Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: 'Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses—Roger Corman: King of the B Movie'

Cult, horror, and schlock freaks will always think of Roger Corman primarily as the producer of some of their favorite cheap-o’s, whether they be Little Shop of Horrors, Attack of the Crab Monsters, or Grand Theft Auto. Serious cinephiles feel no guilt in praising the artistry of the best Poe pictures he directed, particularly House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death, or his even less celebrated venture into message films, the remarkable anti-segregation The Intruder. They also appreciate how he distributed works by European artists such as Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Ingmar Bergman (who loved the dubbed version of Cries and Whispers Corman put in drive-ins!) in the U.S. Many of our most respected filmmakers—Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme, Nicholson— revere Corman as the guy who gave them their real starts in Hollywood. Feminists who know more about him than his insistence on stuffing gratuitous nudity into his movies appreciate the opportunities he afforded women directors, producers, writers, and crew people in an industry infamous for its sexism. Indie filmmakers of every stripe should bow down to Roger Corman for his pioneering the frugal business practices that made thousands of low-budget pictures possible.

With such a multifaceted career, it is appropriate that Roger Corman receives a tribute as multifaceted as Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses—Roger Corman: King of the B Movie. Chris Nashawaty’s tome is part oral history, part collection of film essays, part sumptuous coffee table picture book, and all fabulous. It is also appropriate that a book with such a schlock-o-la title contains so much insight, history, and humor, since many of Corman’s on-the-surface ridiculous films contained a surprisingly amount of political astuteness and smart self-awareness.

As you may have already sussed, this is not just a story for fans of cleavers and cleavage. This is a tale of a guy who infiltrated the Hollywood monster and rearranged its face according to his own rules. It is telling that pretty much everyone Nashawaty interviewed acknowledges that Corman ripped them off but not one of them seems to resent him because they appreciate the tremendous jump-start he gave their careers. Deborah Brock—the writer, director, and producer of Slumber Party Massacre II, who’d go on to co-produce the acclaimed indie Buffalo ’66—explains that when she interviewed for a job with Corman, the first words she heard were, “I want to tell you about a job you probably don’t want.” You can’t say the guy wasn’t honest. 

Brock is just one of a gaggle of interviewees who shared their stories with Nashawaty. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich (who tells the insane story of how he got the job directing Targets), Penelope Spheeris, Robert DeNiro, Dennis Hopper, Pam Grier, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, John Landis (who also wrote the foreword), Bruce Dern, Diane, Ladd, William Shatner, John Sayles, and Marky Ramone are just a taste of those who chipped in, and they all give the man his due. Corman is one of those voices too, but Nashawaty smartly doesn’t allow his main subject to dominate the story, lest it appear slanted. And though this is a celebration, the interviewees don’t pull any punches when talking about what a mess The Terror is or the hardships of filming in Corman’s lumber yard “back lot” or watching him towel-whip silverfish in a shower to clear it for his directors to bathe at the end of the day or how they never got paid for their work. Peter Fonda sums up working for Corman when he asks the boss where his dressing room is, and Corman replies, “You see that tree over there?”

Such tales make Crab Monsters consistently entertaining reading. The way Corman was almost always able to turn his movies into money will be inspirational to all budding filmmakers, even if his specific practices may no longer work in the current market. In that way, Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses may also be an elegy to a Hollywood that no longer exists. But don’t let that get you down, because there are plenty of huge, full-color images of lurid horror, sci-fi, exploitation, sexploitation, and crabsploitation movie posters to keep you tickled.

Get Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses—Roger Corman: King of the B Movie at Amazon.com here:
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