The Essential Roger Corman

Roger Corman introduced the outlaw-biker genre with
Roger Corman introduced the outlaw-biker genre with "The Wild Angels," starring Peter Fonda as bad boy Heavenly Blues. (American International Pictures)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

American International Pictures' public face, its resident legend, was Roger Corman. Between 1955 and 1971, he served as producer and director on more than 50 exploitation films (his preference over "B-films") and produced hundreds more. Most were shot at breakneck speed on shoestring budgets, and nearly all made money. Corman also introduced the world to many talented young filmmakers, including future Oscar-winning directors Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme and James Cameron, so it's always worth paying attention to his films' credits.

Corman, who turned 81 in April, sometimes churned out as many as eight films a year, so it's appropriate that eight of his best are included in "The Roger Corman Collection" (available Tuesday, $39.98). In the mid-'60s, he inaugurated two classic exploitation genres, the outlaw-biker movie with "The Wild Angels" in 1966 and the psychedelic-drug movie with "The Trip" in 1967; they would morph together with the same key actors in 1969 in the hugely successful "Easy Rider."

"The Wild Angels" plopped Peter Fonda onto a Harley-Davidson as Heavenly Blues, nihilist president of the San Pedro chapter of Hells Angels, boyfriend to biker mama Mike (Nancy Sinatra) and best pal of doomed outlaw the Loser (Bruce Dern). Under a soundtrack of revving choppers, bongos and fuzz-guitar-laden instrumentals, the action pits bikers against cops, Mexicans, pretty much everyone, in utter chaos and communal debauchery. Dern's real-life wife, Diane Ladd, playing the Loser's wife, became pregnant with daughter-actress Laura Dern during shooting. Bogdanovich gets his first film credit as assistant to the director.

"The Trip," written by Jack Nicholson, stars Fonda on his first drug trip, with Dennis Hopper as his dealer and Dern as his guide. The slight plot provides a major excuse for inscrutable fantasy sequences, colorful image-projection on semi-nude actresses during super-montaged sex scenes, psychedelic light show effects and blues rock improvs from the Electric Flag. Warning: Certain scenes may inspire flashbacks in some older viewers.

"Bloody Mama" (1970) features histrionic Shelley Winters as "Ma" Barker, who takes her boys on a brutal rural crime spree during the Depression. Some sons she's got: a sadist, a masochist, a lady-killer and an addict (super-skinny Robert De Niro in his fifth film role, still three years away from "Mean Streets" and here billed below Clint Kimbrough). The ad campaign said, "The family that slays together stays together," and sleeps together apparently, though Ma also has a relationship with one of her boys' bisexual cellmates (Bruce Dern) before a bloody, highly stylized shootout finale.

"A Bucket of Blood" (1959) is a wicked black comedy that mercilessly satirizes artistic pretension and beatnik culture. Corman favorite Dick Miller plays Walter Paisley, a meek, talentless busboy who idolizes the artsy types at the coffeehouse where he works (including Paul Horn as a beatnik saxophonist). When he accidentally kills his landlady's cat, Walter tries to hide the crime by covering the cat in plaster, only to see it instantly hailed as a work of art and himself as a sculpting savant. As demand swells, more, larger bodies follow. Charles B. Griffith's beat poetry parodies and hipster dialogue are hilarious; he and Corman followed up a year later with their legendary "The Little Shop of Horrors."

"Gas-s-s-s" (1971), perhaps the best acid trip not dependent on LSD, is a road-trip movie in which three couples, survivors of an accidental gas leak that killed everyone in the world older than 25, head to New Mexico in a pink Edsel looking for a counterculture Utopia. Along the way they encounter a militant dune-buggy-riding football team, a biker gang/country club security force led by Marshall McLuhan, Country Joe and the Fish hosting a desert rave, and even Edgar Allan Poe and his Lenore showing up occasionally on a motorcycle. The couples include Ben Vereen and Tally Coppola (later Talia Shire) as well as Cindy Williams a few years ahead of her sitcom stardom.

Corman was known for a remarkably stylish (and profitable) series of Poe adaptations, including 1964's "Premature Burial," the only one not starring Vincent Price. Ray Milland (who won a Best Actor Oscar for "The Lost Weekend" nearly 20 years earlier) plays a 19th-century English nobleman so haunted by his fears of being buried alive that he builds a crypt equipped with numerous escape mechanisms. Family and friends persuade him to destroy the crypt -- but he soon wishes he hadn't!

"X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes" (1963) stars Milland as an obsessed doctor experimenting on himself with a drug that, applied to the eyes, lets the user see through objects. He begins to see through walls, flesh (easier diagnoses!), clothes and, finally, through the fabric of reality. Don Rickles plays a huckster looking to exploit the situation.

"The Young Racers" (1963) is a talky European Grand Prix thriller/romantic potboiler pitting a womanizing champion against a writer-racer looking for an expos?. Corman shot the film on vacation, following the Formula One tour around England, France, Belgium and Monaco. Francis Coppola (the Ford was in his future) was sound man, and Corman let him use the same set, crew and several actors as he shot "Dementia 13" around Corman's schedule. Captain Quirk trivia: All of actor Mark Damon's dialogue (he was the writer) was looped by an uncredited William Shatner.

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