Death Race 2050 (2016) – After Paul W.S. Anderson’s humorless Death Race, his 2008 remake/reworking of the Roger Corman-produced cult movie Death Race 2000 (1975), there’s something oddly satisfying in getting a genuine remake produced by Corman himself in the impudent spirit of the original.
Death Race 2050 is a modern B movie, produced directly for the home video market (Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) on a minimal budget, and director / co-writer G.J. Echternkamp has no illusions of what he’s making. In the best Corman tradition, he delivers the grunge action movie goods and a little more. It’s not necessarily a “good” movie—it’s ragged and choppy and scattershot, with broad, cartoonish gags and easy jabs over pointed satire—but it’s also fun, unpretentious, cheeky, energetic, gleefully trashy, and filled with junky spectacle.
Vincent Price starred in all of Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations but one. Ray Milland took the lead in The Premature Burial (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), playing Guy Carrell, an aristocrat with crippling fear that he will be buried alive due to a family history of catalepsy. Corman brings the fear home in the opening scene: an exhumation of an ancestor who shows every sign of having awoken in his casket. The obsession overtakes his life until the rather elderly newlywed moves into the family crypt, which he outfits as a Batcave of escape hatches, much to the horror of his neglected bride (Hazel Court), who observes that he has already “buried himself alive” and makes him chose the crypt or life with her.
Like most of Corman’s Poe films, the script (this one by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell) borrows little more than the central idea and the title from Poe. This one owes a debt to Gaslight and Diabolique, and of course leans on the art direction of Daniel Haller (who created a sense of grandeur on a budget) and the widescreen color cinematography of the great Floyd Crosby, who photographed Tabu (1931) and High Noon (1952) and here gives Corman his atmosphere. While Hammer was reviving the classic movies monsters as gothic horrors with lurid edges and color, Corman was creating his own Gothic horror revival with ideas influenced by Freud and Jung. Corman creates his world completely in the studio, including the grounds outside the manor, a veritable haunted forest of dead trees, ever-present mist hugging the boggy ground, and a pair of creepy gravediggers (John Dierkes and Dick Miller) constantly lurking and whistling the folk song “Molly Malone” as a dirge-like threat.
Before Easy Rider there was The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Roger Corman and starring Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hell’s Angles. This is a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.
The 1966 film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.
They are truly rebels without a cause but Corman takes their outlaw culture into nervy, nihilistic territory. They’re not a club, they’re a tribe and they devolve into primitive savagery after the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill. “We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded!”
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.
Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.
The Vincent Price Collection II (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) follows up last year’s collection with the debut of seven more Vincent Price horror films in a special edition set. Shout Factory (under its Scream Factory imprint) draws from its licensing relationships with 20th Century Fox and MGM to complete the run of Roger Corman Poe films begun last year and fills to the rest a couple of sequels and two titles too often relegated to public domain bargain discs.
The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), the final film in Corman’s cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, is considered by many the best (partisans tend to split over this and The Masque of Red Death, 1963), and it is certainly the most sophisticated, with rich performances by Price, who is both haunted protagonist and Gothic romantic leading man (a first in the series) as widower Verden Fell, and British actress Elizabeth Shepherd, who brings a zest for life to the role of Rowena Trevanion, whose fascination with Verdan’s self-imposed exile turns to romance. Once she draws him out of the haunted manor and into the world for their honeymoon, that shadow of gloom is lifted and he can even discard the shaded glasses he wears in the bright light (“I live at night,” he explains early on), but once back in the abbey, the ghost of Lady Ligeia reasserts her control. Or so it seems after Verden offers a demonstration of hypnosis and Ligeia takes over Rowena for a chilling instant while she’s under the spell.
The Tomb of Ligeia is the only one of Corman’s Poe films to shoot location exteriors (Corman used studio sets entirely for previous films to create a rarified unreality, he says, as befitting his interest in psychology and the unconscious in relation to horror), and the ruins he uses for Fell’s abbey home are astoundingly beautiful, the bleached bone remains of a fallen castle behind his stone manor, the dead of the past haunting the living of the present. Fittingly, it is also the most psychologically rooted of his Poe adaptations, though the revelations of the finale do not fully explain the black cat who seems to act as Ligeia’s familiar in the abbey, or Rowena’s brief possession by Ligeia. Robert Towne’s intelligent script and Corman’s moody direction melds the explicable and the supernatural very nicely in a tale that is never simply one or the other.
As with the previous set, these editions are from HD masters provided to Shout Factory by the rights holder, in this case MGM. It’s a good looking transfer though it is not a restoration. You can see surface scratches and grit and in one spot a light vertical scratch running through the left side of the image, but it also has vivid color, good clarity, and a strong image, which is still the most important thing in a disc release.
Features commentary by Roger Corman carried over from the earlier DVD release plus new commentary recorded for this release by actress Elizabeth Shepherd, and an archival video introduction and afterward by Vincent Price, originally taped for a public TV horror series decades ago, plus a gallery of stills and a trailer.
[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
While the gangster genre has its fair share of anti-heroes portrayed as psychotic delinquent types (perhaps a fair working definition of the cinematic hood), and while those types help define an aspect of the genre, they certainly aren’t confined to the set boundaries of its form and indeed have indicated new directions for movies that deal with organized crime and the people whose lives revolve around it. Not too surprisingly, then, Corman’s (and Carver’s) Caponeis loosely related to Coppola’s Don Corleone (Gazzara even stuffs his jowls with padding), but he might, in conception at least, bear a closer resemblance to Scorsese’s Johnny Boy in MeanStreets—a “gangster” story that shares the traditionally mythic elements inherent in the genre while managing its own very personal working-out of the meanings of both violence and friendship. That Johnny Boy is comparatively peripheral in MeanStreets may suggest the uniqueness of Scorsese’s film in its relationship to movies in which the alienated hood stands in a position to manipulate perspective by ensconcing himself at the metaphysical core of his cinematic universe, but Johnny Boy’s gangland genealogy traces back in a psychologically straight line to Hawks’ Tony Camonte, and there is little doubt that Corman, Carver, and screenwriter Browne at least had Scarface in mind during the making of Capone.
When Star Wars became the smash hit of 1977 by turning B-movie adventure into big-budget spectacle, drive-in mogul Roger Corman saw the writing across the stars. The producer and former director had made his share of drive-in science fiction and space adventures, but they had all been cobbled out of spare parts and imaginative art direction, with simple miniatures and animation providing the space ships. Now Hollywood was moving in on his brand of genre filmmaking and action fantasies with budgets he couldn’t match and he needed to raise his game to meet them.
Battle Beyond the Stars was Corman’s answer to the new Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. The script is from John Sayles, whose screenwriting apprenticeship came from such Corman productions as Piranha and The Lady in Red, with a story credit shared with Anne Dyer, but the concept was from Corman himself: “The Seven Samurai in Space,” with a few hints of Star Wars tossed in around the edges. Richard Thomas, fresh off six seasons of the folksy family TV drama The Waltons, plays the film’s innocent, idealistic hero Shad. He’s Luke Skywalker by way of John-Boy, a farmboy on a peaceful agrarian planet that looks like a counter-culture commune in ancient Greek garb. When the vicious warlord Sador (John Saxon) brings soldiers and his answer to the Death Star to their planet and gives them seven days to surrender, Shad sets out in a talking space ship (in the tradition of referring to vessels in the feminine, this one quite literally has a voluptuous pair of breasts protruding from the bow) to hire a fighting force of mercenaries to defend themselves from the invasion.
After a detour at a nearly abandoned space hub, where he manages to recruit the only single girl (Darlanne Fluegel) his age in the region, he starts putting together his team: a drawling smuggler who goes by the handle Space Cowboy (George Peppard, offering the film’s answer to Han Solo), a lizard-like slaver with a grudge against Sador, a hive being of multiple clones in search of new sensations and experiences, a pair of heat-producing beings known as The Kelvin, a buxom Valkyrie warrior (Sybil Danning in a costume that barely covers her) in a mosquito of a fighting ship seeking battle glory, and in the film’s inspired casting coup, Robert Vaughn as a jaded bounty hunter who joins their fight in exchange for “a meal and a place to hide.” It’s the same role he played in The Magnificent Seven, the original western remake of The Seven Samurai. Corman also casts a pair of respected Hollywood greats in small roles: Oscar nominated actor Sam Jaffe as a mad scientist who has wired himself directly into his space station and legendary acting teacher and character actor Jeff Corey as the blind tribal elder.
Jonathan Demme wrote and directed Fighting Mad (1976), his third feature, for producer Roger Corman but it was actually produced for 20th Century Fox, which makes the film his studio debut. It’s not his best film by far but this mix of vigilante/revenge movie and eco-conscious stand against corruption makes for an inspired twist on a familiar genre. Peter Fonda is an easy-going Arkansas framer who stands up to the corporate criminal who has his thugs intimidate, harass and murder local landowners who refuse to sell out to his strip-mining concern. They kill his brother (Scott Glenn, gone way too soon from a film that could use his understated strength) and pregnant sister-in-law and murder an inconvenient state judge who gets in the way of their agenda and the drawling sheriff seems to be in the back pocket of the corporation as he backs their rights to plunder the land of local farmer.
The sheriff’s position is supposed to be more complicated than that, which is one of the failings of the script and the direction. Fighting Mad manages to embrace a fairly radical hero (Fonda’s response to the corporate mafia violence has echoes of radical eco-warriors) and evoke resonant conflicts over land management and natural resource exploitation without really taking a stand. Demme switches up from the overheated melodrama and B-movie energy of his first films for the small town atmosphere of rural pace of life, which he isn’t always able to wrench into action-thriller tension, and Fonda plays his part somewhere between enlightened nature boy back from the big city and counterculture idealist with survivalist skills and no compunction about putting them to use. When they almost kill his gruffly lovable father (stalwart westerns veteran John Doucette), he goes after the coal syndicate with his hunting bow and goes all Leatherstocking on the corporate baddy’s bodyguard thugs. Fonda never dredges up a palpable fury to match his righteous indignation, but he does offer a different kind of moral spine in rural culture polluted by corruption. Cult actress Lynn Lowry plays the love interest in a film that sidesteps the issue of Fonda’s marriage status (maybe separated, certainly not divorced but acting very much the single father).
Demme and Corman, colleagues, friends and old hands at teaming up for commentary tracks, are joined for this newly-recorded commentary by Lynn Lowry and, about 118 minutes in, Peter Fonda. They don’t bother to introduce themselves (and it’s easy to tell them apart), they simply launch into production stories. Demme explains that it was Corman’s idea to make a “redneck revenge picture” (in the spirit of Walking Tall and Billy Jack) and suggested building it around the issue of strip mining, a reminder that Corman that was both politically left and business savvy, and points out that Monte Hellman helped out (uncredited) in the editing of a key sequence that plays out with a documentary quality.
The double-feature disc is paired with the 1976 Moving Violation, another thriller of small town corruption, this own starring Stephen McHattie as a drifter and Kay Lenz as a waitress who go on the run after witnessing the local lawmen murder someone. Will Geer and Eddie Albert co-star and the film features commentary by director Charles S. Dubin, producer Julie Corman, executive producer Roger Corman and star Stephen McHattie.
Don’t let the title throw you. The heroes of Robert Guédiguian’s based-on-a-true-story French war drama are not The Dirty Dozen unleashed on the Nazis but a remarkably effective resistance cell formed of French Jews, communists and immigrants—the very “undesirables” targeted by the Nazis for the camps. Guédiguian’s previous films—at least ones I’ve had the good fortune to see—have been small dramas about communities of immigrants, underemployed and outcasts that pull together and to maintain their identities. Army of Crime offers a much bigger canvas—and a setting with profound resonance—for that theme to play out, and Guédiguian invites members of his stock company to fill out major roles.
Simon Abkarian is the Armenian poet, Communist and pacifist who leaves a concentration camp with a lie and takes up arms to lead a team of members not known for following orders, Virginie Ledoyen his devoted wife and partner and Robinson Stévenin and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet the reckless but passionate daredevil partisans under his command. Their stories play out slowly, the better to let the oppressive culture of occupied Paris (and of the widespread collaboration of police who support the racial policies, if not the authoritarian structure, of the Nazis occupation) sink in while sowing the tensions between the Communist leaders of the resistance and the non-Communist soldiers who fight for their own reasons: vengeance, defiance, love of country and the simple act of self-preservation under a regime dedicated to eradicating their existence. By the time the unit forms, you are ready for them to take the offensive, even as we know how it ends: the film opens with a spoken memorial to their sacrifice.
Big Bad Mama / Big Bad Mama II Double Feature (Shout! Factory) Crazy Mama / The Lady In Red Double Feature (Shout! Factory)
One of the less recognized genres that director/producer/indie-exploitation movie mogul Roger Corman adopted as a minor specialty was the depression-era gangster movie. As a director he turned out Machine Gun Kelly (1958), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and (most importantly for the purposes of this piece) Bloody Mama (1970), his perversely Oedipal take on the Ma Barker story with Shelley Winters as the machine gun mama leading her sons through a bank-robbing spree and keeping them a little too close for comfort on their days off.
Jump ahead a few years and Corman, now retired from directing to run his own independent studio, turns back to the period gangster thriller with a femme-centric twist (which proved so effective in Boxcar Bertha, the 1972 feature he produced for AIP and with an up-and-coming young filmmaker at the helm taking first shot at directing a real Hollywood film: Martin Scorsese). Bloody Mama and Boxcar Bertha are the two godmothers of the four films featured in a pair of double features from Shout! Factory, including three that carried on the legacy of Corman’s gangster Mamas: all previously available but newly remastered for posterity presented at good prices.
Angie Dickinson takes the driver’s seat in the getaway car of Big Bad Mama (1974) and powers the low-rent Bonnie and Clyde as the feisty Wilma McClatchie, a sexy and strong-willed depression-era widow with two teenage daughters blossoming into sexual creatures. Angry, outspoken and determined to take back her share (and a little more) from the fat cats and corrupt authority figures that took everything from her, she puts a stop to her daughter’s wedding with a rabble-rousing speech about social injustice and then hits the road with a fun-loving bootlegger on the run from the Feds (one of them played by Corman familiar Dick Miller). It’s the just beginning of her outlaw education on the road to bigger and better crimes, from small-time robberies and race track heist to high society capers, with two new partners: rough and ready bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) who literally has his bank robbery hijacked by Wilma and smirking con man William Baxter (William Shatner) who seduces Wilma right out of Fred’s arms. Her girls, Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) and Polly (Robbie Lee), are quick to fill the void in Fred’s bed. He’s nothing if not adaptable.