Notorious for his low budgets and willingness to give eager talent their first break, Roger Corman has churned out an astonishing amount of pics in the past 50 years, mostly as producer. The first three films in Disney’s new Roger Corman line vary widely in style — one’s a high school rebellion fantasy, another a proto-feminist gangster story and the third a futuristic satire — but they share a goofy charm that mostly makes up for weaknesses in story and production value. The behind-the-scenes stories alone are worth a spin.
Necessity was definitely the mother of invention on these 1970s movies, where filming was crammed into marathon spurts and actors hired because they would supply their own costumes. Thus “Big Bad Mama” director Steve Carver had period cars painted a different color on each side so they could appear to be two different vehicles, while the “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” crew charged extras for three Ramones “concerts” at the Roxy, risking mutiny from L.A. scenesters. And Corman bought a bunch of old VWs to be fashioned into futuristic race cars in “Death Race 2000” because sports car designers had just started putting engines in the rear.
“In lieu of money, we used a lot of imagination,” says Corman, who posits that auds will stick with you if you show them something wild and original.
Barring that, there’s always T&A.
When breasts start popping out in “Big Bad Mama,” Angie Dickinson chuckles on the commentary track, “Oh, Roger, you always make things so interesting.” “It’s the cheapest special effect,” he chuckles right back.
Corman gave his filmmakers a lot of latitude, caving to helmer Allan Arkush’s insistence that “Disco High” be renamed “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” then readily agreeing to cast the Ramones for $25,000 total. Alas, Arkush reports that footage of the band singing “I Wanna Be Sedated” was long ago scrapped by the penny-pinching producer.
Though apt to praise even cheesy matte drawings in “Death Race 2000,” Corman does tut over some of the camera and audio work in that film, directed by Paul Bartel. Indeed, the transfers can be a bit fuzzy and the commentaries uneven, with an earlier, anecdote-packed recording by Arkush, producer Mike Finnell and scribe Richard Whitley outshining Corman’s new one with “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” co-star Dey Young.
But watching these discs with an overly critical eye is missing the point. They simply don’t take themselves that seriously — which isn’t to say they’re all trash, either.
“This movie’s better than people think it is,” “Big Bad Mama” star Dickinson maintains, while co-writer Joe Dante touts “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” as a fun, spirited movie that’s never boring.
Arkush saves his biggest praise for Corman, whom he calls one of the most important producers in Hollywood history. “Unlike everyone else I’ve ever worked with at a studio, Roger is a filmmaker first.”