A curiosity: The actor Dick Miller, a rumpled salt, has brightened up countless B-movies by showing up for a scene or two to reel off some exposition or maybe get gutted by a robot. Yet his own movie, the one about his years of B-brightening, the one inviting us to get to know the best thing in Piranha and Night of the Creeps and White Line Fever and dozens of Roger Corman’s cheapies, is by-design crafted to exclude the most singular element of a Miller appearance: pleased surprise. Miller can’t from out-of-nowhere save a picture that’s only about Miller from out-of-nowhere saving pictures.
That Guy Dick Miller is a cheery and likable film, one that bops along the surface of its story with lots of interviews, too-quick film clips, and spazzy-quirky-tootling music meant to let us know how fun all this is. (Worse than the music: animated sequences like the one where Miller’s pooped on by a monkey.) Some testimonials offer insight: Leonard Maltin speaks (too briefly) about Miller’s on-screen presence, and Corman and Joe Dante, Miller’s twin champions, toast all he brings to a film, off-screen and on-. A veteran performer by the early Seventies, Miller got cast by young bucks like Dante and John Sayles in the second wave of Corman pictures out of fondness for Miller’s work in the first. (He often wore the same pink jacket, movie after movie.) But Dante and company make it clear they never considered casting Miller again and again as a mere in-joke, à la Sam Raimi’s lucky Oldsmobile or the way the sound design teams on the Lucas/Spielberg productions of yesteryear insisted on working in a Wilhelm Scream. Miller, we learn, brought a loose and inspired professionalism to the set, and he could tear through more words in a minute of screentime than almost anyone else — and make those words swing. So, when he peddles forsaken lore in Dante’s The Howling, he’s not just there because genre freaks will be happy to see him. He’s there because nobody sells that stuff better, or with more offhand charm.
Miller evinces that charm in present-day interview segments, and the chance to hang with him (and his wife, Lainie Miller, a hoot) lends the film some vitality. But That Guy Dick Miller flings too many quick clips at us, never offering the chance to relish his work across a full scene — and certainly never replicating the experience of what it’s like to have him appear and briefly jolt the dead flesh of a New World stinker to life. (And the doc is distractible, letting the cast of Gremlins blather on about how difficult the shoot was rather than what Miller does in the movie.) For that reason, That Guy Dick Miller might work best as a fans-only affair: The best way to get to know and appreciate his peppery turns is to grind through the films where his name’s not in the title. Lots of these are playing the Anthology Archives this week: late-Fifties Corman stuff like Sorority Girls, War of the Satellites, and the threadbare yet grand A Bucket of Blood, the rare film in which Miller starred. Plus, there’s lots of Dante’s nostalgic mayhem: The Howling, both Gremlins, and the schmucks-amuck trash-flick spree Hollywood Boulevard, co-directed with Allan Arkush.