Archive for Roger Corman

Nights at the Villa Deodati #4: Pull Every Remaining Lever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2016 by dcairns

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Whenever I have a favourite line in a movie, it always turns out not to be in the movie at all. The intertitle “Heat! Sudden, intense heat!” which I swear I read when PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Lon Chaney version) showed at Edinburgh Film Fest, with accompaniment by Carl Davis, does not appear in any copy of the film I’ve seen since. This is disappointing. I’m afraid to see THE ASPHYX again in case Robert Stephens doesn’t actually utter the words “Was the smudge trying to warn Clive of danger?” which I have always regarded as the apogee of mankind’s poetic achievement. Mind you, it would be pretty good if it turned out I was responsible for it myself.

And so to Roger Corman’s FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, in which John Hurt does not actually say, as my brain told me he did, “Pull all remaining levers!” Instead, Raul Julia says “Pull every remaining lever!” which I feel is not quite as good.

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ROGER CORMAN’S F.U., as we must abbreviate it, is the mighty Roger Corman’s last directorial outing to date — it apparently came about when a studio did some audience testing and found that a lot of people would go and see something called ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN. So they approached the Great Man and asked him if he would care to make a film with that title. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t,” he replied, with his characteristic old-school graciousness. But then somehow Brian Aldiss’s novel came into his possession and he saw a way to make things interesting, and so the film got made because of a title that tested well, and ended up with a different title.

(I wonder what other titles they tested? ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN seems really specific. Did they also tally the scores for GEORGE ROMERO’S MADAME BOVARY, PETER WEIR’S MABINOGION, HANS JURGEN SYBERBERG’S JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH?)

Aldiss, who also wrote the story that became the Spielberg-Kubrick A.I., seems to have intended his novel as a philosophical essay wrapped inside a sci-fi yarn, following on from his influential study of the genre, The Billion-Year Spree, in which he put forward a compelling case for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel (as well as “the best book ever written by a teenager”). So, he folds Shelley’s life into the world of her creations, which perhaps made more sense on the page than it does in the movie — without a continual narration, John Hurt’s time-travelling scientist can’t share with us whether or not he’s puzzled by the fact that Frankenstein and his creature appear to be simultaneously characters in a novel and a real person (Raul Julia! Nick Brimble?). This makes Hurt a hard character to relate to — he has nobody really to talk to, although in fact his computerized car, who doesn’t have a name but whom I will call Lady Knight Rider, might have made a handy outlet for exposition.

It’s also kind of hard to relate to him as he’s building a super-weapon, although he seems to be aiming for sympathy when he says he wanted to invent a weapon that wouldn’t destroy the world. I’m not sure that proviso qualifies you for the Nobel Peace Prize, John.

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Corman wrote the script with F.X. Feeney (should’ve hired a proper writer, not a critic — oh wait, that would rule me out) but seems curiously disengaged from the whole experience. His Damascene moment on VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN, nineteen years earlier, in which he realised with a shock that he would far rather go to the beach than go to the set and complete another day’s filming, doesn’t seem to have worn off. The actors seem left to their own devices (or maybe confused by unfocussed direction?) and the filming is perfectly competent but never shows any excitement. The score by Carl Davis — see how this piece is folding in on itself like a time vortex?) — flattens things out further. Davis is a great silent accompanist, but seems unable to capture the mood of a scene, or opts for the least dramatic possible mood. The score might sound quite powerful in isolation, but laid over the film it seems to nullify.

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Nick Brimble is a really dreadful monster (on the wrong sense of the word “dreadful”), in a fairly dreadful makeup (those big extra thumbs! Did Frankenstein put his hands on the wrong wrists? The discs in his head!). His first line is “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT!”, a great piece of what I would call muffled exposition, in which a line sounds like it’s inserted for the audience’s benefit rather than something a character would say, but still doesn’t tell us anything helpful. The talented Nick Dudman did the makeup, but I’d say he’s tried to incorporate too many ideas. And half of them are very terrible ideas.

As for the Byron/Shelley menage, the movie doesn’t bother with Dr Polidori or Claire Clairmont (though GOTHIC’s C.C., Myriam Cyr, appears as a futuristic scientist), but gives us Jason Patric as Byron, Michael Hutchence as Shelley, and Bridget Fonda as Mary. Patric might have gotten away with his arch manner, but Hutchence has evidently decided that High Camp is the way forward for romantic poets, and assumes an unhelpful effete manner. These fops have nothing to do anyway, and neither in any real sense does Fonda, but she at least has a bit more screen time. She sounds rather American, as do half the bit players (the good ones — the Brits shipped in to the Italian locations are dreadful), but like the yanks in HAUNTED SUMMER she does have that zesty, unselfconscious quality that one admires in American acting.

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VAGINA BOREALIS

At the one hour mark, a Bride is created, using technology borrowed from BACK TO THE FUTURE — Hurt hooks Lady Knight Rider, who has Delorean style slide-up doors, to a Special Apparatus and waits for lightning to strike a church tower. All it needs is a bit of Huey Lewis. Somehow Hurt blasts the whole building into the future using a laser (Lady Knight Rider turns out to have a built-in laser) and the characters start killing each other for no reason.

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I would welcome a movie in which Raul Julia’s Disco Frankenstein meets Frank Langella’s Disco Dracula.

When I first saw this, there was a bit where Hurt expresses uncertainty about when this latest time warp has brought him, and I got very excited. Of course, I thought, they’ve been zapped into primordial times and the monster and his mate will become Adam and Eve, breeding and perhaps mating with neanderthals and thus father the human race! Frankenstein created us all! And himself! John Hurt: temporal ourobouros! FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND.

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But no: it’s a wintry apocalyptic future. Hurt and the monster have a big fight in a bunker full of lasers, the monster rips his own arm off and hits Hurt with it, Hurt sticks a pipe in him, and then lasers him to death. Then he gets a Fu Manchu-style post-mortem monologue in which he mysteriously claims to be unbound. Hurt heads off for a frozen futuristic city, suggestive of LOGAN’S RUN or QUINTET or, come to think of it, A.I. No epic philosophical issues are implied at all. No learning. No hugging.

I would like Roger Corman to make something else, because I don’t really think his final F.U. is good enough. If he makes something else, I would like him to star in it himself, and just tell stories, in his wonderful purring voice, about his amazing career and the amazing people he’s known. It can be a very, very long film, if he likes.

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Arrows of Desire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 9, 2015 by dcairns

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Finally got copies of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, from Arrow Video. Both feature video essays written by me and edited by Timo Langer and are available from all good UK outlets, plus Amazon.

Fall of the House of Usher [Blu-ray]

The Comedy of Terrors [Dual Format Blu-ray + DVD]

COMEDY OF TERRORS is dual-format. To spare you the usual sight of our chipped floorboards, I performed a Cocteauesque trick and taped the movies to the living room wall for the above photo. So now you can enjoy our filthy, greasy wall.

USHER was an interesting one — my first video essay, Through the Pale Door. Since so much of the film is prowling around empty corridors, we created a totally uninhabited version of the movie, and also joined together all the matte paintings to tell the story in exteriors alone. And also cut together all the shots of paintings of Usher’s depraved ancestors. I like these little experiments and hope to do more like that when I can find a suitable project.

COMEDY OF TERRORS has more faces and talk, so for Whispering in Distant Chambers we did a lot of cutting in lines of dialogue to point up or undercut what the voice-over is saying. And I got Fiona to narrate this one as she has a better voice. It’s also a whistle-stop tour of Jacques Tourneur’s entire life and career, in parallel with his dad’s. Sadly, my plan to rope in Tourneur experts Chris Fujiwara, Christine Leteux and Geoffrey O’Brien came to naught, due to time constraints, but the film yielded some surprisingly cool stuff, despite its well-documented weaknesses, and Tourneur is always great to explore. Arrow allowed me to include clips from his earlier work via “fair use” so buyers can catch a glimpse of his first, super-rare movie, TOTO (from Pathe-Natan) and follow his style from CAT PEOPLE to WARLORDS OF THE DEEP.

Van Cleef & Arkoff

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2014 by dcairns

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I’d always wanted to see IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, ever since seeing images of the monster, who seemed to resemble a prize marrow with a face and pincers, and ever since reading Roger Corman’s magnificent memoir How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime (one of the truly wise books about cinema) which recounts how star Beverly Garland appraised her extraterrestrial co-star coolly, uttered the words “So you’ve come to conquer the world, have you?” and then felled the short-arsed visitant with a single kick to the forehead.

“Lesson one,” writes Corman, “Always make your monster bigger than your leading lady.”

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Lee Van Cleef plays a rogue scientist who befriends a Venusian who wants to invade Earth. Van Cleef thinks this is a swell idea and makes all the arrangements, communicating via a kind of ham radio, though the monster speaks only in a serious of musical parps and whines. Van Cleef understands every word, prompting Fiona to compare this with Charlie Brown’s conversations with his teacher in the animated show.

Fiona is fascinated by Van C’s tiny forehead. Kudos to Corman for avoiding typecasting the scientist role.

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The movie is centred on two couples, Van Cleef & Garland, who have a lovely dysfunctional relationship (“I’m going into town and when I come back I pray you’ll be sane,” she says) and the Peter Graveses, who keep dropping by. It’s sort of a WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? with a space alien in the role of the little bugger.

The Venusian “It,” known to fans as “Beulah,” is vaguely conical (and more than vaguely comical). “He” has floor-length skin ending in a trimming of tentacular tassels. When he is angry or aroused, space-bats come flying from under his fleshy skirts. He lives in a cave with a hot spring because it reminds him of Venus.

The title, like the title of Roger’s book, is a lie — IT doesn’t at any point conquer the Earth, but it does cut off all electricity. So IT CAUSED A POWER OUTAGE would be a more accurate title. Somehow it also stops everybody’s watch from working, which seems unlikely and has no effect on the plot. When hero Peter Graves jumps on a bicycle, I half-expected the wheels to refuse to turn. “The swine!” Graves would cry, shaking his fist. But no.

The space-bats stick implants into the back of people’s necks to control them, like in INVADERS FROM MARS. I guess Venusians have been studying the Martians’ techniques.

There’s a good bit Fiona spotted of townspeople fleeing for the hills (we never see them again): one of them is clutching a saxophone. So at least they’ll have music, wherever they go.

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Note also the woman left-of-centre smiling at the camera. She may be fleeing for her life, but she isn’t going to let a little thing like that spoil her day. Shades of REPTILICUS, whose terrified refugees had a kind of carnival atmosphere to them.

There’s more recognizably deliberate comedy from Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze as bumbling soldiers. Miller is always welcome, but Haze’s lame-brained Mexican act is appalling.

Strange dialogue, from Samuel Z. Arkoff’s brother-in-law and/or an uncredited Charles B. Griffith: “Your hands are human but your mind is enemy,” Graves tells Van Cleef. Ye-es.

 

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