Founded in 1954 by James H. Nicholson, the independent film production house American International Pictures (AIP) was to become a leading and innovative producer of cheaply made yet very profitable films. Focusing on that quintessential product of post-war American society, the teenager, AIP chronicled and often anticipated the rapidly changing cultural landscape. To mark the beginning of a three-part retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives in New York this week, below is a selection of the 10 most significant flicks proudly wearing the AIP badge.
“The Fast and the Furious” (John Ireland and Edward Sampson, 1955)
A testament to the lasting influence of AIP productions, this car chase spectacle deals with pretty much the same subject of Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause.” But instead of focusing on the existential disaffection of American teenagers in the 50’s, “The Fast and The Furious” — very much like the franchise it inspired decades later — indulges in roaring engines, screeching tires and the thrill of speed.
Watch the full movie here.
“X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes” (Roger Corman, 1963)
An implausible yet captivating storyline is the quintessential ingredient for a successful B-movie, and “X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes” is one of the greatest ever made. A doctor uses special eye-drops to be able to see through objects, hoping to revolutionize what is visible to the naked eye. Unfortunately, his x-ray eyes turn out to be more of an encumbrance than a revelation as the undesirable suddenly meets the eye and scientific complications ensue. Availing itself of cheap (but still gorgeous) visual effects and a vaguely philosophical subtext on the limits of the human gaze, this is one of the finest science fiction achievements in Corman’s outlandish oeuvre.
“Dementia 13” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1963)
Shot in Ireland, “Dementia 13” is Coppola’s directorial debut and despite its modest means doesn’t pale in comparison to some of his more renowned films. A sinister family drama centered around the cunning attempt of a young widow to inherit her husband’s fortune, the film features an atmospheric black and white that is as menacing as the twisted story of greed that unfolds in its shadows. Producer Roger Corman apparently wanted more gore, which Coppola was not eager to provide. That’s why the film’s pulpiest moments were shot by second unit director and AIP regular Jack Hill.
Watch the full film here.
“Black Sabbath” (Mario Bava, 1963)
When AIP co-produced this ingenious horror flick, Mario Bava was a relatively unknown B-movie director. But with their proverbial knack for upcoming trends, the people at AIP must have recognized Bava’s talent, since they had previously distributed in American theaters two of his films. “Black Sabbath” is an anthology horror project featuring three different stories allegedly adapted from Chekhov, Tolstoy and Maupassant. Questionable literary credits notwithstanding, the Italian director stands out here for his legendary visual craft and sense of suspense. The film was edited in two different versions for Italian and American audiences.
“The Trip” (Roger Corman, 1967)
Written by Jack Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper when the three of them were not yet Hollywood stars, “The Trip” is once again proof of the anticipatory flair that both AIP and Roger Corman possessed. While “Easy Rider” would address the bitter end of the 60’s and its countercultural utopia, “The Trip” is about the decade’s hallucinatory phase, here rendered with ingenious psychedelic gimmicks. The plot is simple enough — it basically involves Pete Fonda, a television commercial director in the middle of a personality crisis, dropping acid. Despite a weak narrative development, the film remains an iconic document vividly chronicling a specific time and place.
“Boxcar Bertha” (Martin Scorsese, 1972)
For a director that is forever associated with New York City and its mean streets, it is somewhat curious that Scorsese’s second feature is set in what the late Roger Ebert described as a “murky southern territory of sweat and violence.” “Boxcar Bertha” echoes the bloody romance of “Bonnie and Clyde,” but is tinged with a political undertone — the titular character (Barbara Hershey) teams up with union leader Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine) as the two become “accidental” criminals, driven more by circumstances than blood-thirst. Scorsese is here already boasting his propensity for violence, offering little-to-no moral justification without ever judging his characters.
“Sisters” (Brian de Palma, 1973)
Besides Coppola and Scorsese, another New Hollywood big shot — though always a peculiar one — passed through the AIP offices, when the company’s distribution branch picked up his 1973 film “Sisters.” While “Dementia 13” and “Boxcar Bertha” were promising but still embryonic examples of their directors’ talent, De Palma’s “Sisters” is a fully formed thriller already boasting all the director’s capabilities. Indebted to Alfred Hitchcock and “Peeping Tom,” this suspenseful thriller appears today as the stylistic blueprint of many of the director’s subsequent films. A murder story investigated not by the police, but by an accidental witness driven by a morbid curiosity towards crime and the criminal.
“Coffy” (Jack Hill, 1973)
One of the most iconic Blaxploitation films featuring the undisputed queen of the genre: Pamela Grier, long before her glory was rediscovered years later by Quentin Tarantino in “Jackie Brown.” But it’s with this film that Grier left her indelible mark on the big screen, with a politically-tinged female vigilante flick that holds nothing back. After her sister dies of an overdose, a nurse goes on a liberating killing spree to eradicate drug dealers from her town. Director Jack Hill, one of the unsung geniuses of American cinema, proves to be an extremely talented director and with a limited budget pulls together one hell of an action film.
“Sugar Hill” (Paul Maslansky, 1974)
Of all the wacky flicks that 70’s B-moviemaking gave us, “Sugar Hill” surely is one of the most outrageous. Director Paul Maslansky’s first and only movie (he later went on to produce “Police Academy”) feels like an improbable remake of Jacques Tourner’s “I Walked With a Zombie” set in downtown Los Angeles. Soul cinema meets zombies in this supernatural oddity of a film widely praised by Darius James in his book “That’s Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadassssss ‘Tude.” Featuring gangsters, voodoo, funk and plenty of undead thrills, this is living proof of the kind of wild and unadulterated imagination that ran through AIP’s most visionary works.
“A Matter of Time” (Vincente Minnelli, 1976)
While serving as the launchpad of future masters of cinema, AIP also housed the last film to be made by a true master of classical Hollywood, Vincente Minnelli. Featuring Liza Minnelli as a young maid who goes to the big town and Ingrid Bergman as an aging Countess trapped in a decadent hotel with little money and plenty of memories, “A Matter of Time” was a disaster on many levels. The ailing director found it almost impossible to communicate with the Italian crew (the film is set and shot in Rome) and the project failed both commercially and critically. Revisiting it today though, Minnelli’s last film is shrouded in an aura of decadent romanticism and has a fascinating anachronistic feel to it, as if it were made at the wrong time in the wrong place — but certainly by the right director.