Tag Archives: Roger Corman

CAPSULE: DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)

DIRECTED BY: Paul Bartel

FEATURING: , Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone,

PLOT: In the year 2000, five racers competing in the annual Transcontinental Road Race must reckon with terrorists, government cover-ups, and each other in their rush to New Los Angeles.

Still from Death Race 2000 (1975)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has some moments of intense weirdness, they’re too few and far between; most of the film is just clever futuristic sci-fi whose bizarreness is restrained by its light sense of humor.

COMMENTS: Although, on the surface, Death Race 2000 may look like another dumb ’70s B-movie, trust me: it’s not.  It is pretty schlocky, and occasionally raunchy, but it’s also imbued with the satirical humor and the eye for low-budget artistry that has been a hallmark of Roger Corman productions since the days of The Little Shop of Horror.  Director Paul Bartel (he of the cult classic Eating Raoul) foregrounds the film’s funny streak, so that it plays more like a series of double entendres and anti-authoritarian jokes set against a futuristic backdrop than any kind of straightforward action movie.

The film’s pleasantly dark sense of humor is clear from its absurd central conflict: a band of anti-Death Race terrorists called the Army of the Resistance is sabotaging the racers, but the propaganda-spewing media-industrial complex blames it on the French.  Amidst coverage of the ongoing race (where hitting pedestrians scores points), the film occasionally cuts to the overzealous newscaster Junior Bruce, who’s basically a mouthpiece for Mr. President’s totalitarian government, and to Grace Pander, a proto-Oprah talk show host who describes every racer as “a dear friend of mine.”  Every twist and turn of the race is mythologized by these TV personalities, especially when it regards the film’s hero, Frankenstein (David Carradine).

In Death Race‘s vision of America, Frankenstein is the object of unending hero worship; he’s literally “bigger than Jesus.”  This is the source of extensive satire, as when Junior Bruce enthuses about Frankenstein’s “half a face and half a chest and all the guts in the world,” but it also leads to a surprisingly poignant scene when a girl named Laurie, a member of the St. Louis Frankenstein fan club, sacrifices her life to give him some extra points.  Tucked inside this cheap little dystopian sci-fi-comedy, we’ve got an eerily dead-on allegory about the nature of fandom and celebrity.  Similar treats await the patient viewer, especially in the film’s ideologically over-the-top finale.

Death Race 2000 is what happens when very smart, talented people set out to make a ridiculous movie.  It’s got a hammy Sylvester Stallone as Frankenstein’s arch-nemesis, Machine Gun Joe, but it also has expansive vistas shot by Badlands cinematographer Tak Fujimoto.  It has plenty of bad puns and topless women, but it also comments on the role of violence American society.  Complete with hand-illustrated backdrops and opening credits, this is 1970s cult cinema at its trashy, funny best.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The action setpieces work well, the blood smears look great in high definition, and most of the jokes land. It’s not like the news suddenly stopped caring about sexy, sexy violence in the 35 years since this first hit theaters. What really makes Race such a classic, though, is that Bartel manages to mix ruthless satire, absurdism, and sincerity without ever softening or compromising any of them.”–Zack Handlen, The A.V. Club

This is a condensed version of a longer review entitled “Satire, Americana and the Death Race.” The complete text can be found at Pussy Goes Grrr.

CAPSULE: VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Bogdanovich (using the pseudonym Derek Thomas)

FEATURING: Mamie van Doren

PLOT: Three cosmo—I mean, astro-nauts—are sent to Venus to rescue two missing comrades,while Venusian blondes in seashell bras pester them from afar by sending volcanoes, thunderstorms and dinosaurs to hinder them.

Still from Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Prehistoric Women is a classic Frankenstein-film, stitched together from various pieces of footage lying around the studio. The movie was made from dubbed footage from the Soviet space opera Planeta Bur, some effects from a second Soviet science fiction film, new voiceover narration which changes the focus of the original plot, and added scenes shot years later featuring English-speaking actors. Not only is the discrepancy between film stocks, soundtracks and atmospheres disorienting, but the new footage of (top-billed) Mamie van Doren and other scantily clad, pterodactyl worshiping Venusian dames is itself bizarre. This makes Prehistoric Women a worthy curiosity, if one for specialized tastes. Unfortunately, the movie is neither entertaining nor demented enough to merit inclusion among the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Though it was seriously intended, the original 1962 Soviet space opera that forms the bedrock stratum of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women was not a great movie. Looking at it from a post-Cold War perspective, the most valuable thing about it is the revelation that, despite petty ideologically differences, the US and the USSR were not so different as we supposed at the time: both societies assumed that nearby planets in our shared solar system would probably be inhabited by dinosaurs. Technically speaking, the special effects are highly variable: the hovercar looks great, the giant-tentacled cosmonaut-eating Venus flytrap is not bad, the tin-can robot is standard Forbidden Planet surplus issue, and the men in dinosaur suits are as cheesy as anything you might see in a low-budget 1950s American sci-fi epic. The color, which was tinted from the original black and white, is extremely washed out in surviving prints, a look that producer and director Bogdanovich managed to keep consistent for the new sequences; or, maybe, the passage of time did their work for them. The muted colors add another layer of unreality to the film.

Looking at the original Soviet film, you have to believe that Corman was onto something: what this movie really needed was a bunch of sunbathing, telepathic, pterodactyl-worshiping sirens in skintight pants and clamshell bras to liven things up. The gratuitous mermaid babe sequences are the most memorable parts. Every time the explorers face an environmental Venusian threat like a volcano or thunderstorm, it turns out the ladies’ pagan ceremonies were the cause. Their siren scenes, which all take place on a single rocky beach, are accompanied by an eerie, wordless keening, and the fact that the prehistoric witches never speak except in voiceover does add a legitimately dreamlike feel to these sequences. Prehistoric Women is slow (and incoherent) by contemporary standards, but the patient viewer seeking a cinematic experience that’s the equivalent of a fractured dream half-remembered after falling asleep on the couch at 2 A.M. while watching a sci-fi marathon on a UHF station will find this to be mildly rewarding.

This was the ever-frugal Corman’s second attempt to recycle footage from Planeta Bur. In 1965 he released the same Russian footage, with different inserts, as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. The earlier film featured a few scenes of top-billed star Basil Rathbone as a mission control type back on earth, barking extraneous orders to the stranded cosmonauts that were relayed to them through yet another unnecessary character. Mamie and her buxom coven were a big upgrade over Basil, and not just in pulchritude; without the ridiculous Venusian siren subplot, Prehistoric Planet was a much duller experience, while remaining just as confusing.

Because Corman was too cheap to renew the copyrights on his 50s and 60s movies, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women fell into the public domain.  It can be found on many bargain-priced compilations or can be legally viewed or downloaded by anyone through the Internet Archive or other sites.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[the] very peculiar ending… has a weird B movie pulp poetry to it.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

CAPSULE: CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (1961)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Roger Corman

FEATURING: Robert Towne (as Edward Wain), Antony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland

PLOT:  Opposed by incompetent spy Sparks Moran, a shady American expatriate and his

Still from Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

gang of crooks try to cheat General Tostada and his crew out of gold they are smuggling out of post-revolutionary Cuba by pretending a sea monster is on the loose.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCreature from the Haunted Sea is a strange little comedy indeed, one that feels improvised, even experimental at times.  Unfortunately, although there’s nothing else quite like it, after watching it for a few minutes you will understand why there’s nothing else like it.  It’s not funny, or meaningfully entertaining on any level; the only draw is to be awestruck by how utterly a movie can fail.  The movie has a few lukewarm fans, but basically, this is among the worst of the worst, something you should only watch on a dare.

COMMENTS:  Anyone renting Creature from the Haunted Sea thinking that it’s going to be a terrible monster flick may be surprised to find themselves watching what appears to be a terrible spy movie, until it dawns on them that they’re actually watching a terrible comedy.  Creature features a senseless, slow moving, confusing plot; confusing, because every time the action lags, the script introduces us to another “wacky” character to take up the slack.  We get General Tostada (groan); the henchman who speaks in dubbed-in animal noises (monkey cackles or elephant trumpets, as the mood strikes him); his dream girl, a hefty matron with a similar mode of communication; Roger Corman in sunglasses grinning like an idiot for no reason; an unexplained man in a suit on a desert island who feels the need to step in every tide pool along the beach; Carmelita, the senorita love-interest who arrives from out of nowhere; and Mango, the island girl who takes up with “weird strangers” as a “come-on for tourists” so her mom can sell them “coconut hats.”  Gags include Sparks being forced to eat a transmitter disguised as a sandwich and the slightly amusing theme song (a torch song that throws in the improbable non sequitur “…and the creature from the haunted sea.”) Humor is subjective, so you very well might find the silly absurdity of it reasonably entertaining; you’ll just be in a very small minority if you do.  The highlight, and the main thing most viewers remember, is the utterly ridiculous sea monster with the ping-pong ball eyes, who only appears on screen for a few seconds at a time.  Some feature movies would have worked better as shorts; this one would have worked better as a still.

The abject failure of Creature to amuse is all the more shocking since it came from the pen of Charles B. Griffith, the Corman collaborator responsible for several smartly scripted minor classics: A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Death Race 2000 (1975).  In true Corman cheapie fashion, this script is a recycled comic treatment of an earlier Corman production, Beast from the Haunted Cave, and was written in three days and filmed in five.  It was shot together with two other forgettable movies made in Puerto Rico for tax reasons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the script is an unfocused mess; it’s poorly paced and structured, suffers badly from its low budget, and often ends up being just weird rather than funny.”–Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings & Ramblings