The Wasp Woman (1959)

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Aka Bee Girl and Insect Woman. I’d stay away from wasps, if I were you, Mrs Starlin.  Socially the queen wasp is on the level with a Black Widow spider.  They’re both carnivorous, they paralyze their victims and then take their time devouring them alive.  And they kill their mates in the same way too.  Strictly a one-sided romance! Mad scientist Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark) has been messing with wasps on a honey farm so he gets fired. Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) is losing business at her cosmetics company because she’s starting to look old. She funds Zinthrop to extract enzymes from the  royal jelly of a queen wasp provided she is the human subject. But when the wasps start to exhibit violent behaviour Zinthrop doesn’t get to warn Janice before he’s rendered incapacitated in a car crash and while she loses 20 years off her appearance over the weekend she becomes extremely violent without those buzzy injections … Ah, the price you pay for anti-ageing products. One of those great corny Corman mini-classics with cult star Cabot showing exactly why she’s so beloved (even if not by her own son, who murdered her). Some priceless scenes and the transformation is to die for (!). Written by the wonderful actor, screenwriter and novelist, Leo Gordon, whose screen persona belied a great dramatic ability. He was Brooklyn born and reared and after serving in WW2 got shot in an armed robbery which earned him 5 years in San Quentin. He read voraciously in prison and entered the movie business afterwards following training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Grace Kelly. We are duly grateful. The prologue was shot by Jack Hill while producer/director Corman has an uncredited role as a doctor and Barboura Morris has a nice supporting part as Cabot’s secretary, Mary Dennison. Released in a double bill with Beast from Haunted Cave.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

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Gabba gabba hey! The kind of film you want to be brilliant but falls far short – a hodge podge of high school tropes, teen rebellion and let’s put on a show, mixed in with The Ramones – performing some of their best and worst songs. PJ Soles is the big-haired cheerleader type who’s just wild for the pre-punk rockers and is at war with the new school principal (cult star Mary Woronov) at Vince Lombardi High. 70s heart-throb Vince Van Patten (now more often to be seen on the World Poker Tour) is the geek trying to win the heart of brainiac Dey Young (sister of Leigh Taylor Young) and talks about the weather.  Soles has written a song for the band to sing but has to deal with their number one groupie (the gorgeous Lynn Farrell) when lining up for tickets to see them. There’s some OTT stuff featuring teacher Paul Bartel, a Nazi-style burning of the toxic vinyl, overgrown boy scouts working as a security detail for Woronov and some bad acting by those fake NYC bros. All the kids really want to do is dance!  Truly a cult relic but worth catching for some of the songs and the explosive finale – when the kids do what every kid ever wanted to do to their own high school! A Roger Corman production based on a story by director Allan Arkush and Joe Dante with a screenplay by Richard Whitely, Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride – the same Mr McBride is one of the better film historians with books on Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Steven Spielberg, among others, to his impressive credit.

Jonathan Demme 02/22/44-04/26/17

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Multi-talented director Jonathan Demme has died. He got his start with Roger Corman and debuted with a biker movie and naturally graduated to women in prison flicks before entering mainstream Hollywood and making his name with some fine films starring terrific women like Goldie Hawn and Melanie Griffith.  His first critically acclaimed movie was however the wonderful Bo Goldman screenplay Melvin and Howard, one of the best of the Seventies with an unforgettable performance by Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and beautifully shot by longtime collaborator Tak Fujimoto. He made some wonderful documentaries particularly the landmark music film Stop Making Sense with Talking Heads:  who can forget David Byrne on stage in that enormously boxy suit? But his name will be forever associated with a shocking adaptation that is one of that tiny number of films to win the Big 5 at the Academy Awards – The Silence of the Lambs won for Actor, Actress, Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director. He may have made some missteps and unnecessary remakes but humour, humanity and compassion shone from his work. Demme will be missed.

Happy 80th Birthday Jack Nicholson! 22nd April 2017

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Is there anyone who doesn’t like this man? The legendary wild man of the American cinema turns an unbelievable 80 this weekend. The self-proclaimed Irish Democrat from the Jersey shore has never given anything less than an interesting performance and there’s a lot to choose from as you can see from the posters – chronicling sixty years of his films from his beginnings with Roger Corman and the first decade where he really paid his dues and wrote several screenplays into the bargain. We all have our own favourites amongst his work and there are the great films like Five Easy PiecesCuckoo’s Nest and Chinatown (written by Robert Towne for him – they became friends at an acting workshop) and The Shining.  And there are the not fully great ones where he crafts truly hilarious or interesting or moving characters, like The Border or Ironweed, Blood and Wine, The King of Marvin Gardens or The Pledge. He’s been pleasurable in truly terrible films like As Good as it Gets or a challenging one like Carnal Knowledge. His forays into directing have been fascinating – Drive, He Said, The Missouri Breaks, Goin’ South, The Two Jakes. He will hopefully return to the screen in the US version of Toni Erdmann, recently announced, but until then he has a truly magnificent back catalogue to plunder. Choose your own Jack Nicholson Adventure. Happy Birthday to a great star and an astonishing talent.

Happy Birthday Roger Corman! 04/05/2017

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Aside from being a great opportunity to look at 50 years of wonderful poster art and titles to die for, today is trash-horror-exploitation maestro Roger Corman’s 91st birthday. The legendary Pope of Pop Cinema started life as an engineer but lasted just 4 days in the job. After a spell studying literature and reading scripts for Hollywood studios he got into the whole filmmaking thang himself and created a company that eventually served as a film school for some of the most notable directors in American cinema, from Francis Ford Coppola to Martin Scorsese, Stephanie Rothman to Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich to Penelope Spheeris. The most acclaimed of his work is the Edgar Allan Poe series, adapted by top-class scenarists like Richard Matheson and Robert Towne. His own best work as director (The Intruder) was so controversial he steered clear of such subject matter (racism) again and passion projects like Von Richthofen and Brown aka The Red Baron eventually gave way to serial producing:  his last directorial effort was a quarter of a century ago (Frankenstein Unbound). He audited acting classes with blacklistee Jeff Corey to understand performance and meet talent – which is how Jack Nicholson got his break in Cry Baby Killer and Robert Towne started writing screenplays. What I love about his early work is the way the women come to the fore:  June Kenney, Fay Spain, Beverly Garland and Susan Cabot are some of my favourite ladies and some of his alumni like Paul Bartel, Ron Howard and Demme have called upon him to act in small character parts in their mainstream successes. I once presented him with a project on biker movies and it was returned to me with the dry comment ‘Very accurate.’  High praise indeed! A scattering of my own fave raves from this renaissance man would include Gunslinger, Sorority Girl, A Bucket of Blood, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Wild Angels and Cockfighter. So much choice! Happy Birthday Mr Corman!

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

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Writer/producer/director Roger Corman’s Poe cycle was a fine series of interpretations of the Gothic maestro whose work was always incorporated into the high school curriculum – so the exploitation filmmaker knew he had a ready audience of teens! However this lowly ambition was superseded by the sheer good taste and elegance of the productions, seen here at their best in this sumptuous symphony of colour, shot by Nic Roeg when he was still Britain’s best cinematographer (well, along with Oswald Morris). This, the seventh in the series, is written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell and incorporates the story Hop Frog as a sub-plot. Jane Asher is the mediaeval wench who is kidnapped by tyrannous Prince Prospero as the plague rages outside his fortress and her lover and her father are imprisoned in the dungeons while all manner of devil worship takes place above them, with Hazel Court presiding … Tremendous sense of atmosphere and if not in the same class as The Seventh Seal, bears some narrative similarities. Price is diabolical, as ever, while it’s great to see Patrick Magee as Alfredo, his evil sycophant.

The Terror (1963)

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What a shame that the ShowBiz channel had the duffest colour print of this that I’ve ever seen – a long way from the pristine version the BBC screened over 20 years ago. Still, it’s fun to see Jack Nicholson in this Napoleonic outing, with a script by Leo Gordon (who wrote Nicholson’s debut, Cry Baby Killer) and Jack Hill (who would make some darned impressive exploitation flicks of his own especially blaxploitation and then Switchblade Sisters) and Sandra Knight, Mrs Nicholson, not to mention the wonderful Karloff. And then there’s the fun of spotting other future filmmakers in the production listing – Monte Hellman and Francis Ford Coppola, who gets a credit but not for directing, which he did in part here – as did Hill and Nicholson, although only Roger Corman gets the credit.

Philadelphia (1993)

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Tom Hanks is such a part of the universal film firmament that it’s difficult to accept he has been ignored yet again in the Academy Awards for Bridge of Spies, 22 years after he got his first Oscar for this, the major studio movie that brought AIDS to the masses.  By the time this role rolled along, he was generally thought to be a hugely likable, charismatic comic actor, especially for Big (1988). Here he’s a dying lawyer suing his firm for discrimination through a homophobic black law firm whose only practitioner advertises on TV for clientele. Denzel Washington is brash and vicious, which is precisely what is required. It’s strange to think of Hanks as being young. Here he is emaciated, young and perfect. However we learn next to nothing about him other than his love of the law – he remains a cipher for other people’s projected prejudice. Some of his scenes with onscreen boyfriend Antonio Banderas were (ironically) cut from the cinema release. And the family of the lawyer whose lawsuit and interviews inspired the film had to sue for compensation after producer Scott Rudin abandoned the first production and claimed not to have used their material. Hanks’ Oscar speech outed his high school drama teacher, an incident that led to a very funny film, In & Out, starring Kevin Kline. Hanks then won again the following year for Forrest Gump, yet he just gets better and better – he was brilliant in Apollo 13 (still Ron Howard’s best), convincing in the slyly comic Charlie Wilson’s War and thrillingly ordinary in Captain Phillips, until the final section when he gets to emote and break down (as you would after a Somali pirate group attacked you.) He has also achieved legendary status courtesy of the Toy Story films. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme has had an interesting career and here gives homage to early mentor Roger Corman with a cameo as a nasty CEO. He made Caged Heat amongst others under his tutelage. Further evidence of his exploitation days is in the casting of Charles Napier as the judge and director Stephanie Roth in a small role. And of course from his early shot at respectability there’s Jason Robards from Melvin and Howard as the reptilian head of the law firm that fired Andy. And it’s nice to see Quentin Crisp turning up to Denzel’s ‘first gay party’.  Writer Ron Nyswaner had cut his teeth doing fixing work on Smithereens and Swing Shift (directed by Demme) and more recently has worked on Ray Donovan and Homeland, two of the best TV shows in years. This is dated in the best sense of the term – it marks a watershed in mainstream entertainment.

The Fast and the Furious (1955)

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An early Roger Corman production co-directed by star John Ireland, this hot rod movie is the original that spawned the later billion dollar franchise. Boasting a lot of road speed scenes followed by race track footage, co-star Dorothy Malone is the whole show. For cinephiles, there is a terrific cameo by Iris Adrian who would do a similar job ten years later for Disney in That Darn Cat!