DVD Reviews: Roger Corman’s Cult Classics
In June of this year, Shout! Factory unveiled the first wave in what will ultimately comprise approximately thirty DVD releases (and some Blu-Ray) of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures catalog. These DVDs are a significant improvement over previous home video versions and in many cases represent the first time these films have been released on this format. In addition to new high definition widescreen transfers, the discs are packed with extras that more than justify the $19.99 price tags (they can be found for even less online). It’s truly a happy day for Roger Corman fans.
After providing American International Pictures with some of it’s best remembered and most profitable films in the 1960’s, Corman founded his own distribution company in the early 1970’s. New World Pictures represented the final days of Roger Corman as a director but even the films directed by others display his signature touches and unique understanding of the B-movie market. As his primary outlet of drive-in theaters began to disappear, Corman expanded into new territory with pay cable services. This introduced his films to an entirely new audience, a generation of fans who were too young to drive!
This edition of Retrorama looks at the first three DVD releases from Shout! Factory.
Death Race 2000 (1975) – While not the first film to come from New World Pictures, DR2K was an early arrival that put the fledging company firmly on the map. In a nihilistic (but surprisingly accurate on some levels) future, all eyes are focused on the annual Death Race, where a group of colorful drivers compete to see who can murder the most pedestrians in a cross country competition. David Carradine stars in his first post-Kung Fu role as Frankenstein, a supposedly battered mess of a driver held together with stitches. The supporting cast includes a barely pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, Mary Waronov as cowgirl Calamity Jane, and future congressman and Love Boat purser Fred Grandy as Herman the German!
Paul Bartel directs this mixture of over the top violence, black comedy, and political satire with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. The results are uneven but ultimately satisfying and showcase Corman’s knack for squeezing impressive levels of production value out of miniscule budgets. Once this hit theaters, David Carradine enjoyed a long career as a B-movie hero and New World Pictures proved themselves a force to be reckoned with.
Shout! Factory made the wise decision to make this their flagship release in the Roger Corman line. The DVD contains multiple audio commentaries from just about anyone associated with the film who is still around and a few who aren’t. In addition to the anticipated extras like trailers and radio spots, there is over an hour’s worth of documentaries on everything from the film’s origins to it’s costume designs. There’s even a twelve page booklet on the history of the film. If your DVD budget is stretched thin and you can only afford one entry in this series, this is hands down the one to get.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) – This fun little anomaly from late 70’s places a cult movie dream cast in a plot that harkens back to the teen musicals of the fifties. The incredible cast includes recent Halloween victim and terminally cute P. J. Soles, Ron Howard’s brother Clint, Dick Van Patton’s son Vince, and Corman regulars Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel. Oh, and did I mention The Ramones? This ill-fated and almost unclassifiable (proto-punk?) band steals the show in just about every scene they are in.
The plot is typical fifties – cool kids rebel against an authority base that doesn’t understand them but is determined to control them. The music of The Ramones represents the focal point of the conflict as they are slated to play a local concert that has the entire school in an uproar of one kind or another. Minor subplots about click distinctions, teenage infatuations, and subverting the system abound. Everything is played for good natured laughs and the impressive score, which also features artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and Devo, rocks.
While it has plenty of competition, Shout! Factory’s special features on this DVD are some of their most elaborate to date. Supplementing the beautiful new widescreen transfer are three different audio commentaries with cast and crew, four documentary and interview segments, a host of promotional material and even audio outtakes of the live concert recorded for the film! Like Death Race, there is also a sixteen page informative booklet enclosed so this is a close second for your DVD dollars!
Suburbia (1983) – Rounding out the first wave of the new Corman series is Penelope Spheeris’ entry in the youth-in-revolt film genre that started in the late seventies and continued throughout the eighties. This tale is seen through the eyes of a teenager who leaves home when his alcoholic single mother can no longer afford to care for him and his younger brother. He takes up residence with a similar group of disenfranchised youths living in an abandoned house on the outskirts of the title location. While stealing to survive and avoiding a concerned citizen’s group comprised of laid off blue collar workers, The Rejects, as they term themselves, spend their free time at punk rock concerts and wandering the city streets.
While Spheeris makes a valiant effort at treating the subject matter in as realistic a manner as possible, this causes the film to flounder and it never succeeds in building any momentum. The good guy kids aren’t really that good and become hard to identify with while the bad guys are never that bad and elicit too much sympathy. The film ends on a shocking note but with nothing resolved or even pointed in an obvious direction. Fans of this genre are recommended to any of a number of other entries including 1979’s Over the Edge with a young Matt Dillon.
For a film as obscure as this one (I never remember it being released to theaters and I was an avid moviegoer around this time), Shout! Factory has unearthed a respectable amount of extras for this DVD release. They shed some light on where this film falls in the eighties teen cycle but it is still easy to see why this one never reached the cult status many of New World’s other releases did.
Up coming DVDs in this series from Shout! Factory will include Humanoids from the Deep, the original Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars, and a personal favorite of mine, The Evil. This is a great time to revisit some cool films from the 70’s and 80’s if you’ve forgotten them or discover them if you missed out the first time!