Monday, July 29, 2019

Roger Corman Month Quick Picks and Pans

The Haunted Palace (1963) Although the title is based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, it isn’t really a part of Corman’s Poe Cycle, but an adaptation (by Charles Beaumont) of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” This slow-moving, atmospheric movie features fine performances by Vincent Price, Deborah Paget and Lon Chaney, Jr. Price plays a dual role as Joseph Curwen, burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft, and his heir, Charles Dexter Ward. After the prologue, the story picks up 100 years later, when Ward takes possession of his estate, and in turn is possessed by his ancestor’s spirit. It doesn’t take long before Curwen is up to old tricks. The Haunted Palace looks great, with good production values, costumes and nightmarish makeup of the village’s mutated residents. The only downside is a motionless monster in a pit (its features are obscured by blurring) that looks like it was hastily constructed by Corman’s team out of whatever materials they had lying around.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD

Frankenstein Unbound (1990) Roger Corman’s last (to date) directorial effort has an intriguing concept (based on a novel by Brian Aldiss) and an excellent cast, but the execution is as clumsy as the titular creature. John Hurt plays Buchanan, a scientist from 2031, who creates a space/time rift. He’s accidentally transported back to 1817 Geneva, Switzerland, where Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s (Raul Julia) creation is running amuck, leaving a trail of death. Meanwhile, Mary (soon to be) Shelley, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley (played by Bridget Fonda, Jason Patric, and Michael Hutchence of INXS fame) take up residence in a nearby lakeside chateau. The film attempts to connect the dots between the “real” Frankenstein creation and Mary’s literary work to be, drawing parallels between Frankenstein’s creation and Buchanan’s invention. There are some good performances from Hurt, Julia and Fonda, but the film is hampered by an unsympathetic monster, and it tries to juggle too many characters and elements. The Geneva setting looks fine, and there’s a cool (albeit impractical) future car, but the future world (with its plasma globes and mediocre matte paintings) fails to impress. Even if the film as a whole doesn’t quite gel, it merits a look for the premise alone.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD  

War of the Satellites (1958) If nothing else, this movie deserves a look for another rare starring role for Dick Miller (doing his best to suppress his Bronx accent) as Dave Boyer, an astrophysicist. His colleague, program leader Dr. Van Ponder (Richard Devon) is under the influence of unseen aliens who want to stop human space exploration before it begins. Susan Cabot also co-stars as scientist Sybil Carrington. The earnest story recalls the earlier Hammer film Spaceways (1953), although the bad guys are aliens instead of communists. Even for a Corman film, War of the Satellites looks cheap, with poor special effects and cut-rate production design (the spaceship chairs look like they came right out of a furniture showroom). Even if the film can’t quite visualize its ambitions it might be worth checking out, for a game cast, which also includes Corman regulars Bruno VeSota and Beach Dickerson, as well as Corman himself, in an uncredited cameo as a ground control technician.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Gas! – Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1970) Cindy Williams, Talia Shire (credited as Tally Coppola) and a pre-Harold and Maude Bud Cort headline Corman’s post-apocalyptic satire. The U.S. Army accidentally releases an experimental gas in Alaska, killing everyone over the age of 25 (Roger Corman based the premise on the Jack Weinberg quote, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”). It’s too bad the world that’s left, with its new factions, isn’t much better than the one they left behind. Corman’s film, with its Dr. Strangelove ambitions, falls far short of Kubrick’s film. The would-be farce is short on laughs, but has a few fun moments. The best is a chopper-riding Edgar Allan Poe and his girlfriend Lenore, riding the American southwest and commenting about life and death (I think Corman missed the boat by not choosing to focus on these two alone). It’s a near miss that might have worked if screenwriter George Armitage (who continued to write the script during production) had the luxury of fleshing out the story.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

The Trip (1967) You can’t fault this essentially plotless film for false advertising (featuring a script by Jack Nicholson), which consists of Peter Fonda experiencing an LSD trip for 90 minutes. Bruce Dern serves as guide during his peripatetic journey, with Susan Strasberg as his estranged wife. Members of the cast, which also includes Dennis Hopper, reportedly took LSD prior to making the film, along with producer/director Roger Corman (Would this count as method directing?). While I can’t vouch for the veracity of the results, there’s some interesting, trippy imagery, including period costumes and nightmarish imagery cribbed from Corman’s Poe films, pondering birth, death, and everything in between. Perhaps I missed the point, but it all gets tedious after a while, and doesn’t amount to much.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Last Woman on Earth (1960) Roger Corman’s post-apocalyptic film was shot on location in Puerto Rico and written by Robert Towne (who would go on to much bigger and better things). According to Corman, Towne was cast in the film so he could continue to work on the screenplay during production. A global catastrophe occurs in which oxygen momentarily disappears, presumably killing everyone except for three people who were scuba diving at the fateful moment. Now they’re stuck on the island, trying to decide their next move. The initially civil relationship devolves into a love triangle between millionaire Harold Gern (played by Corman regular Antony Carbone), his depressed wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones-Moreland) and his attorney Martin Joyce (Towne). Even at 71 minutes, the material seems to have been stretched to the breaking point, consisting of endless bickering between the three characters, and debate about staying or leaving the island. The cop-out ending, re-affirming the sanctity of marriage, rings hollow, considering the considerable discord between the two characters. Skip it, unless you have a masochistic streak.

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) In this Corman quickie, charter boat captain Renzo Capetto (Antony Carbone, who resembles a low-rent Key Largo-era Bogart), and his thugs plan to double cross a Cuban general transporting stolen gold during Castro’s revolution. The would-be farce features unfunny comic bits and obnoxious characters, including a loathsome henchman (Beach Dickerson) who speaks in animal sounds. The big plot twist concerns Capetto’s scheme to create a sea monster hoax, except the monster turns out to be real. The googly eyed title creature, which looks like an aquatic Cookie Monster, was reportedly cobbled together for a $150 budget. They overspent.  

Rating: *½. Available on Amazon Prime


  1. For some reason, I always forget Frankenstein Unboubd is a Roger Corman film!!
    I recall enjoying it, but I liked the book better.

    1. I really need to check out the book. I wonder if it's easy to find?

    2. I found a paperback copy not long after the movie was released.

    3. Ah... I discovered that my local library has a copy. Will check it out!