Pandora’s Technicolor Box and More Shameless Knock-offs From Corman: DVDs of the Week
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino)
I have a soft spot for Albert Lewin, a literary Hollywood writer/producer turned director with a continental sensibility an eye for handsome imagery (if not always cinematic storytelling). His productions tended toward literary adaptations (The Good Earth, 1937, which he produced, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945, which he scripted and directed) but Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino) is an original script (“suggested by the Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” in the words of the credits) reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early thirties Spain.
All of the men in the tale are in thrall to Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American nightclub singer who has come to Esperanza, Spain, via London, and spurns the attentions of her admirers with a mix of cruelty and ennui. Then she is drawn to the mysterious ship anchored in the bay and meets the ageless Renaissance man Hendrik (James Mason), a haunted loner whose story is the stuff of legends, and becomes captivated by this mystery man who seems to know her yet makes no advances.
Lewin is literal with the mythical fantasy at the center of the story when ambiguity would be more effective, but there is a grace to the literary elegance and poetic dialogue of his script, and to the rich mix if European history, myths ancient and contemporary, Spanish culture and European attitudes. His images are just as layered, from ancient statuary and artifacts found in the wreckage off the shore to a modernist chess board and Hendrik’s modern art painting of the mythic Pandora, which the flesh-and-blood Pandora paints over with swipes of a brush. He thanks her for introducing “the element of chance” into the painting and improving his work. Gardner and Mason both play figures who project a constructed identity as a defense for their damaged souls, and they are superb, Gardner as part temptress and part unfulfilled woman searching for true love and Mason as a cultured but world-weary traveler with an ancient soul. Harold Warrender narrates as a British archeologist who embraces the fantastical explanation of Hendrik’s story (a little too easily for a man of science, I’d say), Nigel Patrick is her car-racing fiancÃ©, Mario CabrÃ© is the insanely jealous and supremely macho bullfighter who treats her love for another man as a blow to his ego and Marius Goring a poet spiraled into alcoholism and misery by his obsession with Pandora. The film is constantly on the verge of tipping the balance from intense romantic fantasy to supernatural humbug accepted at face value, but between the strength of the performances. Lewin’s own passionate belief in the film and the beautiful images and hyper-saturated hues of the Technicolor photography, even the most fantastical dimensions are believable, at least as long as the film spins its dream.
There is something about the Technicolor process that draws hyper-real, unreal and surreal colors out of the objects of its gaze, as if boring right in on the essence of every hue and pulling it to the surface in distilled, pure, saturated form. There is nothing like it in cinema and the recent Blu-ray restorations of classic Technicolor (and I mean original three-strip, dye-process Technicolor) productions has done so much to pull me back into the waking dream of Hollywood glory. Cardiff’s magnificent photography alone would make this worth seeing. Cardiff’s magnificent Technicolor photography of Ava Gardner makes it irresistible.
The new DVD and Blu-ray is mastered from a new restoration and it looks remarkable: the colors are rich and deep and the image full of nuance and detail (a before-and-after featurette shows off the impressive restoration in great detail). There is minor wear in the reel ends but the image quality is otherwise superb. The new release also includes the alternate UK opening (which uses a different opening quote but is otherwise identical) and a 17-minute Spanish documentary on the legendary bullfighter Manolete, the inspiration for the fictional bullfighter in the film, from 1947.
Piranha (1978) (Shout! Factory)
“Lost River Lake: Terror, horror, death. Film at 11.” Roger Corman produced this shameless Jaws rip-off at the height of the “nature gone wild” boom of American cinema and struck B movie gold. Scripted by John Sayles (recruited by producer Roger Corman to make his feature film writing debut) and directed by Joe Dante (in his solo debut, after co-directing Hollywood Boulevard and cutting scores of Coming Attractions in the New World trailer department), the shamelessly exploitative tale of mutant piranha released in a Texas river becomes an energetic and inventive tongue-in-cheek thriller.
Bradford Dillman does his best Rip Torn impression as anti-social mountain man Paul Grogan and Heather Menzies is rookie skip tracer Maggie, looking for missing hikers and finding a long forgotten secret military lab where mutant piranha are being bred… which are, naturally, released into the river system. They race the little biters downstream while Dante and Sayles provide the requisite blood and gore for the drive-in meat-market: a kid’s summer camp and a waterfront amusement park await the little beasties.
The script is full of contrivances to slow the race down the mountain—a wrecked jeep, a log raft nibbled to driftwood (so to speak) by the fish, an arrest by an overzealous deputy—and they feel like contrivances. Yet Menzies has a bubbly charm and spunky sense of humor as junior detective Maggie and Dillman is perfectly sardonic as the alcoholic hermit roused from his isolation when he realizes that the piranha are headed right toward the summer camp where his daughter is vacationing. And of course, even a phone call to the right people is treated as a crank call.
But what finally differentiates this B-movie gem from the legion of similar knock-offs are the satirical swipes at military arrogance and crass commercialism, Dante’s energetic enthusiasm, and the bursts of black humor (“Sir, the Piranhas.” “What about the goddamm piranhas?!” “They’re eating the guests.”). And my favorite aside is a stop motion lizard creature creeping through the laboratory as Maggie and Paul investigate the army base. It’s just there as a flourish, an added detail that is never paid off narratively but who cares? It’s this kind of personality, a nod to the Harryhausen creature features that Dante loves so much, that makes it so much fun.
The culty cast also includes Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘s Kevin McCarthy as the hysterical scientist guarding the creatures, horror diva Barbara Steele as a devious government researcher, Paul Bartel is the killjoy camp director and longtime Corman regular and Dante favorite Dick Miller as an unscrupulous entrepreneur whose Texas twang turns urban wise guy once he’s out of the public eye. Watch for John Sayles as a dopey-looking MP.
Features good humored commentary by director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davidson from previous DVD releases plus an all-new 20-minute featurette (with Corman and Dante, actors Melody Thomas, Belinda Balaski and an aging Dick Miller, plus the effects crew, including future effects superstars Phil Tippet and Chris Walas) among the supplements. There is also ten minutes of good quality home movie footage shot by Davidson, six minutes of outtakes, and galleries of stills and ad art among the supplements.
It’s another of the Corman New World classics rereleased on DVD and debuting on Blu-ray in newly mastered editions, along with the 1980 Humanoids from Deep (Shout! Factory). And making its DVD debut is the double feature of Deathsport / Battletruck (Shout! Factory), which is not getting the Blu-ray treatment, and for good reason. I’m not referring to the quality of the film (it’s terrible, sure, but why let that stop a release?) but the quality of the materials. Simply put, Deathsport is in bad shape with surface scuffs, major vertical scratches and lots of splices and tears and missing chunks of soundtrack.
Deathsport (1978), imagined by Corman as another (but cheaper) Death Race 2000, is essentially a sci-fi Roman gladiator movie in a post-apocalyptic fantasy future with motorcycles, a mad dictator and David Carradine as a mystic desert warrior captured and tossed into the bread-and-circuses arena where political prisoners are served up to the spectacle-hungry population. Claudia Jennings co-stars as a tracker who is tossed naked into the psychedelic hippie lounge of a torture chamber before she’s sent into the killing fields of the arena (which looks like the old Death Race grandstand matte painting, re-used in classic Corman fashion). The matte effects and stunt work scenes are awkward at best (director Henry Suso, aka Nicholas Niciphor, is not a natural at zero-budget spectacle) and the budget appears to be spent on the exploding motorcycle and exploding tunnel effects. Which apparently left so little money for the mutant cave detour that they were left with nothing better than weird guys with ping-pong ball eyes skulking around, grunting and making animal sounds. Carradine’s pseudo-mystical dialogue isn’t much more articulate: “Taste my blade.” It’s stilted, cheap and takes itself awfully seriously for such a bad script.
Features commentary with co-director Allan Arkush and editor Larry Bock and an interview with actor Jesse Vint, plus co-feature Battletruck (1982), Corman’s answer to The Road Warrior, which features commentary with director Harley Cokliss.