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February 23, 2011

Movie Review: Roger Corman's Cult Classics; Triple Feature

Today was my definition of heaven. Revisiting some of the most resonant movies of my boyhood, made by a guy whose legend continues to grow even as we age. Shout Factory's re-issues of Roger Corman double and triple features continues to thrill and inspire us old timers, and hopefully will also garner new young fans along the way. Today I watched one of the most welcome sets of the bunch. A triple feature of new transfers of three of Roger's most iconic early films: Attack of the Crab Monsters, Not of This Earth, and War of the Satellites.

While the prints are not flawless, they are probably the best I have seen. Shout Factory has obviously gone to some effort to find good quality prints to make their transfers from. Two of the three in this set are from British release prints; none are from scratched up TV prints as has often been the case in the past.

Attack of the Crab Monsters is one of Roger's best of the era. In spite of some very cheesy elements, it always gets under my skin with it's very special atmosphere. In it, a group of scientists travel to a remote island to study the effects of nuclear weapons tests and become stranded when their airplane crashes (off screen, of course. We know it happened because the actors tell us so). They learn that that the island has been taken over by intelligent, giant mutant crabs which absorb the memories of everyone they eat. As dumb as that sounds, it gives these creatures something missing in most big monster movies - a creepy, eerie, ghostly atmosphere. To add to their problems, the island is slowly sinking into the ocean, which, again, due to budgetary limitations, is really only understood because the characters tell us so. The giant crab puppets are some of the most memorable and impressive creatures of the early Corman monster films. Never mind that their legs don't always move when they should. They are creepy with their humanoid faces.

Not of This Earth has the distinction of being remade more than any of the other early Cormans. Twice now, and neither remake substantially changes the story. It is that iconic. In it, an alien agent from the distant planet Davana is sent to earth via a high-tech matter transporter. There he terrorizes a small town in an attempt to acquire blood for his dying race. He kills people with his iris-less eyes (normally covered by dark glasses), employs a nurse to give him regular transfusions, and a small time hood to take care of everything else. At one point he uses a flying monster to kill a doctor who knows too much in a scene pretty gory for its day. It's a hodge-podge of science fiction cliches that never really congeals into a true plot, but somehow it all works anyway, and I could watch it again at any time.

War of the Satellites is the least seen of the three, and undeservedly so. It's got a more focused story than the other two, (astronauts sent into space being manipulated by an alien entity bent on sabotaging our interplanetary efforts) which is surprising given it's production history. As the story goes, Corman sold the distributor on the title alone and had no story to go with it. He was obligated to deliver a finished film in seven weeks. So he called writer Charles Griffith immediately, blocked out story that evening, and decided on several locations which the story would be built around. Set construction was begun immediately without a script, which Griffith was simultaneously writing. Likewise, during the shoot, he hired two editors. The first editor worked immediately on the second day of the shoot, cutting what they had shot the day before. The next day, the second editor went to work on what was shot on day two of the shoot. And so it went, the two editors alternating the previous day's footage until the film was finished.

These films are unique and special and I doubt we will see their like again. Iconic cheese marked by honest effort and enthusiasm. For every cheesy element in these early Corman films (a satellite seen rotating in one direction in one cut, and the opposite in another; consoles on rollers inside spaceships; obvious strings dangling flying beasts; inarticulate or downright silly-looking creatures) you can always find a moment of eloquence above and beyond, letting us know there is talent, enthusiasm, and even taste in the man orchestrating the madness (the grille on car echoing the toothy grin of the monster in It Conquered the World; Beverly Garlands flowing dress echoing the flying umbrella-like monster in Not of this Earth; the eerie stark atmosphere of Attack of the Crab Monsters).

The DVD set also contains some cool extras like prologues used for TV prints of Not of This Earth and an inspiring tribute to Corman featuring everyone from Peter Fonda to Harry Dean Stanton. If you are at all like me, you will not be able to resist this DVD set on any level.

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