Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A is for Avatar

I’m one of those unfortunate people who sometimes have trouble getting to sleep. When I do, I have some quiet games I play inside my head. They’re so boring that they usually manage to send me off to slumberland. Though I sometimes try to name, in order, all the teachers I’ve had from kindergarten onward (yawn), my games usually have something to do with movies.

A favorite involves listing all the movies I can think of that bear single-word titles. Working my way through the alphabet, I’ve discovered that the letter A is a great source of terse, evocative titles for action films like Avatar, Alien, Aliens, and Armageddon. And how can I forget Adventureland, Airport, Airplane!, Arachnophobia, Atonement, and Awakenings? Not to mention Aladdin, Anastasia, and Arthur? What is it about the letter A that encourages such a wealth of movie titles? Well, for one thing, in commerce it’s always a good idea to place yourself at the beginning of the alphabet. And there are so many intriguing polysyllabic words that kick off with an A. Isn’t your curiosity more piqued by the words above than by vague and sappy titles like As Good as It Gets? Admittedly, As Good As It Gets was a truly delightful film, but I always struggle to remember it by name. For me, it will always be “that romantic comedy starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and a dog.” As opposed to Something to Talk About (aka “that romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts”) or Something’s Gotta Give (aka “that romantic comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton”).

Roger Corman too seems to have discovered the magic A, as his science-fiction film Android and his disaster flick Avalanche attest. But his decisions about titles have often stemmed from the hope that moviegoers will confuse his movie with one that’s better known. In 1974, when he imported a Franco-Czech animated feature, La Planète Sauvage, he chose as an English-language title Fantastic Planet, to deliberately remind viewers of both Fantastic Voyage and Forbidden Planet. A Corman movie about mayhem in the world of strippers was called Stripped to Kill, not coincidentally a variation on Brian De Palma’s sexy thriller, Dressed to Kill.

Roger, in the days when I worked for him, knew full well that his audiences craved films that promised sex and violence. The word “blood” was always effective, which is why Don “The Dragon” Wilson starred in nine (count ‘em) martial-arts movies entitled Bloodfist. (Yes, Don was a real-life kickboxer, but you wouldn’t want to see a movie called Bloodfoot.) Another great word, of course, was “naked,” and so we called one of our erotic thrillers Naked Obsession. Our films always had a certain similarity, and I admit that in my own mind it’s hard to separate Naked Obsession from Midnight Tease, though I only appeared in the latter.

Roger knew full well that, just as everyone judges a book by its cover art, so everyone judges a movie by its poster and its title. When Steven Spielberg’s screen version of Jurassic Park was still in production, Roger decided it was high time to make his own epic about dinosaurs running amok in the modern world. Remarkably, he shelled out good money for a novel to use as the basis for his film. It was written by the pseudonymous Henry Adam Knight, actually a well-established author who chose a pen name with the initials HAK to comment on the literary merits of this potboiler. I can attest that the novel’s contents were practically useless for our purposes. But we capitalized on its terrific title: Carnosaur.


  1. And got it out to theaters BEFORE Jurassic Park was released! Now that's some good moment seizing! Of course, Mr. Corman proceeded to continue the love of the word Carnosaur across several sequels, and a couple of spinoffs - all interweaving variations on some of the same film footage for film after film after film. Love that stuff!

    And I love this game you play - I do those memory type things too - but more often during traffic slow-downs or some such. I'll have to give it a try the next time the Sandman is throwing empty handfuls at me.

  2. You're absolutely right about Carnosaur, Mr. Craig. It was very important to Roger to have his movie scoop Jurrasic Park by being released first (by three full weeks, as I recall). It also starred Diane Ladd, mother of Laura Dern, who was one of the human stars of Spielberg's epic. Roger further intended his dinosaur to be taller than Spielberg's, but this proved impossible because the ceiling of our sad little soundstage wasn't high enough to accommodate.