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

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Intruder

(1962) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Charles Beaumont; Based on the novel by Charles Beaumont; Starring: William Shatner, Beverly Lunsford, Robert Emhardt, Leo Gordon, Charles Barnes and Jeanne Cooper; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“While those first Poe films in CinemaScope carried me into filmmaking on a larger scale, The Intruder was the first film I directed from a deep political and social conviction. It was by far, the biggest artistic and commercial risk of my career…” – Roger Corman (excerpt from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome)

“One thing Adam Cramer’s done for us…He’s made us face ourselves.” – Tom McDaniel (Frank Maxwell)

When many of us think of Roger Corman, our initial image is of a prolific low-budget producer (and sometimes director) of drive-in movies. Some might refer to his Poe Cycle movies, or his role as a mentor for many famous actors and filmmakers. Few would think of him, however, as a socially conscious filmmaker – any messages in many of his films were incidental or subconscious. But what if the social message was the primary focus? The Intruder, adapted from Charles Beaumont’s* 1958 novel, brings themes of racial segregation, institutionalized bigotry and hatemongering front and center.

* Fun Fact #1: Watch for Beaumont in a small role as high school principal Mr. Paton.

To add a layer of credibility to the film’s setting, The Intruder* was shot mainly in the small town of Sikeston, Missouri.** Corman didn’t rely on his usual stock players for the faces in his movie. Only the leads, headlined by a young William Shatner (who had mostly done plays until that point) were brought in from L.A. The rest of the cast and most of the crew were hired from local talent. Due to the controversial themes, United Artists, American International, and Allied Artists passed on producing The Intruder. Instead, the film was mostly financed by Roger and his brother Gene and shot on a budget of $80,000. Despite garnering high praise from critics and winning a prize at the Venice Film Festival, Corman found difficulty securing distribution for the film. Due to the frequent use of a racial epithet, the MPAA initially refused to provide its seal of approval, and the original film distribution company, Pathé Labs, left the distribution business. The Intruder was eventually released by another company, but never managed to break even.

* Fun Fact #2: The film was re-released under the exploitive titles, I Hate Your Guts! and Shame.

** Not So Fun Fact #1: Because the shooting location was sufficiently distanced from the Deep South, Corman felt that he would avoid controversy during shooting. Due to the volatile nature of the film, however, Corman and crew were met with death threats from belligerent townspeople and animosity from law enforcement.

Adam Cramer (William Shatner) arrives in the sleepy southern town of Caxton (the state is never mentioned), taking up temporary residence at a boarding house (he says his occupation is “Social Worker”). His appearance is no coincidence, as the local high school is about to be integrated with 10 black students from the other side of town. Cramer represents a political group, the Patrick Henry Organization (in the book, it’s called SNAP, or the Society of National American Patriots) from Washington, D.C, which opposes recent de-segregation legislation. He forms an alliance with rich bigot Verne Shipman (Robert Emhardt) to add some influence to his words, and makes an inflammatory speech to a large group in front of the local courthouse. Cramer exposes the white residents’ disdain for the ruling, advocating an effort to block the new students from attending. As tempers flare, and the townspeople are moved to a hate-filled fervor, he soon discovers that the monster he created is about to careen out of control. Harsh words and protests give way to violence, as Adam gloats in the background.

* Not So Fun Fact #2: According to Corman, the events in The Intruder were inspired by a real-life incident, in which a northerner came to a southern town to stir up racial tension.

Only one prominent white Caxton resident, newspaperman Tom McDaniel, stands up to oppose Cramer and his inflammatory rhetoric. One scene underscores Caxton’s deep-seated prejudice in McDaniel’s discussion with his wife Ruth (Katherine Smith), after she considers pulling their daughter Ella (Beverly Lunsford) from the high school. We see that her prejudices are not founded in any specific reason – asked how she feels about integration, she answers, “I think it’s a terrible thing.” When pressed further, she can only reply, “Because it just isn’t right, that’s why.” Prejudice is the status quo (no thanks to her bigoted father who lives with them) in Caxton, passed down through generations and perpetuating ignorance and fear.

William Shatner has caught a lot of flak for over-the-top acting and stilted dialogue delivery, but based on The Intruder, perhaps his early career deserves a re-evaluation. He anchors the film with an engaging performance as the enigmatic, charismatic Adam Cramer. Cramer was, in Corman’s words, “a pied piper with a dark agenda hidden from view” (from Corman’s introduction to Beaumont’s novel). When he arrives in Caxton to stir up racial bigotry, he exploits what was already there, but finds a way to mobilize the masses to action. In his fiery speech on the courthouse steps, he relies on his version of “facts,” spewing a torrent of lies, fabrications, distortions and half-truths to construct a narrative envisioning a country besieged by African Americans. He creates an illusion that the way of life for the white townspeople is threatened, with fear the common denominator. He manipulates Tom’s impressionable teen daughter Ella, making her complicit in framing black high school student Joey Greene (Charles Barnes).* He also seduces his neighbor Sam Griffin’s wife Vi (Jeanne Cooper), preying on her loneliness.

* Fun Fact #3: Barnes was 37 at the time of filming, while Lunsford was 16.

Translating a book to a screenplay requires some necessary concessions, but Charles Beaumont (who adapted his own novel) does a tremendous job keeping the core themes and arguments intact. The novel provides more details about McDaniel and Cramer’s respective motivations and the cynicism that fuels Cramer’s actions. Beaumont also tears apart the arguments against de-segregation piece by piece in the book, something that’s not possible in an 82-minute film. Additionally, key secondary characters in the book such as Mr. Paton are relegated to the background. On the plus side, Joey Greene is given more screen time, relative to his appearance in the book.

Corman famously contended that The Intruder was his only film up to that point that lost money. It was a critical success (anchored by Shatner’s fine performance), but a commercial failure. It’s unfortunate that this important film’s spotty distribution and poor financial performance prevented it from reaching a wider audience. Far from a relic of a bygone, less-enlightened time, it’s all too relevant in today’s divided climate. It serves as a sober reminder that there’s always another Adam Cramer, waiting in the wings to prey on ignorance and fan the flames of racial discord. The Intruder demands to be re-discovered and embraced by a new generation, and would be an excellent launching point for discussion in high schools. It’s a tragic oversight the film has never received the home video treatment it deserved. One can only hope that it eventually receives a proper video restoration and treatment (from Criterion or similar). Until then, it’s worth seeking out this great film in any format you can find.

Sources: How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome; “Remembering the Intruder” 2007 DVD featurette; The Intruder by Charles Beaumont