Friday, November 04, 2005


What do THE TERROR (1963) and EASY RIDER (1969) have in common besides Jack Nicholson?

Strangely enough, both films introduce their protagonists riding into frame (Jack Nicholson on a horse, Peter Fonda on a motorcycle) and throwing away a device that has previously anchored them to their perceptions of time or space. In EASY RIDER, it's a wristwatch; in THE TERROR, it's a compass.

I noticed this shared detail whilst refreshing my memory of THE TERROR a couple of nights ago and became fascinated by it. I don't know who was responsible for suggesting this moment for EASY RIDER -- it could have been Fonda, Dennis Hopper, or possibly Nicholson himself, who was certainly around at the time -- but, all Corman alumni, were they flashing back to THE TERROR when it occurred to them? Can the germ of the independent American film movement be traced back that much farther, to the most admittedly desperate film Roger Corman ever made?

As legend has it, Corman commissioned the script for THE TERROR because THE RAVEN wrapped early and its beautiful Daniel Haller sets were going to waste. Completing THE RAVEN ahead of schedule also meant that Corman was still entitled to the acting services of Boris Karloff for a set period of time, and the venerable actor certainly wasn't getting any younger. As it happens, Karloff's scenes for THE TERROR were wrapped so quickly that, four years later, Corman was able to offer Peter Bogdanovich two still-uncollected days of the actor's time as an incentive to make his directorial debut, TARGETS (1968)!

As another legend has it, Corman allowed a number of associates to take turns directing parts of THE TERROR, including Francis Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman and Dennis Jakob, and their ringleader gleefully admits that the resulting patchwork doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Watching it again, and paying closer-than-usual attention to its plot, I found that it does make sense... sort of... until [SPOILER ALERT!] it asks you to believe that Boris Karloff (born 1887) is the son of local witch Dorothy Neumann (born 1914)! That's asking even more than EARTHQUAKE asked audiences to believe when its producers cast Ava Gardner as the daughter of Lorne Greene. "I'm not the man I was twenty years ago," indeed!

Nevertheless, I love this movie as I love the people closest to me -- despite its faults. Nicholson is often jeered for being miscast as a soldier in Napoleon's army, but he's better here than in THE RAVEN and it's a pleasure to see him act opposite the lovely Sandra Knight (of FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER fame), who was his real-life wife at the time. It's also strange to contemplate that, before this picture was made, these two actors, seen here cavorting in 18th century costume, had embarked on psychiatrically-supervised LSD therapy as a form of marriage counseling. (LSD only became illegal in this country sometime in 1965.)

Which brings us to THE TRIP, which Nicholson scripted for Corman in 1966, and which I watched again for the umpteenth time last night on Encore. I didn't mean to watch it again, but as soon as Peter Fonda's line "There's only one man that can walk on water" was followed by his kaleidoscopic screen credit, I was hooked for the full ride. And because I had watched THE TERROR the night before, I could recognize all sorts of Leo Carillo Beach location scenery shared by THE TERROR and THE TRIP. At one point in THE TERROR, Jack Nicholson tries following the apparition of Sandra Knight into the ocean, where she has seemingly walked through a portal of stone that powerful waves begin crashing through. There is a scene in THE TRIP where Peter Fonda, playing Paul Groves (a character rooted in screenwriter Nicholson's own experiences), is seen wading into the ocean at this exact same spot, assailed by wave after wave pounding through that stone portal. And he too has been led there by a female apparition, played by the wondrous Salli Sachse. I don't know what it all means, if Nicholson was reminiscing about his TERROR experience or if Corman was simply echoing a moment from his own filmography, but glimpsing this sort of creative resonance, I figure, is worth three hours of my time.

Right now Donna and I are shaping the material we have on hand into the next issue of Video Watchdog. It's going to be issue #123, but it's not going as easily as one-two-three. Every time we do a new issue, it seems, I experience regrets about something or other that I wanted to do in that issue, but which there simply wasn't time to do. For over a year now, I have been looking forward to devoting an issue to Roger Corman's 50th anniversary as a producer-director. His first feature as a director, FIVE GUNS WEST, was released on April 18, 1955. And now we find ourselves already working on our last issue of the year, and there's been no time in these past months to research, compile and publish the sort of tribute I envisioned. I suppose, technically, this anniversary will remain in effect till April 17, 2006. It's an anniversary I feel demands commemoration, and I'm determined to do it.

I'm frankly surprised that every other magazine devoted to the fantastic cinema hasn't also planned a similar issue, because for us genre fans, Corman's career has truly been the phenomenon of our time. As a director, he's delivered a thoughtful and remarkably consistent body of work that has not only explored but expanded several different film genres; as a producer, he has lived to see his personal tastes change the entire landscape of mainstream entertainment; as an interviewee, he was perhaps the most articulate spokesperson the fantastic had, prior to David Cronenberg; and as a discoverer of new talent, he is simply without parallel. He's also become a hugely enjoyable screen presence, particularly in the films of his devotées Joe Dante (RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS, LOONEY TUNES BACK IN ACTION), Jonathan Demme (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), and Francis Ford Coppola (THE GODFATHER II).

Of how many people can it be said that the last 50 years of cinema is unimaginable without them?

Now that I think of it, next April is actually ideal for the special issue I had in mind. Because the anniversary-inclusive date of April 5, 1926 will also mark the 80th birthday of Roger William Corman -- my hero.

PS: It's easy to find THE TERROR on DVD, but beware -- the discs on the market look terrible. The grabs pictured above were taken from the best source I've found, a Showtime Beyond broadcast from a year or two ago, which carried the Orion Pictures logo. It's one of those pesky public domain titles whose original negative resides deep in the vaults at MGM. It's possible they might never consider it worth their while to release it, but they surprised us recently by putting out the similarly AIP/PD title LAST MAN ON EARTH last year, so maybe an MGM "Midnite Movies" release of THE TERROR isn't all that pie-in-the-sky.

PPS 5:48 p.m.: WatchBlog reader John Bernhard has e-mailed me with word that the Encore Mystery channel is showing THE TERROR tonight at 2:40 a.m. eastern time! This is bound to be at least the same as the Showtime Beyond broadcast I mentioned above, and possibly of even newer origin, so get those recorders revved up. I didn't realize my TERROR musings were so timely!

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