The beloved low-budget exploitation company sampled
New World Pictures (1970-1983) was the brainchild of Roger Corman. It was his second attempt (after The Filmgroup in the early ’60s) to run his own production/distribution company. As in his earlier career at American International Pictures, Corman was able through New World to launch the careers of numerous now famous directors like Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, and Joe Dante and cult figures like Stephanie Rothman. Most intriguing was the company’s bizarre melding of feminist politics, anticapitalist rhetoric, and parody with quasi-softcore sexploitation. Women held key positions at New World both behind and in front of the camera (and in the corporate structure), and were most often the subject of its films. Corman inaugurated new genres (the nurse film, the matriarchal rural chase film a la Big Bad Mama) and revived some old ones (the women-in-prison film, biker movies), and pioneered the use of cheap foreign location shooting in places like the Philippines. What follows are some brief portraits of some of the studio’s players and motifs.
In the early days of New World Pictures, Corman and his acolytes prided themselves on the company’s feminist bent, citing women as a primary focus of their films and as true collaborators both in front of and behind the camera. Barbara Peeters was, along with Stephanie Rothman, one of two female pioneers in this area; both were writer-directors who contributed important and profitable work to New World’s playlist. While Rothman has been the subject of considerable study for films like The Velvet Vampire and The Student Nurses that are believed to be feminist-subversive, Peeters is a virtual unknown, despite the fact that her New World work is arguably more subversive than Rothman’s.
Bury Me an Angel (1971) is Peeters’ second directorial credit and her first for New World. Unlike Rothman’s work, Angelis a straightforward genre effort based on a role-reversal, with a woman violently appropriating the classic role of a revenge-seeking hero. The film has a crude power reinforced by its lack of the kind of parody typical of much of New World’s product. Peeters’ heroine Dag (Dixie Peabody) is grim and single-minded in her pursuit of the man who killed her brother. She’s linked with traditionally masculine accoutrements – motorcycles, guns – and has submissive male companions who emulate her and vie for her attention as they would a dominant male. The film resembles the other early New World biker films in portraying California as a visual and spiritual wasteland, but is far indeed from the company’s trademark tropical backdrops of the women-in-prison films or the comic-anarchic California of second-phase New World pictures like Hollywood Boulevard or Death Race 2000.
Peeters’ other New World credits include Summer School Teachers (1975) and Starhops (1978), both in the company’s classic template of the romantic and professional adventures of three young women. Her last film was Humanoids from the Deep (1980), a flawed but fascinating mix of 1950s-style aquatic monster drama, social consciousness, and naked women raped by gill-men. In spite of its success, it marked the end of her directorial career. Corman’s magic touch, which catapulted Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, and others from exploitation into the mainstream, didn’t work with Peeters (or Stephanie Rothman, for that matter); after 1980 her name appears only on forgotten television shows like Misfits of Science and Shadow Chasers (both 1985).
“I started out playing this woman from the deep, and I went on doing it … forever.” Barbara Steele (b. 1937 in England) lamented in an interview with Michael Godwin in 1978, the same year she took a small part in Joe Dante’s satire of Jaws, Piranha. The “depths” of her career encompass a memorably wide range of subterranean roles and a wide geography, from the resurrected witch in Bava’s masterful Black Sunday to the adulterous anima figure in Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum. With her stylized gestures, glaring green eyes, and smoldering sexuality, Steele found most accommodating the demimonde of low-budget, personal filmmaking. Her roles in more mainstream films, such as Fellini’s 8-1/2, Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, were mostly tiny, and sometimes reduced to near invisibility in the final cut.
Like Mary Woronov, Steele is also a painter, and they share a sub-career as exotic window dressing in several New World Pictures along with a devoted cult following that dutifully searches out even their most obscure films – and there are many, for both – for a glance at them. While her work for Bava, Corman, and Riccardo Freda is considered her best – with Black Sunday particularly thrilling because she gets to play two parts – she’s well remembered for adding her peculiar darkness to two New World pictures. In Demme’s Caged Heat she brings humor and power to the role of a sexually repressed, wheelchair-bound, quasi-lesbian warden in a women’s prison. Reportedly she disliked her work in the film, but few who have seen it will forget her dream sequence where she appears as a sexy cabaret artist demanding the women give her “contrition!” Steele has said that she begged Joe Dante for the meatier role of the doctor played by Kevin McCarthy in Piranha, but was told the investors would never stand for it. But there’s some compensation here when a smiling Steele, playing a pitiless military scientist, gets the very last close-up in the film.
One of New World’s more political subgenres – let’s call it “eco-terror” for convenience – harks back to 1950s monster movies in which secret government experiments go out of control and terrorize humanity, usually in the form of messy mutated animals or people. Corman made his share of such films, among them The Day the World Ended (1956) and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), both of which explicitly link their horrors (respectively, murderous mutations and giant crabs) to America’s suicidal flirtation with the atomic bomb. By the 1970s, there was room in the culture to blame specific areas of the military-industrial complex for such problems, along with profit-mad corporations willing to sacrifice ecosystems and native cultures for short-term gain.
Joe Dante’s Piranha, the working man’s Jaws, articulates a common counterculture idea of the time that has since proved far from fantastic – that the government is engaged in heinous biological experiments that it is ill equipped to contain. The terror in Piranha are mutated carnivorous fish created “to destroy the river systems of the North Vietnamese.” These radioactive mini-monsters are inadvertently released into a corporate “aqua park” and a kids’ swimming area, where they frenziedly chomp their way through blood and bone. Piranha puts a beautiful face on its cruelties: Barbara Steele as the coopted fish geneticist who, apprised of the destruction, says simply, “Some things are more important than a few people’s lives.” Conversely, the audience gets the pleasure of seeing her counterpart, a devious colonel who’s also a corporate investor, getting chewed to bits by the creatures whose existence he refused to acknowledge.
The effects of another kind of genetic experiment in Barbara Peeters’ Humanoids from the Deep (1980) are much messier and involve kinkier sex than even New World devotees were used to seeing. Variety noted that the film had “more nudity and gore than … any exploitationer in recent memory,” but they paid less attention to the political angle. A corporation destroys a native salmon fishing business by introducing a growth hormone that climbs the food chain to change coelacanth-like creatures into studly gill-men who kill men and rape women. These monsters are the next cinematic-evolutionary step in the development of the Creature from the Black Lagoon; the sexual promise of that sad 1950s creature is violently visualized by director Peeters in scenes that show the gill-men raping the townswomen in grueling, seaweed-drenched detail.
One of the revelations of the recent flood of restored early Warhol films is Mary Woronov’s Screen Test (1964), the first title in her official filmography. Warhol reportedly shot as many as 800 of these four-minute close-ups, instructing his subjects not to talk or blink. Some like Susan Sontag look stoic and sad under the camera’s relentless gaze; others like Edie Sedgwick appear frightened as their mask of perfection starts to crack. But Woronov reacts quite differently to Warhol’s casual sadism – leering, smirking, tossing her head with lusty abandon, in a sense forcing the camera to blink. Her sheer intensity in a confined space, her refusal to be intimidated even for four minutes by Andy Warhol, set the pattern for her cinema career. With her geometric face, husky voice, and droll-dominatrix look, Woronov mesmerizes in small roles in major films and big roles in marginal ones.
Born in Florida in 1943 (or 1946; sources differ), Woronov had ambitions to be a painter, but after meeting Warhol and getting involved with the Theatre of the Ridiculous in the early 1960s, she abandoned painting for the more visceral pleasures of avant-garde cinema and theatre. (She would later return to painting.) Roger Corman’s films occupy a cultural space not far from Warhol’s factory, and for Woronov it wasn’t a stretch to go from the treacherous Hanoi Hannah in The Chelsea Girls (1966) to the murderous Calamity Jane in Death Race 2000 (1975) or the gorgeous, evil principal Miss Evelyn Togar in Allan Arkush’s Rock and Roll High School (1979). “It was just like Warhol,” she said of working in Corman’s New World. “Very cheap, brilliant people working for nothing, bizarre material, the tackiness of the sets.” In the incestuous manner associated with Corman and his army of protégés, she teamed up with Death Race 2000 director Paul Bartel for a feature Corman refused to finance, Eating Raoul (1982), a cult classic that showcased Woronov’s irresistible mix of the ironic and the iconic.
Rock and Roll
Allan Arkush’s anthemic Rock and Roll High School (1978) is a direct descendant of, and made for much the same reasons as, Corman’s early forays into the genre, Rock All Night (1956) and Carnival Rock (1957). According to Corman, he asked Arkush to make a film called Disco High to cash in on the disco craze, but yielded to Arkush’s better judgment when told that “disco” was taboo in punkier circles as a degraded, effete version of rock.
Rock All Night has the desperately hurried – make that immediate – feel typical of Corman’s early work, and no wonder: screenwriter Charles Griffith rewrote most of it in two days when told that the film’s centerpiece, the doo-wop group the Platters, would not be available for more than a couple of songs. The film features fine versions of those songs, along with sizzling rockabilly numbers by a now forgotten band, the Blockbusters. Outstanding performances by Dick Miller and Mel Welles (as a Lord Buckley clone) distinguish the film, but the drama is foregrounded to the music, and the atmosphere is black-and-white cramped, as if the characters are aware of their brief existence in a low-budget film. Carnival Rock also subsumes the music to the melodrama. This impoverished remake of The Blue Angel is awash in Method acting but has its own downbeat charm largely due to the always underrated Susan Cabot, who brings her unique air of pervasive sadness to the proceedings.
Rock and Roll High School differs seriously from the Corman antecedents. The film has a cheery buoyancy and a safe anarchic feel that reflect the optimism of both its then-novice filmmakers and the time in which it was made. The existential anxiety and black humor of Corman’s ‘50s films is missing; New World’s typical antiauthoritarianism is here in diluted form, the blatant references to such pesky problems as third world revolutions (The Hot Box) and a racist, sexist justice system (every women-in-prison movie) replaced with good times and the Ramones’ gritty brand of rock ‘n roll. The conflicts are played strictly for laughs, with the blowing up of the school a comic diversion and even the sadistic Miss Togar (Mary Woronov) barely able to suppress a grin as she’s dispensing her evil.
Cinematically speaking, America’s relationship with the Philippines stretches back almost to the beginnings of film; according to Pete Tombs in Mondo Macabro, “two American-financed films about nationalist hero Dr. Jose Rizal appeared in the same week in 1912″ at Manila theatres, while by the 1920s, ghost stories and fairy tales were a staple of Philippine cinema. If early entrepreneurs were attracted by the country’s heroic tradition and its rich folklore, later arrivals like Roger Corman and his New World Pictures protégés could not resist the low wages, “exotic” backgrounds, and the ability to stage elaborate and sometimes dangerous scenes without the pesky presence of a union rep.
Corman’s entree to the Philippines came through exploitation actor-turned producer John Ashley, whom he visited on the set of Beast of the Yellow Night (1970), an Eddie Romero film that New World would pick up for distribution. New World’s third release, Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House (1970), was the first of Corman’s productions to be shot in the Philippines and, grossing $3 million on an investment of $125,000, one of its most successful.
Some of the success of this and subsequent films like Hill’s The Big Bird Cage (1972) and Joe Viola’s The Hot Box (1972) was due to their look. Grindhouse patrons were used to dark lighting in their exploitation, which could handily disguise a threadbare set or suggest more action than was really occurring. But New World’s Philippino films were positively expansive by contrast, with gorgeous tropical backgrounds, native actors, realistic settings, and supremely, the brilliant light of the Philippines. Even the “darkest,” most fetishistic scenes – and the films had plenty, including s&m torture and an early female mud-wrestling sequence – had a brightness and luster not often seen in the genre. And stunts were never a problem. As Hill said in Fangoria magazine, “If they want to have a man on fire, they just set a guy on fire who’ll try and jump into the water as quick as he can.”
Inevitably, production costs rose and Philippinos got tired of being set on fire, and by 1975 Corman had retreated entirely to the United States, where he began the second phase of New World working with talents like Joe Dante, John Sayles, and Allan Arkush.
“Exploitation of male sexual fantasy, a comedic subplot, action and violence, and a slightly left-of-center subplot … and then frontal nudity from the waist up, total nudity from behind, no pubic hair, and get the title in the film somewhere and go to work.” That was Corman in 1972 explaining to director Jonathan Kaplan the formula for the “nurse” film that he would be directing (Night Call Nurses). Is Corman’s precise formula, which is worked out almost mathematically in many of the pictures his protégés made for New World Pictures, incompatible with the view of the company as proto-feminist?
Corman’s own oeuvre provides some pointers in this area. While the period in which he worked allowed little of even the kind of playful nudity of ’70s New World films like The Student Teachers, The Arena, or Death Race 2000, a fetish – we must call it that – for female sexuality and especially dominant women runs throughout his career, appearing in the violent, sexy babes of Teenage Doll; the frenzied anima figures from the Poe films (cf. especially the murderous Madeline in House of Usher); and the beautiful, tormented Susan Cabot in a number of roles. New World’s nurses, teachers, female convicts and bikers, and stewardesses fighting “the establishment” and dispatching errant boyfriends, doctors, policemen and other patriarchal symbols are simply a variant and update of the powerful, rapacious women of Corman’s own films.
If we accept the idea that showing women expropriating male roles and making their own choices is inherently feminist, New World certainly qualifies, with the company’s antiauthoritarian strain bolstering the argument. But the films’ political leanings go largely unnoticed by its young male target audience, who are mesmerized by the sea of tits and ass that flows through the company’s roster. The fetishized feminism of New World primarily feeds the male spectator’s fantasies, but the clever Corman ultimately has it both ways. In his peculiar egalitarianism, he presents the fetish in all its glory and then undermines it for those who care to notice.