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Roger Corman, Low Budget Maverick - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2008

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Much has been written about director/producer Roger Corman, also known as the King of the B's (though technically, he never made a B-movie - as in second feature - in his life), but more often than not, his achievements for the cinematic art and business alike are obscured by the fact that he kickstarted the careers of many a now-famous A-list and/or arthouse director like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Ron Howard and Paul Bartel - and I'm happy I've gotten all that name-dropping out of the way up front to get into the thick of things ...

When it comes to the making of popular films, Roger Corman was a rare genius, in the 1950's, a time when the traditional Hollywood studio system was collapsing due to the comeptition from television, he knew how to get a teenage audience into local drive-ins, provided them with the films they wanted to see (and it was not only horror and science fiction, genres to which Corman is often reduced), and he knew how to make these movies on a tight budget (and more often than not under budget, too). But Corman also wasn't anything if not adaptable, with the 1960's, his films changed in both style and genre, and more often than not, he hit homeruns with his respective target audiences. In the 1970's, he gradually got out of directing but continued to produce low budget exploitation fare, and he was even able to score the occasional box office number one. With the 1980's, the B film as such lost much of its significance due to big budget Hollywood blockbusters taking up way too much screens all over the country, but still, to this day, Corman hasn't tired from producing films, primarily for the home video and television market, and while many of his films are rather unremarkable (and are meant to be nothing more than products for the exploitation market), the occasional gem is still to be found.

But let's start at the beginning ...

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

Roger Corman was born Roger William Corman in 1926 in Detroit Michigan. Since Corman's father was an engineer, it was expected of young Roger to become the same, and he actually got a degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University. But Corman's real passion was film - and thus he eventually got a job as messenger at 20th Century Fox and soon rose through the ranks to story analyst. Eventually however, he figured there was more to the film business than just reading and doctoring other people's scripts, and thus he travelled to England to study a semester of 20th century English literature, then stayed in Paris for a while for inspiration, and eventually he came back to the USA with a (film-)story co-written with U.S.Anderson called The House in the Sea - which they managed to sell to Allied Artists, which made a movie out of it in 1954, called Highway Dragnet (Nathan Juran) - to cash in on the then popular TV-series Dragnet -, which turned out to be a standard crime drama of the low budget variety (which essentially meant cutting lots of corners).

According to his own accounts, Corman was shattered about how Allied Artists treated his vision and he saw his career over before it has actually begun, convinced the movie was nothing but a turkey - but as a B-picture, Highway Dragnet did actually do decent business, and Corman was quick to realize there might be more to low budget filmmaking than just one man's vision ... and thus, later in 1954, and using the money he got for The House in the Sea aka Highway Dragnet, he went on to produce the first low budget movie of his own ...

 


 

The 1950's and Drive-In Cinema

 

In the 1950's, the film industry was in turmoil: With the overwhelming competition of television, the traditional family night at the movies was a thing of the past, now the family's would by and large stay home and watch TV for free - even if the production values of most early TV-shows did by no means match those of even your low budget movies - rather than pay for comparable entertainment on the big screen ... and especially the major studios were taken by surprise by this development, also of course because they tended to look down on television as a distant relative who wasn't even invited to their party - and in the process the majors back then by and large missed out on an audience segment that was more than willing to go to the movies - and especially drive-ins as it is -, if only to a) get away from the parents, and b) make out, and that audience segment was the teenage crowd.

Teenagers back in the days though didn't give too much of a heed about production values or stuff, they wanted movies that spoke their language and gave them cheap thrills, that had plots that were easy enough to follow (quite important if you make out about half of the film's running time), and that were, in a weird, sensationalist way, somehow related to current headlines (like the Cold War, the nuclear scare, science gone wrong, but also Rock'n'Roll and juvenile delinquency) rather than being of epic scale but removed from their time.

 


Roger Corman had learned this lesson (the hard way?) with Highway Dragnet, but his first film as a producer (he had a co-producer credit on Highway Dragnet, but was doing little more on the set than watching others doing their stuff), Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954, Wyott Ordung) was a direct reaction to his newfound knowledge: The film dealt with a nuclear monster, had some cool underwater sequences - and cost a meagre $ 12,000 (some of his own money from the Highway Dragnet-deal plus dough borrowed from friends and family, mainly).

To keep production budget that low, Corman used every trick in the book, cut every corner there was: For one of the film's main props, a one-man-submarine, he contacted the company that built such a thing and promised them a mention in the movie's credits if he could use it for free, to save on drivers and crew, he actually drove equipment to and from the location himself, would carry cameras around and set up scenes, just to not have to pay anybody overtime, and he would keep the special effects as basic as could be. And the whole thing worked out, too, Corman could sell distribution rights for his $12,000 epic to Lippert (where his brother Gene worked at the time) for a whopping $60.000 advance. Actually, Corman had even another offer for the movie from Realart at the time, but they refused to give an advance, which was unacceptable for Corman inasmuch as he wanted to make a second film pretty much right away ...

 


Corman's next film after Monster from the Ocean Floor was The Fast and the Furious (1955, Edward Sampson, John Ireland), a film about an escaped convict (John Ireland) who joins a carrace to stay ahead of his captors. The production values in this one were decidedly bigger than in Monster from the Ocean Floor (reportedly, The Fast and the Furious cost $ 50.000), and with John Ireland and Dorothy Malone, it even featured two established actors in the lead ( Ireland actually only agreed to do it for the opportunity to also try his hands on direction, which Corman happily accepted). Still, Corman tried to cut a few corners to make the film looking more expensive than it actually was: He persuaded car company Jaguar to lend him the cars for free, as promotion, he shot a considerable amount of footage during official races, and he served as a stunt driver as well, since there was no way he would afford two stunt drivers. The outcome is no classic but a pretty nice (if clichéd) racing movie, and because of all its vintage cars it's a virtual must for car lovers.

The real important aspect of this film though is not its inherent quality but the fact that it was the first ever film distributed by the American Releasing Corporation, a company just founded by James Nicholson and Samuel Z.Arkoff that would eventually change its name to AIP and become the drive-in fare production house of the 1950's. Corman claims he got distribution offers from pretty much every company there was but decided to go with American Releasing Corporation because they offered him a three picture deal - and one thing was for sure, he wanted to go on making movies, and not only that, he also wanted to move on to the director's chair.

 


The first film Corman produced/directed for Nicholson and Arkoff was Five Guns West (1955), a decent but less than exciting Western - back then still B movie staple -, which was actually shot in colour, followed by Apache Woman (1955) - another Western, as the title suggests - and The Day the World Ended (1955).

 



Of the three films, The Day the World Ended was the most important one because this post-doomsday drama was Corman's first brush (as a director that is) with science fiction - and the post-doomsday topic is one premise that Corman would return to every now and again for the rest of his directing career, from Last Woman on Earth (1960) to the wacky Gas-s-s-s! Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1971) as well as in his subsequent career as a producer.

Nicholson and Arkoff loved the stuff Corman had made for them, and they loved his approach to filmmaking: He was a director who had no aspirations of becoming an auteur (not back then anyways, though in later years he was branded just that), he was a craftsman who was keen on finishing his films on budget and on time (if not even below) and whom Nicholson and Arkoff could give little more than a title or the poster art for the next movie, and he would come up with something they could distribute and make a profit of.

For Nicholson and Arkoff at least, Roger Corman was the ideal drive-in director ...

 







 


Of all the films Corman made in the 1950's, he is nowadays most closely associated with his science fiction flicks, and it's true, science fiction, in its various guises, was a genre Roger Corman would return to several times during the 1950's and early 60's, directing films like the alien invasion flicks It Conquered the World (1956) starring Peter Graves and Lee Van Cleef, Not of this Earth (1957) and War of the Satellites (1958), the monster movie Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), the science shocker The Wasp Woman (1959) and above mentioned Last Woman on Earth. Besides those, Corman also had his hands into production of such sci-fi-schlock classics like The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955, David Kramarsky, Lou Pace), Night of the Blood Beast (1958, Bernard L.Kowalski), The Brain Eaters (1958, Bruno Ve Sota), Beast from Haunted Cave (1959, Monte Hellman) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959, Bernard L.Kowalski).

Especially as director, Roger Corman was responsible for what we perceive today as the inherent style of 1950's drive-in science fiction - which was of course also dictated by the low budget of these films -, including its very plain, no-nonsense, sharp directorial style, its not always convincing special effects smuggled by the audience by expert editing, its many outdoor-scenes (to save on studio costs), plus a returning stock of character actors, including Dick Miller [Dick Miller bio - click here], Jonathan Haze, Susan Cabot, Barboura Morris, Beverly Garland and Betsy Jones-Moreland - but to reduce Corman's 1950's output on science fiction alone would be dead wrong, Corman proved to be able to handle pretty much every popular genre thrown at him, and with his personal style, too:




  • With Oklahoma Woman and Gunslinger (both 1956), Corman directed two more well-crafted Westerns.
  • Swamp Women (1955), Naked Paradise/Thunder over Hawaii and Teenage Doll (both 1957) were Corman's excursions into crime drama, with each film putting the emphasis on a different aspect of the genre to make it more marketable to drive-in audiences - and I guess in this respect the titles are telling.
  • Machine-Gun Kelly and I, Mobster (both 1958) were low budget versions of the kind of gangster cinema that had its heyday in the 1930's - and especially Machine-Gun Kelly, featuring a flawless early performance by Charles Bronson, has turned out to be a surprisingly solid, intelligent and entertaining film that got Corman his first positive reviews.



  • Carnival Rock and Rock all Night (both 1957), with appearances by the Platters, Bob Luman and the Shadows, and the Blockbusters, were Corman's contributions to the then booming rock'n'roll music that also found its way into films, obviously.
  • Sorority Girl (1957) was, in a way, Roger Corman's chick flick, a teenage melodrama set in a sorority house - but Corman's very plain and sharp directorial style and the film's very straight-forward script make it totally watchable for guys as well.



  • With The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), Teenage Caveman (1958), She-Gods of Shark Reef (1958) and Atlas (1961) tackled the various variations of the adventure genre - with the films varying in quality of course. But the way he could even treat period pieces on a budget and give them the certain drive-in feel was quite remarkable.


Corman's weirdest film of the 1950's though is without a doubt The Undead (1957), a film that combines horror, witchcraft and time travel motives to a story that starts in the now and ends in the Dark Ages, and that weaves sci-fi mainstays and esoteric elements into the plot. I'm not saying this is Corman's best 1950's film, but for the sheer audacity of its plot and Corman's low budget approach to the movie's lofty themes it's almost a must-see.

 

As solid and stylistically unique Roger Corman's filmwork was quite from the start, the 1950's can best be described as his formative years, he perfected the art of working on a budget (with tactics like shooting films back-to-back, on confined sets, with a small cast and with a skeletal crew), making movies out of poster art, titles or even headlines, and he even learned how to handle actors - something nobody felt was terribly important in 1950's drive-in cinema, but Corman took evening classes nevertheless ... where he met a guy called Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), whom he later gave his first lead in one of his productions, Cry Baby Killer (1958, Jus Addiss).

 



By the end of the 1950's though, it seems that Corman has grown tired of directing your usual drive-in fare, as he, around the turn of the decade, shot three films that perfectly spoofed the various horror and sci fi-themes he had taken so seriously for quite some time. The first of these films was A Bucket of Blood (1959), a film in which a lamebrained wannabe-artist suddenly becomes a big sculptor after he has accidently covered his cat in plaster - which leads him to cover other things, especially corpses, in plaster as well. The film is pretty much cheap as can be and it shows, but it is also enjoyably macabre and beautifully carried by Corman regular Dick Miller [Dick Miller bio - click here] in what would turn out to be his only lead.

 



Even cheaper than A Bucket of Blood was Little Shop of Horrors (1960), shot back-to-back with the former on an obvioucly extremely hasty schedule: Allegedly the film was shot in two days and a night, a world record for a feature film. Again, the cheapness and the hasty schedule do shine through this film about a man-eating talking plant, no doubt about that, but just like A Bucket of Blood, this one's wickedly funny, enjoyably macabre and surprisingly fresh in approach - and in supporting roles, Dick Miller as plant-eater and Jack Nicholson as masochistic dentist's patient give memorable performances.

Both A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors were very well-received by the audiences back in the day, and especially Little Shop of Horrors has since become a cult item.

 


Corman probably went a bit too far over-the-top with his third drive-in spoof Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), a film that goes wild in spoofing everything from the Creature from the Black Lagoon-series to To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks) without the least bit of respect - much to the enjoyment of contemporary audiences. But while the film was a hit back in its day, it failed to catch on with the cult crowd the same way A Bucket of Blood and especially Little Shop of Horrors did, and now, despite its ready availability on DVD, the film has some sort of an obscurity status ... which is a pity of course, because the film is hilarious.

 


In 1959, Roger Corman, along with his brother Gene, also set up their own production company, Filmgroup, as a direct competitor to Roger's mother-company AIP, and starting with The Wasp Woman (which is often regarded as one of his worst movies, though it has its merits), Roger Corman started to direct/produce for his own company - besides continuing working for AIP and even occasionally fulfilling assignements for other production houses.

Under such circumstances, Filmgroup of course was unable to flourish, so after only a handful or so films, including Monte Hellman's Beast from Haunted Cave, the World War II-on-skis movie Ski Troop Attack (1960) - this one also featured a rare extended acting performance by Corman and was shot back-to-back with Hellman's film -, Little Shop of Horrors, Corman's Puerto Rico-trilogy - consisting of Last Woman on Earth, Creature from the Haunted Sea and Joel Rapp's war movie Battle of Blood Island (1960), shot back-to-back in Puerto Rico -, Atlas and the seminal The Intruder (1961) - more about that one later - Filmgroup just vanished into obscurity again. The brand remained intact, and would every now and again pop up on a Corman-produced vehicle, but as a company, Filmgroup would never get off the ground. For some reason the time was not yet right for Roger Corman to head his own studio ...

 


 

Moving Up - The 1960's

 

By the turn of the decade, Roger Corman had obviously grown tired of making the same film for the same crowd over and over again (even if he dressed up his movies differently every time around), and even though he didn't see himself as a director with a message or even an arthouse director, he did at least have some higher aspirations and would in the early 1960's gradually move away from doing the typical drive-in fare he has become known for.

 


Corman's aspiration to make a meaningful movie is most clearly apparent in The Intruder (1961), his most overtly political picture ever about a slick, ultra right small fry politician who tries to create racial tensions in a sleepy rural village to exploit them to his own ends. The whole film is extremely well-written, subtle despite its sensationalist topic, and intelligent without being brain-heavy - and William Shatner in the role of the politician gives probably the performance of his life, playing the role as a charming yet sleazy guy trying to hide an inferiority complex behind a phony facade. The film was so provocative in topic and solid in direction it was even invited to a few film festivals and met with critical acclaim - and wouldn't you know it, upon its initial release, the film completely failed to catch on with American audiences and was the first of Corman's films that didn't make its money back - seems as if the USA of 1961 just wasn't ready yet to be confronted with the errors of racism.

Of course, in the decades that have passed since The Intruder's initial release, times definitely have changed and nowadays, it is regarded as one of Corman's most important as well as best films (and deservedly so) and is the one Corman-film serious cineasts can agree on - and with all its reruns and re-releases on video and DVD, by today The Intruder (not an expensive film to begin with) might have made its money back (multiple times) after all ...

 


However, even before The Intruder, Roger Corman launched another project of his that took him away from traditional drive-in fare, while at the same time it couldn't be further removed from The Intruder's stark realism and grim political messages: An Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, shot in colour and scope and on a comparatively large budget (an estimated $ 270,000 compared to the sub-$ 100,000-flicks Corman had made so far - still cheap compared to major studio releases of the time). At first, AIP-producers Arkoff and Nicholson were not too keen on making such a big picture, but they had no reason not to trust Corman, whose instincts had always been right so far, so they went with it and wouldn't come to regret it, as the resulting movie, The House of Usher (1960), would turn out to be one of the production house's biggest successes so far.

Of course, the success of House of Usher is not all that surprising, British production house Hammer had had the American market for colour gothics for itself for three years and had been phenomenally successful with their remakes of horror classics, so it did take less of a genius that comparable fare from the USA (or wherever else as it would turn out) could do decent business as well. Still, Corman did not attempt to merely rip off the Hammer-gothics but he brought his own style to it - adapted to gothic settings though - and in Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here] - the biggest star he had worked with so far and that his limited budget cour afford - he found a perfect charismatic leading man/villain who would put his own brand to House of Usher as well.

The film, scripted by Richard Matheson, was only reasonably faithful to Edgar Allan Poe's short story, but that didn't matter in the least since it did provide its audience with a creepy atmosphere throughout and chills in all the right places, and it was even intelligent enough to be taken seriously by the critics - something new to Corman, whose drive-in fare usually tended to alienate critics (with the exception of Machine-Gun Kelly, actually). But what mattered the most, House of Usher became a runaway success for its production company AIP - so much so that they soon commissioned more of the same - and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe-cycle was born ...

 


1960's House of Usher was followed in 1961 by Pit and the Pendulum, a very free and somewhat silly adaptation of Poe's admittedly incredibly skeletal short story, but still, the film was well-directed and again Price gives a wonderful performance, supported by Barbara Steele [Barbara Steele bio - click here], then a fresh face in horror cinema.

 


The Premature Burial from 1962 was originally intended to not be made for AIP but for Pathé (which ram AIP's processing lab), which is why the film doesn't star Vincent Price (Corman's only Poe-adaptation without Price) but Ray Milland - however, during production, the production of the film was acquired by AIP after all, since Pathé did not want to risk upsetting (and probably losing) an important customer, and thus the film became an AIP-film after all.

If anything though, The Premature Burial proves that Corman's Poe-movies also function without the imposing presence of Vincent Price (and Milland's acting style differs vastly from Price's) and gives credit to Roger Corman as a director.

By the way, this film also stars Hazel Court, who had previously found fame in Hammer's seminal gothic Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Terence Fisher [Terence Fisher bio - click here]).

 


With Tales of Terror, also from 1962, Corman departed from his usual formula for Poe-movies inasmuch as he made an anthology film, turning four of Poe's short stories into three featurettes, all with Vincent Price in the lead. Two of the film's segments, Morella and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar - the last one co-starring Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here] and Debra Paget - are ok but nothing great by standards of the series, but the middle segment, based on Poe's Black Cat and A Cask of Amontillado and pitting overacting Vincent Price against understating Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here], is simply wonderful, mainly because Corman focusses on the humourous aspects of his plot and lets his actors have a go at comedy - and out of mutual respect for each other Lorre and Price refrain from trying to upstage one another, instead work as a great team.

 


Corman was quick to realize that the Price-Lorre segment of Tales of Terror caught on with the audience the most, so he turned his next Poe-adaptation into an outright comedy - The Raven (1963) - which had very little to do with Poe's poem of the same name, instead it tells an over-the-top tale of two sorcerers duelling one another, parodying clichées of Corman's Poe-series every step along the way. Truth to be told, The Raven is nowhere near as ingenious as the Black Cat/Cask of Amontillado-episode of Tales of Terror, despite reteaming Vincent Price with Peter Lorre (who once again make a great duo), but it's great innocent fun nevertheless that also features Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here], Jack Nicholson and Hazel Court in comical roles - and everybody seems to be enjoying him-/herself, which easily translates onto the screen.

 


After this excursion into comedy, it was back to serious business with The Haunted Palace (1963). But while The Haunted Palace was marketed as a film of Corman's Poe-cycle and bears the name of one of the author's stories, it actually has nothing to do with Poe but is an adaptation of H.P.Lovecraft's The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Still, on a stylistic level, the film is totally in the tradition of Corman's other Poe-films, and of course Vincent Price stars, supported by Debra Paget and a definitely past his prime Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here].

In all, The Haunted Palace, while still entertaining, is not one of the better films of the series, basically, because a) the typical Poe-settings seem to somewhat clash with Lovecraft's accomplished concepts of the Elder Gods and everything and b) with its sixth film, Corman's Poe-cycle seems to have run a little out of steam.

 


However, just when you thought the Poe-series was definitely past its prime, Corman delivered what would probably be his best Poe-film ever: The Masque of the Red Death (1964) an unusually faithful adaptation of Poe's story of the same name plus a totally unrelated story called Hop-Frog, peppered with sequences inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Det Sjunde Inseglet/The Seventh Seal (1957). Basically the film tells the story of a decadent nobleman (Vincent Price, who else?), who tries to shut the plague out of his castle, and as if to mock death, he has a masque - but what he didn't know was he had shut the plague in with him and his guests to begin with ... The result is stunning, greatly helped by British cameraman Nicolas Roeg, whose images lend an extra dimension to the proceedings. Once again, Hazel Court co-stars.

 


Like The Masque of the Red Death before it, the Tomb of Ligeia (1964), the last of Corman's Poe adaptations, was shot in Great Britain, mainly to make use of the UK's generous tax incentives that lured many an American production company to the island in the 1960's, but very much unlike The Masque of the Red Death, Tomb of Ligeia is a rather dull affair, and a silly one too. Problem is that Poe's source material is little more than the fascinating description of a dream of an opium clouded mind, which screenwriter Robert Towne - years before gaining intertnational recognition with Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn), Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) and the like and doing his first and only Poe adaptation - knows remarkably little to do with his premise other than throwing out all opium references and cooking up a by-the-numbers horror story.

 

After Tomb of Ligeia, Corman realized it was really time to let go of Edgar Allan Poe for good, and so he did ... but not AIP, who handed over direction of the next Poe-feature to legendary genre director Jacques Tourneur, but the resulting film, The City under the Sea (1965), once again starring Vincent Price, was less a horror film in Corman's tradition than a rather disappointing, Jules Verne-like science fiction adventure that could not compete on a quality level with even the weakest of Corman's efforts. 

(Tourneur by the way also directed the Raven-rip-off Comedy of Terrors for AIP, starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff plus Basil Rathbone in 1964.)

Even after the disappointment of The City under the Sea, AIP wasn't ready to let go of Poe quite that easily, so they marketed Michael Reeves' masterpiece starring Vincent Price, Witchfinder General (1968) - which they coproduced with Tigon - as Conqueror Worm (named after an Edgar Allan Poe poem) stateside, produced Gordon Hessler's Murders in the Rue Morgue - without Vincent Price - in 1971, and in 1972, they had Vincent Price recite four Poe short stories - The Tell-Tale Heart, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and the Pendulum - on television in An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (Kenneth Johnson).

 



Roger Corman might have moved up a few notches as a director thanks to the Poe-series, and the films certainly did look like big budget productions, but even then, Roger Corman could not and refused to deny his drive-in low budget roots: The reason that the Poe-films look so polished is that he was able to use the sets more than once, actually most of the props and even costumes of these films show up in several movies of the series, and Corman always knew where to get props and costumes cheap so as to not having to start from scratch. Also, Corman continued shooting films back-to back, like when he realized he still had a few days of shooting left with Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here] after finishing The Raven, he was quick to cook up a (confusing) story starring him and Jack Nicholson called The Terror (1963), which Corman directed on the existing sets in tandem with several of his protegées including Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman and Jack Hill - surprisingly enough, while the production history of this seems to have been chaoticand the plot is choppy at best, the result looks pretty coherent for this big a number of directors. 

It was years later that Corman realized that Karloff still owed him two shooting days from The Raven, so he handed the veteran actor over to young director Peter Bogdanovich together with material from The Terror and told him to make a movie (pretty much any movie) out of this. The result is Targets (1968), which has over the years become a bona fide genre classic - so you see what cost-cutting might eventually lead to ...

 

However, even besides the Poe-cycle, Corman remained pretty productive during the first half of the 1960's, making films like the mock-Shakespearean Tower of London (1962) for smalltime producer Edward Small, starring Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here], most possibly to cash in on the Poe-series as it was. But that film was cheap even by Corman standards: First and foremost, the film was shot in black-and-white - which produceer Small didn't care to tell Corman until the very last moment. Then whole action sequences were lifted from Universal's Tower of London (Rowland V.Lee) from 1939, an earlier version of the same story starring Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff - with Price in a supporting role, actually. And finally, the sets of the film looked so incredibly cheap and spartanic it's almost embarrassing. Thanks to a swift and atmospheric directorial job by Corman and a great ham performance by Vincent Price, the film hasn't turned into a total desaster - actually it's pretty good as dirt-cheap period pictures go - but it's definitely not the film Corman had in mind.

 

The Young Racers (1963) was a project that once again proved Corman's economic ingenuity: The film is little more than a soap opera in front of marvelous Formula 1 Grand Prix settings, but Corman was wise enough to film his story following the actual Grand Prix circuit all across Europe, which provided him with exceptional production values a cheap film like this couldn't otherwise boast, and he got two actual race drivers, Jimmy Clark and Bruce McLaren, to do some driving on his film too. And this way, Corman did not only get an impressive film, he also got extensive holidays in Europe for himself (Formula 1 races traditionally take place only every other weekend, so there's plenty of spare time between them), and he quite correctly figured actors would work for him on reduced wages if he threw an European vacation into the mix.

 


On top of that, Corman's light man, young Francis Ford Coppola, persuaded Corman to let him shoot a movie in Ireland in the spare time using The Young Racers' actors William Campbell, Luana Anders and Patrick Magee - a film that Corman ultimately got for pretty much next to nothing. And the film in question is of course Dementia 13 (1963), widely considered Coppola's first feature film (actually, he made the nudie Tonight for Sure [1962]) before that).

 


But while The Young Racers was merely nice and Dementia 13 was ok, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) was a genuine sci-fi maserpiece, the story of a man (Ray Milland) blessed with X-ray vision ... whose blessing soon becomes a course that leads him to a drastic measure after turning to religion.

The film shows Corman at the height of his game: a straightforward no-nonsense directorial job is combined with an intelligent script, a great central performance by Milland (who was previously in Corman's Premature Burial of course) and special effects looking much better than the budget would have allowed thanks to some ingenuity on the director's part all add up to a great piece of science fiction cinema, period.

 


Roger Corman tried his hands on war cinema (again) with The Secret Invasion (1964), which he filmed in Yugoslavia starring Stewart Granger, Edd Byrnes, Raf Vallone, Mickey Rooney and Henry Silva. Because the film was backed by a major studio, United Artists, Corman suddenly found himself with a considerable budget - $600,000 or twice as much as any of his Poe-adaptations - at hand and with a comfortable shooting schedule of 36 days - but with a major studio in charge, Corman had to give up quite a bit of creative control, so what actually could have become the prototype for The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich) - the story similarities are striking - has merely become a competently executed war film.

 

After the conclusion of the Poe-series, Corman thought it was the right time to move on as a director, and he left his employ with AIP to try and work for a major studio - after all, he was by now an acclaimed director who could produce hits. It wasn't long before Corman was approached by Columbia, who initially promised to give him carte blanche to direct whatever he wanted - but for whatever reason, when he sugested to adapt Franz Kafka's The Penal Colony for the big screen, they first dragged on with pre-production for way too long and finally backed out.

Corman's next project for Columbia was a Civil War Western, to be scripted by Robert Towne, but after only a few days of shooting, he and Robert Towne left the project over artistic differences. The film was ultimately finished by Phil Karlson and released as A Time for Killing (1967).

 



Working for Columbia, Corman quickly grew restless about the lack of speed the big company put into making movies so he produced two Monte Hellman-Westerns starring Jack Nicholson out of wedlock (he was employed as a director at the studio, not a producer), The Shooting (1965, this one was also written by Nicholson) and Ride the Whirlwind (1967), two films that might have been made on the cheap, but they gave the genre an existentialist treatment and over the years have become bona fide classics - and helped elevate Hellman from drive-in- to arthouse-director status.

 


When things continued to move way too slowly at Columbia, Corman even took an absence of leave from the company to return to AIP to make another low budget feature: The Wild Angels (1966).

Corman, who was by now a mere 40 years old, had always made an effort to keep in touch with youth culture, so the stories about the Hells Angels and similar biker gangs that made the rounds in the latter half of the 1960's had of course not escaped his attention - and thus he decided to shoot a non-judgemental film about the Hells Angels, with Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern in the leads (Ladd and Dern, then a couple, actually procreated their daughter Laura Dern during the shoot of this film by the way), and lots of real Angels in the cast who could be used as authentic extras and who would even provide their own bikes to add production value - and ride those bikes themselves, too.

The filming of The Wild Angels went relatively smoothly, because Corman found some common ground with the Angels - after the release of the film though, the Angels allegedly tried to sue Corman for defamation, feeling themselves presented wrongly, while all that The Wild Angels is a non-judgemental but also unapologetic portrait of the Angels ... which is exactly what makes the film so enjoyable even today.

The Wild Angels of course was not the first biker movie, The Wild One (1953, Laslo Benedek) beat Corman to the punch by more than a dozen of years, but it was with Corman's film - which turned out to be AIP's biggest grosser so far - that the genre really took off, and for the next few years, drive-ins around the nation were literally flooded with biker movies that were for the most part nothing but sensationalist but cheap rip-offs of Corman's film. 

On the other hand, without Wild Angels, there probably would have never been Dennis Hopper's cult classic Easy Rider (1969), which also stars Peter Fonda ... but more about that one later.

 


Peter Fonda was also in Roger Corman's sort-of follow up to The Wild Angels, The Trip (1967), together with Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper, while Jack Nicholson provided the script. Other than the pretty straightforward Wild Angels though, The Trip is a pretty confusing film, a trippy experience as the title actually does suggest. It has to be credited to Roger Corman though that before making the film about a man (Peter Fonda) going on an LSD trip to forget his problems, he went on a trip himself, as an experiment to get the film's mood right. Still, The Trip isn't half as impressive as The Wild Angels (and wasn't as successful neither), but it still works as an interesting document of 1960's counter-culture.

 


In between The Wild Angels and The Trip, Roger Corman finally got a major studio film made. It wasn't for Columbia though (the split over artistic differences was final) but for 20th Century Fox, and the film took Corman back to the 1920's to make another (period) gangster flick, The St.Valentine's Day Massacre (1967) a rather detailed (if not always historically accurate) account of the events that led to the titular shooting - in which top mobster Al Capone had several of his competitors shot while conveniently vacationing in Florida - and the aftermath.

Concentrating on this one event in Capone's life rather than giving the man the epic treatment works quite nicely and St.Valentine's Day Massacre has turned out to be a quite stringent and hard-hitting film, even if Jason Robards doesn't quite hit the chord as Al Capone (20th Century Fox insisted in him playing Capone while Corman wanted Orson Welles as the lead and Robards as Bugs Moran) and the film is by far not as multi-layered (and as great) as Corman's earlier Machine-Gun Kelly - but still, it's a very decent gangster flick.

 


Just like his collaborations with other big studios, the time with 20th Century Fox was less to Corman's liking, and he returned once again to AIP - only to find out that the studio's bosses Samuel Z.Arkoff and James Nicholson were less and less interested in his increasingly liberal-minded flims (like Wild Angels and The Trip), as with AIP's growing success they had become part of the Hollywood establishment - which is why Corman didn't direct another film for them for the rest of the 1960's, though he did help out on films like the Fabian-vehicle The Wild Racers (1968, Daniel Haller) and the erotic epic De Sade (1969, Cy Endfield) about you-know-who, without taking any credit for it.

 



During these days, Corman was more invovled with the production side of AIP's operations, being responsible for mostly trash actually, even if some of the films he produced have over the years become cult classics and essential schlock.

Corman's most interesting titles from that era include Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965, Curtis Harrington) and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968, Peter Bogdanovich) - two films using large chunks of footage from the Sowjet sci-fi-epic Planeta Bur (1962, Pavel Klushantsev), for which Corman had bought the American rights, spiced up (?) with some footage starring American actors (Basil Rathbone in the former, Mamie Van Doren in the latter) -, the shocker Blood Bath (1966, Stephanie Rothman, Jack Hill), the science fiction film Queen of Blood (1966, Curtis Harrington) - starring John Saxon [John Saxon bio - click here], Basil Rathbone and Dennis Hopper -, and the biker movies Devil's Angels (1967, Daniel Haller) - starring John Cassavetes - and Naked Angels (1969, Bruce D.Clark).

 


There was one film Corman wanted to produce that was a long shot away from the schlock he used to make back then, and which was to some extent a combination of his own films The Wild Angels and The Trip: Easy Rider. In fact, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda pitched the idea to him and wanted Bruce Dern for the role of the straight lawyer (all three men were incidently in Corman's The Trip). Corman was quite interested in producing the film with Dennis Hopper in the director's chair, and he figured it could be made for as little as $360,000, but when he tried to sell the concept to AIP, they were less than impressed by the film's counter-culture statement, and were opposed to Dennis Hopper as director.

When it became more and more clear that AIP would not make the film, at least not on Hopper's and Fonda's terms, Jack Nicholson took the project and successfully pitched it to Columbia - and as you might all know, the film got made without the involvement of either Corman or AIP, and Dern's role ultimately went to Nicholson (who thanked Dern by giving him a role in his directorial debut Drive, He Said [1971]) - and wouldn't you know it, Easy Rider became a phenomenal success, easily blowing Wild Angels out of the water, and is by now considered one of the cult flicks of the 1960's

 


During these last few years of the 1960's, Roger Corman had not totally forgotten his true vocation - directing - though, and he made a movie (away from AIP) for American TV-channel ABC, Target: Harry (1969). The film is a sort-of variation on Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, but with internatinal settings and a James Bond-ish espionage subplot built in - and somehow, the film, while competently made, fails to impress. ABC even kicked the film out of its schedule (though it is certainly no worse than most other ABC television movies), which meant it was released theatrically after all.

At least, Target: Harry featured exotic locations (Monte Carlo, Istambul, Greece) and a few good character performances from seasoned actors like Victor Buono and Cesar Romero, plus a young Charlotte Rampling, but the lead, Vic Morrow, who most certainly is no Humphrey Bogart, fails to carry the film.

 

In 1970, Corman finally agreed to do another AIP-movie, Bloody Mama, starring Shelley Winters as Kate 'Ma' Barker, a notorious gangster of the 1920's and 30's whose gang was made up mainly of her own sons (played in the film by a pre-star Robert De Niro, Don Stroud, Bobby Walden and Clint Kimbrough) and who spread terror across the nation around the same time as Bonnie and Clyde - and as a matter of fact, Corman's Bloody Mama possibly would not have been made without the success of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

An interesting note on the side: Before taking the lead in Bloody Mama, Shelley Winters made a guest appearance as Ma Parker, a character modelled after the real-life Ma Barker, on the enjoyably campy Batman TV-show in 1966.

 

Bloody Mama was quite a powerful gangster flick, and for AIP, it was comfortably far enough away from any of Corman's counter-culture statements - which was not true for Corman's next film, Gas-s-s-s! Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1971), an incredibly wacky post-doomsday comedy that pokes fun at pretty much everything while delivering a decidedly anti-authoritarian, left-leaning message. Actually, the film has a make-it-up-as-we-go-along feel to it - and this was exactly how it was filmed, as due to scheduling conflicts, Corman had to start filming without a finished script, and he and writer George Armitage never quite managed to have the writing catch up with the filming - anyways, in this case works for the movie, a mad patchwork of youth culture mainstays, elements from Corman's earlier films and twisted philosophy. Needless to say, AIP was less then pleased, and while Corman was out of the country filming his next movie, the company did a little bit of re-editing - enough to make Corman mad and part ways with Samuel Z.Arkoff and James Nicholson for good ...

 


After Gas-s-s-s and his split with AIP, Corman hooked up with a major studio once more, this time United Artists, to make a World War I epic full of aerial stunts in period biplanes: Von Richthofen and Brown/The Red Baron (1971). But while on the outside, Von Richthofen and Brown seems like nothing more a spectacular war drama, on closer inspection, it is also a very personal tale about class struggle, with the flamboyant German aristocrat Baron von Richthofen aka the Red Baron (John Phillip Law), the German ace pilot of his time, fighting the Canadian working class hero Roy Brown, whose name hardly anyone knows. Of course, Corman did take quite some liberties with the actual story, but that doesn't make Von Richthofen and Brown a less powerful film that appeals on both the action and the psychological side of things.

 


 

Discovering a New World - Roger Corman, Producer

 

After Von Richthofen and Brown, Roger Corman pretty much quit directing films (true, he did return to the job almost 20 years later, but this was merely a one-off gig) in favour of producing. According to him, that wasn't even so much a conscious decision, but since he had just started his own production (and distribution) company, New World, in 1970, he probably just didn't have sufficient time anymore to make movies of his own, especially after his experiences with his earlier company, Filmgroup, which went bust because he was too tangled up in film projects for other people/companies.

 


Corman had started the company originally because he did feel the partnership with AIP has come to the end of the line - the split was amically though - and he didn't feel himself too much in line with the way major studios ran their operations ... so that pretty much left him just one way out, didn't it?

The first movie ever produced by New World was The Student Nurses (1970) by Stephanie Rothman, whose Blood Bath he had produced back in 1966 and with whom he would collaborate again.

Basically, The Student Nurses was nothing more than a typical drive-in flick that mixed R-rated sex scenes with a bit of comedy and a bit of action, just to please the audiences, but Corman also saw to it that some liberal political ideas were subtly woven into the plotline - probably more to please himself and to justify his split from AIP -, which Stephanie Rothman, a woman much more intelligent than most of her films, quickly agreed to. The film was made for a meagre $150,000 and - just like Corman had predicted - easily made its money back and then some.

 




The Student Nurses actually proved to be successful enough for Corman to produce a handful of similarly themed films, Private Duty Nurses (1971, George Armitage), Night Call Nurses (1972, Jonathan Kaplan) and Candy Stripe Nurses (1974, Alan Holleb), films that were little more than slight variations on the first film.

Stephanie Rothman in the meantime was assigned to do another film for New World, the visually stunning and highly erotic vampire movie Velvet Vampire (1971). Actually, Rothman had the intention to become an arthouse filmmaker, and she certainly had the talent to do so, but after only a few more films (for other producers) she quit the business somewhat disillusioned.

 





 

In 1971, Roger Corman figured out another way to save a few bucks on production of his films and at the same time give them a somewhat exotic look: Move production of at least a few movies to the Philippines which were back in the early 1970's only beginning to be discovered by the international film community, and which Corman himself stumbled upon thanks to actor/friend John Ashley, who invited him to one of his Filipino sets back then - and Corman was quick to notice the cost-effectiveness of filming in the Philippines.

The first films Corman produced in the Philippines were female prison camp movies - which was an ideal genre to be shot in the Philippines inasmuch as it would combine the exorix locations with plenty of action and nudity to appeal to the drive-in crowd. The first of these movies was Big Doll House (1971, Jack Hill) - New World's only second film as a matter of fact -, which pretty much set the formula for all future films, a bit of politics wrapped into much sex and crime to keep the audience happy, plus ... Pam Grier.

Pam Grier was only at the beginning of her career back in 1971, in fact Big Doll House provided her with her first bigger role, but Corman was quick to notice the effect the statuesque black actress had on the audience, thus in future women in prison films - Women in Cages (1971, Gerardo de Leon) and the hilarious Big Bird Cage (1972, Jack Hill) - she got bigger and bigger roles ... before she even caught AIP's attention, who cast her in their Filipino women in prison flick Black Mama, White Mama (1972, Eddie Romero) - a film incredibly similar to New World's genre fare - before shooting her to fame with blaxploitation classics like Coffy (1973, Jack Hill), Foxy Brown (1974, Jack Hill) and Friday Foster (1975, Arthur Marks).

 


(Of course, with Caged Heat [1974. Jonathan Demme], Corman proved that women in prison films, even without Grier, could just as effectively be made in the USA.)

 


Interestingly enough, in 1975, New World tried to jump the blaxploitation babe bandwagon with the Filipino-lensed TNT Jackson (Cirio H.Santiago), and while that film's lead Jeannie Bell is certainly no Pam Grier, the film (co-scripted by Corman regular Dick Miller [Dick Miller bio - click here] by the way) is at least incredibly amusing.

 

In 1973, Corman took his women in prison formula (complete with Pam Grier by the way) that worked so well in the Philippines and moved it to Italy (and to ancient Rome on a story level) with The Arena/Naked Warriors (Steve Carver) - however, as funny as this may sound in writing, in period settings the whole concept just didn't make all that much sense, and a bad script and Carver's uninspired direction didn't help much either of course.

 

Back in the USA, New World had its hands pretty much in every drive-in or exploitation genre there was, including of course biker movies - Angels Hard as they Come (1971, Joe Viola) -, blaxploitation - The Final Comedown (1973, Oscar Williams) -, science fiction - The Cremators (1972, Harry Essex) -, horror - Night of the Cobra Woman (1972, Andrew Meyer) -, even a rollerderby-drama - Unholy Rollers (1972, Vernon Zimmerman) -, and the like.

 




Interestingly enough, Corman also continued to produce period gangster films, like Big Bad Mama (1974, Steve Carver), a rip-off of his own Bloody Mama with Angie Dickinson taking over the Shelley Winters role, and William Shatner in one of his few great post-Star Trek-roles. In 1975, Corman also took another shot at Al Capone with the tellingly titled Capone (Steve Carver), with Ben Gazzara in the title role and a pre superstar Sylvester Stallone as Frank Nitti. Interestingly, Capone incorporated portions of Corman's earlier self-directed St.Valentine's Day Massacre into its footage - a cost-cutting measure, quite obviously.

However, New World's best gangster film of the early 1970's was without a doubt Boxcar Bertha (1972) by a young Martin Scorsese starring Barbara Hershey in the title role, her real-life boyfriend David Carradine as her boyfriend and Carradine's father John [John Carradine bio - click here] as their nemesis. Perhaps of all of New World's productions, Boxcar Bertha was best at delivering Corman's self-imposed liberal, left-leaning message in an entertaining piece of film - and it has since become a classic not only because of being an early Martin Scorsese-directing-credit.

 


Another New World-production with a slightly left-leaning message that was destined to become a classic was 1975's Death Race 2000 (Paul Bartel), a film starring David Carradine fresh from TV's Kung Fu as ace race driver and Sylvester Stallone as his nemesis in a futuristic world in which car races are everything and human roadkill is a good thing. The film is pretty much action and science fiction spectacle and sharp media satire all rolled into one, and it also seems to be a parody of post doomsday carcrash films à la the Mad Max series - even though Death Race 2000 preceded all these films by several years.

 




Death Race 2000 became a phenomenal success for New World, it even topped the box office for a week - an incredible feat for an independent production even back then -, so it was only a question of time until the company put out more carchase flicks, like Pau Bartel's own disappointing Cannonball (1976) starring David Carradine, the Ron Howard-starrers Eat my Dust (1976, Charles B.Griffith) and Grand Theft Auto (1977, Ron Howard), and Thunder and Lighting (1977, Corey Allen), again starring David Carradine.

 





 

Quite a bit of the footage of Death Race 2000 and some of the props (cars especially) on the other hand were reused in Hollywood Boulevard (1976, Allan Arkush, Joe Dante), a loving hommage to the low budget end of Hollywood filmmaking ... but the film is nowadays more fondly remembered for its good intentions than for its actual outcome though, as it tends to become rather cheesy every time and again and quite episodic throughout.

Be that as it may, the film did kickstart the directing careers of both Dante (formerly New World's resident editor) and Arkush, who would go on to more films for Corman which were upon New World's more memorable output, e.g. Piranha (1978, Joe Dante) and Rock'n'Roll High School (1979, Alan Arkush) featuring the Ramones. In all fairness it has to be mentioned though that Arkush was also co-responsible (with Nicholas Niciphor) for the rather abysmal David Carradine-starrer Deathsport (1978).

 



Even though New World had produced the occasional genre classic though, most of its output was - let's face it - schlock along the lines of, say, Humanoids from the Deep (1980, Barbara Peters) - at times very charming schlock but schlock still. However, through the distribution arm of New World, Roger Corman started to look for respectability in the 1970's and started to distribute international arthouse films in the USA, beginning with Viskningar och Rop/Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman), soon to be followed by Federico Fellini's Amarcord (1973), the animated sci fi spectacle La Planète Sauvage/The Fantastic Planet (1973, René Laloux), Francois Truffaut's L'Histoire d'Adèle H./The Story of Adele H. (1973), Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (1975) and the like. And this part of his business did not only prove to be a financial success, Corman also proved himself to have a lucky hand in picking future foreign language film Oscar winners.

 

By the early 1980's, the air got increasingly thinner for an independent producer like Roger Corman: the major studios were taking over more and more of the market by buying up drive-in and theatre chains, by spending more and more money on advertising to make sure ad campaigns for smaller films weren't even heard, and they were starting to make essentially the same (genre-)movies little studios made (and the majors wouldn't have touched with a stick even 10 years ago), but pumping millions upon millions into special effects so little productions couldn't compete with films of the majors on that level.

 





 

Corman knew it was no longer possible to beat the majors like he did with Death Race 2000, but he tried to stay with the game by ripping off successful blockbusters like the Star Wars-series of films, Alien (1979, Ridley Scott), Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius) and Halloween (1978, Jophn Carpenter).

Many of Corman's rip-offs admittedly didn't amount to much - e.g. Galaxy of Terror (1981, Bruce D.Clark), Slumber Party Massacre (1982, Amy Holden Jones), Forbidden World/Mutant (1982, Allan Holzman), Deathstalker (1983, John Watson) -, but at times, the New World-films even then showed a spark of originality, like the amusing Battle Beyond the Stars (1980, Jimmy T.Murakami), a sort of Magnificent Seven (1960, John Sturges) in outer space starring Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, John Saxon [John Saxon bio - click here] and Sybil Danning [Sybil Danning bio - click here], or Android (1982, Aaron Lipstadt), a highly original character study featuring - you guessed it - an android set in outer space starring Klaus Kinski.

 

However, towards the middle of the 1980's, Corman had to realize that New World, the way he ran it, was no longer viable, and he figured he had to at least shed the distribution arm of the company - but he got an offer that seemed way better ...

 


 

Concorde and New Horizon

 

In 1983, a trio of Hollywood lawyers got interested in Corman's New World, and after much negotiations, Corman got what he thought to be a dream deal for the company: He sold the company name, offices and distribution staff to the lawyers, but kept New World's entire film library and the new owners of the company were contractually committed to distribute Corman's productions for (at least) 6 more years for a smaller-than-usual margin - but unfortunately, that deal did not live up to its promise when the new New World didn't distribute Corman-production the way he thought they deserved to be distributed, and didn't pay him the promised percentage and ... ultimately it all ended in court. Only eventually did both sides agree to settle the whole thing out of court (in Corman's favour by the way), but that left Corman as a movie producer with no distribution arm for his operations - so he saw no other way out than to form another company that is interestingly alternatively known as Concorde and New Horizon - and sometimes even as Concorde-New Horizons or New Concorde - in 1985.

 

When the theatrical market for independent productions was really thinning out in the mid-1980's, Corman was clever enough to look for (and find) other sources of income that could keep his company going, like pay TV and the booming home video market, and he has kept his company going since 1985, while New World, which had had soon gone to the stock exchange and grown into a media conglomerate in the late 1980's/early 90's and had even owned Marvel Comics for a while, has since gone out of business, with only a few of its television stations now owned by the News Corporation still carrying the company name.

 

Sure, Corman's Concorde and New Horizon do not carry the same influence as New World had during its prime, and all artistic aspirations Corman once had were also gone due to the changed marketplace, but production has gone on like in a powerhouse, with an output of about ten to twenty films per year, with Corman still involved in all major artistic decision of at least most movies, just like he was at New World.

 

Sure, most of Concorde and New Horizon's pictures were trash, but at least enjoyably so. Some of the better known films of the company are:














  • Barbarian Queen (1985, Hector Oilvero), which marked the first lead role of Lana Clarkson after she made an impression in Deathstalker. After this film, Clarkson enjoyed a brief career as one of the very few female American action stars in the 1980's, however, she later found sad fame when found being shot dead in music producer Phil Spector's house in 2003 [Lana Clarkson bio - click here]. Barbarian Queen was successful enough to be followed by Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back (Joe Finley) in 1989, a film not at all connected to the first one, while Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2 (1989, Charles B.Griffith) re-used large chunks of Barbarian Queen. All these films did star Lana Clarkson though. Deathstalker by the way, to which Corman still held the rights, also spun off quite a number of sequels, but none featuring Clarkson.
  • The horror comedy House (1986, Steve Miner) starring William Katt was successful enough to spawn a series of rather popular comedic shockers of its own - even though this film and its sequels are not narratively linked.
  • Not of this Earth (1987, Jim Wynorski [Jim Wynorski interview - click here]), a remake of Corman's 1957 film [click here] of the same name, was allegedly only produced because director Wynorski bet Corman he could make the film in less time than Corman did in '57 (it's unclear who won the bet though). Also, Not of this Earth is the first mainstream film of former underage porn starlet Traci Lords - and the only non-porn flick she does topless nudity in.
  • In 1987, Corman produced Big Bad Mama II (Jim Wynorski), a film that is mainly carried by Angie Dickinson, reprising her role from Big Bad Mama from 13 years earlier.
  • With Bloodfist (1989, Terence H.Winkless), Corman helped kickboxing champ Don 'The Dragon' Wilson to film stardom, though the film itself is a run-of-the-mill action flick about a man wanting to avenge his brother in a martial arts tournament. The film was successful enough to spawn a number of sequels though.
  • Masque of the Red Death (1989, Larry Brand) starring Patrick Macnee was an attempt to cash in on the Edgar Allan Poe boom that seemed to come out of nowhere in the late 1980's/early 90's - but the film paled in comparison to Corman's own Masque of the Red Death from 1964. The Haunting of Morella (1990, Jim Wynorski) was another Poe-cash-in.
  • Warlock (1989, Steve Miner) starring Julian Sands, Lori Singer, Richard E.Grant and Mary Woronov proved to be quite a success around the world and over the years has become a minor genre classic ... and it once again spawned numerous sequels, though the series was taken over by Trimark from film two onwards ...
  • With films like Munchie (1992, Jim Wynorski) - starring Loni Anderson, Dom De Luise and a young Jennifer Love Hewitt in a small role - and The Skateboard Kid (1993, Larry Swerdlove), Corman tried to break into the kiddie market.
  • Carnosaur (1993, Adam Simon) was a quite obvious attempt to cash in on Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993) - and had Jurassic Park's Laura Dern's mother Diane Ladd in the lead -, but to be fair, Carnosaur is nowhere near as cheesy as Spielberg's film, was released 3 weeks earlier than Jurassic Park (Corman always knew how to put out a film quickly), and it was based on a novel by John Brosnan that was a direct influence to Michael Crichton's (better researched and better written) source novel for the Spielberg-movie.
  • The Fantastic Four (1994, Oley Sassone), based on the popular Marvel-comic of the same name, was only produced so Bernd Eichinger and Constantin Film would not lose the film rights of the property. The film was allegedly never intended to be released though and hasn't been officially - however, through various sources, quite watchable versions of the film have seen the light of day (and of the black market). And while The Fantastic Four is by all means a low budget film and no masterpiece, it still blows the silly big budget adaprations by Tim Story from 2005 (click here) and 2007 (click here) out of the water.
    (For more about the issues surrounding The Fantastic Four, you might want to watch the documentary Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman's the Fantastic Four [2015, Marty Langford], a totally recommended extensive movie on the subject.)
  • Dinosaur Island (1994) by trash maestros Jim Wynorski and Fred Olen Ray is an incredibly stupid attempt to combine dinosaurs and topless nudity - and a definitive must just because of that.

  • Revenge of the Red Baron (1994, Robert Gordon) is simply miles away from Corman's own Von Richthofen and Brown, as it's nothing but a silly, family friendly horror comedy about the Red Baron returning from the dead wanting to have revenge on the pilot who killed him decades ago. And now the Red Baron is using toy planes. Mickey Rooney stars.
  • In 1995, Corman started to have films from his backlog remade for television, including Bucket of Blood (1995, Michael McDonald), The Wasp Woman (1995, Jim Wynorski), Piranha (1995, Scott P.Levy) and Humanoids from the Deep (1996, Jeff Yonis).
  • Dillinger and Capone (1995, Jon Purdy) - with Martin Sheen and F.Murray Abraham in the title roles - and Babyface Nelson (1995, Scott P.Levy) - C.Thomas Howell in the title role, F.Murray Abraham as Capone once again and Martin Kove as Dillinger - are two more period gangster flicks made on the cheap, but they simply pale in comparison to Corman's own (cheap) Machine-Gun Kelly - nor are these films in the least historically accurate in fact.










  • Black Scorpion (1995, Jonathan Winfrey) is a made-for-television movie about a hot cop (Joan Severance) who dons a sexy outfit every night to do crimefighting on the side, Batman-style. And while this might all sound a little silly, it is actually a pretty entertaining and even erotic film. Quite obviously, Black Scorpion was intended as a pilot for a TV-series, but that didn't happen right away. Instead, Corman produced a sequel, Black Scorpion II: Aftershock (Jonathan Winfrey) in 1997, before a 22-episode-series finally came into being in 2001, with Michelle Lintel taking over the title role.

  • While most of Concorde and New Horizon's output could be considered trash aimed at the teen market, Corman didn't shy away from the occasional adaptation of a work of literature either, with source material ranging from Bram Stoker - Burial of the Rats (1995, Dan Golden) - and Jack London - The Sea Wolf (1997, Gary T.McDonald) - to Henry James - The Haunting of Hell House (1999, Mitch Marcus) - and Robert Louis Stevenson - The Suicide Club/The Game of Death (2000, Rachel Samuels). These adaptations vary in quality, though.
  • Besides works of literature, Corman also adapted the comicbook Vampirella (1996, Jim Wynorski), which was created back in 1969 by horror movie critic legend Forrest J.Ackerman, who also has a cameo in the film. The movie, starring Talisa Soto in the title role and Roger Daltrey as the main vampire villain, has some charmingly naive aspects, but misses too many marks to really make it as a cult classic.
  • Contrary to the highly fictional world of Vampirella, Marquis de Sade/Dark Prince (1996, Gwyneth Gibby), a co-production with Russian Mosfilm, claims to tell the true story of the notorious Marquis, played here by Nick Mancuso - but one might be adviced to not watch this for historical accuracy.
  • In 2001, Corman had the 1974 film The Arena remade as - you might have guessed it - The Arena. The film was another American-Russian co-production directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who would eventually go on to direct the vampire movies Nochnoy Dozor/Night Watch (2004) and Dnevnoy Dozor/Day Watch (2006), two of the most successful Russian films ever, as well as Wanted (2008) starring Angelina Jolie.


  • When Eagles Strike and Operation Balikatan (both 2003, Cirio H.Santiago) took Corman back to the Philippines. Both are war films starring bodybuilder Christian Boeving.
  • Barbarian (2003, Henry Crum) is - you guessed it - a barbarian movie shot in the Crimea that reuses quite a few scenes from Deathstalker from 20 years earlier - Corman never was a producer to waste either money or footage from his library.

  • Dinocroc (2004, Kevin O'Neill), Saurian (2006, John Carl Buechler), Scorpius Gigantus (2006, Tommy Withrow) and Supergator (2007, Brian Clyde) all have titles that speak for themselves - and which should be inducted in the trash movie hall of fame on the strength of their titles alone.
  • On the other side of the spectrum, Corman also had the decency to produce arthouse director/guerrila filmmaker Alex Cox' micro-budget movie Searchers 2.0 (2007) [Alex Cox bio - click here], as well as play a part in it.
  • Unfortunately, Corman also had the bad idea to sell the rights of Death Race 2000, one of New World's best productions and a bona fide genre classic, to Cruise/Wagner Productions, who, under the title Death Race (2008, Paul W.S.Anderson) turned the film into your typical brainless summer blockbuster, derived of all political subtext and underlying irony. Corman has an executive producer-credit on this one, which was produced by neither Concorde nor New Horizon ...


While this list of Roger Corman/Concorde/New Horizon productions seems incredibly long as it is, it only scratches the surface of the man and his company's output - and yet despite of all of his involvement with the company, Corman had time to return to the director's chair one last time, for Frankenstein Unbound (1990), a project handed to him by 20th Century Fox, and they granted him a considerably larger budget than he had on any of his films as a director or producer, too. The film is of course based on Mary W.Shelley's Frankenstein, but also on Brian Aldiss novel Frankenstein Unbound, which combines the traditional Frankenstein-tale with timetravel motives, giving the story a whole new dimension. Corman's film based on this book is an incredibly light-footed horror-sci-fi-comedy that's witty and intelligent ... but that is easily forgotten in just a few days time - which by no means makes Frankenstein Unbound a bad film, just not one of Corman's better ones.

By the way, Raul Julia stars as Frankenstein in this one, Nick Brimble plays the monster, while Michael Hutchence from INXS and Bridget Fonda can be seen as Percy Bysshe and Mary W.Shelley, with Jason Patric playing Lord Byron, but the lead - a time traveller from the future - is played by John Hurt.

 

Of course, Corman wouldn't be Corman wouldn't he have tried to use the momentum of Frankenstein Unbound - which was no blockbuster but a successful enough film - to produce Dracula Rising (1993, Fred Gallo), a reinterpretation of the Dracula-myth with Christopher Atkins as the vampire ...

 


 

Closing Words

 


Whether you like Roger Corman or not, his influence on the American and international moviescene as director and producer has been enormous, his energy has been and still is inspiring, and even though some of his films are seemingly trash for trash's sake, he has created or helped to create an incredible amount of classic genre movies - and in many ways, he has been a trailblazer - targeting the teen-market in the mid-1950's, something mainstream Hollywood hadn't done until 20 years later, taking film projects out of America (to the Philippines, Europe, Argentina, Russia, ...) to cut cost and profit from the local creative potential (nowadays standard procedure in Hollywood), and making films fitting their ad campaigns instead of the other way round. And yet, Corman's films (at least those he has directed) were always distinguishable from comparable Hollywood product, on one hand because he was an incredibly economic director who could get amazing results from very little, on the other hand because he was quite an intelligent man and was opposed to simply dumbing down his films (as they do in Hollywood these days) or streamline his films' political subtexts and radical tendencies (ditto).

 

If you want to learn more about Corman than you already have here, the man has written his autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime in 1990 together with Jim Jerome. At first this book might seem like nothing but an entertaining collection of showbiz-anecdotes, but once seeing the bigger pattern, it also offers an amazing insight into the world of low budget filmmaking and is full of valuable suggestions for wannabe filmmakers - and it will probably help you to better see the man's many merits, which are invaluable to the film industry as such.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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