Armchair Cinephile 

LOW BUDGETS, CASTING COUCHES, AND KILLER FISH

The Roger Corman Classics Collection (New Concorde)
The Howling (MGM)
Return of the Secaucus 7 (MGM)
Blue Car (Miramax)
The Day of the Dolphin (Home Vision Entertainment)
The Hunted (Paramount)

 
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It is a little hard not to snicker at the title of the new box set called The Roger Corman Classics Collection - and that's coming from someone who thinks Corman deserves some sort of major award for his contributions to cinema. Say what you will about the producer's grindhouse ambitions; Corman's two-movies-a-month shooting schedule allowed him to give some of Hollywood's brightest lights a shot behind the camera. Jonathan Demme made his first films for Corman. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola cut their teeth on his dime. And he himself made some oddball gems in his directing heyday. But would you really call these "classics"?

This Classics Collection, from the Corman-owned New Concorde, contains four of the flicks that are known more for their own sake than for the filmmakers whose careers they started. Rock 'n' Roll High School, for instance - the Ramones vehicle that is just a wee bit more raunchy than School of Rock. Piranha, the first screenplay penned by John Sayles, which Corman calls his "homage" to Jaws. Death Race 2000, the subversive predecessor to Mad Max that pits Sly Stallone against Kill Bill's David Carradine in a race of futuristic death machines.

In classic "we paid for it, we should use it twice" form, those crazy cars reappear in Hollywood Boulevard, the Joe Dante co-directed spoof that also borrows footage from The Terror, costumes from Godzilla, and narrative details from the experience of every aspiring starlet to hit L.A. Rounding out the Classics Collection, it's a good example of the pros and cons of Corman's philosophy: While its lead actress is lousy and the plot lags in places, Hollywood is littered with really clever moments. It's obvious that the filmmakers were smart people out for a lark, a spirit best exemplified by Paul Bartel, who plays a low-budget director whose actresses keep dying on him. Dante and Sayles went on to score a mainstream genre hit with 1981's The Howling (MGM), which wasn't a Corman production, but pays homage by casting him in a tiny cameo. Well-liked by many horror buffs, the goofy movie is redeemed by its snarky view of California lifestyle trends.

In between werewolves and piranhas, Sayles wrote and directed his first personal film in 1980. Return of the Secaucus 7 (MGM) takes the shoestring production tactics of the Corman school and applies them to non-genre content, depicting the nearly uneventful reunion of a bunch of counterculture college buddies. The Big Chill would tread the same ground a few years later, and serves as a good illustration of the differences between commercial and personal films. Secaucus 7 triggers emotional responses without the easy button-pushing of a Motown soundtrack, refuses to beautify its characters unnecessarily, and lets real life, not strained contrivances, provide its drama.

Secaucus 7 was the first job for Sayles stalwart David Strathairn, who inexplicably has remained on the fringes of the acting world ever since. A fine actor who, to hear my ladyfriends tell it, has his share of sex appeal, it's hard to understand why he hasn't had real leading-man roles outside of Sayles' movies. Karen Moncrieff's recent Blue Car (Miramax) is an exception. In fact, it's a big exception: Strathain's character here, a school teacher who mentors an aspiring poet, is more complex and surprising than most of the men the actor has played; while the film is certainly more focused on the girl, played nicely by Agnes Bruckner, it gives Strathairn a real chance to stretch out.

Reading the quick description on the back of The Day of the Dolphin (Home Vision Entertainment), you could be forgiven for thinking it's a plot right up Corman's alley: "Day of the Dolphin stars George C. Scott as a scientist who trains dolphins to speak, only to find them enmeshed in a government assassination plot." Wow! That might conjure images of sinister undersea councils of scheming bottlenoses, but the movie itself is considerably less far-fetched. By Mike Nichols and Buck Henry, the team behind The Graduate, it's actually quite an engaging little thriller, less sci-fi silliness than shadow-conspiracy intrigue - one-half mystery and one-half marvel of nature.

Something about Dolphin brings to mind The Hunted (Paramount), the recent William Friedkin manhunt film where Benicio Del Toro is a little too connected to the killer instincts of the animal kingdom. The movie took a beating from a lot of critics, but it's hard to deny the visceral thrills it contains: Hand-to-hand combat has rarely been this exciting with two North American actors in front of the camera. If nothing else, this piece of Friedkin freakiness is a great appetizer for his To Live and Die in L.A., which is scheduled for a big-time DVD restoration in the not-too-distant future. •


More by John DeFore

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