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 This article was written before the Covid-19 pandemic but previously unpublished, and the text is unchanged (including at least one reference to Hellman as a living filmmaker).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.
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.
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.
It is, to date, the only film I’ve seen that appears to have taken direct inspiration from David Lynch’s experimental juggernaut, Inland Empire.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Boasting the only screen performances of James Taylor and Dennis Wilson and a screenplay by perhaps the greatest living American novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, which was famously published in its entirety in the April 1971 edition of Esquire Magazine (and labeled “The First Movie Worth Reading,” which is frankly a lot to unpack). Hellman’s quietly brilliant existential road movie reads today as something further from the intended 1970s BBS-style cerebral commercial hit and more of the 1960s European ennui-laced Antonionian commercial hit.
Wurlitzer wrote another screenplay for Hellman: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. If Two-Lane Blacktop had performed at the box office, the script would have stayed with Hellman, but instead, Wurlitzer’s words went to Peckinpah and Hellman went back to Corman.
The Shooting (1966)
The legend of Roger Corman producing two simultaneous films with the same location and effectively the same budget is well documented (e.g. A Bucket of Blood/Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven/The Terror, the aforementioned Ski Troop Attack/Beast from Haunted Cave, and Back Door to Hell/Flight to Fury), but the most undercelebrated aspect of this practice is that the latter leftover films are the more studied entries in Corman’s career. Even though A Bucket of Blood was the most subversive of Corman’s satires, Little Shop garnered the accolades for resourcefulness; even though The Raven boasts one of the most humbling horrors casts on film (and serves as a formidable game piece in “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon”), The Terror boasts similar camp analyses to the films of George Kuchar. As referenced above, Back Door to Hell served as a boilerplate war picture while the leftover budget allowed Hellman to essentially prove his mettle to Corman with the bonkers Flight to Fury.
This brings us to The Shooting, which is indisputably the most aesthetically lauded film that Corman ever produced. With a sparse script by Carole Eastman (who also penned Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces and Nichols’s The Fortune), the locations and partial cast of Ride in the Whirlwind (this time boasting both Nicholson and Millie Perkins as villains), and an unfinished dream of producing Beckett as a Western, Monte Hellman solidified his reputation as a giant in the American art house canon with an existential oater worthy of Albert Camus.