Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Roger Corman didn't plan to make the now-legendary Little Shop of Horrors in two or three days - according to star Jackie Joseph he rushed the show so filming could finish before December 31, 1959. On the next day the new Screen Actor's Guild residuals policy went into effect, forbidding Corman to hire actors on a flat buy-out basis.
Thus was born Corman's Filmgroup producing label. While other cheap-jack outfits making drive-in fare simply had to fold their tents, Corman did what any responsible producer would do and ran away to film in places where the Hollywood guilds had no jurisdiction. His first target was Puerto Rico, the Caribbean island territory of the U.S. that wasn't yet bound by guild rules. He arrived expecting to make two pictures back to back but slipped in an extra one to further amortize his costs.
Corman's industriousness was matched by his frugality. His aim was to make pictures just good enough to sell to distributors, without spending an extra penny he didn't absolutely have to. The main Puerto Rico feature (which is now the least known of the three) claims to be a big battle epic but is really about two soldiers hiding out in a cave, a nun-challenged Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. The second picture could afford the luxury of color but Corman saved airfare money for his cast by insisting that its writer Robert Towne double as the second male lead.
Retromedia's The Roger Corman Puerto Rico Trilogy follows that label's usual standard of generally lackluster transfers, in this case mitigated by the knowledge that prints of these pictures are rare. Roger Corman himself doesn't seem to have kept track of his negatives or show much interest in preserving them, even though he appears in a brief video introduction before each show.
Last Woman on Earth
1960 / Color / 1:85 matted flat / 71 min
Starring Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, Robert Towne
Cinematography Jack Marquette
Film Editor Anthony Carras
Original Music Ronald Stein
Written by Robert Towne
Produced and directed by Roger Corman
By itself on the first side of this flipper disc is the title that will generate the most fan interest. Afer being retired from most television screenings, Last Woman on Earth became practically a lost picture, with terrible prints circulating on graymarket public domain VHS tapes. It was originally shot in color but was most often seen in B&W; color prints turned out to be faded to a monochromatic brown. Retromedia's copy is an okay transfer of a surviving 35mm print with variable color that looks good in some scenes and barely acceptable in others, yet gives a good indicaton of the show's original appearance. It's letterboxed flat (not enhanced); the "Vitascope" hyped on the posters is simply flat photography matted to 1:85. Considering that it is practically the only way to see the picture, this presentation will be the one for fans to seek out.
The story recaps the previous year's The World, The Flesh and The Devil without that picture's producton values or its interracial theme. Robert Towne's script sets up the situation reasonably well and does what it can to animate a rather static three-character one-act situation. Sharp businessman Harold Gern (Antony Carbone) sees himself as a he-man master over his alcoholic wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones-Moreland) and likes having his meek lawyer Martin Joyce (Edward Wain - really Robert Towne) along to make himself feel all the more masculine. While scuba diving, some man-made disaster depletes all the oxygen in the air for an hour or so, killing every breathing thing on Earth except for our three survivors. By the time their scuba tanks run out they've returned to the green jungle, where the plants give off enough oxygen to sustain them. After that, little more mention is made of the sudden lack of oxygen and its equally abrupt restoration, and the three accept the fact of their isolation rather calmly. Only three or four shots attempt the kind of "empty world aftermath" that fascinates in films like Five or Target: Earth.
Harold goes right on acting like Eve is his property, a situation that gets worse as Eve and Martin are drawn to each other. Towne's script has a lot in common with European films where characters speak oblique dialogue - they aren't exactly alienated but poor communication emphasizes their isolation. The pace is slow and "Edward Wain" is at best an awkward actor. Carbone is good and the statuesque Jones-Moreland holds the picture up as the center of attention, because little of note actually happens. The desultory ending takes place rather symbolically in a church.
Corman's direction is so basic, you'd think he was trying to do the absolute minimum to tell the story, an approach that sometimes yields a good scene but more often marks time. Without a strong genre framework to prop things up Last Woman on Earth comes off as an arty picture that allows our attention to wander. We remember a handful of interesting moments, as when Eve shows her opinion of Martin's pretensions on the beach by wiping out his name written in the sand.
The best script content refers to Eve's predicament as a woman. As in many Corman films she seeks her independence from male domination, and Towne's script returns more than once to Martin and Eve trying to get Harold to accept that the concept of monogamous marriage needs to be abandoned. If nothing else, this guarantees that Last Woman on Earth will provide thematic linkage for scholars making the case for Corman as a visionary auteur.
The disc has an acceptable assortment of extras. There's an original trailer as well as a tasty stack of other Corman trailers. A commentary has Fred Olen Ray hosting Antony Carbone and Betsy- Jones-Moreland, who sound great 45 years later. Neither are at all bitter about the experience but can't wait to tell stories about how cheap Corman was. Jones-Moreland had to drag all of her own dresses to San Juan and work eighteen-hour days while doing her own makeup and hair. Then while exhausted, she did all of her own stunts, like perching on the balcony railing of high-rise hotel room. Nobody seems to have pre-screened the movie but their reactions are still interesting. What little analysis of the film we hear is questionable - I don't think anybody watches Last Woman on Earth and feels, as the commentators imply, that Antony Carbone's character is being lauded for having morals and high standards.
Also included are the flat-full frame B&W-only scenes added to the film for later television sales by Corman's go-to guy for reshoot-padding, Monte Hellman. The three stars, all looking a bit heavier, take part in a new bar scene and a long scene on a Southern California beach done in just a couple of takes. I definitely remember seeing the beach scene on television in the 1960s.
Creature from the Haunted Sea
1960 / B&W / 1:85 matted full frame / 63-75 min
Starring Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, Robert Towne, Beach Dickerson, Robert Bean
Cinematography Jack Marquette
Film Editor Angela Scellars
Original Music Fred Katz
Written by Charles B. Griffith
Produced and directed by Roger Corman
As Corman explains in his brief intro, Creature from the Haunted Sea came about when Corman found that his basic crew from Last Woman was willing to work a couple of more weeks if he could come up with an instantaneous new movie to shoot. Combining the robbery plot from Beast from Haunted Cave with a Key Largo- like smuggling tale, perennial Corman writer Chuck Griffith concocted a silly spoof of hardboiled gangster clichés, at least five years before the big Humphrey Bogart nostalgia wave hit. To this is added a silly / sick monster story that occasionally approaches the wit of Griffith's A Bucket of Blood. The monster turns out to look as silly as Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, which in these circumstances is not a bad thing at all.
If it were competently shot, Creature from the Haunted Sea would be hilarious; Savant has unfortunately never seen a print with a picture or soundtrack clear enough to fully appreciate the script when it is funny. A lot of Day for Night B&W shooting makes it difficult to see faces, and Corman pads out the picture with extraneous unfunny schtick involving a henchman played by Beach Dickerson. Voiceovers abound, sometimes cleverly but more often not.
Antony Carbone is Renzo Capetto, given a half-dozen silly aliases in the Dragnet-like voiceover. Together with his flashy moll Mary-Belle Monahan (Betsy-Jones Moreland) and confused undercover agent Sparks Moran, aka Agent XK150 (Robert Towne, still hiding behind the Edward Wain monniker), Renzo takes the job of transporting a half-dozen sleazy Cuban generals and their stolen loot away from the punitive arm of Fidel Castro. Mary-Belle distracts the already distracted Sparks along the way, enabling Renzo and his crew to murder the generals one by one. The killings are blamed on a sea monster, with Renzo's hoods using toilet plungers on the deck of his cabin cruiser to simulate circular monster tracks. Of course, a real sea monster shows up to put a big dent in Capetto's mercenary plans.
Griffith's flip script suggests a crazy spoof of the type seen in Mad magazine and we see bits of that intention poking through here and there, but Corman's direction is so threadbare and the camerawork so rushed that the storytelling is hard to follow. Some of the mugging of the principals is truly funny, if not necessarily worth slugging one's way through the rest of the movie. Griffith scores one extra-big laugh when Renzo spills his entire shady plan while Sparks the Spy listens intently at a keyhole. We keep cutting back to Sparks reacting to details in Renzo's murder scheme. Finally, with Sparks' ear still glued to the door, his voiceover says something like, "I really wish I could have heard what Renzo was saying, but that door was just too thick!"
Almost all the action on the boat appears to be staged so the camera can film right off a pier. The lack of interesting angles and the klunky pacing eventually wear the picture down. The delightful ending helps a bit, when we finally see the sea monster sitting happily on the treasure at the bottom of the ocean, after killing off the last of the cast!
Retromedia calls its transfer re-mastered but it looks just like older public domain copies with slightly better registration. Faces are still difficult to read in the gloomy lighting and the sound is slightly muffled. The animated main titles are splicey ... it's quite a disappointment to see Roger Corman blessing a copy this bad with his personal introduction. I'd be surprised to find out that the source is 35mm, as it looks like 16.
Extras include a trailer, more Monte Hellman-shot TV padding scenes, and another commentary with the same two actors from Last Woman.
Battle of Blood Island
1960 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 63-75 min
Starring Richard Devon, Ron Kennedy, Roger Corman
Cinematography Jack Marquette
Film Editor Carlo Lodato
Original Music Fred Katz
Written by Joel M. Rapp from a story by Philip Roth
Produced by Stanley Bickman
Directed by Joel M. Rapp
Corman's first Puerto Rico film is actually written, directed and produced by Joel Rapp, a man who has had a long and varied career that included directing a number of Television series. Corman's Puerto Rico jaunt was initially planned to film this two-character war movie, an extremely small-scale drama with little chance of being commercially viable. As it was, Rapp scared up a lot of the production money - even getting one of his actors to ante up $5,000 to be in it. Corman simply said "fine" to whatever Rapp could do within a strict budget.
Made from a Philip Roth short story, Battle of Blood Island is a slow-going but unpretentious story of two GIs who are the only survivors of a failed landing in the South Pacific. They have only brief contact with the Japanese who hold the island. Richard Devon's Moe does all of the running around trying to figure out how to survive, while his buddy Ken (Ron Kennedy, the pay-as-you-go actor) remains paralyzed by a bullet. The film has no real battle action and resolves in a literary conceit that seems rather unlikely.
Battle of Blood Island is rather flatly directed, with greater care than Corman but also with less interest in individual shots. As the situation is the familiar no-combat combat movie, watching with the commentary by director Rapp and Fred Olen Ray is the way to go. Rapp describes himself as barely in his twenties, helping Corman with a couple of pictures before jumping into this one hoping to make his big breakthrough. LA Times critic disabused Rapp of the notion that he had an art-house hit on his hands, and to distribute the picture Corman beefed up the opening with a new shot of dead bodies on the beach being bayonetted by grinning Japanese soldiers.
The title Battle of Blood Island doesn't describe the film but does indicate Corman's A.I.P. solution to an uncommercial show: Slap on a socko title, make sure the first shot looks like the movie promises something, and give it a grossly exaggerated poster. The "Blood Island" reference may have intentionally riffed off of a couple of then-current Hammer films about Japanese atrocities.
The transfer on Battle of Blood Island looks pretty good although it really needed 16:9 cropping and enhancement. The film is reasonably well-lit, which helps as well. It almost looks as though the source element might be 35mm.
The Roger Corman Puerto Trilogy gives us a good look at a previously rare color science fiction film, a good print of a seldom-seen minor Filmgroup picture and a disappointing copy of a monster comedy we'd hoped to see in better condition. Good commentaries compensate somewhat; it's fun to hear Betsy Jones-Moreland's vocal twang giving us the no-BS lowdown on what it's really like to make a Corman film ... beware of Puerto Rican chigger bugs!
As for Roger Corman, he seems to be content to let his films rot ... I guess there's just not enough profit to be made in properly preserving them. These early Filmgroup pictures ended up on the bottom half of double bills. Variety says that it had to review Last Woman on Earth at the Orpheum theater, after Fritz Lang's chopped-down version of his German films, retitled Journey to the Lost City. Roger's next career strategy would be double edged: Hiring himself to A.I.P. to direct higher-budget Edgar Allan Poe films, and going to Europe to make even cheaper Filmgroup movies -- and buy a few fire-sale titles for import.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Roger Corman Puerto Trilogy:
(Last Woman on Earth, Creature from the Haunted Sea, Battle of Blood Island)
Movies: Good, Good -, Good--
Video: Good, Poor +. Good
Sound: Good -, Good-, Good
Supplements: Commentaries, trailers, additional TV scenes, Roger Corman trailer gallery
Packaging: Flipper disc in Keep case
Reviewed: January 6, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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