In the early 1950s Samuel
Z. Arkoff, along with partner James H. Nicholson, formed the American Releasing
Corporation, a film production company that would in a few short years become
American International Pictures or AIP for short. Tapping into a teenage market
that up until that time had not even been considered as viable, AIP flourished
by releasing low budget drive-in fare that catered to the youth of its time.
Arkoff and AIP maintained their success throughout the 1960s and 1970s by constantly
evolving their output to suit that of its maturing audience and by taking note
of the changes in the American counterculture. Atomic monsters begat the Beach
picture, which lead to adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe, Biker films and Blacksploitation.
Many of such genres have since become distinctive to AIP’s impressive
library, which boasts a "who’s who" of talent both behind and
in front of the screen. Roger Corman, writer Richard Matheson, Robert De Niro,
Jack Nicholson and directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola are just
a few of the recognizable names that would use American International Pictures
as a jumping off point for their careers, but behind them all was Arkoff. Working
with only a few shooting days, a modest budget and an outlandish title, Arkoff’s
eye for talent and opportunity rarely faltered, and his journey from entertainment
lawyer to movie mogul is most definitely an interesting one.
Through archival video interviews, including footage taken of Arkoff on July 29, 2000, at the Classic FilmFest in Arlington, Virginia, "Fanex Files: Samuel Z. Arkoff" covers the career of the B-movie producer extraordinaire, from his humble yet successful beginnings with the DAY THE WORLD ENDED, to AIP’s biggest hit, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979). Paying little attention to his personal life, the documentary moves at a steady and assured pace, covering the many trends that AIP both created and flourish with throughout the 1960s and 1970s by highlighting some of the companies’ most notable films. THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES, TEENAGE CAVEMAN, REFORM SCHOOL GIRL, BEACH PARTY, HOUSE OF USHER, BLACULA and THE THING WITH TWO HEADS are just few of the over 130 films that Arkoff helped produce that are showcased within, often alongside their appropriate theatrical trailer. Special attention is made to the talented Vincent Price and the films of Mario Bava, as well as the eye catching poster art that would become synonymous with American International Pictures thanks to its tried and true formula of always placing a monster and a maiden in distress as its focal point.
Running just over 90 minutes, the feature feels more akin to an episode of A&E’s Biography than it does a theatrical documentary, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Narrated by Tom Proveaux, the picture moves briskly over Arkoff’s career, making brief stops to showcase notable films that are either landmarks in American International Pictures' filmography or that correspond with one of Arkoff's many interesting stories. Most of these anecdotes will be familiar to fans of AIP, such as Roger Corman’s habit of squeezing every possible red cent from a particularly attractive location or set, often filming multiply pictures at once, but hearing them straight from the horse's mouth gives them a fresh and personal take that will greatly appeal to drive-in movie fans. The only thing that I did find somewhat off putting was the choice of some of the documentary's talking heads. For instance, other than being a fan, I’m not quite sure the relevance of the inclusion of several onscreen interviews with Leanna Chamish, star of the direct to video VAMPIRE SISTERS. I’m not saying that her comments aren’t valid or interesting, it’s just that I would have preferred to hear Roger Corman’s take on THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH then that of the star of the short film JOE NOSFERATU: HOMELESS VAMPIRE. Corman does have some screen time but it is all too brief. I would have also liked to have seen interviews with more people who actually knew or worked with Arkoff, such as Larry Cohen, Bruce Dern or Larry Bishop. That being said, I did enjoy the many comments and the brief "Creature Feature" clip from Dick Dyszel aka Count Gore DeVol.
Midnight Marquee Productions and Longthrow Multimedia International, through Alpha Video, present the story of the founder of American International Pictures full frame and barebones. The quality of the picture varies from crystal clear to covered in nicks and scratches due to its editing together of recent and archived interviews with vintage trailers. Taken as a whole, the presentation is quite nice with very little worth fusing over. Audio fares similarly, with the majority of Arkoff’s convention interview, which really is the meat and potatoes of this release, easy enough to follow. While I was already aware of AIP’s history and a huge fan of its eclectic library, hearing Arkoff relive the glory days of AIP was like listening to an old relative spinning a yarn on lazy Sunday afternoon. I may have heard his story a hundred times before, but there’s something about the way he tells it that holds my attention every time. (Jason McElreath)
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