else to talk about, like the excellent kills (veteran character actor Sid Haig’s is the best), that cast (including Ray Walston, future Freddy Robert Englund, Big Love’s Grace Zabriskie, whom Englund describes as a “cougar,” and Zalman King, who when not being pursued by a “shadow demon” watched everyone else do their jobs, then applied what he learned to build a soft-porn empire with 9 ½ Weeks as its cornerstone)…and co-star Taaffe O’Connell’s rape by a one-ton space maggot, which initially earned the film an X rating. Taaffe (a perfect sci-fi starlet name) says she quite enjoyed the experience, and has dined out on it ever since. Also in the cast, and squeezed to death by intestinal coils: Erin “Joanie” Moran, whose association with Corman did not lead to happy days, as did Howard’s.

Besides Corman, the real auteur of the piece is king of the world James Cameron, back when he was prince of the realm at New World, designing productions, directing second unit, and, to hear it told, micromanaging the death scenes, which were his responsibility. It paid off: They’re unforgettably gloppy (I hung onto my laserdisc of the film long after it had rotted just to revisit them) and the foggy, utilitarian-ugly look of the movie was clearly recycled for Aliens, five years later.

Speaking of recycling, there’s 1982’s Forbidden World, on DVD and Blu-ray. Priced between $1 and $2 million Galaxy was an epic by Corman’s standards, and he ordered the sets reused for another Alien rip. The second disc of this set contains director Allan Holzman’s workprint of the film he turned in, called Mutant, which contained a fair amount of humor that he felt set it apart from the pack. He says that when a preview audience laughed during a screening Corman vowed to “fix” it, never mind that the humor was intentional, resulting in the grimmer Forbidden World.

No hard feelings, though, and nothing to be ashamed of, either. The story of an interstellar Mr. Fix-It (exploitation regular Jesse Vint) hired to clean up the mess when an off-world experiment to end hunger breeds a delightfully toothy “metamorph” bent on eating the cast is lively genre fare, with a noteworthy new wave-ish score by Susan Justin (Corman gave numerous opportunities to women) and typical New World touches like the two female crewmembers (one of them V and This is Spinal Tap co-star June Chadwick) using their base’s heating ducts as a clothing-optional sauna (OK, the opportunities could be a little limited).

What everyone remembers about Forbidden World is its ending, a novel gross-out. What’s easy to overlook are the Whopper cartons that line the corridors, a Cameron innovation carried over from Galaxy to lend the sets a futuristic “vacuformed” ambiance. (When the crew ran out, they boosted a bunch off a Burger King supply truck.) The sharp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers allow much closer inspection, which paired with the many fly-on-the-wall extras suck you into the forbidden world of Roger Corman. The 1978 Piranha, which has soaked up a lot of pixels around here, is also out now, shaming the tone-deaf 3D remake (I had its poster on my dorm room wall); to come are Starcrash, The Evil, the girls-and-guns movies, Crab Monsters, “The Slumber Party Massacre Collection,” and much, much more—all of them ready to watch at reasonable hours.

“Was that Godzilla?” asked one film critic when a Japanese monster stomped across a recent episode of Mad Men. “Thwack!” went my hand on my forehead. Gamera, the giant flying turtle, had once again been mistaken for his rival. For that he can blame his American importers. Thanks to their reediting of his adventures, the panning/scanning for TV, and their careless dubbing, Gamera has always had an image problem here. I have a sneaking suspicion that Mad Men couldn’t get a Godzilla clip in time so it went with Gamera, although his appearance on these shores wouldn’t come until two years after the episode was set. Even when I was a kid (and kids were his primary audience) I couldn’t quite relate. I only watched his movies 500 times, versus the thousands of times I zoned out in front of the tube with the other Big G.

It’s Shout! to the rescue. The label is bringing us all of the original Gamera movies, with their content and aspect ratios intact, proper subtitles, and, with the first two films in the series, commentaries by kaiju eiga (monster movie) expert August Ragone. Full disclosure: I know Ragone a little bit through various forums and Facebook, but I’m not shilling here. If anyone can tell you the difference between Godzilla and Gamera, it’s August Ragone, and the lessons begin with 1965’s Gamera: The Giant Monster.

What always baffled me was, why a turtle? Never mind a jumbo, jet-propelled one breathing fire reactivated by Cold War-fare, just, why a turtle? Ragone explains why such a beast was so unsettling, culturally, to this native audience. He also gives Gamera director Noriaki Yuasa his proper due, as he got the most out of Daiei Studios’ slender budgets (the somber black-and-white photography of the first one cloaked a few deficiencies). But he does it with a twinkle, and isn’t above poking fun at some of those defects. There’s a knack to doing these commentaries, and Ragone has it. Plus he wrangled some other extras for this handsome DVD, including an essay by Yuasa, a retrospective documentary, and a publicity gallery.

The “origins story” has a deft, sequel-friendly ending, and 1966’s colorful Gamera vs. Barugon set the tone for the rest, with the creature battling ever more outlandish foes. The other six Gameras, often alas battling the presence of abrasive kids as his helpmates, are being issued as Ragone-less double features. More’s the pity, but I recommend the Gamera vs. Gyaos/Gamera vs. Viras two-fer that hits Sept. 21. Gyaos, a blood-drinking reptilian bat, was a splendid adversary.

When Gamera was rebooted in the 90s, the tortoise beat the hare: As the Godzilla series receded Gamera came onto his own, in three beautifully realized films that are at the top of the kaiju eiga food chain. A worthy fourth came out in 2006, two years after Godzilla called it quits again. “Give these films a chance,” says Ragone. Good advice, for us, and for Don and Lane, if they’re still out there hustling on the streets of New York and need another movie break.