Sunday, September 18, 2005

End of an Era, Indeed: Roger Corman weds with Major Studio Hollywood

The news in the video trades this week that Roger Corman had sold "more than 400 films" to Disney distributor Buena Vista Home Entertainment marks the end of an era that defined much of my life, and that of almost every film lover of my generation.

As most folks know, Corman launched, supported, or lent a needed hand-up to many a career, from Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda to filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Paul Bartel, John Sayles, Joe Dante Jr. and many others.

In more ways than one, Corman was the man who shaped my tastes throughout my half-century on terra firma -- a situation some might consider deplorable, but I'm thankful for all that Corman's work has meant to me. Corman began directing films the year I was born (1955), and his work anchored my life as a film fan, from my formative childhood TV viewings of It Conquered the World, The Undead, War of the Satellites, etc. to my earliest memories of seeing horror films on the big screen, inside and out (e.g., the drive-ins). The Corman/Vincent Price Poe films were iconic fixtures of my youth, and I'll never forget rushing to the now-long-gone Stowe, VT Jackstraw Inn Cinema to catch a triple-bill of washed-out, purpling Pathecolor (which my friend Bill Hunter thereafter dubbed "Patheticolor") prints of Corman's The House of Usher, The Raven, and Tales of Terror (which featured adaptations of three Poe stories, effectively expanding the triple-bill to a quintet of fading mauve horrors). The hilarious highlight was the repetition in all three movies of the same shot of flaming boards falling toward the camera: according to Corman interviews and his autobio, this footage was shot in a burning chicken coop. Corman's seminal non-genre '60s gems like The Wild Angels, The Trip and best of all (to my mind) Bloody Mama were part and parcel of my maturation in the pop-culture soup of the '60s, and once I had my driver's license I rushed to any and all Corman New World production at the local drive-ins. This sometimes necessitated multiple trips in a single summer week or weekend, and opened my eyes to some of my fave filmmakers of the era, from Jack Hill to Joe Dante, Jr..

New World provided a heaping helping of cheapjack horrors and sf opuses, student nurse/teacher flicks, redneck demolition-derbies, Depression-era gangster extravaganzas, women-in-prison movies, and the occasional art-house pickup (Fellini's Amacord, etc.). It was the last great explosion of the drive-in era, which faded with the end of the '70s, but Corman kept going into the '80s and the new video era, providing exploitation product for the new market as steadily as he had fed the drive-ins and grindhouses. Amid the transition, Corman sold New World and launched New Horizons in 1983, becoming one of the leading and most dependable producers of direct-to-video product; New Horizons later became New Concorde, and Corman product remained a mainstay throughout my tenure in the video industry as a co-manager and buyer at the Brattleboro VT video shop First Run Video. With the rise of DVD, Corman repackaged and steadily re-released much of his library -- and now, much of that is going into the Buena Vista coffers.

I knew we were living on the other side of the looking glass the day First Run's replacement copies of John Waters' Pink Flamingos arrived shrinkwrapped in plastic stamped with tiny, white Warner Bros. logos. That was about seven years ago, I reckon; Buena Vista's acquisition of the Corman library plucks the same nerve.

The initial press release is already crowing about the library, including numerous Filmgroup titles that have been long-relegated to public domain limbo, prominent among them Corman's three-to-five day (depending on which account you subscribe to) wonder Little Shop of Horrors. This is what I personally find most interesting about the announcement; if it means we'll finally see clean, sharp, definitive prints of Corman's Filmgroup library, this may be the cloud's silver lining. Odd, though, to see It Conquers the World listed in the Buena Vista press releases; this title had been part of the AIP/Arkoff library Columbia released to vhs in the mid-1990s and only available on DVD in the UK Arkoff Collection lineup (along with non-Corman items The She Creature, Earth vs. the Spider, etc.). The Filmgroup library is overdue a proper refurbishing and re-release in authorized, definitive editions; only a few, acquisitions like Curtis Harrington's Night Tide and key Filmgroup productions like Corman's masterpiece The Intruder (aka Shame and I Hate Your Guts), have enjoyed proper restorations and DVD releases, and those only of late. Hard to imagine Buena Vista getting behind such a venture with the ethusiasm MGM brought to most of their Midnite Movies line. There are quite a number of fascinating Filmgroup oddities and curios heretofore preserved by Sinister Cinema and (most recently) Fred Olen Ray's RetroMedia DVD label.

Consider, if you will, the Disney logo gracing Corman's rush revamps of key Russian sf films of the era into mesmerizing tripe like Battle Beyond the Sun, for which none other than Coppola easy-oven-baked latex vagina-and-penis-shaped space monsters into pseudo-intercourse battle on a fake plaster and pasteboard planetary landscape! It's been jarring enough at times to savor the MGM lion roaring before the delicious Midnite Movies library of AIP titles; could it be Buena Vista and the castle will precede Atlas or Peter Bogdonavich's 'gill woman' Mamie Van Doran reboot of Planeta Burg into Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women?

Filmgroup was Corman's initial bid for real independence, essentially setting him up as a producer/distributor who was such a close competitor to AIP (at a time when Corman was still making films for AIP!) that AIP honcho Sam Arkoff orchestrated the purchase of Filmgroup in short order. Arkoff reportedly walked onto the set of what was to be Corman's first non-AIP Poe pic, The Premature Burial, to welcome Corman and his film into the AIP fold (explaining why this early Corman Poe production starred Ray Milland instead of Vincent Price, who was under contract to AIP).

This was just the first of Corman's disappointing dances with the studios. At the time, AIP was decidedly a minor (and Corman had directed films for, or acquired by, other studios like Allied Artists), but Arkoff had enough clout and cut-throat savvy to take down Filmgroup, which was small-fry next to AIP. Corman's later bids to move away from AIP also came to sorry ends. At the close of the 1960s, the man who practically invented drive-in movies flirted with the major studios for the first time in his career. Though a couple of Corman's pics had been handled (primarily overseas) by major studios on the distribution end of the equation, Corman directed The St. Valentine's Day Massacre for 20th Century Fox and the underrated Von Richtofen and Brown for another major. The double-sucker-punch of the sorry mismarketing of Von Richtofen and Corman's career-long relations with American-International Pictures (hereafter AIP) irrevocably souring with AIP's butchery of Corman's bizarre counterculture opus Gasssss (I may not have the proper number of 'S's in there, but hey, I'm writing off the top of my head here) led to Corman's decision to end his directing career to instead launch his own independent production and distribution firm, New World Pictures.

At least this current concession to the market clout of a major studio -- Disney/Buena Vista -- is apparently voluntary and profits Corman directly, though this constant viewer is grieving. Perhaps Corman isn't long for this world and knows it; a sign of mortality wedded with the eternal pragmatism Corman has practiced since his first production, Monster from the Ocean Floor.

Much as I don't begrudge Corman whatever windfall of income this transaction provides him in his autumn years, it's sad to see one of the most monolithic communications corporations on Earth finally wrap their slavering jaws around the library of the most tenacious of all indy producers. Buena Vista/Disney are moving fast, too, having announced the first wave of Corman reissues coming in November.

Warning to those who care: you better snag the New World/New Concorde titles you want now, and move quickly!

As I say, it's the end of an era -- and an unexpected bookend in my own lifetime to a career that endlessly entertained and enriched my own humble existence. The films were made for quick play-offs in their respective markets. But they will outlive us all, no doubt, and I trust that has been a source of endless amusement to the man behind 'em all.

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