In March, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will bestow an Academy Award on never-before-nominated Roger Corman. It’s an “honorary” Oscar, true—Corman mostly works in TV these days, so his latest production, Sharktopus, isn’t likely to screen for Academy voters—but it nonetheless makes a statement about Corman’s longevity and impact in Hollywood. After all, he has been directing and producing films for 55 years, starting out in the world of low-budget genre trash and exploitation films, and remaining there, content to churn out inexpensive sensationalism like, well, Sharktopus into his eighth decade. But Corman’s always had an eye for making the most of his material, not to mention an eye for talent, and a series of recent Shout Factory DVD/Blu-ray reissues of late-’70s/early-’80s titles from Corman’s New World Pictures shingle bears that out as much as any gold statuette.
The new Piranha 3D has won raves from fans of lowbrow cinema fun, and no wonder. The original 1978 Piranha is prime Corman: Take a genre hit (in this case, 1975 blockbuster Jaws), twist it a bit (a bunch of little ravenous fish instead of one big one), and hire a bunch of hungry unknowns to knock out a knock-off for you in a few weeks. In this case, executive producer Corman hired then-novelist John Sayles to write a script about mutant South American piranhas let loose in a North American stream and got Joe Dante, a few years away from megahit Gremlins, to direct it. The resulting film is a cheap monster movie, but it’s a sly, energetic cheap monster movie. Sayles’ script manages to contribute a few relatively subtle notes and wry zingers, and Dante handles the action sequences with the muscular efficiency of the pro he turned out to be. It doesn’t hurt that the gnawing piranhas (puppets filmed in a swimming pool made murky with the addition of milk) are genuinely alarming. (A making-of included in the extras mentions that Corman’s primary note on Dante’s dailies was, “More blood.”)
Two years (and at least nine producer credits) later, Corman brought forth Humanoids From the Deep, another aquatic science-run-amok tale, this time with a Creature From the Black Lagoon twist. For reasons best not belabored, giant mutated salmon repeatedly raid a fishing village for its nubile women. Director Barbara Peeters is no Dante; indeed, the scenes that make the film memorable, which typically involve some combo of horny green monsters, fulsome breasts, and copious gore, were shot and edited into Peeters’ cut during post-production without her knowledge at Corman’s request. Corman understood what the audience for his films wanted to see, and beasts, blood, and boobs topped the list. To his credit, Corman also understood that many of the hungry unknowns who worked for him could and would go on to do finer things (including Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese). He famously told Ron Howard, who got his start as a director making Grand Theft Auto for New World in 1977, “If you do a good job for me now, you’ll never have to work for me again.”
Which is not to say that Corman films were always so resolutely lowball. Galaxy of Terror (1981) attempted to cash in on the post-Star Wars space-opera boom by going relatively all-out with effects, creatures, and an ensemble cast that spanned would-be stars (Edward Albert, Happy Days’ Erin Moran), Hollywood vets (Ray Walston), and future Character Actor Hall of Famers (Grace Zabriskie, Robert Englund, Sid Haig). It was, in fact, a shameless Alien rip-off with a psychological-drama twist, but the opening spaceship crash outdoes its inspiration for armrest-gripping force (Corman films got far more out of good editors than decent directors or upmarket effects) and the rest summons up a few moments of uncanny dread along with the chuckles and eye rolls. Other than providing an excellent good/bad fix, Galaxy is perhaps most notable for the participation of Corman’s production designer, one James Cameron, who would go on to revisit similar material in Aliens and The Abyss. The Shout Factory reissues are lovingly done, and ongoing, which is good, ’cause Corman made a lot of movies.
Another never-before-nominated filmmaker is winning an honorary Oscar in March: Jean-Luc Godard. And should you need reminding of why such a feeble honor is ludicrously overdue, the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray edition of his 1960 debut Breathless can’t be recommended highly enough. Not unlike Corman, Godard appropriated the tropes of previous films—the American crime flicks beloved by French cinema intellectuals—only to spin from them something insouciantly new: a formally casual film tailored to fit the ambiguities of a generation of people so new that they had yet to hit the big silver. Indeed, one can make a chicken/egg argument over whether Godard documented a rising youthquake or created it. Nonetheless, even 50 years later, it’s still magic. Jean-Paul Belmondo is a cheap but charismatic Parisian hood; Jean Seberg is the American girl he has seen casually but feels perhaps less casually about. They banter, they sleep together, they talk, they smoke (a lot), they talk some more. There’s no future in it, or for them, but it doesn’t matter, and for 90 minutes, nothing else will matter to you either.