Premature Burial [1962]

Genre: Drama, Horror, Mystery
Roger Corman's name has become synonymous with cheap B-movies--but the cunning, vitality, and astounding variety of movies in The Roger Corman Collection demonstrates that money has nothing to do with making a dynamic movie. Corman is best known as the producer who launched some of the greatest directors of the 1970s (like Scorsese and Coppola), but these eight movies prove Corman himself had directorial chops. He has no signature visual style, but the movies are united by Corman's restless intelligence and--perhaps surprising to viewers who think of exploitation movies as vapid--moral consciousness. The earliest movie is one of the best: The black comedy A Bucket of Blood satirizes the beatnik counterculture, but many of its jabs can be applied to every rebellious trend since. But the strangely sympathetic performance of Dick Miller as a socially inept would-be artist/accidental murderer resonates most. Miller went on to appear in bit parts on many other Corman movies (you'll see him several times in this collection), but this performance fully captures his unique charisma. The Premature Burial and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, both starring Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend), are more conventional horror science fiction movies. Burial is a sterling example of Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, with lavish (by Corman's standards) production values and an increasingly creepy plot. X, in which a scientist gains x-ray vision, begins as a naughty joke and builds to a downright metaphysical finale. Also made in the same year (1963) is the weakest film in the collection, The Young Racers, which was constructed around footage shot of actual Grand Prix races in Europe. The mid-1960s saw Corman exploring the rising youth cultures and creating some genuinely remarkable work: The Wild Angels, starring Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, and Bruce Dern, portrays a Hell's Angels-style motorcycle gang whose unrepentant nihilism reaches a genuinely troubling peak. The movie paints a caustic picture yet withholds judgment, almost taunting the viewer to draw a moral line. Similarly, The Trip, though it features some cheesy visual effects, is an accurate and uncritical depiction of a man (Fonda again) taking his first acid trip; the movie neither advocates nor condemns, but captures both the ups and downs of LSD. Bloody Mama is a gangster picture set in the Depression, but the incestuous psychosexual landscape of Ma Barker (played with zest by Shelley Winters) and her sons (including a young Robert DeNiro) could only have been portrayed with such unsettling vividness in 1970. And finally, there's Gas-s-s!, one of the last movies Corman directed, a freewheeling allegorical odyssey in which a military experiment kills everyone over 25, turning society into a strange patchwork of subcultures. There's really no other movie like it, and it may capture the 1960s more accurately than the Baby Boom generation finds comfortable. Corman's oeuvre deserves to be rediscovered and reexamined. The Roger Corman Collection includes a few interviews with Corman, who proves himself thoughtful and unpretentious. All in all, an important (and enjoyable!) addition to any cinephile's library. --Bret Fetzer

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