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Roger Corman: The Producer as Jackdaw Filmmaker

Battle Beyond the Sun
Battle Beyond the Sun

To paraphrase the title of his autobiography, Roger Corman is the director who made a hundred films in Hollywood and never lost a dime. Without access to the filmmaker’s accounts, it’s hard to tell if this statement is entirely true, but knowing the man’s reputation, it’s probably safe to say he at least balanced the books every few years. Credited with over 50 films as director and more than 400 as producer or executive producer, typical films in Corman’s oeuvre oscillated between thrift and excess (and often featured both).

While the director was reknowned for making films on the cheap – once famously shooting an entire semi-improvised film in a weekend (The Terror, 1963) after another (The Raven, 1963) wrapped early on the same sets – he didn’t recycle only locations but also entire sections of movies themselves. In the 1950s, Corman had toyed with science-fiction tropes in his films It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957) and War of the Satellites (1958), but in each case the unknown was represented by actors in rubber suitsand make-up and a few wobbly flying saucers. While the start of his technicolour Edgar Allen Poe sequence in 1960 would show that the director could be more adept with a larger budget, freed of monochrome austerity, his tin-foil aesthetic of the previous decade did little to inspire wonder (or terror) regarding life on other planets.

Watch the original trailer for It Conquered the World:

However, contemporary audiences did have an appetite for space opera and creatures from other planets, as exemplified by the trio of Oscar-winning sci-fi films produced by George Pal in the early 1950s – Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953) – that preempted the space race between America and the Soviet Union, which started in the summer of 1955. With the backdrop of the continuing Cold War, announcements by representatives of Eisenhower and Khrushchev of programmes to launch satellites into space cheered and intimidated Americans in equal amounts. Therefore, it’s safe to say that unadulterated Russian cinema of the time which showed the Soviet Union winning the race would be unlikely to find an audience in the US. But, with American sci-fi of the late 1950s looking increasingly inward – with Atom Age monsters providing a clumsy parallel with ‘Reds under the bed’ – there were few films that had the scale and breadth of vision of Pal’s films from the start of the decade.

Similar films were, in fact, being made in the Soviet Union, where a population dreaming of their country winning the technological marathon to the stars could see their hopes realised in darkened cinemas. The 1959 film Nebo zovyot (The Heavens Call) is an expensive Soviet drama about a group of Russian explorers making their first scientific expedition to Mars. The cosmonauts encouter Americans en route who are trying to beat their communist rivals, only to need their help when their mission gets into trouble. Except for the outerspace origins, it’s not a film likely to touch the hearts of farmers in Kansas…

In a 2003 issue of Kinoeye, Roger Corman told an interviewer that: ‘In the 1960s I bought the American rights to several Russian science fiction films. They were made with big budgets and tremendous special effects. They were, unfortunately, filled with anti-American propaganda. I said to the Russians, “I’m going to have to cut the anti-American propaganda out. I can’t show these pictures in America,” and they said that they totally understood.”

Remixing foreign sci-fi wasn’t a new idea, with 1954’s Gojira redubbed and new scenes featuring American actors added, and released in America as Godzilla (1956) to great success. Similarly, a bowdlerised version of 1959’s Swedish monster movie Rymdinvasion i Lappland (Invasion of the Animal People) did well at the box office under the more atmospheric title Terror in the Midnight Sun, with 18 minutes shorn from its running time. Corman though, unlike Godzilla producers Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine, didn’t care about keeping the majority of the source material intact, as long as the special effects could be repurposed. So, out went the propaganda, with these scenes replaced (along with the Russian dialogue) by rubber monsters to keep fans of the genre happy. The Corman re-edit of Nebo zovyot, with new scenes directed by Francis Ford Coppola and shot by Jack Hill, was released in 1962 as Battle Beyond the Sun, and while the resulting mish-mash does few involved any favours, it has the dubious pleasure of being an early example of a walking carnivorous vagina dentata, later to inspire the likes of Alien (1979).

Watch the original trailer for Battle Beyond the Sun:

Emboldened by the success of Battle Beyond the Sun, Corman next produced a remix of Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms, 1962) with new scenes directed by Curtis Harrington and released as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965). Harrington was unhappy with the resulting film and asked his name to be taken off the credits. Not only did the producer comply, he decided to have another of his proteges take a stab at the Russian footage, with Peter Bogdanovich directing alternate new scenes that lead to a second remix, called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968). By a strange coincidence, Bogdanovich also directed under a pseudonym.

I had the pleasure of catching the original Planeta Bur as part of the BFI’s season Red Skies: Soviet Science Fiction in 2011 and am happy to report the original is a fun, kitsch film about a Russian mission to Venus, which features rubbery prehistoric monsters and tin-foil robots quite similar to its American counterparts of the time. It’s telling that in this case, both of Corman’s remixes mainly took the opportunity to add scantily clad women rather than monsters to the mise-en-scene. Because of the film’s similarity to contemporaneous American B-movies, it’s mainly the soundtrack (and its subtitled translation) that is noticibly different, with speeches about the Motherland and loyality to one’s comrades, plus rousing militaristic music contrasting weirdly with the tentacled creatures that attack the cosmonauts. These strange juxtapositions make for a far more memorable experience than any American remix and it’s great that the original versions of these films are now seeing the light of day again.

Queen of Blood
Queen of Blood

Like Planeta Bur‘s twice-used footage, scenes from Nebo zovyot turned up again in 1966’s Queen of Blood, a film that Harrington was happy to keep his name on this time. This is a tour-de-force of the film remixer’s art, with the director using not one but two Russian sci-fi films for his smorgasbord. Nebo zovyot provides the spaceship footage, while Mechte navstrechu (A Dream Come True1964) supplies Queen of Blood with its famous imagery of an alien woman with sizable assets luring astronauts to their doom. While Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet saw a down-on-his-luck, elderly actor – Basil Rathbone – supply new linking footage with a touch of phoned-in gravitas, the actor’s second appearance in a Russian remix (shot the next day) sees the former Sherlock Holmes rub shoulders with Corman regulars Dennis Hopper and John Saxon. There’s also a cameo by horror-film afficiando Forrest J. Ackerman. Queen of Blood‘s resulting mash-up is so odd and off-kilter it somehow transcends the sum of its disjointed parts to make for a genuine cult classic.

Perhaps realising the recycled footage was starting to look a little ubiquitous, or perhaps because of the emergence of immediate sci-fi classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and Night of the Living Dead in 1968, Corman moved away from sci-fi and fantasy and back to exploitation in the early 1970s. Elsewhere, American cult audiences continued to enjoyed dubbed imports (with a Godzilla sequel, for example, released approximately every year between 1962 and 1975). However, with the birth of his own film distribution company – New World Pictures – in 1970, Corman started treating foreign imports with respect. It’s ironic that, if not for the interest of this shameless huckster in releasing such films as Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972), René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975), American audiences might not have seen those films. That said, Corman’s company did still occassionally tinker, compressing, for example, a film and its sequel – Sword of Vengeance (Kozure &#332kami: Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru) and Baby Cart at the River Styx (Kozure &#332kami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma), both 1972 – into one: Shogun Assassin (1980). After he left, New World Pictures produced one more strange remix, crafting scenes from Mamoru Oshii’s animated feature Angel’s Egg (Tenshi no Tamago, 1985) into dream sequences for the underwhelming live-action film In the Aftermath: Angels Never Sleep (1988). Their former CEO would have been proud.

Planet of storms and Battle Beyond the Sun are available on Region 1 DVD. Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Queen of Blood and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women are available on Region 2 DVD.

When Corman himself found he was producing a film that went over budget, such as the strangely familiar sounding Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), he would strip-mine the footage for years to come, with scenes from this film turning up in Forbidden World (1982), Space Raiders (1983), Dead Space (1991) and Starquest II (1997). Music from the soundtrack also turns up in Raptor (2001), a film that already contains recycled footage from The Nest (1988)! This thin joblot of endless copies and stitched-together clips may have somewhat tarnished Roger Corman’s reputation in recent years, but his first round of recycling in the mid-20th century is an interesting sequence of cultural exchange, early directing experiences from great filmmakers to be, and exposure to fantastic scenes from another part of the world. For that, the spend-thrift producer can only be congratulated.

Watch the original trailer for Battle Beyond the Stars:

Alex Fitch

Oedipus Wrecks: White Heat and Bloody Mama

White Heat

Title: White Heat

Format: DVD

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Director: Raoul Walsh

Writers: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, Virginia Kellogg

Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly

USA 1949

114 mins

Title: Bloody Mama

Format: DVD

Date: 29 June 2009

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Roger Corman

Writers: Don Peters, Robert Thorn

Cast: Shelley Winters, Don Stroud, Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern

USA 1970

86 mins

Got an itchy Oedipal rash? Whatever you do – don’t scratch it! It can only lead to murder and mayhem, crime and punishment. And that way, as we know, lies madness. At least, this is the fabula as it unfolds in several cinematic accounts. The volatile chemistry of excessive, unresolved mother love and poor (single mother/absent father) parenting skills can be explosive, and in the case of poor little Jarrett Cody in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), literally explosive: he ends his days at the centre of a massive explosion. ‘Made it Ma. Top of the world!’ he shouts as the giant gas tank where he makes his last stand ignites and blows him to Kingdom Come – where he will no doubt be able to enjoy sitting on Mama’s knee again.

Two differently nuanced – but none too subtle – accounts of mama love and its inevitable and inexorable pathway to criminality can be experienced in White Heat and Roger Corman’s 1970 Oedipal opus, Bloody Mama. Both stories place the source of the criminal sons’ behaviour clearly at the feet of the dominating mater.

This accounting of the environmental causes of crime – being ‘made bad’ – is one of several psychodynamic themes that dominate the criminal film genre. The criminologist Nicole Rafter has suggested in her book Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society that movies on the causes of crime fall into three categories: the just mentioned ‘made bad’ environmental category, the ‘born bad’ biological category and the ‘twisted psyche’ abnormal psychology category, which although it is a stand-alone classification can overlap with either of the other two, as seen in both of the films under discussion.

Another common point between them is the source material on which they are loosely based: the criminal life of Ma Barker and her boys. Several film storylines emanate from real-life gangster stories, and the headlines made by the Barker gang caught the public imagination with its violence and hints of unhealthy family relations. Ma Barker was active in the gang with her son, Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker, his brother Fred and their friend Alvin Karpis. Ma and Fred Barker died together resisting arrest in January 1935, gunned down by the FBI. Arthur was shot dead a few years later trying to escape from Alcatraz. Famously, his last words are supposed to have been, ‘I’m shot to hell’, which echoes Cody’s last exit words. In his autobiography, James Cagney, who played Cody, comments: ‘The original script of White Heat was very formula… For some kind of variant, I said to the writers, “Let’s fashion this after Ma Barker and her boys, and make Cody a psychotic to account for his actions.”’ In the film, Cody is an epileptic, mother-obsessed criminal who, while married to a gorgeous moll, only has eyes (and ears) for ‘Ma’. He confides in her, plots with her, and always takes her advice over anyone else’s. She showers affection and approval upon him as he does upon her. There is no room in this relationship for any third parties and when his wife runs off with his first lieutenant Cody shrugs it off – he still has his mother.

His undoing, however, is brought about by finding a mother replacement – he loses Ma while serving his prison stretch – in the figure of Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who is an undercover cop assigned the task of buddying up to Cody and getting him to talk and incriminate himself. They share a cell, and while initially suspicious of Fallon, Cody comes to trust and then rely on him. Fallon saves him from another inmate’s murderous attack, then soothes and rubs his neck when he has an epileptic fit – having faked headaches as a child to gain the attention of his mother he eventually developed the condition. Later, Fallon helps him following his berserk dining hall fit triggered off when he hears of his mother’s death – his wife shot her in the back. When Jarrett makes his escape from prison he insists on taking Fallon along with him. Back in the gang he favours his now best and most trusted intimate, Fallon, with the exact same cut of the criminal takings as he used to give his beloved Ma. The proxy mother scenario is complete. It can be left to the present generation of Queer theorists to do with that text as they like.

The film adheres to the pre-war characterisation of a criminal’s over-indulgent mother (and lack of male authority figure: we are told that Jarrett’s father was put into an insane asylum) as Ma Jarrett pampers, indulges, nurses and soothes wild Cody. What is unusual in this account is the degree to which she encourages and aids her son in his criminal doings, in addition to counselling him in how to deal with ambitious and unruly underlings. This is no good boy gone bad who breaks a mother’s heart, this is a match made in Oedipal hell. Finally, bereft of Ma and betrayed by Fallon, the lone, crazed Cody is trapped in a chemical plant during his final heist. He ascends to the top of a gas tank, is shot by Fallon and finally pumps lead into the gas tank, which ignites it. He dies in a spectacular fireworks of an explosion that causes a massive mushroom cloud to appear, which, as many commentators have noted, looks like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb – a concern very much on American minds during the post-war years. With an emphasis on explicit and cold-blooded violence, extreme emotional displays, suggestive sexual scenes and Oedipal complexes played out, this is certainly a movie that shows how the Production Code of censorship was breaking down in the more world-weary post-war years.

By the time Roger Corman came to make his ‘Bonnie and Clyde meets the Manson family’ drive-in classic, Bloody Mama, in 1970, there was – in terms of freedom of expression – everything to play for. The strict Production Code of 1934 had been abandoned for a regulatory classification system in 1966 and movies – which had been denied ‘Freedom of Speech’ protection in a 1915 decision – were, in 1952, included under that constitutional safeguard. This paved the way for far more adult themes, topics, sexualities and addictions to be explored on the cinema screen. Corman took full advantage to probe the Oedipal psyche as could only be hinted at in the dark dreams of Jarrett Cody.

Corman took the story of Ma Barker and her sons and fashioned a twisted tale of familial relationships, desires and dysfunctions. Ma Barker and her boys inhabit a backwoods world of incest, homosexuality, drugs and murder – a pretty perfect drive-in movie concoction. Played with wild sensual abandon by the always reliably on-the-edge actress Shelley Winters, Kate ‘Ma’ Barker is a depraved, transgressive, neurotic and alluring harridan of near-grotesque proportions. The film opens with a barely pubescent Barker being raped by her father while her brothers hold her down. ‘Don’t know why you ain’t hospitable, Kate,’ the old man declares, ‘blood’s thicker than water’. We hear the ravished girl then vowing that one day she would have sons of her own to love and protect her. Flash forward to the present day – far-fetched and far from historical accuracy – and we see her giving baths to her grown-up sons, sharing beds with them, seducing her other son’s bi-sexual lover, making sensual overtures to another son’s girlfriend and finally trying to seduce a kidnap victim – an older, strong male type who threatens to challenge her matriarchal dominance over the boys. What a steamy Oedipal stew is on the boil here.

Naturally, all the misfits come to very bloody dead ends and what is so noticeably different from the conventions of pre-war gangster films is the emphatic shift away from ‘my mother never loved me’ as an explanation for the sons’ criminal behaviour to ‘my mother loved me too much’, which came to dominate contemporary discussions about juvenile delinquents and other moral trespassers. In both these films, these momma’s boys are either indulged, spoiled, molly-coddled (even aided and abetted in their crimes) and given too much infantile attention or, as in Bloody Mama, all of the above with sexual favours thrown in. As in many criminal films that attempt to ‘explain’ this aberrant behaviour, the subtleties of psychotherapeutic theory are abandoned wholesale and reduced to the one-size-fits-all primal scream, ‘Blame the Mother!’

Apparently, all that Jarrett Cody and the Barker boys needed was a good old-fashioned fatherly thrashing to sort that itchy rash out.

James B Evans

Buy White Heat [1949] from Amazon

Buy Bloody Mama [DVD] [1970] from Amazon