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Under The Radar: On Roger Corman

Under The Radar: On Roger Corman

There have always been moviemakers who operated just outside the major studio spotlight; showmen, hucksters, exploiters working on small budgets.  Before the advent of home video and the multiplex, they could sometimes be found hand-carrying their single print from one movie house to another.  Post-World War II, many of them found small, survivable niches specializing in the kinds of material – mostly horror, chillers, and science fiction – which could always find a ready home with the burgeoning youth audience.  There were some whose ability to spin their thread-bare, pulp fiction-caliber productions into a small but lucrative box office return was so exceptional they came to be looked upon as masters of cinema’s minor leagues, maestros of the “B”-movie.  Among them were producers like William Allan and Sam Katzman, writer/producer/director William Castle, directors Edgar G. Ulmer and Bert I. Gordon, producing partners James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, and the man often referred to as the King of the Bs, writer/producer/director Roger Corman.

Corman has outlasted everyone in his generation of drive-in/grindhouse circuit peers and is still turning out films today (Syfy channel will soon be premiering his latest: Sharktopus). The sheer bulk of his output – over 300 movies produced since the 1950s of which he’s directed more than 50 – has kept his oldies alive for generation after generation of connoisseurs of low-budget thrills. Last year, Corman received the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Governor’s Award in recognition of a half-century-long career consistently marked with “…ingenuity, boundless energy and a deep love of movies.” Next week, at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Corman – along with his wife, Julie — will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.  In less flowery language than that of the Motion Picture Academy, Fantastic Fest’s announcement may actually hit closer to the heart of every Corman aficionado, saluting him for “…(making) sure audiences have a blast at the cinema every time.”

Corman became as famous – if not more so – for those who made movies with or for him then for his own work.  In pictures he directed as well as produced from the late 1950s onward, serving their Hollywood apprenticeships on titles like Boxcar Bertha (1972), The Wild Angels (1966), Dementia 13 (1963), Teenage Caveman (1958), and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), could be found what would become the most prominent talents of a generation of American cinema including actors Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Fonda, Robert Vaughn, Bruce Dern, screenwriter Robert Towne, and directors Francis Ford Coppola, Nicolas Roeg, Monte Hellman, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, and Martin Scorsese.

Corman had begun dabbling in movies in the early 1950s, but his career only began in earnest when he hooked up with legendary schlock producers Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson who were heading a company which became American International Pictures.  Throughout the latter 1950s, Corman ground out an incredible number of low-budget movies for AIP, most of them sci fi and horror titles.  From 1955, when he joined AIP, through 1959, he directed and/or produced no less than 34 movies, many boasting more bombast in their titles than in their skimpy productions i.e. The Beast with a Million Eyes (1956), Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), and She Gods of Shark Reef (1958).  Corman’s incredible profligacy was maintained through an efficient production formula film historian Joel Finler describes as “…a sixty-minute running time, a ten-day shooting schedule, a minimal crew, an even more minimal cast (and) a monster in a rubber suit…”  He shaved still more dollars off budgets by casting hungry young beginners (i.e. Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors), and past-their-peak “B”-players like Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre.  To inflate the production values of The Masque of the Red Death (1964), he cadged sets leftover from Paramount’s opulent Becket (1964).

His economic shooting style remains the stuff of legend.  He rarely invested time in his actors, relying, instead, on the craft of the veterans who headlined his better work.  Boris Karloff, who top-lined several of Corman’s 1960s horror films, would remember, “If you asked (Corman) about advice on a scene he’d say that’s your pigeon” while whirlwinding the crew through an incredible number of camera set-ups.

His speed in shooting could be blinding.  The Little Shop of Horrors was shot in an amazing two-and-a-half days.  He would often rush straight from one production into another to take advantage of locations and cast already in place from the previous shoot.  In one instance, having Karloff on hand after shooting The Raven (1963), Corman quickly ran the actor through two days’ filming on The Terror (1963) using the very same Raven sets.  Karloff would remember Corman hurrying his crew through the Terror shoot “…two steps ahead of the wreckers…” bringing down the Raven sets (Corman had been in such a rush on The Terror that it wasn’t until he’d begun to assemble his footage he realized the movie didn’t make any sense; solving the problem in typical Corman fashion, he called back two of his supporting actors and shot them in close-up – the sets having been struck by then – while they delivered blocks of exposition explaining the plot).  It’s worth pointing out, however, there was a method in Corman’s rapid-fire madness.  To carry out his short schedules, pre-production was meticulous and thorough, so much so that as quickly as the shoots were executed, they were rarely rushed.

Despite the short schedules, acting ranging from the hammy to the amateurish, and often slapdash plots, what elevated Corman from among so many other grind-‘em-out “B” purveyors was his ability to still turn out movies with a sense of visual flair.  As Corman’s directorial hand grew more sure, he was even able to pull off his monster movies without the benefit of a monster.  In The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), there is no beast – just an invisible force.  Not of This Earth (1957) managed a genuinely creepy feel in its story of a vampire-like alien though the threat was nothing more than “B” actor Paul Birch in a business suit and sunglasses.  His cinematic fluency and self-assurance grew project by project, and he became more playful with his material, working an ironic and often humorous social commentary into his movies.  At a time when one low-budget horror movie seemed indistinguishable from the next, Corman became a drive-in circuit auteur, a cult hero to the teenagers who were AIP’s primary target audience.

By the 1960s, Corman was confident enough in both his ability and his rapport with his young audience to convince AIP it was time for an upgrade.  With bigger budgets, a gallery of a higher class of fading stars i.e. Karloff, Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Ray Milland, Lon Chaney, Jr., and perennial Corman leading man Vincent Price, Corman embarked on the work for which he is probably most fondly remembered, a series of movies inspired by the literary work of Edgar Allan Poe:  The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1961, an anthology movie using Poe’s “The Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Black Cat,” and “Morella” as source material), The Raven, The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), of which Masque is generally considered the best of the lot.

Some of Corman’s Poes, like Masque, actually pillaged a number of Poe stories, while most took little more than the title and possibly a dramatic “hook” (as in The Pit and the Pendulum) from their source material.  Still, to some extent, they usually managed to capture some semblance of Poe’s feel for the macabre, and for a malevolence lying not in the supernatural or in bizarre creatures, but within the human psyche.

There are usually no monsters in Corman’s Poe movies, other than the one manifesting itself in some fatal flaw in their central characters.  In The Pit and the Pendulum and The Haunted Palace, the protagonist is haunted (supernaturally?  psychologically?) by the actions of a morally corrupt ancestor.  In The Premature Burial, tragedy arises from Ray Milland’s obsessive fear of being buried alive.

The most dramatically ambitious of Corman’s Poes is The Masque of the Red Death. Price plays Satan-worshiping Prince Prospero whose castle is an isolated island of safety in a land scourged by a plague called The Red Death.  His fellow noblemen allow Prospero to debase and toy with them to gain the safety of his castle, but Prospero reserves his greatest amusement for his attempts to corrupt a virginal village girl (Jane Asher) pleading for mercy on behalf of her father and fiancé whom Prospero has imprisoned.  The screenplay, by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, paints Prospero as more than a simple sadist or despot; as an essayist in a self-justifying malignant sophistry.  When the village girl brings up belief in God, Prospero sneers back:

Prospero: Believe?  If you believe you are gullible.  Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it?  Famine, pestilence, war, disease and death…They rule this world.

Francesca: There is also love and life and hope.

Prospero: Very little hope I assure you.  No.  If a god of love and life ever did exist…he is long since dead.  Someone…something rules in his place.

Corman’s use of color (Masque’s cinematographer was future director Nicolas Roeg) is, at times, stunning.  Prospero takes Francesca on a tour of several small apartments, each done completely in a single color:  purple, black, yellow, etc.  A macabre story is attached to each, the most unsettling one perhaps being that attached to the room of bright yellow.  Prospero tells of a woman held prisoner there until the sight of sunshine became repugnant to her.

While Corman’s movies could hardly be considered classic cinema – or, often, even among the best of their respective genres – what continues to impress is how much dramatic muscle and directorial flair he could bring to his projects despite all their restrictions and even his own artistic limitations.  A good example is one of his better contemporary sci fi efforts, X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963).  Again, the “monster,” as such, is the protagonist, in this case Ray Milland’s surgeon experimenting with a chemical compound endowing him with X-ray vision.

Corman and screenwriters Robert Dillon and Ray Russell throw an AIP-typical sop to the young audience with a scene at a student party and a bevy of teen dancers revealed in the buff thanks to Milland’s enhanced vision, but the cheap jokes and titillation are soon left behind.  An accidental killing puts Milland on the run through a series of Les Miserables-like episodes as he looks for some safe haven in which he can make enough money to continue researching some way to control the visual ability which is devouring him.  He can’t sleep as he sees through his closed eyelids and on through the floors of the apartments above him.  Trying to rest, his vision is plagued by a strange light – God, he wonders, or far-off suns?  He sees “cities of the dead,” his x-ray powers stripping buildings of their concrete shells and their inhabitants of their flesh.

He takes a job as a carnival mental act to make money, eventually allowing himself to be exploited by a crude midway barker (Don Rickles) who sets him up in a slum office as a “healer.” In one of those pithy dramatic moments Corman consistently included in his pictures, Milland asks the sweaty hustler what Rickles would want to see had he Milland’s power, and gets the repugnant answer:  “All the naked women my eyes could bare!”

In the movie’s disturbing final scene, Milland, pursued by police, drives off into the Nevada desert and crashes.  He staggers into a religious revival tent meeting, his eyes now completely turned a necrotic black.  He speaks of visions of far off worlds smashing together.  The evangelist preacher proclaims them false visions:  “If thy eye offend thee, pluck it out!” The preacher’s disciples join in the chant – “Pluck it out!  Pluck it out!” – and Milland, with a pained cry, plunges his fingers into his eyes and tears them out.

Corman did not expand the genres in which he worked, and few – if any – of his titles could be considered among the best of their kind.  He quite consciously walked a line between mercenary commerce and creative craftsmanship.  According to Corman alumnus Jonathan Demme, Corman – with no self-consciousness at all – referred to himself “…as being 40% artist and 60% businessman…”.  At the same time, there can be seen, in his work, a clear delight in moviemaking.  “My prime goal,” Corman has said, “was to make movies and have a good time doing that…” while trying to do the best possible job no matter how little money or time he had to work with.

Existing successfully between economic necessity and his own modest creative ambitions, Corman proved budget has, at best, only a tenuous connection to good movie-making; that one could interweave entertainment with the threads of the occasionally, intelligently provocative.  He trusted his instincts and his adolescent audience – perhaps the most fickle, least serious-cinema-minded of ticket-buyers – and turned out a succession of surprisingly entertaining and stylish fantasies, often turning what should have been disposable and forgettable teen fodder into–  according to film historian John Baxter — “…the picturesque and the profound…”.  In the process, he often displayed a creative audacity rarely scene among the work of his more upscale confreres.