Six Decades of Schlock: The Magical Career of Roger Corman

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Six Decades of Schlock: The Magical Career of Roger Corman

In 1954, a 28-year-old Detroit native named Roger William Corman produced his first feature film in Hollywood, a low-budget, grainy, black-and-white creature movie called Monster From the Ocean Floor. He had already taken the long route to having his name in the opening credits of a film, studying industrial engineering before leaving his education behind to follow a passion for movies into the mailroom of 20th Century Fox, where he toiled in anonymity. Ultimately, he spent 6 years in Hollywood before scraping together the funding to produce that first movie.

Fast forward 62 years, and Roger Corman just finished producing another creature feature—this one lovingly titled CobraGator. It’s more than six decades later, and Corman, now 90 years old, is still where he’s always been and was always meant to be. In the course of this astoundingly long, productive career, Hollywood’s patron saint of B movies has become one of the most inspiring figures in the history of independent cinema. There have been countless imitators, but there’s no one quite like Roger Corman.

The numbers speak for themselves. Since 1954, IMDB credits Corman with having personally directed 56 films. But impressive as that is, it’s nothing compared to all the films the man has produced and executive produced. That number? It’s currently sitting at 412, with three new additions in 2016 (so far). Roger Corman is a 90-year-old man, and he’s worked as a producer on three movies this year. How many films have YOU produced in 2016? Yeah, I thought so.

I used the above creature features to highlight Corman’s incredible sense of permanence, but the reality is that this man has made practically every style of film one can cheaply make over the last 62 years, and he changed fluidly as the times changed. He’s made Westerns, love stories, family movies, slasher films, titillation, sword-and-sorcery, sci-fi and everything inbetween.

In honor of that longevity, let us examine each decade of this magical career and the Corman film from each period that you really need to see.

The 1950s

Corman was ultra-prolific in the ’50s, churning out extremely low-budget, black-and-white B features for B movie kingpins American International Pictures in particular. These were true B’s, often produced entirely for the sake of filling a drive-in double bill, and most of them are either Westerns, monotonous sci-fi or particularly goofy monster flicks. Notable titles include such films as Swamp Women, Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Gunslinger, It Conquered the World and Night of the Blood Beast, the last three of which were notably featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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This also happens to be the period where Corman was personally directing the most films, as it was the most efficient way for him to speed through productions and raise capital for additional movies—as many as eight or nine per year, like clockwork. One gets the sense, watching most of them, that this period was more about the establishment of Corman as a “professional” rather than “artistic” filmmaker, something of an extended filmmaking boot camp where he cranked out as many movies as possible in a short period. This included producing the films of others as well—Corman was notorious for going to a set, wrapping a film and then leaving crew behind to create a second, incredibly bare-bones movie with whatever budget was left, using the same set pieces. It was exactly this sort of scenario that gave the great Francis Ford Coppola his first chance in a director’s seat, tackling a film called Dementia 13, shot on leftover sets from Corman’s The Young Racers.

Notable film: It Conquered the World, 1956

Corman had quite the flair for classically cheesy ’50s science fiction, and It Conquered the World is absolutely as cheesy as these movies come. Peter Graves stars as a typically languid, white-bread scientist archetype who discovers that his fellow scientist friend (unexpectedly played by Spaghetti Western icon Lee Van Cleef) has been in contact with an alien from Venus who is hiding on Earth. In his own, stiltedly acted way, Graves must prove the evil intentions of the alien and then defeat it. Of note: Corman favorite Beverly Garland, who played a female sheriff the same year in his film The Gunslinger, appears here as the brave wife of the corrupted Van Cleef.

It Conquered the World is a perfect example of the cheap, quickie pictures that Corman was mass-producing in the ’50s. The scope of “conquering the world” is unsurprisingly far more ambitious than anything actually shown on screen, and it makes use of mind-numbingly dull stock footage on a regular basis in an attempt to feel bigger than just a handful of people shooting a film in the woods. The alien itself, meanwhile, comes to life via one of the worst creature costumes of all time, looking something like an overturned ice cream cone with antennae. It’s honestly shocking to me that they dared to show audiences how silly the monster is in the vintage trailer.

The 1960s

The ’60s were undoubtedly Corman’s greatest decade as a film director, and perhaps his most eclectic as well, and it’s very hard to pick one or even a few movies to highlight. He began the decade in similar fashion to the ’50s, with cheapo horror films such as the original Little Shop of Horrors in 1960, before hitting on the best concept of his career: Gothic horror adaptations of classic literature. Along the way he also dabbled in more sci-fi (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) and invented the “biker film” subgenre with 1966’s The Wild Angels.

Most notable is his so-called “Poe cycle,” a series of movies adapting stories (or simply vague themes) by Edgar Allen Poe, beginning with 1960’s well-regarded House of Usher starring the legendary Vincent Price. These films were notably different than any of the cheaper quickies, featuring better stories, more professional acting talent and much better production values. In fact, several of these Poe films such as The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964) are really beautiful to look at, awash in the artificially vibrant patina of Technicolor and classical Hollywood glamor. You could almost imagine that you’re watching one of Terence Fisher’s great English horror films for Hammer in the same period—they have the grandiose sense of gaudy style that make those films so great to rewatch today, and the sets are uniformly stunning. These films represent Corman at his critical apex—not exactly “acclaim,” but respect for a director who had mastered this aspect of his craft.

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Also notable in particular is 1962’s The Intruder, one of the most unique films of Corman’s career. This black-and-white drama stars a young William Shatner as a despicable racist and “social reformer” who arrives in a small Southern town on the eve of high school desegregation with a plan to whip up a frenzy of hate and possibly violence. It’s a shockingly timely, progressive but challenging film, arguably one of the best made about the Civil Rights era during the timeframe when it was happening. It may be Corman’s “best film,” and one can’t help but wonder how different his career might have gone if he had continued to make such socially conscious (but harder to sell) dramas rather than returning to his genre roots.

Notable film: The Haunted Palace, 1963

Of all Corman’s Poe films, this is probably my favorite, but it’s simultaneously one of the oddest because the entire “Poe” association is a lie. In reality, the story is actually a fairly faithful adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but given that Lovecraft was far less known in American pop culture in 1963, Corman shrewdly gave it the title of an Edgar Allen Poe poem, “The Haunted Palace.” The film is bookended by readings from this poem that may seem vaguely connected to the goings-on of the plot, but any similarity is a coincidence—it was simply a case of clever marketing to take advantage of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous name.

The film, however, is a lot of fun. Again, Corman casts Vincent Price as the lead, Charles Dexter Ward, who arrives in the Lovecraftian town of Arkham to take possession of his ancestor’s huge, haunted mansion. He’s greeted by angry townfolk who still remember the wicked magic supposedly practiced by Ward’s great-great-grandfather, and eventually the similarities in their bloodlines become apparent. It’s a story of spirit possession and revenge over the course of generations, with a delightfully hammy (but straight-faced) performance by Price at its center.

The Haunted Palace is also beautiful to look at, combining the classical gothic backdrops of Universal Horror films—mist-filled cemeteries, haunted rural towns—with the splashes of luxurious color and grand, stately mansions you often see in Hammer horror films. Watching the film today, this feels like the period where Corman had the comparatively biggest budget or most resources to work with—these really aren’t “B movies” at all. All of the Poe films make for delightful Halloween viewing, some 50 years later.

The 1970s

In 1970, Corman founded his own film studio, New World Pictures, which effectively signaled the end of his prolific directing career. Although he did occasionally direct films such as Von Richthofen and Brown or Deathsport, much of his attention now shifted to producing and executive producing huge scores of films rolling off the assembly line at New World, as well as acquiring foreign films for exhibition in the U.S. In this, New World Pictures was actually of critical importance, bringing numerous films from artists such as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini to U.S. audiences for the first time.

In terms of the films he was producing, though, the ’70s represent another classic slice of the Roger Corman canon. Ever adaptive to his market and current tastes, he latched on to pretty much any emerging genre that was turning a profit at the grindhouses. This included biker films (Angels Die Hard), “nurse movies,” (Private Duty Nurses) crime movies, (Boxcar Bertha, the first film of Martin Scorsese) blaxploitation (TNT Jackson) and anything else that seemed likely to recoup its budget. Particularly notable were the emergence of “women in prison” films, including the classic Caged Heat, which was the first directorial work of Jonathan Demme.

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By now, you’ve likely noticed a pattern here as well: A huge number of famous actors and directors got their start working for Roger Corman. Legendary for his ability to both spot talent and give opportunities to ambitious young filmmakers, his so-called “Corman Film School” includes the likes of Scorsese, Demme, Jack Nicholson, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Gale Anne Hurd and many, many more. If Corman hadn’t been in a position to give first opportunities to many of these film luminaries, who knows how many classic movies we might have missed out on? Without Corman, there might very well be no Taxi Driver, or The Godfather, or Titanic.

Notable film: Death Race 2000, 1975

The original Death Race 2000 is a neat combination of exploitation picture, action movie and science fiction premise—sort of like a outline from George Orwell as written up by Shane Black or Quentin Tarantino. In the late ’70s, the United States has collapsed into a totalitarian regime under martial law. Desperate to distract the citizenry from their problems, the government institutes the deadly Transcontinental Death Race, where a lineup of costumed racers embark on a Wacky Races-style journey to get from one end of the country to the other while eliminating the competition.

That would easily be enough premise for a silly action/exploitation movie, but Death Race 2000 is a tad more ambitious. The story weaves its way around champion racer Frankenstein (Kill Bill’s David Carradine) and a resistance group that is trying to fight the government and stop the brutality of the death races once and for all. Also appearing: A very young Sylvester Stallone, one year before Rocky, playing a flamboyant Chicago gangster driver called “Machine Gun Joe” whose car is equipped with tommy guns and a literal giant Bowie knife strapped to the front like a spear. It’s delightfully stupid, and Corman was apparently fond enough of the results that he returned to produce a 2008 remake with Jason Statham simply titled Death Race. That film has now had two more sequels of its own, with a third, Death Race 2050, scheduled for this year. Corman, naturally, is still producing.

The 1980s

Corman began the ’80s much as he was in the ‘70s, producing theatrical B movies (such as Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror) and exploitation pictures until he sold New World Pictures to an investment group in 1983. He then embarked on his next company: Corcorde/New Horizons. Once again working out in front of the pack, Corman realized that the video revolution was trending toward the home market, and his film studio/distribution company increasingly began crafting its films for the home video market rather than theaters.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these straight-to-video films are a bit lower in profile than some of the other films Corman produced, and there’s a somewhat corresponding quality drop. His companies tended to target a very specific genre market—let’s say sword-and-sorcery in the style of Conan with a movie such as Deathstalker—and then put out sequel after sequel for as long as it remained profitable. Still, there are some minor classic films in this era: The 1986 horror movie House, or some of Corman’s earliest attempts at exploiting the nascent slasher genre with movies such as The Slumber Party Massacre and Sorority House Massacre. In case you were wondering: Corman ultimately produced six different films with “Massacre” in the title.

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All in all, it was a highly prolific period of producing, and Corman was averaging 15 films per year in the last few years of the ’80s. That’s an insane number, but he would actually climb even higher in the ’90s.

Notable film: Battle Beyond the Stars, 1980

With a budget of almost $2 million, Battle Beyond the Stars was easily the most expensive film that Roger Corman had ever produced at the time. Falling between the releases of Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, it was criticized at the time as derivative, but it’s actually a film with considerable merit. In reality, it was derivative, but of entirely other films—it was pitched as “The Magnificent Seven in space,” and as such it was another of many loose adaptations of Akira Kurosawa’s original Seven Samurai. The peaceful alien race in the film is even named the “Akira” in tribute.

The ever-oily John Saxon plays space tyrant villain Sador, whose threats convince the peaceful planet to hire a team of spacegoing mercenaries in typical Seven Samurai fashion. The effects look particularly dated today, but they are quite ambitious, and come from an interesting source: James Cameron, in his first big break as a production designer and FX artist. The cast also features “Hannibal” George Peppard as a space trucker and voluptuous Sybil Danning in perhaps the most ridiculously revealing sci-fi outfit of all time. Really, what’s not to love? It plays like Corman’s slightly more ambitious, spit-shined tribute to the Flash Gordon serials of his youth.

The 1990s

Fifteen movies produced per year? That’s nice and all, but that’s nothing compared to the heights Corman eventually hit during the ’90s. In 1995 alone, the man produced 26 films. That’s more than one movie every two weeks, for an entire year. Obviously, one wonders how much individual input he was having on any of the movies he was producing during this period, but if it was easy to produce so many films, then everyone would be doing it, right?

At the same time, one could also argue that the quality of those films was decreasing pretty rapidly as well. Many of them were of the straight-to-video variety, and many are also sequels—you wouldn’t believe how many Bloodfist (essentially a Bloodsport rip-off) sequels there are, with an astounding nine in the full series. Other notable films include Jurassic Park cash-ins Carnosaur and Dinosaur Island, as well as an instance of Corman producing a film in Munchies that essentially was ripping off one of his own protege’s works—Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Also notable: Corman came out of directorial retirement for the first time in almost 20 years to personally direct his last film, 1990’s Frankenstein Unbound. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t have nearly the same reverence for Corman’s name as the film’s trailer would imply, and the time-traveling sci-fi twist on Frankenstein horror was ultimately a flop.

Notable film: The Fantastic Four, 1994

Oh, what a saga there is behind the infamous, unreleased 1994 version of The Fantastic Four, but I’ll just state a case right now: This is the best Fantastic Four movie to date. Yes, better than the 2005, Jessica Alba version and its abhorrent sequel, and much better than Josh Trank’s abortive 2015 film, which we savaged in our own review. It’s not exactly a high bar, but the Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four is by far the most entertaining and true-to-comics film adaptation of these characters.

It’s a point of contention whether this film, with its mere $1 million budget, was ever actually intended for release, or whether it was simply made to hold on to the rights long enough for co-produer Bernd Eichinger to eventually make the 2005 version at 20th Century Fox. Stan Lee has gone on record saying the film was never meant to be released, while Corman and Eichinger disagree, but one thing is certain: The cast and crew were totally unaware, and at some point, the plug was pulled and almost all original copies of the movie were destroyed. Thankfully, leaked copies eventually began circulating, and you can now easily find the movie on the web. And if you have any fondness at all for The Fantastic Four, it’s really worth giving a watch.

Corman’s Fantastic Four, better than any of the other films, captures the cartoonish lunacy and good-naturedness of these characters. The costumes are silly and the special effects are especially, hilariously terrible, but it’s a blast to watch. Actor Joseph Culp is great as an accurately costumed Dr. Doom, emoting with thespian theatrics through his mask, and Michael Bailey Smith is arguably better looking as The Thing in this version than Michael Chiklis in a movie made 10 years later with 90 times the budget. It’s a shame that higher-quality transfers of the movie no longer seem to exist, but this Fantastic Four remains something of a cult classic for those who have had a chance to see it.

The 2000s

No man is a perpetual motion machine, and the frantic pace of Roger Corman as an executive producer finally began to slow down a bit in the 2000s. With that said, his level of production still would far exceed most Hollywood producers, and the titles he continued overseeing this period fit in alongside his other straight-to-video works: Action movies, horror movies and the occasional comedy. Likewise, he oversaw remakes of his own works, such as the aforementioned Death Race, which saw expansion to an all-new audience in the birth of the online streaming era toward the end of the decade.

Corman also hit upon a return to creature features in this era, in the form of cheapo films suitable for cable TV. The Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy), ever voracious for original films, proved a willing partner for Corman-produced monster shlock, including the rise of creature “mash-ups.” These films include his own Dinocroc, Supergator, Dinoshark and—yep—Dinocroc vs. Supergator. One imagines that the 80-something year old producer must have been amused to see a genre come back into marketability that he was once producing in ’50s era black-and-white.

Notable film: Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song, 2001

It would be easy to simply choose one of those creature features to represent the 2000s, but let us not forget that at his heart, Roger Corman is a man who has always operated out of a passion for cinema. In his advancing years, it’s no real surprise that he seemingly felt a pull to educate and commemorate film luminaries of years prior, and as such he executive produced Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song. The film is a documentary about the life and career of German-American Hollywood icon and ’30s-40s sex symbol Marlene Dietrich, a face well known to lovers and students of classical Hollywood cinema. I include it here not necessarily because everyone needs to see it, but because it illustrates Corman’s own appreciation for his art. It’s not as if the guy likely thought there would be any profit in producing an appreciation of a German-born actress who most people under 40 in this country have never seen in a film. He did it for the love of his craft.

The 2010s

Here we are—60 years later and Roger Corman has certainly slowed down a bit, but he sure as hell hasn’t stopped. In the last six years since 2010 he’s still been credited as a producer or executive producer on 20 movies—an entire career for a mere mortal, all in his 80s and 90s. There’s literally no reason the man needs to still be working today, other than for the love of the game. Unless Roger Corman is striving toward some sort of Guinness Book of World Records accolade for American filmmakers, he’s done nearly everything one can do in the course of a career—that includes an honorary Academy Award in 2009, by the way.

And yet, the movies roll on. In the 2010s, Corman’s output has been largely made-for-TV or VOD, be they Death Race sequels or creature feature mash-ups. In the last six years he’s also produced martial arts films, military flicks and post-apocalyptic stories as well—a true genre hero to the end. It’s hard to imagine that a time may come in the near future when he decides to well and truly “retire” from executive producing, but I for one hope the guy never stops. American film has been hugely impacted by Roger Corman’s presence over the course of decades—at literally any time in the last 60 years, he was helping shape the tone of the era. He’s one of the all-time American film icons, and a national treasure.

Notable film: The entire Sharktopus series, 2010 onward

Really, what says “Roger Corman” more than “Sharktopus”? You know the bare bones of the plot of this thing before I even tell it to you: Military creates octopus-shark hybrid as a weapon, because surely that’s more effective than a nuclear submarine. Octopus-shark hybrid breaks free. Octopus-shark hybrid menaces scantily clad people. Etc. It’s classic, it’s safe; it’s the kind of movie only watched by people who have watched a dozen just like it before. Networks like SyFy have an insatiable demand for this kind of program that will probably never go out of fashion.

And of course, like any great concept (and one that probably inspired the name of Sharknado, by the way), Corman immediately swung into action and sequelized the shit out of it. 2014 gave us Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda, now pitting the antiheroic Sharktopus, Godzilla-style, against a pterodactyl/barracuda hybrid. 2015 then did the same with Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf, which pushed the final frontier by bringing both aquatic and land-based mammals to the party.

Roger Corman, force of nature, just keeps on rolling and bringing us greatness. I close by giving you the synopsis offered on IMDB for Dance with a Vampyre, one of his three films scheduled for release in 2016:

A lonely stripper. A lonely vampire. 1 night that will change them forever.

If you tell me you don’t want to see that movie, I’ll know that you’re lying.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident bad movie geek, and he wishes Roger Corman was his grandpa. You can follow him on Twitter.

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