Oct 4, 2007

RIP Charles B. Griffith


Above: It Conquered the World

I had been prepared to update my blog with a little report on the new ESR issue and our appearance at Word on the Street, but that will have to wait for now, as this news story is to me of greater importance.

Yesterday I had learned that on September 28, writer-director Charles B. Griffith had passed away at the age of 77. With all the preparation for "The Roger Corman Scrapbook" (which we published last year) still fresh in our memories, I was always struck by director Roger Corman's mini-epics that were penned by the multi-talented Mr. Griffith. Charles B. Griffith's legacy contained many brilliant screenplays bursting with wild and crazy ideas that perhaps either belied the tawdry production budget, or for that matter, their inventiveness was often overlooked by people who instead wanted to poke fun at those very tawdry production values.

He will be best remembered for his trilogy of horror spoofs (Bucket of Blood (1959), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)), all directed by Roger Corman. These hip screenplays were brilliant satires, not just of the horror genre. Bucket of Blood remains a dead-on portrayal of the Beat Generation, simultaneously giving it an elbow in the ribs, yet giving the milieu a far greater authenticity at which Hollywood failed miserably with such films as The Beat Generation, or The Subterraneans. Little Shop remains one of the greatest, most pitch black comedies ever made, with terrific, unique characters big and small. Griffith himself is the voice of Audrey Jr. the plant, and appears on camera as the wigged-out burglar ("Don't try to snow me Jim, 50,000 squares didn't come in here to look at some plant, they must have bought something.") Creature is an ingenious satire of nearly every movie ever made. In addition to the potato sack monster that calls attention to the artifice of horror films, there are nods to Bogart, spies, The Bay of Pigs, Dead End Kids, and even musicials (!), all while taking place mostly on a tugboat! In fact, at Word on the Street, when one person became aware I had free DVD's of Creature from the Haunted Sea in with "The Roger Corman Scrapbook", he chimed: "That is the corniest movie ever made!" It wasn't a put down-- it REALLY is an oddball film, just bursting with ideas.

These three films were really the only overtly spoofy films that Corman directed. In Beverly Gray's book on her former boss Mr. Corman, Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, she hints at the idea that Corman otherwise preferred to make his films just serious action-adventures or straight fantasy pictures. I'm inclined to believe her, and yet am mystified that Mr. Corman didn't fully take advantage of Griffith's prose, despite the limited resources that he obviously had to contend with. Despite the success of all the films that will be mentioned here, there is a curious reservation on Corman's direction, often taking a conservative approach to the subversive ideas that went into Griffith's exploitation scripts. Beneath the sheen of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) is a strange Biblical parable and disturbing atomic message (that is actually more creepy than most atomic monster films of the period). Gunslinger (1956) is just below Johnny Guitar in being a western that implodes the conventions of the genre with two superb female roles. The cardboard muscleman epic Atlas (1961) is more interesting for the heavy-breathing sexual repression than the clumsy swordplay. Lest we forget, Mr. Griffith penned two more wildly inventive science fiction films (It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957)), Teenage Doll (1957) (which is possibly the most apocalyptic JD film made in the 1950's), and the terrific "Petrified Forest" retread with a hip beat (Rock All Night (1957), which became one of my great discoveries in assembling the Corman issue.

He also wrote later Corman hits like The Wild Angels (1966) and Death Race 2000 (1975), each with interesting social commentary, and then went behind the directors chair. First he realized his own screenplay Eat My Dust (1976), which is a gleefully subversive celebration of teen lawlessness that (surprisingly) goes unpunished. He also directed his own screenplay for Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980) and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1989). I am interested in finding his first work as writer-director Forbidden Island (1959) in the hopes that it is a forgotten gem. Ditto, Corman's film Naked Paradise, also written by Griffith, has fallen off the map. By some fleeting accounts, it purports to be an unusual melodrama. (Griffith re-wrote this film with a monster as Beast from the Haunted Cave.)

We all talk about people like Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern, who all earned their stripes at Corman's veritable film school. Yet when you see much of their work done under his umbrella, one doesn't necessarily see the seeds of their future stardom. Griffith on the other hand was a singular talent. I am uncertain of how or why he didn't go on to make "A" pictures, but it is truly unique people like him that go a long way in justifying low budget drive-in genre films.

3 comments:

Rob Craig said...

Here! Here! What a lovely eulogy to a neglected great. Griffith really made the early Corman films the little masterworks that they are, and his screenplays consistently pushed the envelope of their genres and budgets in ways almost nonexistent at the time. Good job!

Rob Craig

BARRY SMIGHT said...

I am a big Griffith fan... being a big Corman fan. One of Charles Griffith's big talents is that he was an outstanding screenwriter-for-hire. He seemed not to suffer 'writer's block'. And he always came up with something interesting, at the very least.

I will go out on a limb and claim that the man was underutilized by the 'majors'.

Anonymous said...

Do you --or anyone viewing--happen to know who the poster artist was for Attack of the Crab Monsters 1957?
thanks suse

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