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Corman's World

Starz / Anchor Bay // R // March 27, 2012
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 13, 2012 | E-mail the Author
Roger Corman has produced or directed somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 movies throughout the course of his career. I kinda doubt he's ever made a documentary anywhere along the way, but if he had, I bet it would've looked an awful lot like Corman's World. I mean, yeah, it's a retrospective into the career of one of the most influential filmmakers to ever pick up a camera, but it doesn't
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open with a montage of childhood photos and lilting, nostalgic acoustic guitars. No, Corman's World kicks off with a gaggle of twentysomething girls in bikinis getting mauled by an oversized hand puppet, while Corman -- well into his eighties and showing no signs of stopping anytime soon -- looks on with a grin rightfully plastered across his face. Like any Corman drive-in flick, this documentary is brilliantly paced. Its runtime clocks in at an hour and a half almost to the second, as if it were calculated the same precision as Corman's movies that were never a minute longer than they absolutely had to be. Digging through decades' worth of the exploitation flicks that he helmed and shepherded, Corman's World is teeming with all the rubber monsters, unnecessary explosions, buckets of blood, and jiggling breasts you'd expect from a movie with Corman's name stamped on it. In the proudest AIP and New World traditions, Corman's World is just a hell of a lot of fun to watch. How much more of a review do you need than that?

Monster from the Ocean Floor. Attack of the Crab Monsters. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. She Gods of Shark Reef. Death Race 2000. Roger Corman has never been the type to make stuffy, pretentious, self-serious movies, and I wouldn't use any of those words to describe this documentary about his life and work either. It's a celebration of the man and his many hundreds of films. If it had hit Blu-ray a month and a half earlier, you could have rightly called Corman's World a Valentine, even. It's a thrill, as ever, to see Corman in front of the think that someone so thoughtful and quietly charming could be responsible for hundreds upon hundreds of shameless, exploitative, and wonderfully ridiculous drive-in flicks. Corman's World strikes a tone that feels very much in keeping with the man himself: self-effacing in a gentle sort of way while still very aware of his importance and the impact he's made in the world of film. As if his legacy were ever in doubt, Corman's World interviews many of his protégés who've gone on to accomplish such remarkable things: Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, William Shatner, Irvin Kirshner, Penelope Spheeris, and Gale Anne Hurd among them. The documentary was produced
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over a sufficiently lengthy period of time to be able to capture interviews with the since-departed George Hickenlooper and David Carradine. The familiar faces you'd hope to spot in a Corman retrospective, such as Joe Dante, Dick Miller, Pam Grier, and...hey!...Mary Woronov are present and accounted for as well.

The skeletal structure of Corman's World in a lot of ways is exactly what you'd expect: lots of talking head interviews, a fair amount of archival footage, glossy black-and-white production stills from back in the day, and many, many snippets from Corman's sprawling body of work. What makes this documentary such a blast to watch is...well, it's about a hyperprolific exploitation filmmaker. The excerpts culled from Corman's movies are an adrenaline rush to see again, not to mention so cacklingly, wonderfully, enthrallingly schlocky much of the time. Corman has hammered out so many movies that the doc doesn't have to trudge along with the usual "he made this, and then he made this other movie, and then he made this one, and then..." laundry list. It's able to breeze through the highlights and lavish more time on his particularly remarkable films. Everyone who's interviewed has at least one incredible story to tell about Corman. For instance, Dick Miller mentions how he approached Corman for a writing gig but instead wound up playing an Indian who's gunned down by a cowboy...and, oh yeah!, Miller played the cowboy too. Scorsese talks about how he brought Mean Streets to Corman first where he got a green light as
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long as he didn't mind losing the Italian thing to retool it into a blaxploitation flick. While prepping for The Trip, Corman decided he needed to give LSD a shot for the movie to be credible, and he figured it'd be a good idea to have his assistant dictate his notes while he was under the influence.

One of the lessons I've always taken away from interviews about Corman -- and that's certainly on display here -- is that there is a way to meld the commercial with the wildly experimental. Corman's mindset, when he wasn't directing a movie himself, was to find young upstarts who lived, breathed, and slept film. Just about every name of note from the New Hollywood resurgence of the late '60s and '70s cut their teeth under Corman. With threadbare budgets and brutally tight schedules, that sort of passion and energy were fundamental to getting these movies made. It wasn't easy, no, but the rewards could be pretty great too. As long as you stayed on budget, as long as you made your days, and as long as there were some tits, another kill, or an explosion every eight minutes or whatever, everything in between was fair game. That freewheeling sense of being allowed to doodle in the margins, really, is what sets a lot of the films Corman has produced over the decades apart from so much of the direct-to-video schlock coming down the pike anymore. Genre and exploitation these days mindlessly march along with standard conventions. The mantra seems to be to look to a movie that raked in a lot of money and mimic 'em: do the same exact things in the same exact way. Hardly any of them are anywhere near as gleefully fun or off-the-wall as Corman's movies have been. Along with chintzy rubber beasts and women ripping off each other's clothes in prison sets, Corman's World also delves into his other contributions to the world of cinema. A fair amount of time is devoted to The Intruder, a not-even-a-little-bit-exploitative film about racial strife in the Deep South. Corman's filmography rarely reflects what he himself chooses to watch, and New World's distribution of Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, and the like is briefly discussed as well.

Corman's World has a strong narrative structure behind it, charting Corman's move into the world of independent filmmaking and how his drive to stay out from under other people's thumbs demanded that he periodically have to start all over again from scratch. It nicely balances his years with AIP, New World, and New Horizons, though it's rightly more interested in Corman's output from the '50s, '60s, and '70s than it is in, say, the Carnosaur years. I love the fact that it's very much a story still in-progress, with Corman continuing to produce movies like Dinoshark and Camel Spiders for the SyFy Channel well into his eighties. As much fun as it is to watch, the documentary also does a tremendous job establishing Corman's undeniable significance, beyond the staggering talent he's fostered over these many years and the hundreds of movies he has under his belt. Corman's World makes it a point to emphasize that the sci-fi/action movies that are Hollywood's bread and butter anymore are the exact sorts of movies that Corman has been making for ages, just with more gloss and unfathomably more massive budgets. It hits some powerful emotional marks, from the death of the drive-in -- the chances of a truly independent genre flick getting any sort of wide release reduced to near-zero -- to the sincere love Corman's many collaborators have for the man. Aided by a documentary this well-crafted and wildly entertaining, their admiration is absolutely infectious too. Highly Recommended.

Corman's World looks alright in high definition. As artfully composed as all of it is, the photography is kind of harshly digital, and the overall technical end of things skews closer to something I'd watch on one of the basic cable HD channels rather than a shiny, new doc on Blu-ray. The black-and-white archival stills look tremendous in HD, and it's great to see that a series of interviews at New World
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that were shot on 16mm have been retransferred to 1080p as well. I'll admit to being kind of let down that the excerpts from Corman's films look so terrible. There are Blu-ray releases of at least a handful of the movies featured here, after all, and surely it couldn't be that tough to feed some old trailers through a telecine bay. A couple leave me thinking that they might've been newly-transferred, such as Not of This Earth, but just everything else has clearly been upconverted from standard-def, complete with ghosting, shimmering, deinterlacing artifacts, and heavy aliasing. Apache Woman has it the worst, looking like an FLV yanked off YouTube or something. I guess filmmaking retrospectives like Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff and The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing, both of which feature scores of high definition excerpts -- often from movies that have yet to be released on Blu-ray -- have skewed my expectations.

Corman's World is served up on a single-layer Blu-ray disc, has been encoded with AVC, and is presented without any matting.

As you'd probably expect from a documentary like this -- particularly one about a filmmaker whose body of work has mostly been monaural -- Corman's World isn't exactly some sort of smolderingly intense sonic experience. Its 24-bit, six-channel Dolby TrueHD soundtrack sports a properly cinematic set of technical specs but mostly keeps itself tethered front and center. The occasional bursts of music take advantage of the 5.1 setup, bolstered by punchy bass and nicely reinforced by the surrounds, and there are infrequently effects such as the press coverage for Jaws that ping-pong from one speaker to the next. The emphasis is otherwise very much placed on the interviews, and these conversations are consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. The excerpts from Corman's films are all over the place, but that's kind of to be expected. No real complaints.

The only other audio options are subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.

I have to admit that I was expecting a metric ton of extended interviews, additional stories, people whose comments just didn't fit into the hour-and-a-half doc...and there's disappointingly little of that. For instance, the end credits mention interviews
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with Catherine Hardwicke, Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell, Alex Winter, Tom Hanks, Monte Hellman, Richard Matheson, longtime Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, Talia Shire, and the list goes on and on. Some of them are very briefly glimpsed in the disc's extras, but even then it's in the "special messages to Roger" section rather than proper interviews. It just feels like a missed opportunity, and I hope a lot of the footage that wound up in the digital dustbin isn't being held back for a special edition re-release down the road or something.
  • Special Messages to Roger (15 min.; HD): A parade of Roger Corman's friends and colleagues share their sincere thanks, and it's a mix of the heartfelt and warmly quippy. Again, a ton of folks are featured here that are nowhere to be found in the documentary proper, including Brett Ratner, Traci Lords, Marky Ramone, Lloyd Kaufman, and Clint Howard.

  • Extended Interviews (13 min.; HD): I can't shake the feeling that there should've been a lot more of this, but these extended interviews are all pretty great. Martin Scorsese delves into the earliest days of his career when no one really made feature films in New York, and he spells out Corman's greatest strengths as a producer. Ron Howard speaks at length about working as a director under Corman, the advice he got from New World alum Jonathan Demme, and casting Corman in a small part in Apollo 13. Penelope Spheeris chats about her grueling first time out as a director, squabbling with Corman over whether or not Suburbia was a worthwhile title for a film, and marveling at Corman's determination to squeeze every last cent out of his sets and props. Corman didn't even have to ask Jim Wynorski about that sort of thing; in his brief interview, Wynorski talks about writing and shooting Sorority House Massacre II in seven days with leftover sets from Slumber Party Massacre III. (...although there's nothing to identify Wynorski or which slasher flick he's talking about, exactly, so I guess you'll just have to take my word for it.) Eli Roth makes a lot of really insightful comments about Corman and his films that I think would've cut beautifully into the final doc.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): Last up is a high-def trailer.

The Final Word
Corman's World is an insightful, engaging, and wildly entertaining look into Roger Corman's long reign as the king of the drive-in...a man whose startlingly prolific career in film has spanned more than a half-century and whose impact cannot be overstated. I do wish that this Blu-ray disc delivered a lot more in the way of extras, but otherwise, I'm pretty thoroughly thrilled with Corman's World, and it's essential viewing for anyone with a longstanding fascination with low-budget filmmaking or vintage exploitation. Highly Recommended.
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