There’s a hint of condescension to Roger Corman’s long-standing reputation as “King of the B’s” that still obscures his achievements as an auteur. To many people he’s little more than a running joke for MST3K fans, a shameless drive-in panderer whose body of work is notable only as a launching pad for a veritable Who’s Who of the New Hollywood (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Monte Hellman, and Robert Towne are just a few of his pupils). Corman’s career, from off-the-cuff upstart in the 1950s to successful producing honcho in the 1970s, leaves little doubt of him as a shrewd businessman who understood his audiences’ appetites for exploitative thrills and knew just how low to keep the budgets in order to retain his independence from mainstream Hollywood. What’s often overlooked is the visionary side of the filmmaker, a side that shows how richly the artist in Corman mingled with the huckster in him.
The eight films in The Roger Corman Collection DVD box set provide a rough timeline of his directorial canon, with each entry illustrating a period in Corman’s prolific evolution. By the time A Bucket of Blood, the set’s earliest film, was released in 1959, Corman had already directed more than 20 shoestring efforts; the sardonic morbidity of these early pictures had become so blatant that all Corman had to do was foreground it and, with the help of Charles B. Griffith’s snarky screenplay, turn it into dark comedy. The plot follows an adenoidal busboy (Dick Miller) who wows the hipsters of the Greenwich Village beatnik scene with plaster sculptures fashioned out of corpses—a prediction of the “sick” humor of the incoming decade and a rather lovely contemplation of shabby artistry. This necrophilic strain is obvious in Corman’s cycle of Poe adaptations, of which 1962’s Premature Burial stands as a comparatively disappointing staple. The sumptuous style can stand side by side with Mario Bava’s, yet Ray Milland’s death-fixated painter is a pale substitute for the ripe intensity Vincent Price brought to The House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum.
Milland, looking bemused and aged, is better used as Dr. Xavier, the modernist overreacher aiming on “closing in on the gods” in X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. When the scientist applies an experimental serum on himself, Corman’s camera assumes his view for the first “splitting of the world,” and scrambled textures and swirling abstraction follow as the doctor’s newfound see-through vision ultimately lands him as the main attraction in Don Rickles’s carny show. From the moment a severed nerve is dropped into a bubbling beaker, it’s clear that the act of seeing is central to the film’s portrait of promethean aspiration, and many of its images (the big city is x-rayed into steel skeletons while Las Vegas neon is stripped to solarized smears) attest to how potent the director’s ideas could be. While X strikes a fascinating balance between an exploitable sci-fi premise and a metaphysical parable, The Young Racers mostly succumbs to the streak of pretension strongly felt beneath the hubristic surfaces of more than a few Corman features. The bond between a detestable racing champion (William Campbell) and a vengeance-bent writer (Mark Damon) suggests a Grand Prix version of Chabrol’s Les Cousins, but everything is so spelled-out by the characters that their neurotic tensions scarcely grow beyond the notional.
Corman knew how to ride the zeitgeist, and The Wild Angels and The Trip remain invaluable time capsules for America in the ’60s, a time in which the filmmaker’s most anarchic and disparaging impulses were given free rein. The Wild Angels, from 1966, predates Easy Rider as a brawling, boozing drop-out lament, though Corman’s motorcycle barbarians are far less benign than Dennis Hopper’s quixotic Jesus-bikers. The gang of stompers led by Peter Fonda rebels against middle-class conformity but can’t think of any alternatives other than terrorizing citizens and “getting loaded.” For all its violence, the Angels gang is a frail family unit on the verge of dissolving: The church-set orgy precipitated by Bruce Dern’s death and the depredations that follow unchain a culture’s chaotic disillusionment for Corman’s most pessimistic ending. By comparison, The Trip is open and hopeful toward the changing times, especially when they allow a barrage of psychedelic special-effects that rivals Dr. X’s prismatic visions. Fonda once again yearns to escape the materialistic world around him, only instead of riding a chopper here he turns to LSD, body-painting, and Dennis Hopper. Written by Jack Nicholson, The Trip is often giggle-inducing, though its visuals, which veer from living album covers to Brakhagian subjectivity, are arrestingly perched between enlightenment and horror.
Corman directed only three films in the early 1970s before focusing exclusively on producing. Both Bloody Mama and Gas-s-s-s could serve as summarizations of many of his motifs even as the films’ frantic styles verge on self-destruction. Witheringly dedicated to the “memory and honor of the mothers of America,” Bloody Mama revisits the director’s offbeat gangster sagas (Machine-Gun Kelly, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) in Shelley Winters’s monstrous “Ma” Parker, a figure of misshapen maternal zeal whose brood includes a juvenile, glue-sniffling Robert De Niro. Where Bonnie and Clyde saw the sexy glamour in Depression-era outlaws, Bloody Mama dwells boldly on their seamy fury, in the process amplifying the notion of familial breakdown from The Wild Angels to the nth power. Gas-s-s-s, meanwhile, is a wacky-hippie freakout that stages its cataclysmic slapstick in the rubble of the world’s order. The apocalypse destroys everyone over 25, and a band of long-haired post-’68 casualties sorts through the ashes in search of their communal utopia; their journey includes bonfires lit with Jacqueline Susann novels, mock-western showdowns, and cameos by Talia Shire and Bud Cort. Militantly slapdash and often very funny, the film takes up Corman’s old doomsday preoccupations and symbolically hands it over to the kids. For better or for worse, his businessman side has taken over the artist side in the decades since.
A bit of haziness occasionally creeps into the screen, but there are no major complaints about the visual transfer, which modulates pleasantly from the luxurious to the astringent. The many creaky coffins, roaring cars, and jazzy scores are serviceably reproduced.
Corman is ingratiating in a brief interview concerning The Premature Burial, but most of the set’s extras belong to The Trip. The "Tune In, Trip Out" featurette is worth watching if only for the director’s deadpan (and crazily detailed) recollection of an LSD trip and Bruce Dern’s Jack Nicholson impression, while a lightweight look at the psychedelic special-effects at least provides an appropriately discombobulated vibe. Spread over an eight-film set, however, the extras seem paltry, missing the opportunity to delve deeper into these works.
A competent package that should help overthrow the reductive image of Corman as a mere impresario of schlock.