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Gordon Inman Cinema Essays: In Memoriam Of Monte Hellman

Trigger Warning: Blood

Local Film Historian Gordon Inman shares his favorite films of the recently passed Director Monte Hellman.

On April 20th, 2021, we lost one of the most unique voices in American cinema and the only true arthouse giant to emerge from the Roger Corman school of filmmaking. This article was written before the Covid-19 pandemic but previously unpublished, and the text is unchanged (including at least one reference to Hellman as a living filmmaker).

To put it bluntly, much of the listicle film culture of today lives in an echo chamber. Film discourse and especially video essay channels (many of which are indispensable but forced to cater to the taste of their patrons) focus on the same miniature canon of roughly 25 working filmmakers and 10 dead ones. I intend to do my small part to reverse this, if possible. I’d like to keep a few more up-to-date methods of film-listing, however: I have become very fond of the recent practice of listing an artist’s work, backward by quality. One of my very favorite living* American filmmakers, Monte Hellman, deserves this treatment.

Beast from the Haunted Cave (1959)

Hellman began in theater, first catching the attention of Roger Corman by founding his own company in California and immediately electing to open his 1957 season with L.A. County’s first production of Waiting for Godot, staged as a western. Corman, who had backed the theater company, asked Hellman shortly thereafter to come to the Alps with him and direct a follow-up to his Ski Troop Attack. Hellman officially became a filmmaker with his 1959 monster entry Beast from the Haunted Cave.

A few apologists over the years have tried to spirit some kind of subversive existentialist subplot into the film from the students’ expository dialogue, but there’s little to find. In reality, the film is nothing more or less than a completely serviceable Corman horror flick and provided a first-class film school for a future master.

Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989)

The film in Hellman’s oeuvre which has elicited the most head-scratching by far. The first two serial killer Santa films are considered titans of the ineptitude-as-art subgenre, while this one is more appropriately enjoyed for its adept filmmaking and preunion of several Twin Peaks and Mulholland Dr. actors.

Stanley’s Girlfriend (2006)

Generally considered the best of the sequences from the 2006 anthology Trapped Ashes, with the same uncanny approach as many of the popular ‘copypasta’ internet stories of the early 2000s. A man remembers his friendship with a young Stanley Kubrick which was tragically interrupted by his obsession with a beautiful young woman, who he discovers years later was some kind of succubus.

Back Door to Hell (1964)

At the time of its release, the film served as a by-the-numbers actioner, but it has an appeal to today’s audiences for being an example of the now-retired subgenre of ‘needle drop’ war picture in the company of Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and more recently Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. This was his first collaboration with Jack Nicholson, in a slightly larger role than his Little Shop of Horrors scene-stealer.

China 9, Liberty 37

Often credited as the “last Spaghetti western,” and certainly the Hellman film in the direst need of restoration. Mainstay Warren Oates provided his final performance for the director, who brought the sparseness of his earlier Westerns back with aplomb.

Flight of Fury (1964)

Undoubtedly the Hellman picture most deserving of the “camp classic” honorific. Made on the leftover budget from Back Door to Hell with whoever was still in the Philippines to shoot (including Nicholson again as a deliciously loopy villain), the final product comes down to essentially The Lady Vanishes on a plane and in the jungle.

Iguana (1988)

The next two entries pose a conundrum. Quentin Tarantino owes his career to Hellman, who served as executive producer for the former’s debut Reservoir Dogs, and once claimed in an interview that Iguana “should have made Monte Hellman a household name.” This would have been impossible for two reasons: given that its distribution was so anemic that only seven copies of the film were made, and that it is a pirate movie that is never fun for a moment. The protagonist, played by Everett McGill, is a villain worthy of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.

As brilliant as the film is, the era of 1970s antiheroes as a box office draw was long past, and the era of psychopathic protagonists still hasn’t arrived.

Cockfighter (1974)

Another problematic gem. This was the final collaboration between Hellman and producer Corman, which boasts a silent-but-narrated performance by Warren Oates and equally compelling antagonist in Harry Dean Stanton, both of which help to serve the rich existential story of a broken man in a dark underground subculture. The problem is that the subculture, cockfighting, is unsimulated on-screen throughout the picture, rendering an excellent film unwatchable to a large percentage of film audiences.

On a lighter note, our beloved city of Chattanooga is named dropped about an hour into the picture, further justifying this list’s publication. #chattabunga

Ride in the Whirlwind (1965)

At long last, the team of Hellman and writer/star Jack Nicholson gave Corman something he had not had up to that point: an excellent commercial western, worthy of the low-budget pantheon alongside Budd Boetticher, William Witney, and latter-day Allan Dwan.

Road to Nowhere (2010)

Less infamously than Terrence Malick’s was Hellman’s twenty-year hiatus. Upon his return, Hellman opted to make a backlot drama (about 21st-century independent filmmaking rather than Hollywood) rife with cinephilia, work romance, obsession, Shannyn Sossamon, and murder.