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A SECOND LOOK

The Roger Corman from back when

September 19, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Roger Corman has never won an Oscar or received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. But make no mistake: Over the last half-century, Corman has been one of this country's most successful and influential filmmakers.

Not only is the Stanford graduate known for making low-budget, extremely profitable exploitation movies -- shooting a lot of them in five to 10 days -- he has also nurtured young talent such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and John Sayles. Corman's Concorde/New Horizons production company, which he founded in 1983, continues to churn out low-budget films for TV and DVD.

MGM's "Roger Corman Collection," which arrived Tuesday on DVD, features eight films he directed for American International Pictures from 1959 to 1970 -- he left AIP in 1970 due to interference in the content and budgets of his films. If nothing else, the collection illustrates Corman's eclectic tastes -- the films include dramas, black comedy, horror and romance.

"Bloody Mama," released in 1970, is Corman's answer to "Bonnie and Clyde." It's a fast-paced, nudity-filled hoot starring Shelley Winters in one of her great scenery-chewing turns as Kate Barker, the famed bank robber of the 1920s and '30s who gave new meaning to motherly love when it came to her four sons -- and partners in crime -- played by Don Stroud, a very young Robert De Niro, Robert Walden and Clint Kimbrough. Ma Barker not only likes to sleep with her boys, she isn't above giving them a good scrub in a tub. She's also not above murdering a young woman who was raped by her drug-addicted son played by De Niro. Along for the ride are Bruce Dern and Pat Hingle. Cinematographer John Alonzo went on to become a noted director of photography, receiving an Oscar nomination for 1974's classic film noir "Chinatown."

In the early 1960s, Corman, now 81, made several inspired adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe chillers, including 1962's terrifically atmospheric "Premature Burial." Oscar winner Ray Milland is perfectly cast in this creepy story of a 19th century medical researcher who fears that he has inherited the affliction that led to his father's death, catalepsy, in which the victim suffers a seizure that makes him appear dead. Fearful that he will be prematurely buried, he leaves London to live in his country home on the moors with his sister (Heather Angel). Milland's Guy even builds his own crypt complete with a coffin with an escape mechanism. But his best laid plans to be laid out in the coffin are put asunder when he marries his fiancée (Hazel Court), who is not quite as sweet as she appears. The film may have been shot on a dime, but "Burial" looks terrific and Corman serves up the scares.

Coppola did the sound, Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby -- rocker David Crosby's dad -- was the director of photography and Menahem Golan was prop master on the 1963 Grand Prix drama "The Young Racers." It's pure soap opera, but the race sequences are pretty impressive.

Corman always has had an uncanny sense of tapping into -- and exploiting -- the latest trends and mores of society; for example, "The Wild Angels" in 1966 and "The Trip" a year later.

"Wild Angels," which was a big success for Corman, stars Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. The group is involved in orgies, rapes -- of their own female members -- and fights with other gangs as well as authority figures. Dern and Diane Ladd, who were married at the time, also star -- they conceived daughter Laura Dern during production -- and Nancy Sinatra plays Heavenly's main squeeze, Mike. It's pretty raunchy stuff, especially for the time.

Far more entertaining is "The Trip," written by a young Jack Nicholson, who had appeared in several Corman movies. Nicholson's screenplay is based on his own experiences taking LSD under laboratory-controlled conditions, and as Corman says in his commentary, his experiences of his first "trip," which he took at Big Sur. "The Trip" is a kicky, groovy time capsule of drugs, psychedelia and the Los Angeles of 40 years ago.

Probably the best film in the set is 1959's wacky "A Bucket of Blood." Dick Miller is delectable as nerdy Walter Paisley, a busboy who works at a hangout for pretentious beatniks and artists. Walter has aspirations to become an artist and is frustrated that the patrons at the club won't give him the time of day.

After accidentally killing his landlady's cat, Walter comes up with the idea of covering it with clay and turning the feline into a sculpture. When he arrives at the cafe the next day with the hideously grotesque sculpture, the patrons are thrilled with the quality of his work. But they want more sculptures, so Walter has to come up with more subjects. "Bucket of Blood" is a wonderful macabre spoof on the affectations of the art world.

Rounding out the Corman set are "Gas-s-s" and "X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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