An Evening with Roger Corman
By Kristin Battestella
Those familiar with their horror history know and love some of Roger Corman’s more famous entries to the genre- his successful Poe cycle of films starring Vincent Price, for example. However, even the cult greats have to start somewhere. So here are a few early, speculative, scary studies from the longtime producer and director’s repertoire- chock full of camp, creepy, crime, and low budget glory!
Dementia 13 – Roger Corman produced and eventually interfered with this 1963 directorial debut of Francis Ford Coppola (I will hit you if you need a film reference for Francis Ford Coppola!) Clearly made on the cheap with quick, iffy dialogue, most of the picture is too dark and tough to see. The title doesn’t have much to do with anything, either, but the opening crime, water motifs, and axe murders are pretty entertaining. It’s a weird mix of both men- Coppola’s brooding atmosphere and complexity against Corman’s hint of over the top blood. Fans of both will indeed be curious to see this special blend of contemporary crime and creepy Irish castle. Eerie music and suspenseful, deceptive builds carry the weird family, death, and grief thanks to Coppola’s stylized interpretation. However, Corman’s insisted upon shocks aren’t bad, either. It’s almost as if two different films are happening- a ghost story and a slasher mystery. It makes the vision muddled at times, but it’s all quite creepy and entertaining nonetheless. Yes, this will be too slow or poorly done for some modern audiences, but a few good ghostly scares and deaths make this one wonderfully worthwhile for fans of the boys.
Last Woman on Earth –Big C re-teams with Antony Carbone (later of The Pit and the Pendulum) for this highly symbolic and apocalyptic hour plus from 1960. The kinky pre-Bond opening credits segue from a slow, glorious observation of the female form into a high stakes cockfight. Yeah. It’s all illicit enough to start- a money man on the run in Puerto Rico with love triangle potential between his scorned wife and uptight lawyer friend. The premise is sound, with a decent execution for the budget and lots more potential. However, the set up itself feels slim and simple at best and preposterous science at worse. We’ve seen films with an unexplained disaster and character self-destruction, but a few scenes here become too obvious, even lame, or slow with on the chin dialogue. The scandalous approach is also a bit uneven, for Corman may be ahead of his time with the tale and can’t really show anything saucy. Insults like “You stink!” create some anticlimactic blows, and yet such hollow words can follow some hefty sexual innuendo. One man can ask another how she was despite her claim of, “I’m married to you…He didn’t rape me.” Meow! I’m no fan of remakes, but I dare say a sophisticated update is do just to straighten out the naughty at the core here. Though hampered by its era and budget, there are some worthwhile thoughts and twists here. Besides, did he just leave a dollar on the bar for his drink? Does that include the tip?
Swamp Women – Real Louisiana filming and vintage New Orleans treats help get this Corman directed 1955 crime fest over its dry start and rough, unfinished looks. Though trapped in the fifties sensibilities - a policewoman going undercover in a prison to find a cache of diamonds oh my!- Corman is trying to be edgy and his heavy attempts for the time do come across. And hey, even if this one isn’t a famous, bright fifties spectacle, there’s plenty of women behind bars angst for today’s saucy male minds- not to mention the eponymous camp alligator action. Short shorts, catfights, Beverly Garland (My Three Sons) bitch slaps Touch Connors (Mannix) yes indeed! Our lone man is tied up by five women, some of whom have been in the joint for three years. He’s not complaining. History fans will enjoy the period photography, but otherwise the datedness and poor production keeps this one off the mark. Does that make these diamonds any less entertaining? Absolutely not!
The Wasp Woman – It seems Roger Corman really likes his women, and this 1959 creepy is The Fly for chicks. Though not saucy or purely for ogle value- which is both good and bad depending on your point of view- the outdoor values, regular Fred Katz music, and scary buzzing sounds set off the more mature science fiction thoughts and laboratory desperation. One chick does get to slap another hysterical chick, yes, but the concepts here are just as fun. How far will we go for beauty? What cost is too high? The suggestion of bees and wasps is also chilling for those who dislike insects and simply terrifying to anyone allergic to bee stings. The sound is tough to hear in some spots, and the added prologue is slow in establishing the freaky premise of using wasp extracts as the fountain of youth. Some animal testing scenes are iffy, too. Thankfully, the fun labs and haywire science keep this one interesting.
(Like I said, he ain't gonna complain!)
And Some Skippers
Creature from the Haunted Sea – Oh, Roger, you’re killing me with this 1961 horror comedy remake of Beast from Haunted Cave! The black and white Beatnik opening chase looks like the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” music video. The sound, music, bad narration, iffy Spanish, and worse dialogue are very poorly mixed. The poor acting, over the top spy and noir spoof vibes come off all wrong, and the animated credits are downright corny. I think I get what Corman was trying to do, but the confusing Cuban plot with Beetles and Winnebagos on the chase is too low budget college-kids-with-a-camera. Who’s in charge on this boating escapade- military Cubans? Gold digging Americans? Monsters? Murderers? The singing, crappy spies, a guy who speaks in animal sounds- this is just a really surprising mess. I mean, somebody gets hit with a fish!
Beast from Haunted Cave – Now then, this 1959 Roger- produced inspiration for Creature from the Haunted Sea stems from its own script part and parcel rehash of Corman’s Naked Paradise (1957), Ski Troop Attack (1959), and Atlas (1960). Try to keep up. I mean, how many times can you save money by using the same basic script- and the repeated score to match- before nothing makes sense? South Dakota, snow, and skis can’t help the bland, repeat script and wooden cast- if you can tell who is who in the crappy action skiing montage. No Olympians here! The very nice screams and spider attacks do work when we get them, but they are too few and far between for an eponymous title. There simply isn’t enough heist suspense, skiing thrills, snowbound tension and suspicion nor monster paranoia to keep the locale or premise intriguing. It’s all just a lot of dry, and unfortunately, the crime and abuse wrongs don’t come across at all. Although, studying these early filmmaking forays should really make both the Corman fan and the critical skeptic appreciate his later Poe and Price series even more. But where’s the ‘the’ here?!