July 30, 2013
Roger Corman’s career would be impossible today. There is no more infrastructure for low-budget genre experimentation, as filmmakers must increasingly rely on crowd-funding to get their modest projects off the ground (even Spike Lee took that route last week), with little hope of distribution. The only outfit as prolific as Corman’s New World Pictures is The Asylum, the mock-busters behind Sharknado, except their model doesn’t encourage the young but re-animates the old for a quick buck. Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix shares Corman’s huckster spirit and eye for talent, but only has the funds to make 2-3 films a year (New World could crank out 10). And while there is plenty of creativity on display in direct-to-video action movies (like Jesse V. Johnson and Isaac Florentine), they are totally isolated from Hollywood at-large, never graduating to larger productions like Corman alumni Martin Scorsese and Joe Dante. What we are robbed of from this lack is gonzo oddities like Dante and Allan Arkush’s Hollywood Boulevard (1976), a no-budget satire of an exploitation film production. Streaming on Netflix (cropped from 1.85 to 1.33, sadly), it’s a loving take-down of Corman’s shoestring flicks “shamelessly loaded with sex and violence”, per the tagline.
“This doesn’t have a lot of the conventional virtues of a movie.” -Joe Dante on Hollywood Boulevard
Joe Dante and Allan Arkush were trailer editors for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the early 70s, and eager to direct. Together with friend and producer Jon Davison, they approached Corman about helming their first feature. Davison bet Corman that they could make the cheapest film in New World history. Corman gave them 10 days and $60,000 ($246,225 in today’s dollars) to shoot Hollywood Boulevard. Another catch was that Corman still needed them to cut the trailers, so Dante recalled that they agreed to “make the movie in the daytime, if we did the trailers at night.” Realizing they did not have the cash for the kind of action scenes a Corman feature required, they came up with the idea to make it about a B-movie Studio, and re-purpose footage from old New World titles. As trailer cutters, they were familiar with every last crash and fireball in the studio’s archive. Dante and Davison were already veteran re-purposers, having edited together the monstrous 7-hour collage The Movie Orgy (1968) out of scarps of B-movies, commercial outtakes, and public access TV (I wrote about this masterpiece here). To cut down on shooting time Dante and Arkush would prepare separate set-ups simultaneously. When Dante shouted “cut” on one scene, Arkush would yell “action!” on another. It’s one of the rare films in which the feature acts as a documentary of its own production, as the characters in the film deal with the same budget deficits as it’s creators. Dante referred to it as a “home movie”.
The only film set Dante had been on was Death Race 2000 (1975), so he hired the two actors he met there, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel. They play bitchy actress Mary McQueen and delusional director Erich Von Leppe, respectively, the star employees of Miracle Studios (slogan: “If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle!”). Woronov is all legs and bile, while Bartel deploys his plummy baritone to absurdities like his thematic breakdown of Atomic War Brides: “What we’re trying to do here is combine the legend of Romeo and Juliet with high speed car action and a sincere plea for international atomic controls in our time.”
McQueen’s female co-stars have been dying off, which opens the door for Candy Wednesday (Candice Rialson), just off the bus and ready for work – any work. She is aided by huckster agent Walter Paisley, played with sleazy screwball brio by future Dante-axiom Dick Miller. She is quickly promoted from stunt woman to actress, landing a part in the Machete Maidens of Mora Tau, a Polynesian naked women-with-guns farrago that’s a take-off on The Big Doll House (1971). When Candy watches her debut at the local drive-in with Walter and her screenwriter boyfriend, she has to sit through New World features The Terror (1963, also with Dick Miller) and Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), which are skewered with Mystery Science Theater relish. In the most terrifying moment in the movie, Candy is so enraged by the film, and the inclusion of a rape scene, that she storms into the projection booth, demanding the film be stopped. Then the projectionist attacks her, implying that the audience’s thirst for sex and violence is not so innocent.
The entire film is a blunt attack on Hollywood heartlessness, especially about its abuses of women, from the cattle call of actresses for a nude scene to the total indifference Von Leppe displays towards deaths on his productions. There’s always another girl to replace them, as Candy shortly learns. Narrative is incidental to Hollywood Boulevard, but it eventually shifts from backstage black comedy into satiric slasher flick, with plot details borrowed from the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Death Kiss (1932). Miracle Pictures makes bad movies, but their lives become one, as the body count mounts due to a robed killer straight out of their prop room. In the delirious finale, the murdereress is disrobed and crushed by the Hollywood sign, a blunt metaphor (and weapon) for the town’s attitude towards women.
With the demise of double-bills and the death of drive-ins, the market for cheap programmers has dried up, whether inspired like Hollywood Boulevard or rote like the films it burlesques. But without this cheap testing ground filmmakers don’t have the luxury of making mistakes like their predecessors – not when it’s impossible for the most successful of directors to make more than one film every couple of years. Perhaps the growth of VOD will create more demand for product that someone like Fessenden can exploit, but it doesn’t seem likely. Even Dante is finding it hard to make features these days. If his next film ends up on Kickstarter, don’t be surprised, but at least donate.