Friday, April 3, 2020

Roger Corman and the Pandemic Bandwagon

I don’t know what Roger Corman is doing right now, as he approaches his 94th birthday weekend. I hope he is self-isolating, along with the loyal Julie, in the Santa Monica home that was part of the nasty legal dispute with the two Corman sons. That dispute is apparently settled at last,  as I’ve learned through a legal site specializing in showbiz matters. And I’d like to think that Roger—true to his nature—is busy planning out a quick and dirty flick that captures this peculiar moment in time.

We are, of course, in the midst of a pandemic, the likes of which the world has never seen. Roger has made at least two plague movies, versions of Edgar Allan Poe’s haunting (and prescient) “Masque of the Red Death.” Roger himself directed the Vincent Price version from 1964, which also starred the memorable Hazel Court as well as pretty Jane Asher, who was Paul McCartney’s main squeeze at the time. The film was shot in London, where the Brits know all about period filmmaking, and the cinematographer was a future directorial great, Nicolas Roeg. I had no part in that production, but was deeply involved with Larry Brand’s 1989 remake, which features a sad and eerie peasant striptease led by Corman favorite Maria Ford in a remarkable T&A moment that Poe doubtless never imagined.

Though the two “Masque” productions are rather effective, they were both made at times when a pandemic seemed, frankly, unthinkable. Still, Roger’s particular genius over the years has been to seize the moment, recognizing topics of high interest to the movie-going public and then hustling them out as quickly as possible. Such was the case with The War of the Satellites, a threadbare 1958 space epic launched immediately after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik had the whole world agog about space travel. Back in the 1950s, Roger was so artistically nimble—and so well established in the nation’s drive-ins and grind houses—that he could write, cast, film, and edit a quickie capturing the moment, then have it in theatres in a matter of weeks. By the late 1960s he was slightly more ambitious, taking it on himself to tackle the big events of the day (such as youth rebellion, biker gangs, psychedelics) in films like The Wild Angels, The Trip, and his AIP swan song, Gas-s-s-s!  The last of these, ironically enough, posits a pandemic, one that kills everybody over the age of 25. Uh oh!

In my own era at Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, movies took a bit longer to make and to distribute. And we were less concerned with dramatizing the events of the day than with jumping on the bandwagon of other filmmakers. I heard how, in response to the success of the first Star Wars, we ‘d built a studio and shot our own special-effects-heavy space drama, Battle Beyond the Stars. And Steven Spielberg’s Jaws led directly to our Piranha. I didn’t work on either of those (though I’ve spoken to many Corman alumni who did). But I was certainly around when dinosaur movies became a thing. While Spielberg was still shooting Jurassic Park, Roger set us to making our own flick about raptors running amok in the modern world. We bought a shoddy British novel and kept nothing but the title, Carnosaur. The goal was to beat Jurassic Park into theatres, which we did with weeks to spare. Between Siskel and Ebert, we got one thumb up. Today I’m giving a thumbs-up to Roger for his birthday celebration, and wondering what movie comes next out of his still-fertile brain.

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