Archive for Roger Corman

Red or Dead

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2010 by dcairns

“It was night, and the rain fell: and, falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe.

I like the way Poe films always try to shoehorn in a few direct quotations. I offer the neglected, but excellent, phrase above to anyone who can find a good home for it. Griffith’s THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE stuffs quite a few quotes into its intertitles, and Corman’s Poe films very often end with a printed quote. The idea is the same in both cases: shore up the impression of classical authority and fidelity by inserting bits of actual Poe in, like mortar between bricks which very likely owe nothing whatsoever to the source text.

Poe’s Masque of the Red Death is only about five pages long in my edition, so it’s surprising (but delightful) that the resultant movie is possibly Corman’s masterpiece. Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont deserves the lion’s share, not so much fleshing out a skeleton as assembling a whole new structure extrapolated from a few intriguing metatarsals. There’s no satanism in the Poe story, so Prince Prospero is essentially Beaumont’s man, and apart from the figure of Death, there’s no supporting cast either. Corman reports that he put the script aside while he shot THE SECRET INVASION, and when he came back to it he felt it was a little slight, and so with R. Wright Campbell he expanded it by folding in the plot of Hop-Frog, another Poe story which happens to feature a masque, and is likewise set in a vaguely medieval European court. Even though it’s buried within another picture, Hop-Frog probably qualifies as the Poe story most faithfully treated by Corman, the only major change being the substitution of eight fat men in ourang-outang costumes, for one Patrick Magee in a gorilla suit.

Few Corman productions can have offered such time for reflection, and it clearly helped here. Among other things, the movie can be considered simply as a series of very good scenes. No bad ones, few average ones, lots and lots of really good ones. Admittedly the “good” characters, apart from Hop Toad (the excellent, understated Skip Martin), are a little dull — even Nigel Green can’t make much out of his staunch dad role — but they’re decently cast and played. The Sadeian Prince Prospero makes a splendid role for Uncle Winnie, who dials the fruitiness down, having indulged in the more comical horrors of TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN. Prince Prospero has all the best arguments, and although his obeisance to Satan certainly isn’t endorsed by the film, all his arguments against the existence of a benign god are basically allowed to stand. It’s Death, a force of nature, who does him in in the end.

Poe strikes me as something of an atheist — even if his stories are rich in supernatural phenomena, he’s more inclined to use them for obvious allegorical purposes, and he’s the father of the Scooby Doo explanation for Impossible Crimes. His rationalist side is countered by his deep devotion to dark psychological depths, with his characters yanked about like puppets by emotions buried too deep to be recognised — it’s a guilty conscience that speaks through The Tell-Tale Heart and The Imp of the Perverse. And though characters may rise from the grave in Poe, he seems highly doubtful of any final resurrection — the whole message of The Raven is that the dead are permanently taken from us, to be met with nevermore.

All good heavy stuff, to be danced around as playfully as possible by Price, Magee, Hazel Court and the rest. Fiona and I are big fans of the monochrome rooms: Prince Pros tells us that his father imprisoned “a friend” in the Yellow Chamber for some years, after which the man was unable to look upon the sun, or even a daffodil. We wondered what the effects of the purple room and the white room would be? Perhaps an aversion, in the first case, to Ribena blackcurrant juice and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and in the second case, to snows and sea-birds of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and to the face of Bebe Neuwirth.

Colours are important in this film! See how many of them you can spot. At the end, the Cavalcade of Eastmancolor Deaths, the Red Death, White Death, Green Death, Yellow Death… so many potential sequels! Come on, Roger, Poe only gave you five pages to get you started on this one — how about a sequel that’s all your own? It can be five pages shorter than this one, if that helps?

“What is terror? Come. Silence. Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passing of time? Or is it the failing beat of your own heart? Or the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room? But let us not dwell on terror. The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed… only to the previous few.”

In/Congruence

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on October 29, 2010 by dcairns

I’ve always felt that Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, stylised and willfully studio-bound as they are, owed something to the works of Powell & Pressburger… Corman, who’s usually frank and generous in crediting his inspirations, has never mentioned this to my knowledge (Fellini and Bergman get name-checked, though), but I still feel it’s there… I first got the impression from the climax of HOUSE OF USHER, where the mad Madeleine (Myrna Fahey), risen from the grave, scares the leaping bejesus out of Vincent Price. I thought, “Ah-hah, Kathleen Byron in BLACK NARCISSUS.”

But watching MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH again the other night, I was reminded during the psychedelic satanic ritual scene of THE RED SHOES by a quick shot of Hazel Court’s feet (or a balletic stand-in’s) running ~ here’s Moira Shearer’s version ~

And here’s Hazel’s ~

It has to be influence, otherwise why is Hazel running en pointe? It’s not just the quick-moving close-up track, but the way it’s incorporated into the sequence as a whole, struck me as a definite swipe (and I use the term with admiration, not pejoratively). Of course, cinematographer Nic Roeg, steeped in British cinema, may have suggested the idea, but he couldn’t have done so on HOUSE OF USHER. So, then I wondered if, really, THE RED SHOES was the overall influence. It just so happens that THE RED SHOES was one of my first Blu-Ray purchases, and so I ran it. (It was beautiful.)

Whadayaknow? It seems like Fahey’s impressive, pantomimic gesture with her bloody nails might stem from Moira Shearer’s moves in SHOES, and indeed, that Corman’s whole zombie-dream-sequence approach, borrowed to pad out almost every one of his Poe movies (and provide visual relief from the chatter), might owe something to Vicky’s nocturnal adventure in the demi-monde of TRS’s ballet scene…

USHER even features a fast shot following Mark Damon’s feet down a flight of stairs which seems to echo the spiral ironwork staircase shot in THE RED SHOES recently homaged by Scorsese in SHUTTER ISLAND.

I don’t for a second think Mr. Corman is trying to pull a fast one — it’s quite possible that THE RED SHOES exerted a subconscious influence, or that it was fresh in his mind when he made USHER and MASQUE, but is less so now. All I want to do is congratulate him on his excellent taste.

(Images aren’t taken from the Blu-Ray of TRS, because I don’t know how to do that.)

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.

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