Shout! Factory has been making the films of Roger Corman available for almost two years now, many of them Blu-ray releases that preserve some of his most fun and important work, including Rock and Roll High School and the original Piranha.
But if you are digging thorough Corman’s 40 years of making low-budget B-films, it’s inevitable that you eventually scrape the bottom of the barrel. And that’s what has happened with the release of the Corman-produced Naked Angels and Sweet Kill.
The idea that some movies are so bad they’re good has become part of the idiom of film lovers. Kurosawa aficionados watch the work of Russ Meyer. Godard and Truffaut nerds can tell you about the heroes and villains of Republic serials, Herschel Gordon Lewis’ blood-soaked gore fests and the later iterations of the Godzilla /Yokai tradition in Japan.
We seem to be engaged in a massive project of recycling our pop culture castoffs, sometimes showering unwarranted affection on films that are objectively bad. Its possible to reconcile this by making irony the coin we trade, allowing consumers of junk culture to wear bad taste as a badge of honor.
On balance, these impulses are a good thing. There are plenty of monster and motorcycle and mafia movies that we owe our love to and can open up new worlds to the most sophisticated of film lover. If you don’t believe me, get a look at some of the early reviews of Hitchcock’s Psycho and you’ll understand just how conservative the critical establishment can be about material it deems less than serious. And how shortsighted in can be.
Today this is an easy position to argue, since even academic commentators on film generally accept the premise that baser cultural metals can transubstantiate into gold in the right hands. This attitude owes much to the fact that over the last several decades some of the most important manufacturers of culture have revealed that the seams of their influence lie buried in the low-budget sci film, the western, the B-movie and even the sticky floors of the old 42nd street’s grindhouse theatres. Quentin Tarantino represents the triumph of the schlock-nerd, his critically acclaimed films owing basically everything to low-budget samurai movies, blaxsploitation, Mexican horror films and crime flicks.
The ongoing celebration of the work of Corman best represents this trend. Despite his assembly-line approach to filmmaking that churned out both classics and a rogue’s gallery of bad flicks, no less a light than Jonathan Demme once called Corman “the greatest independent filmmaker the American film industry has ever seen or ever will see.” The Academy has even agreed, granting him an Honorary Oscar for his lifetime of achievement in 2009.
I think it’s basically impossible to argue against Corman’s genius and won’t try. Most of his films come loaded with subtext worth mining, some of his director’s made decisions about photography and editing that are simply amazing considering the ludicrously short shooting schedules he placed them on and the writing often made up for the embarrassing, if often ingenious, special effects.
But I can’t defend these two releases, much as I think the dark corners of American film that lived their short life in the drive-in and grindhouse always deserve some defense and appreciation.
Naked Angels borrowed its mojo from the popularity of the motorcycle gang genre, a B-movie specialty that had its roots in Brando’s The Wild One. Corman himself had helped make this a popular genre at the drive-in with his 1966 Wild Angels. Naked Angels sought to follow the basic formula but give it more sex appeal (hence the misleading title) and a bit more existential angst, though only of the most adolescent variety.
The Corman produced biker-fest also became something of a cinema verite with members of the Hell’s Angels joining the cast to play many of the supporting roles. This is not exactly reality TV, or maybe it is, because the result is bikers playing bikers in the way that anyone watching the film would imagine bikers to act. The story involves a basic revenge narrative as the M.C. follows their erstwhile leader into the desert in order to avenge his honor against a rival gang. Although marketed to suggest a biker gang of randy females, the title only points to the occasional nudity and perhaps to highlight the appearance of Jennifer Gan, a classic queen of the bees who would later play in the sexploitation classic Women in Cages.
A narrative mess, the combination of inexplicable plot and revving motorcycles is really headache –inducing. Director Bruce Clark would later going on to make Corman’s enjoyable romp Galaxy of Terror but here its all boobs and bad dialogue.
Naked Angels does feature elements that mark it as a Corman production rather than just another exploitation film. A bizarre meeting between gang leader Mother (Michael Greene) and a roadside gas attendant in the Nevada desert becomes a bizarre tableau about twisted Americana. This sexploitation mess suddenly feels like an art film before we are back to revving engines and young girls removing their tops for no particular reason.
Sweet Kill has some similar bad habits. Also released as The Arousers, Corman explored psychosexual drama with this story of a man who accidently kills his sexual partner and discovers he has a taste for necrophilia. Oh yes, and he’s a high school gym teacher.
What makes this distasteful scenario even more bizarre is the appearance of ‘50s teen idol Tab Hunter as Eddie Collins, the deranged gym teacher and murderer. Directed by Curtis Hanson, who later helped L.A. Confidential it also has its flashes of inspiration amidst the general muck. More than a few shots, including the lurid murder scenes, have at least a sheen of style to them. Certainly superior to Naked Angels in terms of both narrative and dialogue, Sweet Kill remains the exploitative, moneymaking mess its creators planned for it to be.
Notably, both films are just really repulsively misogynistic in a way that’s a bit surprising for the generally progressive Corman. Even the schlocky sexual weirdness of films like Humanoids from the Deep often included a subtext that critiqued violence, especially violence against women.
There’s little subtext here and both films engage in frat boy misogyny, exposing women’s bodies in a way that suggests their basic powerlessness, punishing them for being sexual even as its insisted that they be sexy and presenting physical violence against them in a way that seems unproblematic.
I have always been generally contemptuous of the notion that feminism means that any display of violence against women simply feeds male fantasies of domination. But much of what makes up these films is essentially indefensible from a political and ethical perspective. And its just gross.
It would be easier to feel better about these releases if they came with any special features whatsoever, some material to place them in context and turn them into the disturbing primary sources for underground film history (and the underground attitudes about violence, sexuality and gender that they embody). But each disc is simply the film, ingloriously presented to us unrestored and, from a sympathetic perspective, demanding that we recognize it for what it is; movies as just way to make a buck, celluloid prurience that generally plays out its scenario so predictable that its painful to watch.
Some films are just so bad that they are just really bad and these discs are only recommended to the most fanatical of Corman completists.
Roger Corman Cult Classics: Naked Angels
Roger Corman Cult Classics: Sweet Kill