Cannonball 1976 ***

cannonball-3The no-hold-barred, cross-country car-race became familiar via The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run films; Paul Bartel’s Cannonball was a pioneering entry in this subgenre, with David Carradine’s character Coy “Cannonball” Buckman taking some inspiration from Edwin G ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker. There’s a whole lot of cannon-balling in that intro, but there’s even more in this Roger Corman film, which has a decidedly shaky tone. Bartel had ben asked by Corman to beef up the content featured in Death Race 2000, and this chaotic mess of a film does exactly that, with plenty of violent deaths which run counter to the otherwise sunny outlook. Racing against Coy and his girl Linda (Veronica Hamel from Hill Street Blues) are brother Robert Carradine, Mary Wonorov as one of the ‘game girls in a van’ team, Dick Dastardly-lite Wolfe Messer (James Keach) and singer-songwriter Penman Waters (Gerritt Graham). As if that’s not enough, there’s also Dick Miller getting beaten up while Bartel serenades him on a grand piano, blink-and-you’ll-miss them cameos from Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese, plus producer Don Simpson as a DA. Cannonball wears its thirst for carnage on its sleeve, and hopes the audience will feel the same. ‘See the worlds biggest pile-up!’ the poster screams, but the bloodshed sits uneasily with the silly comedy, and the idea of a road race in which dozens of people die is a conundrum the film’s lightweight resolution fails to address. The Cannonball myth was refined for more popular films; Bartel’s 1976 film is still something of a curiosity piece.

Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ****

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‘I eat serpent seven times a week’ says Gelt (Robert Vaughn), in one of a number of quotable lines from Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars. There’s a certain logic to Corman’s thinking here; if Star Wars knocked off Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, then why not rip of Seven Samurai? Sure, The Magnificent Seven already Westernised that classic text, but why not lean into it and have characters like Cowboy (George Peppard) and to take things further, get Robert Vaughn back and have him say the same dialogue he did in John Sturges’s film? John Sayles was the screenwriter charged with sorting out the conceptual issues, and presumably his writing process involved being locked in a room with the script for Magnificent Seven, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and a massive lump of cheese, because cheesy action is what results. Henry Thomas is Shad, a young farmer dispatched to put together a group of mercenaries to defend his home planet against despot Sador (John Saxon). The team he puts together include various oddities like a lizard man, bald twins and a Valkyrie, played by the voluptuous Sybil Danning in costumes which make Caroline Munro in Starcrash look positively demure. With a James Horner score and James Cameron on effects, Battle Beyond The Stars has quite a pedigree, and the talent bring their A-game to this B movie. Jimmy T Murakami directs, so what do we talk about when we talk about Battle Beyond The Stars? Spaceship interiors seeming made of plasticine, planets made of candy-floss; it’s a strange universe to explore in low-budget cinema, but there’s a degree of knowing wit in the dialogue that makes Battle Beyond the Stars a guilty pleasure.

The Haunting aka The Terror 1963

Seemingly improvised on the sets of another film over a fleeting period, The Haunting, better known as The Terror but not terribly well known as either, is an oddity even by Roger Corman’s standards. With Francis Ford Coppola amongst the producers and Monte Hellman on wardrobe, there’s plenty of behind the scenes talent, while in front of the camera there’s a substantial role for Corman cameo specialist Dick Miller, and a generation-spanning central twosome of Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson. While no-one would doubt that Nicholson has proved many times since that he’s a great actor, he’s not quite in his comfort zone as an army officer in Napoleonic war era France. Karloff is on much more familiar ground as a widowed Baron who is haunted by the ghost of his wife. There’s some plot-twists here, seemingly improvised, that really don’t make any sense, but there’s a high curiosity value of watching such a motely crew of actors; it might come up short of horror, but The Haunting is a strange document of old and Hollywood collectively bending over to make a buck.

The Masque of the Red Death 1964 ****

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A rare combination; Roger Corman, producer king of the B movie exploitation film teams up for a directorial outing with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, whose artistic gift led on to Don’t Look Now and The Man Who fell To Earth. The result, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe, is something of a triumph, taking the hammy medieval fun of the AIP pictures and elevating it to high art. Using some of the sets for Becket (1964), Corman’s lavish film depicts Prospero (Vincent Price), who discovers that the red death is ravaging the countryside, and holds a spectacular ball within the walls of his castle so that the rich can party while the poor rot outside. He choses Francesca (Jane Asher) as a plaything for the evening, but his plan attracts the attention of rebellious villagers. Corman and Roeg get everything right; the red-suited figure of death moving through the party, the series of multi-coloured rooms the characters pass through, all are rendered is a fabulously vivid and beautiful fashion. Poe’s story has a bleak and caustic world-view, and beneath the pretty pictures, The Masque of the Red Death nails the banality of evil in colourful style. On Amazon Instant.

Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ***

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George Lucas acknowledged the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress on Star Wars, and producer Roger Corman’s keen eye for exploitation led to the rapid development of Battle Beyond The Stars, which repositions Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in outer space. Seven Samurai had already been updated as The Magnificent Seven, and Corman and Jimmy T Murakami have fun transposing the familiar Western elements, with George Peddard’s Space Cowboy and Robert Vaughn’s black-clad Gelt lifted directly from the Old West Playbook. The Waltons’ Richard Thomas plays the farmboy who becomes a hero alongside such memorable characters as Sybil Danning’s Valkyrie St Exmin. John Saxon contributes a strong villain as Sador, and the whole thing is directed at such a clip that it’s no wonder that James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd fell in love while working on it.