High art it ain't, but it sure is fun.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Roger Corman--producer, director, writer, actor--is the king of the B-movie, the czar of the low-budget independent flick, and the undisputed godfather of the Hollywood fun factory. He's been making movies for over fifty years, and there seems no stopping him any time soon. I read somewhere that at one point back in the sixties he had Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and others working for him at the same time on the same lot! He's probably influenced more actors, directors, and filmmakers than any single person in the history of moviemaking.

He started in 1954 with "The Fast and Furious" and since then has had a hand in such near-camp classics as "The Swamp Women," "The Beast With A Million Eyes," "Machine-Gun Kelly," "House of Usher," "Masque of the Red Death," "The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre," "De Sade," "Frankenstein Unbound," "A Bucket of Blood," "The Brain Eaters," "Dementia 13," "The Wild Angels," "The Big Doll House," "Candy Stripe Nurses," "Unholy Rollers," "Death Race 2000," "Caged Heat," "Grand Theft Auto," "Piranha," "Saint Jack," "Rock 'N' Roll High School," "Death Stalker," "House," "Chopping Mall," "Sorority House Massacre," and hundreds more. In 1960 he famously wagered that he could make a film in two days; the result was "The Little Shop of Horrors," featuring a young Jack Nicholson. (Indeed, there are few actors working today who didn't get early starts with Corman, including Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, David Carradine, Pam Grier, Bernie Casey, Scott Glenn, Cindy Williams, Talia Shire, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, you get the idea.)

Which brings us to one of his most popular treats, "Big Bad Mama," from 1974. I was going to say this film represented the man in mid career, but the way he's going on forever, it may be among his early releases. Corman produced this one, and here's what he says about it today: "'Big Bad Mama' was an immediate success for many reasons, including the great title and cast. It was my idea to cast Angie Dickinson, a strong feminine star with the strength to play the mother of teenage girls. Joining Angie were the talented Bill Shatner and Tom Skerritt, as well as a stellar supporting cast."

The story of a beautiful but destitute mother and her two beautiful teenage daughters going on a robbing, killing rampage in the midst of the Great Depression was familiar territory for Corman; he had already made "I, Mobster," "Machine-Gun Kelly," "Bloody Mama," "Boxcar Bertha," and films in a similar vein, and he was always one to see a trend and go with it. So when "Bonnie and Clyde" did big business in 1967, you could be sure it wouldn't be too long before the opportunistic Corman would be doing his low-cost variations of it.

Not that he didn't populate "Big Bad Mama" with first-rate actors. Angie Dickinson was already well known and would begin her hit TV show "Police Woman" the same year. William Shatner was still hot from "Star Trek." And Tom Skerritt was well remembered from "MASH," "Harold and Maude," and "Fuzz." What's more, Corman took care of the supporting cast, peopling it with prominent character actors like Noble Willingham as "Uncle Barney," the moonshiner friend of the family; Sally Kirkland as Barney's woman; Royal Dano as a hell-and-brimstone country preacher; and Dick Miller as a relentless G-man hot on Mama's trail. About the only people in the cast who weren't familiar were the two daughters, teens played in typical Hollywood tradition by young women in their twenties, Susan Sennett and Robbie Lee. Their main attributes were looking young and pretty and being willing to take off their clothes at a moment's notice.

You can easily see some the reasons why "Big Bad Mama" has done so well on cable TV: Nudity, sex, and violence. We're not five minutes into the movie before a fight breaks out in a country church and one of the girls has her clothes torn off. From there on in, somebody's getting shot or getting naked in every other scene.

But, really, how can you not like a movie with Bill Shatner in nothing more than a Taylor Topper writhing in the hay with an equally bare Angie Dickinson? Or Tom Skerritt playfully bedding down both daughters at once? Or a parade of vintage automobiles, some of them even staying on the road for a minute or two before the Tommy guns and the banjo accompaniment get to them? Or a final shoot-out that has everyone in the state of California dropping like flies from a hundred bullet wounds?

Although Corman didn't direct it, Steve Carver ("Capone," "Lone Wolf McQuaid," "Bulletproof") did, this is still probably THE quintessential Corman film, and one can see the producer's hand in every shot. Made for less than half a million dollars in twenty-one days, it continues to attract crowds whenever and wherever it's shown. High art it ain't, but it sure is fun.

The picture quality is not too impressive but through no fault of the Buena Vista transfer, it would appear. The picture size is a 1.33:1 ratio fullscreen rather than the widescreen that was originally exhibited theatrically. Moreover, despite a high bit rate, the image looks slightly dull and blurred. Edges are not sharp, darker areas of the screen are downright murky, and moiré effects, wavy lines, abound. True, there is very little grain, but the overall impression is that this picture is hardly state-of-the-art. In fact, it's more like a regular television broadcast, which should surprise no one since that's where it's most often presented.

The audio fares a little better than the video, the Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural sonics holding up in midrange clarity, bass definition, and background quietness. It is not overly dynamic, however, nor does it display a very extended frequency response. Nobody will mind.

The two primary extras are an audio commentary and a brief making-of featurette, both newly made. Director Roger Corman and star Angie Dickinson do the commentary in a charming give-and-take discussion of their remembrances. Dickinson provides most of the particulars about the actors, the acting, the action, and the locations, while Corman fills in the technical details about the filmmaking. They're an engaging pair, actually. The accompanying featurette is a fourteen-minute retrospective, "Mama Knows Best," with Corman, Dickinson, Bill Shatner, writer Frances Doel, and director Steve Carver. It's entertaining listening to these folks reminisce, and it's enlightening, too. For instance, did you know that the banjo picking throughout the film was done by no less a talent than Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead? Don't feel bad; neither did I. The extras conclude with fourteen scene selections, plus a chapter insert; a fullscreen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
Sure, "Big Bad Mama" is pretty awful, but it's the kind of awful that makes it a not-so-guilty pleasure to watch. It shamelessly steals from every Depression-era gangster flick ever made, and it makes no bones about sex, nudity, and violence being its primary attractions. Yet everybody involved in the production seems to have understood that it was all in good fun, and none of it comes off as anything but carefree and, in a strange way perhaps, innocent horseplay.

"Big Bad Mama" is one of several movies in Buena Vista's new "Roger Corman Collection" that also includes, so far, "Death Race 2000," "Rock 'N' Roll High School," and "Dinocroc."


Film Value