Can Cinematic Cheese Be High Art?

'Roger Corman's Cult Classics: Triple Feature Sci Fi Classics'

by W. Scott Poole

20 March 2011

Roger Corman knew how to transform the genre cheese fest into something like high art; that is, if your idea of high art involves mutant crustaceans and vampire-aliens.
Attack of the Crab Monster 
cover art

Roger Corman's Cult Classics Triple Feature: Sci-Fi Classics

Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Richard Garland, , Russell Johnson, Paul Birch, Dick Miller, Morgan Jones, Pamela Duncan

US DVD: 18 Jan 2011

What can really be expected from the mind responsible for A Bucket of Blood and Death Race 2000?

Actually the answer is quite a lot, especially when it comes to the films that he actively directed. Some few uninitiated might see Corman’s oeuvre as Ed Wood productions with better actors and screenwriting. Not so. As a director, Corman knew how to keep a film tight and sharp in ways that even some of the dreadful special effects of his sci-fi cant ruin. And of course, he had better actors and screenwriting.

Roger Corman is, today, an acknowledged genius and this little collection of some of his lesser-known films explains why. The films included in Roger Corman’s Triple Feature: Sci Fi Classics introduces you not only to his early work, but also his work as a director. We have all heard the cliché about “films so bad they are good”. This is an overused description at best, given that most bad films are really just bad. Corman, however, knew how to transform the genre cheese fest into something like high art; that is, if your idea of high art involves mutant crustaceans and vampire-aliens.

The first film in this two disc set is Attack of the Crab Monster with a narrative that puts a group scientists on an island with, well, crab monsters. This is a surprisingly well-written script with great dialogue. Unfortunately when Corman shows us the monsters,  they are ridiculous plastic crabs trundling along while the scientists run in fear. It is unintentionally hilarious. There are, however, some fine underwater scenes, something that Corman’s films tended to excel at. Moreover, watching a Corman film always involves seeing a host of familiar faces. In the case of the Crab Monsters, it’s Russell Johnson whose career seemed to center on the idea of getting marooned on an island. You probably know him as “the Professor” from Gilligan’s Island.

Also included on the first disc is a sci-fi vampire film entitled Not of this Earth. It stars Jonathan Haze, who also appeared in the Corman classic Little Shop of Horrors.  It’s a pretty successful (and again very well-written thanks to Corman scribe Charles Griffin) alien invasion tale that blends in plenty of vampire horror with your standard alien invasion scenario. 

Not of this Earth also picked up some good critical reviews though, in a short interview, Corman tells one of his typical self-deprecating tales about this. Apparently lead actor Paul Birch (who was also the original “Marlboro Man”) was ill on the final day of shooting. Unfortunately, Corman shot the film’s earliest scenes on the last day and so had to find someone of similar height and build to Birch and shoot him in eerie shadow. In the interview, Corman has a chuckle about how critics read this as a cinematic technique that provided “psychological depth” to the character.

The weakest entry of this triple feature is certainly War of the Satellites. Despite its problems, it’s still a fascinating entry into the library of ‘50s anxiety, this time centered on Sputnik and the space race. An alien enemy seeks to prevent “the United Nations” from putting a satellite into space and earth must fight back.

In an included interview, Corman describes promising Allied pictures after the Sputnik launch that he could produce a topical film for them in seven weeks if they gave him a budget.  Notable in this “ripped from the headlines” film is how Corman both exploits the fascination with satellites while not giving in to the red scare paranoia so common in ‘50s sci-fi.

The special features are a treasure trove of Cormania. Shout! Factory has done a great job on their special features with all the Corman releases and this set is no exception. Disc one includes the extended interview with Corman mentioned above while disc two contains interviews with Peter Fonda, Peter Bogdanovich and Joe Dante celebrating Corman’s influence on them and on the industry.

Finally, and best of all, disc two includes The Complete Roger Corman Trailer Collection. This feature contains no less than 25 trailers produced by Corman for his films, giving you a quick history of his whole totally insane oeuvre. Classics like Bucket of Blood and his (loose) Poe adaptations are here. Lesser-known and newer ‘80s stuff is here, like The She-Gods of Shark Reef and Frankenstein Unbound (the most peculiar and weirdly arty version of Shelley you’ll ever see… and possibly fall asleep during).

Two of these really stand out. Teen Doll provides a perfect example of how underground films in the fifties could blend moral panic over teenage delinquency with straight-out sexploitation.  The trailer for The Intruder, meanwhile, shows you William Shatner playing a racial demagogue who seems to be inciting a lynching in a southern town while also seducing every woman in said town. Like me, you’ve probably never seen this particular Shatner vehicle but lots of you, also like me, will have too now.

Shout! Factory also did the best job possible in cleaning these films up. Neglected B films are simply going to show their age. These are the best prints we are likely to have. Attack of the Crab Monster and Not of this Earth appear in 1.78: 1 anamorphic and War of the Satellites is in full frame. Stable encoding makes up for some of the dusty dirtiness and the inevitable, and charming if you love genre films from this era, pops and hisses.

These are probably not the films to begin with if you are new to Corman. I would vote for Humanoids of the Deep or the original Little Shop of Horror as good starting points. But if you love the Corman style, these early films will provide you with a cheesy treat.

Roger Corman's Cult Classics Triple Feature: Sci-Fi Classics


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