The "Roger Corman Renaissance" continues unabated. Thanks to home video, the obsessive-compulsive nature of the Internet, a growing devotion from geek nation, and a recent honorary Oscar, the producer/director of hundred of schlock epics, the man who famously stated that he never made a movie that didn't make money, is ripe for rediscovery. Granted, he really never went away, decades of cultural irrelevance translating into a true cult of beloved B-movie magic. Now, it what appears to be an ongoing collection of classic Corman trash, we get Infinity Entertainment's seven film overview Best of the Bs. This time around, the motorcycle mayhem of the '50s through '70s is matched by a couple of car lover laments to argue that, when it came to marketing and making dough in a fad gadget gonzo era, the man who gave dozens of soon to be Hollywood superstars their start, new how to tap into the adolescent social zeitgeist - for better...and often for worse.
Running the gamut from standard exploitation to hard hitting noir, the seven films presented in the Best of the Bs: Hot Bikes, Cool Cars, and Bad Babes represent only a small portion of the similarly themed product produced by Corman over his fifty years in the business of show. While not the best examples of the revved-up subgenre, there are some real gems here, beginning with this early Me Decade delight:
Angels Hard as They Come (1971)
When the police get wind of their proposed drug deal, biker Long John and his crew head off to a Hell's Angel ghost town outpost known as Lost Cause. There, the usual drunken machismo hijinx ensue until a hippie girl winds up dead, and the Angels accuse John and his buddies of the crime.
The Wild Ride (1960)
Proto-punk delinquent Johnny Varron loves fast cars, violence gangs, and flaunting authority. But when he kills a few cops and kidnaps the girl of his best friend, he starts down a path toward his own smarmy self-destruction.
Bury Me an Angel (1972)
When her brother is murdered by a brutal goon, sexy Dag Brandy grabs a bike, hooks up with chopper buddies Jonesy and Bernie, and heads cross country, seeking vengeance with a shotgun and a sidecar of attitude.
The Fast and the Furious (1955)
Frank Webster is an innocent man accused of a murder he didn't commit. He breaks out of jail and, hijacking a sports car (and the sexy babe in it) he heads to Mexico, where a cross-border race provides the perfect getaway.
Naked Angels (1969)
Angel's leader Mother has just gotten out of jail, and he has a bone to pick with the rival gang who set him up. With his less than understanding girlfriend Marlene in tow, he heads out to the desert to seek his revenge.
The Winner (aka Pit Stop) (1969)
The then new sport of Figure Eight racing is featured in this story of a shady sponsor named Grant Willard, Rick Bowman, a bad boy racer/anti-hero, and a clearly psychotic rival named Hawk Sidney.
T-Bird Gang (1959)
When a security guard is killed by a gang of juvenile delinquents, the rent-a-cop's son decides to infiltrate the punks to avenge the death. Naturally, when the spy proves to be a pretty good criminal, the rest of the crew grows jealous.
There are several ways to enjoy this otherwise uneven cavalcade of crap cinema. They certainly function as curiosities, future famous faces like Scott Glenn, Gary Busey (Angels Hard as They Come), Jack Nicolson (The Wild Ride), and Ellen Burstyn (The Winner) showing up in supporting or starring roles. They can also act as guides to future prominence for filmmakers like Jonathan Demme, or examples of complementary masterworks from establish outsider auteurs like Jack Hill. They are also filmic archetypes, excellent illustrastions of melodramatic formulas and overripe revenge flicks retrofitted to take advantage of a growing hipster demographic. While clearly aimed at kids and those who frequent the local passion pit, the movies made during this era also strive for a little social commentary. Angels Hard as They Come (***), for example, wants to posit the biker as a misunderstood martyr - granted, one who instantly takes it on the run when his corrupt criminal activities are uncovered - but a soiled saint none the less. It's a lot like the character Nicolson plays in The Wild Ride (**). We are meant to root for these amiable anti-heroes, to see their hardboiled middle finger to the establishment and celebrate their rebellion.
Granted, Angels Hard is a lot better than Wild Ride, Nicholson's cackling delinquent less tolerable than Scott Glenn's gloomy gang leader. Each one has its own underlying issues - dull bits, unbelievably camp and chesseball dialogue, a lack of true gearbox authenticity - but at least the stories strive to be something more than marginal morality tales. That's not the case with Bury Me an Angel (**1/2) or Naked Angels (**). Each one offers up a payback plot (sister goes after the man who murdered her brother, biker head wants to take on the rival gang who sent him to jail) but then languishes and lollygags over the necessary vengeance. Instead of delivering action and accentuated butt-kicking at its dirty drive-in best, we get pensive moments of semi-self reflection, and one too many attempts at cool cat lingo. Something similar happens with 1959's T-Bird Gang (**). Having little to do with fast cars or loose ladies, we instead get a kind of police procedural, our young hero hoping that his undercover work will yield a killer's ID. As with the other revenge oriented titles here, we anticipate the denouement, and when it comes, it's less than satisfying.
The two best movies here offer wildly differing means of making their point. In The Fast and the Furious (***), escaped (innocent) con Frank Webster is desperate to clear his name - or at the very least, avoid further legal persecution. His actions, while not quite up to the breakneck pace of the modern movie stunt set-piece, at least keep the quickie narrative ever moving forward. We want him to make it, and marvel at how involved we get in the proceedings. As for The Winner (aka Pit Stop) (***1/2), maverick Jack Hill proves conclusively that his oddball horror spoof Spider Baby wasn't some amazing macabre fluke. Dealing with the visually exciting combination of stock car racing and demolition derby known as Figure Eight, as well as a truly engaging story about one driver's manipulated rise and fall, we descend into this world with ease, letting this fascinating filmmaker direct us anywhere he wants. By the end, when the writing is clearly on the dingy sidewalls, we feel a surreal emotional tug, as if somehow, this minor motion picture has captured our consideration. Unlike many of the offerings in this Best of the Bs: Hot Bikes, Cool Cars, and Bad Babes Collection, The Winner lives up to its name.
Now, for the bad news...the REALLY bad news. Someone clearly believes that, no matter the original aspect ratio these films were initially presented in, or the availability of new or remastered prints from different sources, video (or VHS quality) dupes of each movie, stretched or cropped to an unfathomable 1.33:1 full screen image, is the way film fans want to experience these titles. For shame! For one thing, the age different and image quality give new meaning to the term mishmash. Some of the selections have obvious tape issues, blurriness, faded color, and smash edits in abundance. Even worse, each transfer is WATERMARKED!!! That's right, a nice little transparent bug sits in the corner of the frame, never going away and announcing the current ownership of the product you are watching. How very proprietary circa 1995. If these were pristine remasters, that would be one thing. But with the shoddy presentation here, such copyright histrionics are ridiculous.
Not must better than the video, for this critic's cash. Choppy, distorted, and often suffering from drop out and popping, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is mediocre. Flat and tinny recording is to be expected from movies made over 40 years ago. A similarly stilted aural presentation is not. The tech specs here are enough to make you forget such a motion picture package exists, with inconsistent musical underscoring and equally unpredictable dialogue delivery.
Interesting, but not definitive. Drive-in concessions ads and other oddities are heavily pixilated and pale. Many are incomplete. The trailers aren't much better, considering that they too suffer from a dated, dug up from a moldy basement vault optical approach. While interesting in a superficial way, they do not make up for the bad audio and video elements, or the otherwise lackluster entertainment value offered by some of the films here.
Let's rephrase the opening paragraph, shall we - the Roger Corman Renaissance continues unabated...that is, until viewers get a hold of the incredibly slapdash five disc set Presenting Roger Corman's Best of the Bs Collection: Hot Bikes, Cool Cars, and Bad Babes. This troubling box set should stymie it PDQ. While a couple of the films are well worth your time, the rest are mildly amusing at best. And when you take into consideration the less than acceptable transfers and OAR issues here, the end result barely deserves a Rent It. As a result, such a score will stand, if only marginally. Many will see the cheap and chintzy way these titles are treated and want to Skip It all together. Maybe sometime in the future, when all rights issues are resolved and Corman himself can see fit to revisit his massive oeuvre, we'll get some quality presentations of his past miss/master/disasterpieces. Until then, this half-assed collection will have to do. It should have been a lot better. One marvels, however, at how it could be worse.