Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel Review
Corman’s World, in essence, is nothing more than 90 minutes worth of wonderful anecdotes intercut with a whole bunch of equally wonderful film clips. Considering the cast list and, more importantly, the subject matter it’s unlikely things could have been any other way. Among the assembled talking heads we find Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Pam Grier, William Shatner, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, David Carradine, Ron Howard and plenty more besides. And they’re all here to talk about and reminisce of their experiences with Roger Corman, the ultimate independent filmmaker and the enabler of many of their careers. His half-a-century within (or rather outside of) the industry is given a breakneck rundown, from his first job as messenger boy at 20th Century Fox to his latest venture at the time of filming, Dinoshark, which we watch being shot in Mexico for the Syfy Channel.
That job at Fox, which Corman took in the late forties, proved instructive to the rest of his career. He soon moved up the ladder to become a script analyst, albeit one who was only ever asked to read the awful prospects such was his youth in comparison to his co-workers. Things changed when he got his hands on what would become The Gunfighter, the 1950 Western with Gregory Peck. Corman made a few suggestions only for his work to go unrecognised; his superior nabbed all the credit and the cash bonus thus crystallising the idea in his head that he had to go independent. The first feature was Monster from the Ocean Floor, directed by Wyott Ordung in 1954, and it set the template for the next fifty-plus years: keep the budget low and the genre expectations in place. The current productions - Dinoshark and its bedfellows Piranhaconda, Sharktopus and Camel Spiders - aren’t that far removed.
Of course, there’s much more to Corman than various forms of underwater terror. He was also responsible, in some guise or other, for a huge amount of genuinely great films. The Edgar Allan Poe adaptations are held in high regard, especially The Masque of the Red Death, or The Tomb of Ligeia if you happen to be Martin Scorsese (he repeats the acclaim here). The Wild Angels remains arguably the best biker movie ever made, its nihilistic edge as shocking today as it was in the late sixties. A lot of his earlier directorial efforts bear a second look too, whether it’s A Bucket of Blood, the original Little Shop of Horrors or Rock All Night, which barely ever gets the acclaim it deserves (though I believe Tony Rayns is a fan). Plus we need to acknowledge the many gems that got made through his New World Pictures: Cockfighter, Death Race 2000, Piranha and the greatest teen movie of them all, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
Given its relentlessly snappy pace, Corman’s World is able to flit easily between the classics and the trashier side of things. The shoddy FX of such early ventures of It Conquered the World (a quick Google search will reveal the monster’s ‘distinctive’ look for those who’ve yet to sample its pleasures) give way to the classier likes of The House of Usher within minutes. There’s no time to dwell on the lesser works, although it should be stated that judgement is never really passed. Certainly, Jack Nicholson may claim that each of his performances for Corman were “grim”, with Cry Baby Killer going so far as to be “humiliating”, but such dismissals are rare and rarely directed at the man himself. Director Alex Stapleton chooses his clips so that we may make up our own minds. Some may very well laugh at the snippets from The Hot Box or Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, others may decide that they need to track them down immediately. Interestingly, with each of the clips we already know exactly where we are such is Corman’s attention to genre. It doesn’t matter whether we’re watching Pam Grier tussle in the Philippines or David Carradine running down an innocent fisherman, it all somehow makes perfect sense - no need for exposition here - and there’s something to be said for that.
If criticism is low, then endorsement is high. Happily, many of the talking heads have long been knowledgeable commentators on the industry. Scorsese, of course, has made a number of documentaries on his love of cinema, whilst Bogdanovich was a critic before becoming a filmmaker, not to mention an author since (including This is Orson Welles) and sometime documentarian (Directed by John Ford). Even those without such credentials are incredibly intelligent and informed when it comes to their craft which means we’re getting more than just platitudes from Ron Howard, Allan Arkush, Jonathan Demme and so on - they can back it up too. As such we get the context to go along with the praise, explaining why, for example, the drive-in teen movies of the late fifties were so enticing or locating Corman’s politics within his movies. Meanwhile, they also deliver great anecdotes as when Bogdanovich discusses the concept of Mamie Van Doren as a telepathic Venusian. The actors are just as good on this count too: Dick Miller reveals how he played both a cowboy and an Indian for Apache Women and ended up killing himself onscreen; Peter Fonda mentions how The Wild Angels saved him from becoming the next Dean Jones for Disney, which is where his agent had aspirations.
All of which proves thoroughly entertaining and consistently informative, even for those of us who know Corman’s well. If you’re looking for a comparison then the recent ‘Ozploitation’ doc Not Quite Hollywood is as good as any. Indeed, Corman’s World is in many ways its US equivalent such was the heavy influence and prolific nature of its subject. Yet where this documentary differs is in its personal portrait. As we’re repeatedly told, Corman doesn’t look the part of movie mogul; there’s no cigar, no gruff attitude, none of those clichés. Instead he comes across as charming, polite and well-spoken. Scorsese describes him as “eloquent” and “elegant”. De Niro goes one step further and decides he’s “almost English”. Jack Nicholson even sheds a few tears as he recalls their working relationship. Fittingly the documentary ends with Corman receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy to a packed house of appreciative peers and one-time apprentices.
Such is the good natured vibe it feels a little churlish to go nitpicking. There aren’t any major flaws and minor liberties with chronology - such as the suggestion that 1962’s The Intruder (Corman’s Shatner-starring exposé of Deep South racism) came after the Poe cycle - are easily excused. However, the central argument that the rise of the blockbuster, courtesy Jaws and Star Wars, effectively ended Corman’s golden period is a little too simplistic for my liking and it would have been nice if Corman’s World had probed at least a little into his output from 1980 onwards. I’m fully aware that it’s probably harder to defend Carnosaur 2 or Body Chemistry 4 or any of the Bloodfist franchise, though I would have welcomed the attempt, not to mention a little background into their making too. With that said, the coverage that we do have is superb and not to be underestimated. Corman’s World is a wonderfully snappy ride through two-and-a-half decades in the life of the B-movie and comes highly recommended.
Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel arrives onto UK Blu-ray and DVD on March 26th courtesy Anchor Bay. A Blu-ray was provided for review purposes and so it is this edition under discussion. The presentation quality is, expectedly, very good. The film arrives in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and with TrueHD Multi-channel soundtrack. The level of clarity is superb for the newly recorded talking heads material, though do be aware that there’s a lot of archive material throughout the documentary. In some cases this looks very good - the interviews from an earlier Corman-dedicated doc, 1978’s Hollywood’s Wild Angel, possess an excellent level of grain and detail. In others it looks absolutely terrible, especially the earliest works which often look like a combination of VHS or poorly uploaded YouTube clips. Sometimes the ratios are also off or the odd clip may be vertically stretched, but of course this is all down to the materials to hand and nothing to do with the transfer itself. Some may therefore decide that standard definition will do and, of course, they’re free to make that choice.
The extras are essentially deleted scenes. There are further interview snippets and a series of “special messages” to Corman which never made the final cut. The former once again presents plenty in the way of anecdotes - Eli Roth discussing meeting the man at the Empire Movie Awards - with all of these bits presumably not used because they didn’t quite fit into the overall structure. Indeed, some of the discussion relates to the post-1980 work that’s pretty much removed, as when Penelope Spheeris mentions her earliest movies as director or we get a tale from the making of Slumber Party Massacre III. As for the messages, these are pretty much what you’ll expect, though we do find a few faces who didn’t appear in the film itself, including Clint Howard and Brett Ratner. Topping off the package is the theatrical trailer.