The Roger Corman Collection Review
It probably wasn't intentional but this box of six Roger Corman-directed films begins with the first film he ever directed, Five Guns West. A year before his science-fiction debut with The Day The World Ended and five years before the start of his well-regarded series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations came this western, a Civil War drama in which a Confederate captain leads a mission to intercept an intelligence officer defecting to the Union. The stagecoach that he's in is guarded by the cavalry so he pardons five gunslingers of their crimes, which includes the murder of innocents. As one of them says, "He ain't never killed legal before!"
So far, so like The Dirty Dozen many years later, only the Civil War setting won't be as familiar to European viewers as it might be to those in the States and Corman keeps a tighter rein on his film than did Aldridge in his more sprawling but more entertaining war movie. Aldridge's characters were also more memorable but that's no disservice to the writer/director. Neither Corman's writing nor his directing lets his film down but some of his cast does. Jonathan Haze (Billy in this and, later, Seymour in The Little Shop Of Horrors), the youngest member of the gang, is headstrong and silly, throwing punches, knives and insults at anything that moves. The film does get a lot better when they arrive at a ranch that's in as remote a place as one can imagine. There, they meet Dorothy Malone and their bid to impress her draws their bickering between one another to a close. But these men, each one of whom hasn't seen a lady in a long time, veer between drawing their guns on one another and, in the case of Billy, attempting to rape her.
Five Guns West isn't bad but it's far from being a classic western. It shows little of the imagination that Corman would bring to his later Poe adaptations. The genre setting aside, it's closer to The Day The World Ended than anything else, good enough as it is but also as plain ordinary a movie as any. Late in the film, the stagecoach does arrive and the gang, without the gold they believed they'd find on it, turn on one another. But where Hawks or Ford would have made the ambush and shootout a much larger affair than it actually is, Corman gives it a minute of screen time and moves back to the arguments over the gold. And that's just not as interesting as, comparing this to his later career, the Venusian from It Conquered The World, Audrey Jr from The Little Shop Of Horrors or Dick Miller's sculptures in the beatnik classic A Bucket Of Blood.
The second western in the set is The Gunslinger, again made before Corman settled into science-fiction and horror, and stars Beverly Garland as Rose Hood, the wife of a marshal in a small town who, after his death, straps on his guns and his silver star to take over law and order in the town. Cleaning things up makes her an enemy of Erica Paige (Allison Hayes), the owner of strips of land and of the saloon who's waiting to cash in should the railroad come through town. Unfortunately for Paige, only one person comes between her and the money that she's been gambling on...Rose Hood. Hood shoots dead her husband's murderer at his funeral. She orders Paige's chorus line of three dancers to leave town by Friday. But when Paige hires a killer, Caine Miro (John Ireland), he and Hood fall for one another. Can Miro kill the woman he loves?
No matter how much one knows of Corman, one thing rises to the top, his ability to make a film for tuppence and in mere days, not weeks or months. This later films would permit him to run his cameras almost every minute of every day during his two-movies-a-week schedules, the lights of the studios giving him the freedom to shoot day and night. Corman had less choice with westerns, where much of the action takes place in scrub land and in small, wood-built towns. However, that's no obstacle when it comes to The Gunslinger. Corman must have spent most of his days indoors or asleep as his location shoots occur either before sunrise or sunset, all in the half-light that comes in those times.
If that wasn't enough evidence of Corman's cost-cutting in The Gunslinger then look out for tyre tracks in the mud, shots that begin before the cast are ready and horses that, thanks to the miracle of cranking-up his footage, gallop at a pace not far off that of the average car. To that add a town that lacks people, horses and much in the way of dressing and you see sight of the same Corman who Samuel Z Arkoff, head of American International Pictures, said, "Roger, for chrissake, hire a couple more extras and put a little more furniture on the set!" Little wonder that Mystery Science Theatre 3000 featured this film shortly before Joel left the show, wondering how John Ireland can be in two places at once - "It's physics!" says Tom Servo - and pointing out how scenes begin a second or two before the cast are completely ready. Typical of the Corman of the fifties, then, but atypical of a western. And all the worse for it.
"They're wild and they're no angels!" In The Psychotronic Encyclopædia of Film, Michael Weldon writes that the events of The Wild Angels was inspired by the true-life stories of the Venice Chapter of the Hell's Angels. No matter, they still sued the producers for defamation of character not long after the film's release. It's hard to see why. Three years after this film's release, the Hell's Angels in California would have stabbed Meredith Hunter in Altamont. I feel that, if the case ever actually made it to court, the presiding judge would still be helpless with laughter at the thought of it.
Fonda stars as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a gang of Hell's Angels who rides over to the oilfield where his friend Loser works (Bruce Dern). Loser recently lost his ride, only that Blues knows where it's being kept, a Mexican biker club in Mecca. But Blues's breaking out of Loser's bike goes wrong. It's broken up when the motorbike cops arrive. Loser steals a police bike to let the others get away but on a barren road outside Mecca, he's shot in the back. Blues, Mike (Nancy Sinatra) and Gaysh (Diane Ladd) kidnap him from hospital and though he dies at home, in a swastika-adorned bedroom, Blues plans one last party for his buddy.
"Where d'you think you're going?" "Anywhere but here, man!" As things go, it's not quite, "What are you rebelling against?" "What ya got?" but it's close. Two years after the last of his Edgar Allen Poe films, The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964), Roger Corman put away the gothic sets, the castles and palaces and the creaking doors of medieval dungeons and reinvented the biker movie with this film. In the years that followed, Rebel Rousers and Hell's Angels On Wheels (1967), The Hellcats (1968) Hell's Angels '69 and The Cycle Savages (1969) and Bury Me An Angel (1972) would all follow, with or without Corman's involvement but this remains the best of the lot, better even than the much more famous Easy Rider (1969). In a lot of ways, The Wild Angels was a film ahead of it's time. Granted, The Wild One had come out in 1953, its foreshadowing of the rock'n'roll riots to come helping it to a national ban in the UK, but this film does a much better job of portraying the violence, the drug use and the easy sexual encounters in biker gangs than did Brando in '53.
Corman's achievement with The Wild Angels was to produce a film that felt bang up to date. Society was changing fast. A year before this, The Beatles released Help!, a typical pop movie in which larking about and having fun was still the order of the day. With The Wild Angels, Loser's body is propped up on a bench at his funeral with a joint in his mouth. His coffin is wrapped in a swastika and the bikers not only toss Loser out of it but heave the badly-beaten preacher into it. And whilst everyone parties with liquor and bongos - the one anachronism is with these bikers pulling I'm-really-out-of-it-me!' faces - Gaysh is pulled down behind the lectern where she's raped by two of the bikers. Completely unlike the films that preceded it, The Wild Angels feels like the foundation on which a revolution in film was built, as important to the counter-culture as Hendrix and the Stones, Dylan going electric and Timothy Leary urging everyone to tune in, turn on and drop out! Little wonder, then, that Primal Scream would find a place for Heavenly Blues on Screamadelica. "We wanna be free...to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man!" And when the film ends with distant sirens, stones being thrown at the bikers in the graveyard and them roaring off, its nihilism seems complete. "We gotta get out of here Blues!" "There's nowhere to go!"
The Haunted Palace is the first of the horror films included in this set. It stars Vincent Price as Joseph Curwen, a man whose guilt is decided by a group of villagers knocking on his door in the dead of night by torchlight. They drag him out of his house, a palace brought brick-by-brick from Europe, and accuse him of witchcraft. Young girls have been disappearing at night only to reappear early in the morning with no knowledge of where they have been nor who they were with. The villagers claim that Curwen had hexed these young women and as he is tied atop a pyre he is accused of his crimes. Curwen is guilty indeed. Before the fire is lit, Curwen curses the village of Arkham, telling those in it that their children and their children's children, "shall have just cause to regret the actions of this night. From this night onward, you shall bear my curse!" With that, the pyre is lit and dies screaming.
One-hundred-and-ten years later, Charles Dexter Ward (also Price) arrives in the village of Arkham with the deed to the Curwen palace in his possession having inherited it. Unaware of the history of the town, Ward finds a distinctly chilly welcome in the Burning Man inn in which they enquire as to the whereabouts of the Curwen house. Guided to the palace, Ward finds that the old place still has a caretaker, Simon Orne (Lon Chaney, Jr) and soon learns of what happened to Curwen, whose portrait still hangs over the fireplace. He also learns of the curse that lies on Arkham. The village is filled with mutants, whose eyes are sealed shut. Aided by Orne, Charles Dexter Ward is possessed by the spirit of Curwen who, once again, begins performing the rites to welcome the old ones into the world.
If the name Charles Dexter Ward is at all familiar, even if the actual story is not, then it ought to be clear that The Haunted Palace is an adaptation not of an Edgar Allen Poe story (although it does borrow its title from Poe) but of HP Lovecraft's The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward. Unsurprisingly, there is little of Poe in The Haunted Palace but a good deal more of Lovecraft. Miss Fitch, the young woman whose capture sets the events of the film in action is suspended above a pit that, when opened, reveals the sound of a distinctly Lovecraftian monster, the very kind of thing that Poe avoided in his work. Dr Marinus Willet (Frank Maxwell) educates Charles Dexter Ward in the history of Arkham and it is he who first speaks of the Necronomicon, Yog-Sothoth and TThe dark ones from beyond who once ruled the world!" Even the New England setting is more of Lovecraft than of Poe.
The film works like a much faster-paced version of Lovecraft's story. The end result is much the same but where Lovecraft revealed the obsessions of his Charles Dexter Ward by having him spending more and more time in the library researching his ancestor, Corman has his Ward lose a battle of wills between himself and Curwen. The setting is typical of Corman in this period, a dimly-lit castle, the rich furnishings of its rooms and figures creeping in the shadows. Compared to The Fall Of The House Of Usher, The Pit And The Pendulum and The Masque Of The Red Death, it looks slightly more modern but only because of Corman moving the action to nineteenth-century New England instead of medieval Europe. However, it's in the film's soundtrack that Corman's best efforts lie. Ward is haunted by his ancestor and Corman uses recordings of the night of Curwen's death, of Price as Curwen and a very effective score to unveil the horrors. And plenty of horror there is too. As well as the mutants, Corman has his Ward go grave-robbing, resurrecting the dead, taking his revenge on the children of those who put Curwen to death and calling forth the monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos. It may not be Edgar Allen Poe's Haunted Palace - introductions to Lovecraft's book have laughed at the very suggestion - but Corman has produced a very creditable movie, one that offers plenty of horror, of suspense and, most importantly for a Lovecraft work, of atmosphere. Still, after all these years, amongst the very best Lovecraft's difficult-to-film works.
Nearing the end of The Roger Corman Collection, we come to a brace of Edgar Allen Poe films, the first of which is The Premature Burial. Catalepsy and the fear of being buried alive were common themes in Poe's works, featuring not only in The Premature Burial but also in The Fall Of The House Of Usher. Given his series of films based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, it was only fair that Corman would eventually come to The Premature Burial. The third in that series but made without Vincent Price, this stars Ray Milland as Guy Carrell, the last of a family who have died, in Carrell's words, "like a single candle in a dark and airless room."
As the film opens, a gravedigger whistles Molly Malone as he uncovers the coffin of Carrell's father. Opening the casket and expecting to find a heavily decomposed body, everyone is shock to see a corpse whose fingers are black with the dried blood from his having scratched deep into the wooden coffin. As Carrell learns of his family's legacy, he calls off his engagement to Emily Gault (Hazel Court). Gault, however, refuses to leave without knowing why. She calls on Carrell, demanding that he speak to her. Carrell explains the history of his family but Gault offers to nurse him back to full health. He accepts their offer and they marry but on their wedding day, Emily plays Molly Malone on the piano. It brings back the events of that day in the graveyard and Carrell demands that she never play it again. But he is lost to the illness of the Carrell family and lives only in fear of being buried alive.
Neither as gothic as Corman's Fall Of The House Of Usher nor with as much horror as The Pit And The Pendulum or The Masque Of The Red Death, The Premature Burial falls short of the better-known Poe adaptations. Some have explained this away by pointing at Ray Milland playing a part that probably should have gone to Vincent Price but Milland really doesn't do anything wrong. The problem is more the lack of imagination. There is a memorable dream sequence in which Milland imagines himself buried alive in the crypt that he built in the days following his marriage but nothing, not even the two gravediggers who leer out of the fog at Carrell, can match the returning Madeleine Usher, the swish of Medina's pendulum nor the figure of the Red Death. The rather happy tune of Molly Malone also makes for an odd choice as there simply isn't anything remotely chilling about it. Much of the film is concerned solely with Carrell's fear of catalepsy and while Milland does a good job with presenting this obsession and making it believable, there's still very little for the audience to connect with, not least when he flip-flops from happiness to misery with the sound of a cat mewing. The film does take rather a sinister turn after an hour has passed and a conspiracy is revealed as the film ends but it's much too late by then.
Finally, we come to the film that, had he only ever made films no better than the average home movie, would still justify Corman's reputation as a director, The Masque Of The Red Death. Opening with an atmosphere as sombre as that of Bergman, Corman reveals Poe's plague as a hooded figure in red telling an old woman whom he meets in the forest that their delivery from tyranny is at hand. She accepts a rose from this figure and leaves through the mist that has settled on the woods. Finding this same woman screaming at the moment of her death, her face a mess of bloody red sores, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) retreats into his castle and locks the gate behind him. With him he takes a young girl from the village (Francesca, played by Jane Asher), imprisons two others and surrounds himself with the nobility to see out the cursed red death. But death has the means to come where it is least wanted.
Though mild by later standards - much of the debauchery seems to come from the amusement comes from watching Prospero's guests imitate animals at his command - Corman's talent is in his pulling back from Prospero's court into the rooms at its sides. Cinematographer Nic Roeg leaves the hilarity of the palace to follow Prospero through a series of coloured rooms, each one of which reveals something of Prospero. Yellow was once a prison, purple a place where God is absent, white a room of some hope in which Prospero permits Francesca to visit her father and her love while black is forbidden. Later we see why. In a beautifully-filmed sequence, Juliana (Hazel Court) embraces Satan by branding an inverted cruciform on her breast before falling into a sleep in which she is seduced by a series of figures. Her death soon after is celebrated by Prospero. "Do not mourn for Juliana...she has just married a friend of mine."
Poe's Masque Of The Red Death was a slender tale, albeit a highlight amongst his work. To add bulk, Corman included the poem of Hop Toad in his film, the story of a dwarf taking revenge on one (Alfredo, played by Patrick Magee) who slighted his love, Alfredo. It offers the viewer a brief respite from much of the horror but still ends with a grisly murder during the masquerade's entertainment. By then, though, The Masque Of The Red Death has well settled into its story and Corman returns to his theme of the plague being as real a figure as his Prospero himself. Prospero has demanded that no one wear red for fear of the plague beyond the castle walls. But one does. In it's end, The Masque Of The Red Death mixes horror and gracefulness as effectively as any film. It returns to the woods with death being, "...only one of many messengers." A true horror classic, as beautifully filmed as it was written by Poe and with surprises until its end.
These are a bit of a mix of aspect ratios. Five Guns West is the only film here in 4:3 whereas The Gunslinger arrives in 1.85:1. The remaining four films are in 2.35:1 although the actual state of the prints are fairly consistent. All of the six films show plenty of white spots and other faults, never isolated to any particular scene but occurring throughout. However, there are some moments in these films that are worse than others. The Premature Burial sports one fault so noticeable and so persistent that actually caused this viewer to get up and try to wipe it off the screen. As one of the later films in the set, The Masque Of The Red Death ought to look great and while the colours have that richness that one associates with studio-set films of the sixties, the left side of the picture is squashed such that anyone caught there is a good deal thinner than they would be elsewhere in the frame.
That's not the only fault with the film. In common with Five Guns West and The Premature Burial, The Masque Of The Red Death has a handful of scenes that are slightly out of focus. These, though, have little to do with Optimum's release of this DVD, more that Corman, once a scene was printed, probably refused to go back and reshoot it unless it was unusable. The particular scene in Five Guns West is so out of focus that it's difficult to say which of the characters is featured in it but Corman still ran with it. Otherwise, the films show moments of softness but get better the closer the set gets to The Masque Of The Red Death.
The final film in the set is the best-looking of the six. The Wild Angels isn't just a great film but it looks terrific, be it in the bongo party or in the biker procession to the graveyard where Heavenly Blues will bury Loser. It may be that in watching The Wild Angels in the middle of back to back westerns and gothic horrors, it has the advantage of looking much more up to date but it's sharp, the colours, muted at times and rich in others, are spot on and the image has a clarity that the foggy horrors do not.
Otherwise, all six films are presented in DD2.0 and sound pretty good. There's some background noise in the two westerns, moreso in The Gunslinger than Five Guns West, but, like the video, the set does get better with the more recent films. It's no surprise, then, to say that the two best-sounding films are The Masque Of The Red Death and The Wild Angels but The Haunted Palace isn't so far off either of them. Finally, none of these six films are subtitled.
There are very few extras in a set where it's the films that count. The Wild Angels has a Trailer (2m50s), as does the The Haunted Palace (2m08s), Five Guns West (1m51s) and Gunslinger (1m55s) but The Premature Burial and The Masque Of The Red Death have nothing.