The Directors: Roger Corman

by | Nov 15, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Directors: Roger Corman

Studio: AFI/Wellspring DVD WHE 73155
Video: 4:3 Color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Length: 60 minutes
Rating: ****

Roger Corman (b. 1926) – whatever his faults as a grade-B/C film producer – certainly celebrates the Independent Spirit in film, having churned out hundreds of potboilers and Saturday-matinee entertainments that either complemented or thoroughly parodied the majors’ big-budget blockbusters. The founder of New World Productions (1970), Corman as producer sparked the career of countless actors and directors, several of whom testify to his marked influence and support in this video homage which was written, produced, and directed by Robert J. Emery.

Corman often refers to his mission as that of “producing films under the radar of the majors, a mixture of exploitation and art films.” Early in his career a reader for the original script of Gregory Peck’s The Gunfighter, Corman served as messenger boy. Writer, assistant producer, producer, director, and actor; having absorbed the movie business from the ground up.

I fondly recall many Saturday moments with Corman’s low-budget, black and white horror films, like Monster From the Ocean Floor ( a six-day shoot) and It Conquered the World, the latter with Lee van Cleef, Beverly Garland, and Peter Graves. The threatening creature looked like a large cucumber with vertical teeth, supposedly a Venusian scientist working out of a cave. Legend has it that Beverly Garland (not interviewed in this film) approached the model, said, “So, you want to take over my planet, do you?” and kicked the thing in the chest. When the model keeled over, Corman remarked, “I think we need to make it bigger.” My daughter mocks my description by referring to this movie as “It Conquered a Cave.” Was Corman conscious that he was mass-producing sci-fi camp?

Bruce Dern calls Corman “a pioneer. . .a cradle for my generation.” Nancy Sinatra admires the efficiency Corman brought to his productions, which never ran over deadline nor over budget – Do it! was his motto. Get it done! Fast, fast. In Death Race 2000 we could appreciate his gentle discipline. The film intercuts many sequences from Corman movies into the discussion: A Bucket of Blood (1955) with Dick Miller is juxtaposed with Highway Dragnet, a vehicle for Richard Conte and The Fast and the Furious, with Academy Award winners John Ireland and Dorothy Malone. Director Ron Howard calls Corman “a businessman who is no less an audience advocate.”

With Sam Arkoff of American International, Corman was able to secure easy distribution for his films, as well as indulge in longer features, especially those devoted to Poe tales, often starring horror icon Vincent Price. The House of Usher was his 15-day color feature. For sheer virtuoso speed of production, nothing beats The Little Shop of Horrors (1966), a two-day-and-a-night shoot which included a young Jack Nicholson who would later work on The Terror and then direct Drive, He Said. We see John Lund (from A Foreign Affair) in one of Corman’s westerns, Five Guns West. Angie Dickinson is packing heavy in Big Bad Mama (1994), Corman’s answer to Bonnie and Clyde.

Corman notes, ironically, that he lost money on his attempt at a serious art film, The Intruder (1969), with a young William Shatner. “I always sought the best actor for my pieces, irregardless of their name value,” quips Corman. With The Intruder, Corman clearly sought what film critics would call “auteur” status. Peter Fonda, of The Wild Angels Fame, credits Corman for “not being afraid to bring realism” to his films, “even using some Hell”s Angels and their girlfriends for certain scenes.” The trailer for Humanoids of the Deep (1986) included some graphic sex scenes.

Several major directors besides Ron Howard offer testimony to Corman’s salutary influence. Joe Dante, James Cameron, Martin Scorcese (Box Car Bertha, 1972) credit Corman’s capacity to give “a director complete creative control on the set.” Scorcese mentions that Corman gave him four days for the toughest part of the movie, the train sequences. As a producer, Corman limited his role to pre- and post-production. Jonathan Demme did Caged Heat for Corman in 1974. Ron Howard had “to make the best of your low-budget film you can” with Grand Theft Auto (1977). James Cameron, who would graduate from Corman to direct the epic Titanic, recalls providing Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) with front-screen projection, a capacity for special-effects Corman knew would catapult the young director forward in the business. Carl Franklin fondly embraces Corman for Full Fathom Five (1990), shot in 18 days. “He forces you to be economical,” offers Franklin. “He made my career, really.”

A wild ride, Corman’s multifaceted career. We leave this video with the sensation of having watched a dervish, an impresario of cinematic risks, classy and kitsch, of high and low taste. That Corman’s influence may prove more enduring than his own personal cinematic gifts still insures him an immortality he shares with Gertrude Stein and other singular visionaries.

— Gary Lemco

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