End of An Era
Roger Corman's 'Gas-s-s-s' marked an ending point for the filmmaker.
Now Streaming: In the fall of 1969, Roger Corman began production on a film that he hoped would be "an apocalyptic , Strangelovian political satire," as he wrote in his excellent autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime (first published in 1990).
The film, Gas-s-s-s! … or It May Become Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It, may not reach the creative heights that Corman envisioned, yet it's a perfectly fine hippie road-trip movie that engenders more than a few chuckles and smiles for modern viewers, as well as several scenes that are bound to elicit groans of disbelief, especially the moments that make light of rape.
Of course, the film makes light of everything that could possibly be taken seriously and is overflowing with contempt for societal norms and ridicule for outdated cultural concepts concerned women, men, politicians, and football, the latter an especially outlandish target in the State of Texas, where football is practically a religion in certain areas.
Oh, did I forget to mention that filming began on location in Dallas, Texas, just a few miles from where I am typing these words today?
Corman writes, "the idea came mostly from Jim Nicholson," an executive at American Independent Pictures (AIP), the distributor, and was inspired by the popular slogan 'Never Trust Anyone Over 30.' The premise is that everyone over 25 has been wiped out; what will the younger generation actually do then?
Wanting to make a dark comedy based on that idea, Corman, then 42, worked with George Amitage, who was 27 or so, on the script, but Corman was under a time crunch: he was already committed to direct a studio picture in Ireland in the spring and summer of 1970, and so he needed to start his next film now, "without a finished script," which proved to be a mistake.
As he writes: "The big lesson learned was never shoot a script with just a first draft." Corman brought Armitage along to rewrite as the production moved from Dallas, where they shot on the SMU campus and the not-quite-open I-635 expressway, through West Texas, and on into New Mexico, but the ideas never quite gelled into what could have been a much more successful dark comedy.
The film is not without its merits. Corman's camera movements are always graceful and sensible, and help to make all of his work dynamically entertaining. Nearly always, he frames his shots very well and always makes it easy to follow what's happening. Road-movie tropes were already well established, yet Corman defies these in a confident manner that nonetheless never draws attention to itself.
Bob Corff, who later became a noted acting coach, and Elaine Giftos, who later became a familiar presence on a number of TV shows and movies, portray two people who become a couple and lead a small group of fellow young survivors in search of a peaceful commune in New Mexico. Their group includes Ben Vereen, Cindy Williams (before American Graffiti) and Tally Coppola, aka Talia Shire (before The Godfather). Bud Cort (pre-Harold and Maude) also shows up.
It's a ramshackle trip that doesn't quite hold together; it's more like a series of improvised episodes. According to Corman, it was a production that was challenged by terribly cold and icy weather issues, especially as filming moved through November and into December, time constraints, and no weekends off, as they were filled up by script work. And all that constant traveling took a toll as well.
Production manager Paul Rapp recounts in the book that it was "the toughest shoot I ever saw Roger go through. … He seemed very down, snarling and weary."
Corman mentions: "We ended up with some pretty wild and surreal images," culminating in the film's elaborate final shot, with 300 people on top of a mesa: "It was one of the greatest shots I ever achieved in my life. And AIP cut out the entire shot."
Released in the U.S. in November 1970, the film abruptly stops, rather than concludes, and runs just 77 minutes. I’d love to see that final shot.
Naturally, Corman was galled at the executives, who "didn't like what God was saying," a reference to the irreverent voice of "God" that's heard throughout the picture. Referring to AIP president James Nicholson, Corman says: "Jim had done this on four films in a row. Gas-s-s-s! was the worst case, the one that really did it for me."
Not yet 44, Corman decided enough was enough. After directing 33 feature films for AIP, and 48th feature films overall in just 15 years, he was done making pictures for AIP. He directed one more studio picture. A little later, he founded New World Pictures and began the next phase of his filmmaking career.
(Note: As you can see in the poster accompanying this article, the film was originally rated GP -- "all ages admitted, parental guidance suggested," a rating used from 1970 to 1972, replaced by PG; in 2003, the film was re-rated R, though I'm not sure why. I only heard two 'f-words.') [Paramount Plus]