Film Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

Release Date: August 24th, 1979
Directed by: Allan Arkush
Written by: Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch, Joseph McBride, Allan Arkush, Joe Dante
Music by: The Ramones
Cast: P.J. Soles, Dey Young, Vince Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Don Steele, The Ramones

New World Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

Roger Corman always liked to capitalize on whatever pop culture trends came along. Initially, he wanted to make a film called Disco High School. However, with the end of the film being capped off by the high school exploding behind dancing students, one of his collaborators said that the ending would fit much better with rock and roll. Corman agreed and after being pointed in the direction of punk rock legends The Ramones by Paul Bartel, a regular Corman collaborator, the rest is history.

Rock & Roll High School isn’t a good film but it is a ridiculous and fun motion picture that features the great tunes of The Ramones and the insane and infectious enthusiasm of its star, P.J. Soles.

The film also stars the always great Mary Woronov as the villainous principal and Paul Bartel as a music teacher that converts to a fan of The Ramones after getting doped up at a concert. We also get a good cameo by Dick Miller and get to enjoy a few scenes with the enigmatic and entertaining Don Steele. A young Clint Howard is also in this.

This movie is mostly a high school teen sex comedy with a heavy emphasis on The Ramones music. It isn’t quite a musical but it plays like one at times. The Ramones have a lengthy concert segment within the film but outside of that, we see P.J. Soles lead a group of girls singing in gym class, as well as the big finale which sees the students and The Ramones march through the school halls as they trash the place to the horror of the administration, their parents and the police outside.

Rock & Roll High School is highly entertaining but probably only for those who love the actors involved or who have a love for The Ramones. I’m not sure how it would resonate for others. It’s definitely a movie that is still well regarded by many because of its ties to punk music, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles and because it has a massive nostalgia factor.

Film Review: The Haunted Palace (1963)

Release Date: August 28th, 1963 (Cincinnati)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles Beaumont
Based on: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft, The Haunted Palace poem by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Ronald Stein
Cast: Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr.

American International Pictures, 87 Minutes 

Review:

Out of all the Roger Corman and Vincent Price collaborations based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, my favorite is this film, The Haunted Palace. There are several reasons for this, as it may seem like an unorthodox choice. For one, despite the title being taken from an Edgar Allan Poe work, the story is actually based off of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Also, this was the first Vincent Price film I ever saw. Additionally, as much as I love the work of Poe, I am a bigger fan of H.P. Lovecraft, who gave us a rich and exciting mythos all his own along with a touch of insanity.

Roger Corman wanted to try something different after the success of his Poe films and he chose this H.P. Lovecraft tale. Against his wishes however, American International branded it with the name of a Poe poem in order to capitalize off of the success of the earlier films. They also ended the movie with Price narrating an excerpt from Poe.

The Lovecraft story gives this film a slightly different vibe than the other films in the massive Corman-Price-Poe series. Frankly, I think that the cinematography is the best in the series and the music is absolutely stellar. It relies less on some of Corman’s trippy effects, except for when a monster shows up in a pit, and it actually showcases Corman and his team’s talent in making the most out of their limited resources.

For one, the sets of the film, especially the village, were quite small. Corman shot a lot of these scenes using the trick of forced perspective but it comes across pretty flawlessly. Also, the matte paintings were fabulous and set the tone of the film. The haunted palace on the cliff in the background of the village was absolutely spectacular and emitted a feeling of cold dread.

The palace set seemed pretty grandiose. The scene where Debra Pagent and Frank Maxwell walk from the front door, through the hall and into the great living space of the old castle was a brilliantly done tracking shot that also used force perspective to make the set feel massive.

The painting of the sinister necromancer Joseph Curwen, which loomed above the large fireplace, was a beautiful and effective piece of artwork that was mesmerizing and helped to foreshadow his hold on the palace.

Vincent Price was at his very best. He played the evil Curwen and also his decedent, the nice and logical Charles Dexter Ward, a man who would become possessed by his ancestor. The speech that Price gives as Curwen, in the beginning before his first demise, was one of the greatest moments in Price’s storied career. The words, the execution, all of it was chilling and set the stage for what was to come.

Lon Chaney Jr. also appears in this and it is the only time he ever worked with Roger Corman. He had worked on a film with Price once before but the two did not share any scenes and Price only provided voiceover work. That film was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This film is the first and only time that horror legends Vincent Price and Lon Chaney Jr. got to share the screen. However, Chaney’s role was originally intended to be for Boris Karloff but he got sick while filming Black Sabbath for Mario Bava in Italy.

The Haunted Palace is perfectly paced and more interesting than the other Corman-Price-Poe films, in my opinion. It builds suspense and is well acted, even by the lesser-known actors who make up the villagers.

The only real weakness in the film is the Lovecraftian monster in the pit. It is literally a slimy looking statue of a beast under vibrant lighting and trippy LSD-like effects. Thankfully, the creature only appears very briefly and the real monster of the picture is Price’s Joseph Curwen.

The film is also full of several villagers with odd mutations. Only one of them is actually dangerous but they are used pretty effectively to frighten Price and Pagent as they walk through the quiet village at night.

The opening credits sequence features a spider spinning a web and catching a butterfly, only to eat it. It is scored by Ronald Stein and paints the perfect tone, as this film starts. The Haunted Palace features the best score of the Corman-Price-Poe pictures.

To me, The Haunted Palace is the perfect Vincent Price film. It employs some of his best acting moments, it showcases his great work with Roger Corman and it has a strong Victorian horror vibe that reflects the horror trends of its era.

While I know that this isn’t most people’s favorite of the Corman-Price-Poe film series but, for me, it just resonates in a way that the others don’t. I love all these pictures but it is The Haunted Palace that takes the cake for me. I only wish we could’ve gotten more Lovecraft movies with Price on screen and Corman behind the camera.

Film Review: Caged Heat (1974)

Also known as: Renegade Girls
Release Date: April 19th, 1974 (Washington, D.C.)
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Jonathan Demme
Music by: John Cale, Mike Bloomfield
Cast: Juanita Brown, Roberta Collins, Erica Gavin, Ella Reid, Rainbeaux Smith, Barbara Steele

New World Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

While the “women in cages” sub-genre of exploitation films weren’t new by the time that Caged Heat came out in 1974, Jonathan Demme did a few things that set this one apart from those before it and thus, made it one of the most memorable pictures of its type.

For one, Demme cast horror icon Barabara Steele as the prison warden, a departure from the oppressor being a man. He also put her in a wheelchair and made her sex deprived.

Demme also added in elements of social consciousness, feminism and liberal politics. These new elements broke the mold and made Caged Heat a more interesting film than all the previous “women in cages” flicks.

Roger Corman initially didn’t want to distribute the film but then Jonathan Demme raised the production money on his own. Impressed, and maybe seeing a bit of himself in Demme’s ability to raise the capital on his own, Corman decided to distribute the film through his company New World Pictures. Before this film, Demme had worked on The Hot Box (another “women in cages” movie) and the biker film Angels Hard as They Come for New World Pictures.

Caged Heat, regardless of its cult success and its refreshing take on an overused exploitation gimmick, is not a good film. It isn’t awful, as the vast majority of “women in cages” movies are far worse, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to the test of time and it is a mess of a story.

Barbara Steele is as alluring as always, even if she is a fascist crippled bookworm. But watching her in this feels like a major step down in her career. Granted, she never reached superstardom but if she had any momentum, this probably snuffed it out. Plus, she was playing like seventh fiddle to a bunch of less talented actresses billed before her. She also didn’t get to do anything too interesting other than her stage performance during a dream sequence.

The other villain of the story is this male doctor who administers therapies that leave women mindless and helpless so he can rape them.

There are three other notable people in this film. The first is Juanita Brown, who was in Foxy BrownWillie Dynamite and Black Starlet. The second is Roberta Collins who played Matilda the Hun in Death Race 2000 and also starred in other “women in cages” films like The Big Doll House and the appropriately titled Women In Cages. She was also in Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive and the 80s teen sex comedy School Spirit. Lastly, there is Rainbeaux Smith who has the Frenchiest spelling of “rainbow” for a first name ever and was also in that awful shit storm of a film Laserblast. She was also in ParasiteUp In Smoke and had an uncredited bit part in Logan’s Run.

The biggest highlight of Caged Heat is the big prison break shootout finale. It isn’t necessarily an impressive action sequence but it was pretty well executed for a first-time director. And being that this was Demme’s first picture, as a director, it set the stage for what would come, as he has made some solid pictures throughout his career.

And while this film is full of boobies and violence, it isn’t as over the top as other pictures like it. It certainly gives you plenty of those things but there’s more to Caged Heat than just tits, ass and violence.

Film Review: The Intruder (1962)

Also known as: I Hate Your Guts!, Shame, The Stranger (UK)
Release Date: May 14th, 1962 (New York City)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles Beaumont
Based on: The Intruder by Charles Beaumont
Music by: Herman Stein
Cast: William Shatner, Frank Maxwell, Beverly Lunsford, Robert Emhardt, Leo Gordon, Charles Beaumont, Jeanne Cooper

Pathé-America Distrib.Co., 84 Minutes 

Review:

Roger Corman considered The Intruder to be one of the most important films he ever made. It was a real passion project but unfortunately, it didn’t get the recognition it deserved at the time. Having now watched it, this may be the best picture Roger Corman ever directed out of his dozens of films.

Coming out during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the movie focuses on Adam Cramer, a young and fiery racist preacher type that comes to the Southern town of Caxton to incite the white folks into violent action against the new law that will desegregate the town’s school system. He preys on people’s insecurity over the cultural shift in their small town and ignites a fuse that sees most of the townsfolk become a violent angry mob. The town turns on their own people, the ones who try to stand against the agenda of Cramer. When a black student is falsely accused of an attempted rape, after Cramer blackmailed a white schoolgirl into crying wolf, the slow burning heat comes to a boil.

The racist Cramer is played by a very young William Shatner, four years before he would be immortalized as Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek. Despite his age and lack of acting experience, this is the greatest performance I have ever seen from Shatner and I am a hardcore Kirk fan, through and through. The fact that he is most known for being such a beloved character that spanned decades in a franchise about diversity, makes his role here, as Cramer, absolutely chilling.

Roger Corman chose to film the movie in Missouri, which was considered part of the South but not as hotheaded as states like Mississippi or Alabama. Despite this, he was still met with opposition and protests from the public who didn’t want this film and its message to get out. Roger Corman’s brother Gene, who was also involved in the project stated:

We put our hearts, our souls – and what few people do – our money into this picture. Everybody asked us “Why would you make this picture?” as if to say why try to do something you believe in when everything else is so profitable. Obviously we did it because we wanted to, and we think it’s a damn good job.

Unfortunately, the film wasn’t all that successful and to be honest, I am a lifelong Roger Corman and William Shatner fan and didn’t even know of its existence until a few years ago when reading a Corman biography and when seeing it mentioned in a book about exploitation cinema.

The Intruder is finely acted, superbly directed and very strongly and passionately written. Corman tapped the well of his regulars and you will see a lot of familiar faces here. Two prominent supporting actors from The Haunted Palace have roles here as men against Cramer’s agenda.

This is a film with a strong message that accomplishes a lot in its short running time. Unfortunately, that message still resonates today, as we may have come further in social equality but still have major race issues in this country.

For a director that is synonymous with cheapo horror and sci-fi films from the 1950s through 1970s, Roger Corman made a really important film that is also really damn good.

Film Review: Bucket of Blood (1959)

Release Date: October 1959
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles B. Griffith
Music by: Fred Katz
Cast: Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Anthony Carbone, Julian Burton, Ed Nelson, John Brinkley

AltaVista, American International Pictures, 66 Minutes 

Review:

Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood by highbrow critics’ standards is probably really frowned upon, especially back in 1959 if critics even bothered with it. They typically ignored these sort of pictures because not acknowledging them somehow made them nonexistent.

However, as time has passed, this is a film that many have come to love and appreciate. I wouldn’t say that it was ahead of its time, as House of Wax treads very similar territory and it predates this by a few years and it is also a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum from 1933, which itself is based on a short story by Charles S. Belden, published a year prior to that.

The main difference between the films’ narratives is that instead of wax our artist here uses clay. And instead of being a great artist that lost the use of his hands, Bucket of Blood features a beatnik busboy with no talent using clay to cover up his accidental killings and eventually, his premeditated murders.

Bucket of Blood is a pretty short film being only 66 minutes. This was typical for the Corman pictures of the time. Little Shop of HorrorsCreature From the Haunted Sea and others had very short running times. Still, a lot happens in the film. It also moves at a good speed.

The cast of characters in this picture are great.

The film stars Dick Miller, who was one of Corman’s (and later Joe Dante’s) favorite actors to use. He plays Walter Paisley, the busboy turned artistic killer. Miller is stupendous as the bumbling and wimpy Walter. He starts out pretty innocent but evolves into a killer due to his accidental killings bringing him some fame within his small beatnik scene.

The rest of the movie is made up with several interesting and bizarre beatnik characters. The guy who plays the really pretentious pseudo-intellectual poet is pretty fantastic.

Bucket of Blood is far from flawless but it is still a movie worth its weight in buckets of blood. It is pretty tame on the horror and is more of a black comedy with very little blood. Most of the killing is artistically implied. It was well thought out and well executed for the time and for the fact that it was made for the price of a pair of shoes.

Book Review: ‘How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime’ by Roger Corman

How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime should probably be required reading for students in film school. While it doesn’t discuss the basics of making a film, it is a firsthand account of how to be frugal and resourceful when making a motion picture.

While this is an autobiography of filmmaking legend Roger Corman, it focuses much more on his life as a director and producer than it does on his childhood or his personal life. Sure, it discusses those things but the bulk of its focus is on Corman’s projects and the challenges he faced with some of his best-known films.

Corman runs through his very early pictures. He then gets into some of his late 50s horror classics like Little Shop of HorrorsBucket of Blood and a few others. After that, he gets to my favorite era of his career, those Vincent Price starring Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Corman then delves into his projects with Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern and a young Jack Nicholson.

Following the bulk of his career where he was a director, Corman details the reasons why he started focusing on producing over directing and how he started his own production company New World Pictures. There is also a lot about his relationship with American International Pictures over the years. He even talks about one of his failures but also one of his passion projects, the William Shatner starring The Intruder.

The book also features the insight of several of Corman’s collaborators. We get to hear from Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller, Peter Fonda, Vincent Price, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante and more.

How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime is a pretty cool book for those who are fans of Roger Corman’s work. He spent decades bucking the system and very rarely failed. He paved the way for lots of young filmmakers and actors and was very instrumental in shaping the movie industry into what it is today.

When the independent studios rose, after decades of tyranny from the majors, Corman was front and center. He may not be as famous as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese but they owe their careers to his hard work.

Film Review: Creature From the Haunted Sea (1961)

Release Date: June 1961
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles B. Griffith
Music by: Fred Katz
Cast: Anthony Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Edward Wain

Filmgroup, 75 Minutes 

Review:

Creature From the Haunted Sea is famous for having one of the most hokey monsters in cinema history. As a kid, I saw several late night horror shows that featured a clip of the monster in their credits sequence. He was also used in a lot of other stuff too, always to be made fun of.

The film itself has an abysmal 3.4 rating on IMDb. While it is a bad film, that’s a bit harsh and maybe goes to show that this is the sort of film that only appeals to old school horror lovers that can see beyond the flaws of the era and this film’s budgetary constraints, appreciating the whole picture for what it is, a lot of friggin’ fun.

Directed by Roger Corman, it is safe to assume that this was shot in an afternoon on a budget that could only afford snacks for the cast and a a pair of googly eyes for the creature that was essentially just a big dude wrapped in a sheet of dark wool. Corman was famous for being able to film an hour of footage in a fifteen minute shoot. While I am being facetious, if anyone could bend the laws of space and time like that, it would be Roger Corman.

This film has a great sense of humor and maybe that is lost on modern audiences. Although, it does go a bit overboard and becomes bizarre, at times. There is a character that is a complete moron and he mostly speaks in animal impersonations. He meets a Puerto Rican island woman who does the same thing and they fall in love. Her name is Porcina and it is really fitting.

The story is fairly interesting at its core. A criminal lot makes a deal with a Cuban general to steal a bunch of gold to fund a counterrevolution, as this takes place just after Fidel Castro gained power. The criminals plan to double cross the Cubans and fake an attack by a sea creature, sinking the gold to the bottom of the ocean, only to be procured at a later date, once the Cubans are picked off. Except, there really is a monster.

The final shot of the movie is one of my all-time favorites as it shows the creature, picking his teeth at the bottom of the sea, while sitting on the trunk of gold.

Creature From the Haunted Sea is a delight, if you have an appreciation for the work of Roger Corman. It teamed him up with long-time collaborator Charles B. Griffith, who wrote a ton of his earlier films.