Archive for Roger Corman

People Who Need People

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by dcairns

Let’s see: we know never to smile at a crocodile, but what must one never do at an alligator?

THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, directed by poor old Roy Del Ruth, has in many ways the feel of a Corman B-quickie monster farrago, (leading lady Beverly Garland had already made several of these, including the much-admired cheesefests NOT OF THIS EARTH and IT CONQUERED THE WORLD), but it’s actually a 20th Century Fox production with delusions of adequacy.

I had to watch it because it’s part of my See Reptilicus and Die quest to witness every celluloid monstrosity memorialized in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but curiously enough my strongest association with the film is from another Gifford book, Movie Monsters, a little paperback I owned as a kid. This was a collection of pieces on various celebrated movieland beasts, each illustrated with a snazzy b&w still, into which the alligator people had somehow trespassed — there was a feeling of weary indulgence on Gifford’s part, as if perhaps he had a reptilian quota to fill, or he felt he didn’t have enough US-based fiends, or the 50s were under-represented or something.

The movie starts almost promisingly with some dynamic vehicular second unit and some stylish transitions, lulling you into an illusion that somebody behind the scenes gives a damn. It’s an illusion that disintegrates progressively as the malarkey continues, but it does get us off to a good start. A couple of leaden shrinks jocularly ponder a baffling case, a nurse (la Garland)  who has revealed a peculiar story under the influence of sodium pentathol (Shrink 1 apparently routinely dopes his staff, especially the cute ones).

Enter Beverly, perky. “What’s wrong with her? Is she insane?” asked Fiona, aghast. “No, she’s just Beverly Garland,” I explained, in much the same way I had to account for Victor McLaglan to students (“Who’s he? Why is he grinning like that?”) Beverly has turned her eager-to-please charm up to eleven. She hangs on Shrink 1′s every word, and she’s so pleased to meet Shrink 2 one fears she may blow a gasket, or somehow melt her smiling apparatus. We check the running time: 74 minutes. The exact duration we feel we can bask in the radiance of Beverly Garland without our skins drying out.

SLEEP! Beverly is doped and hynotized in a trice (one look at her and you know she’s going to be a receptive subject) and we’re flashbacking to the sad tale of her disappearing husband and her quest to track him down in the Louisiana bayou.

CAUTION: Radioactive Material. So Bev sits on it.

Here we meet Lon Chaney Jnr, who has a hook for a hand and a grudge against ‘gators. “I’m gonna kill you, alligator man!” He’s exactly like Captain Hook, in other words, only very very drunk. His character name is Manon, but he resists the urge to dance naked among goats. The missing hubby’s mum is Frieda Inescort, an Edinburgh-born actress of great dignity, all things considered. And then there’s gorgeous George MacReady, as a disappointingly non-mad scientist.

Here, we sympathize: the mad scientist stereotype is a pernicious cliche and if you can avoid using it, you probably should. But cliches attain their status by virtue of usefulness, and making THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE’s atomic experimenter a reasonable guy rather wastes MacReady’s talent for hoarse maleficence, and leaves the plot dangling listlessly. Plus, the tragic finale comes not as a “There are some things man was not meant to know” wagging Finger of Doom warning, but as a “shit happens” shrug of the scaly shoulders.

“No, Mr Alligator, I expect you to die!” Seriously DIG how George has set up his atomic laser of healing in what appears to be his living room.

The plum part falls to Richard Crane, Beverly’s absconding spouse, who was repaired after wartime injuries by MacReady’s radiation/alligator based treatment. Unfortunately, the side-effect of said treatment is full-scale mutation into an alligator. Who could possibly have predicted such a thing? Here, we must admit, is some full-blooded Mad Science. Patiently, and for about ten minutes, MacReady explains to Garland that some members of the reptile family have extraordinary powers of healing, and it was his dream to harness this ability for the benefit of mankind. For instance, some lizards, when they lose their tails, can grow new ones.

“Can alligators do that?” asked Fiona.

“No,” I said, thus collapsing the movie’s entire premise into a little white dot, just as if I’d flicked the TV off with the remote.

Baselessly, the film trundles on. Crane gets some decent pathos, and the more seriously regressed patients are as genuinely disturbing as they are ludicrous in their tennis-racket-shaped beekeeper hats. MacReady has a bulging staff of Muscle Marys to keep these “revolting scaly monarchs of the swamps” in line: these male nurses apparently learned healthcare from Joe Louis, and resort to a swift right to the jaw when their patients show excessive crocodilian ebullience.

Crane’s leathery good looks are an early work by makeup supremo Dick Smith (THE EXORCIST), and they’re reasonably effective when he’s in his early stages, despite the fact that there’s practically no way to combine human and lizard characteristics using 1959 makeup effects.

Just when it seems that only a major transfusion of silliness can make this movie worth sitting through, we get it. MacReady figures that a massive does of radiation just might do the trick, but a drunken Chaney attacks the lab for kicks and causes Crane to get the full megaton, transforming him into an upright Wally Gator who brings the film to it’s tragic swampy conclusion amid howls of merriment and rejoicing from the audience of two.

Here’s Wally!

Back to the bookend scenario, where Shrink 1 and Shrink 2 agree that it’s better to leave Beverly as the grinning, amnesiac zomboid we met earlier rather than restore her memory of such horrors. A rather elegant total inversion of normal psychotherapeutic practice.

What happened to Roy Del Ruth? Time, I suppose: that great marching alligator devouring everything in its path. The following year he would helm WHY MUST I DIE? for Howard Hughes, a doomed attempt to prove that Hughes’ girlfriend Terry Moore could pull off a Susan Hayward style death row melodrama. The following year, his career took an upturn when he died of a hear attack.

I am most curious to see 1928′s THE TERROR, a Del Ruth scare flick made when he still had pep. Let me know if you run across a copy.

Duet for harpsichord and bongos

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2009 by dcairns

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When graphic designers go odd…

So, a puzzled Keir Dullea, surrounded by antique-style furniture, turns around and sees himself as an old man. What film are we watching?

Award yourself 10 points if you answered “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY”, and eleventy million points if you added “or DESADE.” Since DESADE is a film about a man trapped in an infinite time loop, the sense of deja vu Dullea must have experienced from his work as astronaut Dave Bowman may have helped him get into character.

Donatien Alphonse, Marquis de Sade, embodied by Dullea, is on his death bed, adrift in visions from his past life (it doesn’t so much flash before his eyes as trundle) in this late work from blacklistee and ZULU helmer Cy Endfield, produced by AIP. One wonders what must have gone wrong with Endfield’s career to bring him to this point — and thence to the horrors of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER? After 1965′s SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, he didn’t work for four years, and when he did…

…he got a project already rejected by Roger Corman. Corman told his bosses at AIP that this movie wouldn’t work, since the censors would let them show what they needed to show in order to make a respectable life of Sade. He also voiced concerns with their choice of replacement — there was some doubt that Endfield would be able to bring himself to include the exploitation elements the film needed in the marketplace. The whole thing was a balancing act between the censors and the box office. Endfield faithfully promised to shoot a spicy yarn, but seemingly chickened out when it came to the crunch, so Corman was roped in to shoot some extra skin.

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How we laughed. Pouring hot wax on prostitutes — I guess you had to be there.

You can pretty much identify the Corman interpolations: he shoots the orgies in slow motion through a thick red filter, just like Hazel Court’s satanic rite in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. It pretty well robs the scenes of erotic potential, since we lose the flesh tones, and gain only the opportunity to observe jiggling cellulite at 100 fps. Also, everybody’s laughing in Dullea’s orgies. The relationship between sex and humour is a complex one, but generally speaking, if you’re throwing an orgy (does one throw orgies? Or organize them, like posses?) and the “guests” or “participants” or “fuckers” or whatever you call them, are in a constant state of hysteria, is anything going to get done? Is anyone going to get done?

Leaving aside the sex, we have the story, at least in theory. It’s a kind of biography-by-hallucination, comparable to Raoul Ruiz’s more recent KLIMT, only written by Richard Matheson. I admire Matheson’s work, and his contribution to cinema is as fine as his contribution to genre fiction, but I have to admit his bad-guy dialogue is inclined to the fruity. He really needs Vincent Price to get away with some of these lines. A few years later, acting in a TV version of Huxley’s Brave New World, Dullea would display the camp chops necessary to pull off a Vincent, but here he lacks full confidence in his flounce and pout, so it’s left to older hams to relish the rich flow of Matheson’s verbiage.

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Darling Lilli — still porcelain-perfect, but huge black eyes like mouseholes.

Lilli Palmer is in fine fettle as Sade’s mother-in-law (and WHAT a mother-in-law!), and John Huston has disruptive fun with the part of Sade’s wicked uncle, the Abbé. He even plays his first scene with some kind of stage Oirish accent, just because he’s John Huston and nobody can stop him. He also gets the most disturbing scene, the primal scene, if you will, where Sade as a boy spies on his uncle molesting a maid, and then gets caught and punished. The future arch-pervert’s young mind forms a lasting association between sex, cruelty and voyeurism. It’s all very dollar-book Freud, but it’s passable as motivation, and the sequence is genuinely distressing. I’m not sure you could even film it nowadays.

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Eyes Wide Crossed.

Complicating the psychodrama is his love for his sister-in-law. He’s forced to wed plain-jane Anna Massey (in the middle film of her sadeian trilogy, sandwiched between PEEPING TOM and FRENZY) despite being hopelessly in love with glamourpuss Senta Berger. This embitters him and sets him on his path of sexual turpitude, if turpitude is the word for it.

vlcsnap-854234Senta’s little helper.

Matheson may have a simplistic but clear angle on Sade’s psychosexual upset, but he’s forced to short-change us on Sade the philosopher. The do-what-thou-wilt catechisms we associate with Sade’s books are here either ignored, in order to present us with Sade the lovelorn drip, or they’re given to the Abbé, the real villain of the piece. This rather falsifies the story, and is the aspect of the film the Divine Marquis would no doubt have despised the most. In fact, Sade’s writing barely gets a look in.

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“Ooh, I could crush a grape…”

Paul Schrader observed, when he was making Mishima, that the only way to film a writer’s life was by dramatizing his stories. With a composer, you play the music; with a painter, you show the work; but a novelist is unique since you have to actually adapt their art into a whole new medium just to give some (unavoidably falsified) idea of what they do. I’d be interested in a radical solution to this problem that involved lengthy recitations, but I can’t think of one of hand. All I can think of is films that dramatize the work (MISHIMA, DREAMCHILD, GOTHIC) or films that don’t, and fail (IRIS). And oh yes, a third category, which DESADE falls into –

– along with Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH — the films which create a phantasmagoria, the life of the artist merged with their work, or filtered through their style. That’s what Matheson has tried to write, but he’s unable to get to grips with Sade’s pornographic side, and unwilling to get to grips with his world-view (which is arguably even more unpleasant). But at least it gives him an unusual style and structure. Increasingly the film plays like the last act of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, with reality and fantasy cascading together in an avalanche of dream.

How do you solve a problem like the Marquis? I confess I haven’t seen MARQUIS, in which the naughty nobleman’s life is enacted by puppets designed by renaissance man Roland Topor, with the Marquis’s most satisfying relationship being with his talking penis, but that sounds like the most realistic version conceivable. Nor have I seen Peter Brook’s film of his stage success, THE MARAT/SADE. I have scant regard for Brook as a filmmaker, but that might be at least a bit interesting. Saw the play once. It was a bit interesting. Philip Kaufman’s QUILLS falls flat because again, it’s reluctant to admit how nasty Sade’s fantasies were: when it tries to do so, the film’s rather jovial tone disintegrates, which would be fine if it were an intentional effect, but it doesn’t seem to be. Pasolini’s SALO is still the most unadulterated, apocalyptic version of Sade put on screen, and that was promptly banned in nearly every country on Earth. I believe it was legal to screen it on the Moon, but the film came out three years after the last manned flight there. I’m not sure astronaut Eugene A. Cernan has seen the film to this day.

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Their royal lownesses, the King and Queen of Lilliput.

Returning to the Endfield: he directs it with some pictorial flair (although my MGM DVD seems to cut things off at the top), aided by decorous locations, but there’s sometimes a lack of good sense in his shooting: after showing the newly married Dullea and Massey advancing between two lines of people, he cuts to a reverse angle, seemingly a POV, but shot from knee-height as if the protagonists had been abruptly munchkinated. He’s also inclined to masturbate the zoom lens a bit.

Somehow, the film is still a decent watch, maybe because it has enough bad taste  to compensate for its lack of bad taste. It’s not offensive as porn or very upsetting as drama (apart from that one scene), but it’s decorated with enough lapses of common sense to make it amusing. The opening credits, in which Sade is envisioned as a ball-playing winged fish, are ludicrously abstract, and the music by the wonderfully-named Billy Strange chooses to equate decadence with modernity, so that the faux-18th century chamber music segues into bongo jazz or wah-wah guitar whenever anything juicy threatens to happen. Like most bad decisions in films scoring, this approach has a perfectly sound reason behind it: it’s just that it doesn’t work. I expect Michael Mann to try something similar any day now.

Here’s some more sado-erotic action with Lilli Palmer, thirty years earlier in Carol Reed’s pre-make of SHOWGIRLS, enticingly entitled A GIRL MUST LIVE. Lilli’s Scottish opponent is the great Renee Houston.

Books #1: Corman at ya!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 4, 2009 by dcairns

There’s a meme circulating, and rather a good one, in which bloggers name the ten film books that exerted the greatest influence on them. It’s a voluntary meme, but it’s so seductive — one wants to pay tribute to those things that transformed one, like a sort of cinematic Charles Atlas pamphlet, into a bulging MAN.

I’m cheating in all kinds of ways with my list, because I think enough has been said about Hitchcock-Truffaut, and I want to be interesting, and I’ve probably paid more than sufficient homage to A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (though i still have plenty more to watch from that one). But anyhow ~

5106_562076754361_284001094_3678669_1729374_nFiona and I with newly signed book.

1) How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime — Roger Corman (with Jim Jerome) delivers most of Corman’s best anecdotes, and much of the lecture he would give his young proteges, which is full of practical and artistic wisdom. (“The eye is the organ most used in movie-watching. If you can’t interest the eye, you’ll never engage the mind.”)  And he secures quotes from these guys which make up about a third of the book:

MARTIN SCORSESE: He once said, “Martin, what you have to get is a very good first reel because people want to know what’s going on. Then you need a very good last reel because people want to hear how it all turns out. Everything else doesn’t really matter.” Probably the best sense I have ever heard in the movies.”

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Roger Corman’s autograph; “Pen Emm.”

The book is also very funny, as in the stuff about shooting TEENAGE CAVEMAN (with Robert Vaughn, later “remade” by Larry Clark), which Corman is very insistent was called PREHISTORIC WORLD when he made it.

BEACH DICKERSON: I must be the only person who played three death scenes and attended his own funeral in the same movie. I had to be the guy who drowns in the Sucking Sands, as the tribe called them. It was actually a rather scummy jungle part of an arboretum in Pasadena. Then we got to Bronson and we’re filming the funeral and Roger says, “What are you doing here?” and I say, “Roger, this is my funeral. The tribe is grieving over me.” He says, “No one will recognise you. Play a tom-tom at the funeral.” Then he asks me to be the Man from the Burning Plains who rides into the tribe’s land, drops off the horse, and dies. “What about the stuntman?” I ask. “Put Beach in the stranger’s outfit,” he yells, and they drape me up looking like General Grant with a bearskin rug and a big black wig.

Then we go to the big bear hunt scene. “Who do you have for the bear?” I ask Roger. “You,” he says, and they bring me this huge bear-skin suit. “How the hell am I going to play a bear?” I ask him.

“How do I know?” he says.

“But Roger, this is insane.  I’m no stuntman. I’m just a fucking half-assed little actor.”

“Don’t make problems. Just do it.” The true Roger Corman speaks up. So after a couple of these takes where I come down this hill with my head hanging between my legs it’s 150 degrees inside this fucking bearsuit and I’m dying. I get down the hill, he yells, “BEAR, STAND UP!” I stand up. “BEAR, GROWL!” So I growl. He goes, “MEAN, BEAR, MEAN!” I growl louder, scratch the air with my deadly paws. “MEANER, BEAR, I WANT YOU MEANER!” he yells.

I’m going nuts inside this suit, growling and flailing, and then he yells to the rest of the extras, “Okay, tribesmen, KILL  THAT FUCKING BEAR!” and thirty guys jump on me, take me down, and beat the shit out of me.

More soon!

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