Roger Corman will always be known more for funding the careers of superstar directors than for crafting his own work: Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola and others all studied under his tutelage. As producer/executive producer, Corman is responsible for a staggering 380 films, dating back to 1954. But as this set tries to justify, Corman himself was once a significant director.
The eight films comprising MGM’s Roger Corman Collection don’t exactly make me want to revise film history and canonize Corman alongside other B-movie mavericks like Anthony Mann and Samuel Fuller. But it does prove Corman was more versatile than his detractors will admit. The image one gets of a Corman picture – cheap, sleazy and MST3K-friendly – should be dispelled upon viewing any of Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Like his great House of Usher, this collection’s Premature Burial is an absorbing tale of Gothic expressionism with Ray Milland as a medical student obsessed with being buried alive.
The other films from Corman’s early period are just as engrossing. 1959’s modern-art satire A Bucket of Blood, set in a hilariously pretentious beatnik bar, follows a pathetic busboy who becomes a celebrated artist after his “works” – murder victims he sets in clay – are lauded as genius by the jaded community. The sci-fi film Man With the X-Ray Eyes is another winner, reuniting Corman with Milland, here playing an ambitious doctor whose development of X-ray vision leads to his downfall. Aside from the requisite moralism of so much classic science fiction, the movie is a visual buffet with a passionate, dedicated performance from Milland. Corman is also one of the few directors to use Don Rickles in a subversive role, casting him here a creepy carnie lech.
The rest of the box set doesn’t hold up so well. Corman became too much a slave to the ’60s zeitgeist, resulting in garbage like The Trip. This Jack Nicholson-penned movie follows Peter Fonda on his first LSD trip, where he encounters death, sex, an Eden-like garden, witches, Dennis Hopper and corny kaleidoscopic montages. A complete waste of the hip formal innovations that American directors like Corman were starting to adopt from the French New Wavers, this will appeal to aging hippies only. The Young Racers, ostensibly a stock-car drama, is more like a laughable love octagon among its self-absorbed characters. It plays out like a parody of a parody of a soap opera, with acting that makes the average porno stiff look like Laurence Olivier. Gas-s-s-s is even worse, a self-indulgent anarchic youth film that wants to be Godard’s Weekend.
The collection concludes with Bloody Mama, a repugnant retelling of the Ma Barker story with Shelly Winters as the domineering matriarch and a creepy Robert De Niro as one of her drugged-out bank-robber sons. Corman probably considered this a trashterpiece, and it counts animal cruelty, prison rape and the gang-bang of a little girl among its grotesqueries. But there’s something raw about its depiction of redneck ethos and gruesome bloodbath of an ending that’s hard to forget.
A few of these films are worth re-evaluating, but only Corman die-hards will be pleased with everything in this set. And buyer beware: My copy of the eighth title, Wild Angels, was faulty, so keep your receipts.