Psychotronic Ketchup: You've Gotta Start Somewhere

Five Guns West
Director: Roger Corman // 1955

Cinema 4 Rating: 5

Warning: following the definition, there is nothing remotely "psychotronic" about
Five Guns West, in what can be charitably described as a rote Western genre offering from 1955. There aren't any monsters or bikers or vampires or strippers or drug fiends or men in gorilla suits or superspies engaging in martial arts about the sets. The only real genre twist to the film is in having the middle-aged leader of a group of villainous rebel soldiers (John Lund) emerge as the reluctant hero though eager love interest, while the actor who would normally fulfill the hero's role (Mike "Touch" "Mannix" Connors) is a creepy and caddish horndog throughout the film.

But in
Psychotronic Guide author Michael Weldon's view, certain actors and directors (Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff) are considered thoroughly "psychotronic" throughout their resumes. This short list of the all-inclusive also contains the name of Roger Corman, who cut his directorial teeth on Five Guns West in typically budget-conscious fashion. The film shows up in between Five Legends of the Dragon (itself psychotronic only by the presence of the aforementioned and seemingly ubiquitous Mr. Lee) and the Hammer Quatermass classic Five Million Years to Earth, a film so thoroughly psychotronic and wonderful, it is an absolutely crime that it is now out of print on DVD (as are all of the Quatermass line).

Corman gets derided a lot these days, even by those I love like the MST3K gang, who delighted in dragging him through the muck even in movies with which he had no apparent connection. Of course, they never tackled what are considered his higher achievements: his long series of generally incredible Poe epics, Little Shop of Horrors, A Bucket of Blood; they usually reserved their mocking for his less personal films. What they don't mention is how, even in his schlockiest of moments, like Teenage Caveman for example, he was still fairly bold and innovative when working with the most minuscule of budgets, even offering Twilight Zone-style twists amongst the horrible monster suits and often stiff acting.

Corman says this in his autobiography, How I Made A Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime (Random House, 1990): "Five Guns West was a breakthrough for me. With almost no training or preparation whatsoever, I was literally learning how to direct motion pictures on the job. It took me four or five of these "training films" to learn what a film school student knows when he graduates. But while the mistakes they make in student films are lost forever, mine were immortalized."
So, what is the worse crime? Making harmless little 70-minute programmers which invariably make back their budget for only $60,000 a picture, or creating a stultifying and soulless 2-1/2 hour gutcruncher for $150 million (plus another $50 million in advertising, don't forget) that stands very little real chance of making that money back even with video sales? Corman saw his opportunity and took it. He parlayed his break as a studio messenger into scriptwork, that into producer's credits, and that eventually into the director's chair. His fortitude and canniness should be celebrated in this country that generally cheers the shrewd and business-savvy.

Yes, all the seams are there to be observed in this film, and the dialogue gets a bit creaky. It's much like watching the best episode on a slightly below-average western television show: it seems much better than you expected it to be, but it's still not art. Corman, though, shows skills he would use throughout his career: he gets remarkable mileage (as he does in many films) out of stock footage, but he employs it sensibly (unlike, say, Mr. Wood). Knowing his range is going to be limited, he keeps the plot fixed to two basic scenarios and minimalist sets: the opening twenty minutes with the quintet of freed rebel soldiers riding the trail after being sent on their mission (which smartly eats up about a quarter of the screen time straight off) and the abandoned town where the girl and her father live alone (which eats up the rest). As brief as it is, a good ten minutes could have been shorn away and it would not have hurt the story, perhaps cutting some of the tiresome squabbling amongst the testosterone-fueled outlaws. But I ring this up, true to Corman's words above, to filmmakers learning the ropes, making rookie mistakes.

It's the sort of slack I allow to people who otherwise proved themselves to me with their later projects. When looking back and passing judgment on a film from the past, it sometimes can help to know the creator's history, and placing that project in correlation with the work surrounding, following or preceding it. When MST3K took their shots at Mr. Corman, it was with the mistaken impression that he generally stands as a watermark for ineptitude. Of course, I laughed along with the joke, because it was funny in context with the shows in which it appeared. But it was so very, very mistaken. Yes, he could make a bad movie here and there, but he could also make some pretty decent ones.

And always successful, no matter the outcome onscreen. Ain't that America?


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