b. April 5, 1926, Detroit, Michigan, USA
Along with John Cassavetes, Roger Corman was one of the first American independent filmmakers to create work entirely on his own terms and turf. Much like producer Val Lewton in the 1940s at RKO, where he created his series of sensuously atmospheric horror films in that studio’s “B” unit, Corman, once the film’s title and the subject matter had been approved, answered to no one but himself, with guaranteed distribution for the finished product, and immediate financing for his next project. He started out in the last days of the classic studio system, but soon broke away to make films on his own, functioning as producer and director on all his most important works. At American International Pictures, Corman worked in the depth of poverty row, but each of his films had an individual signature, in his aggressive dolly work (reminiscent of Samuel Fuller in Underworld USA ), his moody, atmospheric lighting, and his brutal, charcoal-sketch graphics. In addition, he never condescended to his audiences, or dealt with his characters at a distance.
In many of his early films, Corman chose to use CinemaScope for added production value, but the end result was something much more intense than the vision offered by his contemporary big studio filmmakers. Corman’s ceaselessly moving camera grabbed his audience by the scruff of their collective necks and dragged them into the action, willing or not. Alone among his ’50s contemporaries, with the exceptions of Ida Lupino and Don Siegel, Corman’s vision was raw, uncompromising, and defiantly unpolished. Where Douglas Sirk’s immaculate melodramas were triumphs of set design and colour coordination, Corman was more interested in visceral emotion and conflict, and knew that he had no time to waste. The world he was documenting would disappear, and Corman wanted to capture as much of it on film as possible, from beatnik cafes to biker gangs, before the parade moved on.
Corman saw clearly the emotional and social upheaval that was America in the 1950s, when parents stayed home to watch the newly created medium of television, and teenagers became the dominant target audience for theatres. Corman made his films directly for this new target audience, and such brilliant films as Teenage Doll (1957) and Machine Gun Kelly (1958) established his unique approach to the material: total commitment to the story, the characters, and their world, without any emotional distance between the characters and the audience. Corman’s vision of the 1950s and ’60s is a place of continual contestation and change, a world in which only the strongest survive.
In his early, 1950s films, Corman revamped various worn-down genres with a strong streak of feminism. In Gunslinger (1956), the first scene depicts the brutal shotgun murder of frontier Marshal Scott Hood (William Schallert). But as Hood’s body hits the floor, his wife Rose (Beverly Garland) instinctively grabs her own rifle, and mercilessly guns down two of the men responsible for his death. At his funeral, Rose takes over her late husband’s job, and begins dispensing “gun law”, cleaning up the town. The astoundingly titled epic The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957) deals with the quest of a group of amazons for their missing men; and Sorority Girl (1957) deals with betrayal and social ambition in a college sorority house.
Corman’s protagonists are loners and outsiders, as are those of Nicholas Ray, but Corman spoke to an even younger generation, who had no patience with major studio platitudes. Then, too, Corman surrounded himself in his formative years with a cadre of talented actors and writers who shared his “instantaneous” vision, and could be counted upon to come up with a script, or a finished performance, often with no advance notice at all. Corman also demonstrated that you could learn “on the job”, making films with accomplished studio technicians at a breakneck pace. As such, he influenced an entire generation of equally impatient 1960s filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese, Monte Hellman, Stephanie Rothman, Curtis Harrington, Jack Hill and numerous others, demonstrating that speed brought out the truth in production, simply because there was no time for artifice, or undue preparation.
At first, Corman worked quickly because he couldn’t do it any other way; he started out with six-day shoots, and became a master at pushing his cast and crew through as many as 50 setups a day. Later, when he had longer schedules on such films as The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which he shot at 20th Century Fox, the amount of wasted time and money sickened him; why was all of this taking so long? Since the first take was likely to be the only take in an early Corman film, his actors poured themselves into their roles with manic frustration; unless the mike boom dipped into the shot, or the wall of a set collapsed, Corman would simply print the shot and keep moving.
This sort of “guerrilla” filmmaking instinct led him to create some of his most deeply passionate and personal works, such as The Intruder, discussed below, which examined in minute detail racism in the American South in the 1960s. Corman and his crew decided to film the entire project on location, and were met with death threats, kicked out of numerous towns during filming, and finally got the footage they needed when they told the locals that the ultra racist protagonist was the hero of the film, a notion the local townspeople applauded.
In his early days, Corman never bothered with permits when he could simply go out and shoot the film on location, leaving before the police arrived. He also pioneered the use of union crews on low-budget films, figuring correctly that the end result would have a high polish, even if the money was used up so quickly that all he could afford was one week of shooting. This gives his films a raw immediacy that holds up well today, now that most of his work has been released on DVD, with copious commentary by the director, who clearly takes his work seriously, and a plethora of extras.
Yet Corman’s life started out in a rather ordinary manner. Far from being obsessed with cinema as a child, he was initially far more interested in engineering and English literature. When he was a teenager, his mother and father packed up Roger and his brother, Gene, and moved from their hometown Detroit, Michigan to Beverly Hills, California, where Roger attended Beverly Hills High School, and immediately fell in love with film. After graduation, he attended Stanford University, where he majored in engineering, obtaining his BA, and then enlisted in the Navy for a three-year hitch. But by this time, Corman knew that he was no longer interested in engineering, and with his family’s blessing, obtained employment as a runner at 20th Century Fox, eventually graduating to script reader.
After a brief trip to England, where he studied English literature for one semester as a graduate student at Oxford, he returned to Los Angeles and hammered out a low-budget script that he eventually sold to Allied Artists. Ever the shrewd negotiator, Corman insisted on associate producer credit on the project, which was released under the title Highway Dragnet (Nathan Juran, 1954). But Corman was artistically disappointed with the film and, believing that he could do a better job as a producer, pooled all his money and produced The Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954) on a budget of $12,000, letting Wyott Ordung handle the director’s reins. After selling the film to Lippert Releasing outright for a profit of $100,000, Corman scripted and produced The Fast and the Furious (1954), which was directed by the film’s star, John Ireland. Shot in ten days, the film was a big step up for Corman, who passed on distribution offers from Columbia and Republic to join up with Jim Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, who were forming a small company called American Releasing Corporation. Corman gave ARC The Fast and the Furious for their first release on the condition that ARC would provide immediate financing for a second film. Nicholson and Arkoff agreed, and ARC, later renamed American International Pictures, was launched, with Corman as its house director.
Corman immediately began cranking out films at an incredible pace, taking over the director’s chair with his next film, Five Guns West (1955), a ten-day western. This was followed in rapid succession by Swamp Women (1955), Apache Woman (1955) and The Oklahoma Woman (1956), all low-budget films that demonstrated Corman’s early feminist leanings, as he assigned the major action roles in all three films to a series of self-sufficient female protagonists, rather than the typically generic leading man. In 1956 and 1957, Corman turned to science fiction, horror and teen exploitation films, directing It Conquered the World and The Day the World Ended (both 1956), along with Not of This Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Teenage Doll, The Undead, Sorority Girl, Rock All Night, Naked Paradise and Carnival Rock (all 1957). All of these films, shot on budgets hovering around the $100,000 range, were substantial hits for AIP and Woolner, a New Orleans distributor who also bankrolled some of Corman’s early projects. With lurid posters and aggressive advertising campaigns, Corman’s films soon found acceptance with AIP’s target audience, teenagers, and Corman’s directorial style displayed a verve and vigour that many other low-budget films lacked. Corman kept creating films at a frantic pace, directing War of the Satellites, Teenage Cave Man (with a young Robert Vaughn), She Gods of Shark Reef, The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, Machine Gun Kelly (with Charles Bronson in an early leading role) and I, Mobster, all in 1958.
In 1959, Corman turned his hand to black comedy with the classic satire A Bucket of Blood, in which talentless artist Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) finds instant acclaim when he accidentally kills his cat, and then covers the body with plaster, displaying the plaster-covered remains in a triumphant one-man show. With a superb script by Corman’s long-time collaborator Charles B. Griffith, A Bucket of Blood was a significant departure from the straightforward melodramas Corman had previously been directing, and he followed the film with one of his most famous works, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which Corman shot in two days on leftover sets, with one night of exterior shooting to flesh out the project. The film, documenting the misadventures of flower-shop employee Seymour Krelboin (Jonathan Haze) and his pet man-eating plant, remains one of Corman’s most original and idiosyncratic films, and was subsequently revamped as a Broadway musical, and then a big-budget Hollywood remake.
It was also during this period that Corman produced his most personal film, The Intruder (1961), featuring a very young William Shatner as a virulent racist determined to stir up trouble in a small Southern town. Shot in gritty black and white for a budget of $90,000, using local actors and no permits, the film received superb reviews, but failed at the box office. Corman, who had mortgaged his house to partially bankroll the project, was deeply upset. While no studio, even AIP, would touch the project, Corman had still believed intensely in the message of the film, that racism was a cancer on American society that had to be excised at all costs. Yet, in the wake of the film’s commercial failure, Corman began to back away from films with an overt message, and concentrated on genre films that contained coded social commentary within a highly commercial genre framework. This was a strategy that he would pursue for the rest of his career as a filmmaker; after the financial disaster of The Intruder, Corman never again forgot the importance of the bottom line.
But times were changing. The short-schedule, black and white films that were Corman’s trademark were beginning to lose their market, and so Corman convinced AIP to let him direct a larger-budgeted “A” picture, The Fall of the House of Usher, in 1960. Starring Vincent Price, and shot in CinemaScope, the film was a huge commercial hit, and started Corman on a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, including The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Premature Burial (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). Ever cost conscious, Corman finished many of these films ahead of schedule and budget, and on one occasion, created an entirely new film, The Terror (1963), on leftover sets from The Raven, using Boris Karloff, Dick Miller and Jack Nicholson to complete the bulk of the film in another two-day shooting session. All of these Corman colour films were extremely stylish in their set design (by Daniel Haller), photography (by Floyd Crosby) and their use of fluid, moving camera shots to accentuate an atmosphere of mounting dread.
With each new film, Corman increased his budget, and his shooting schedules, working with such established talent as Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Ray Milland, and up-and-coming cineastes Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Monte Hellman. In 1966, Corman’s film The Wild Angels scandalised the American public with its documentary-style depiction of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and in 1967 he directed The Trip, the first major studio film to deal with the effects of LSD. However, Corman was beginning to clash with Nicholson and Arkoff over artistic matters, particularly editorial interference on The Trip (AIP wanted to push the film as an anti-drug tract, while Corman, typically, remained noncommittal). Incensed, Corman went over to 20th Century Fox to direct one of the most effective gangster films of the 1960s, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967). But he was frustrated working for a big studio; with little control over the production process, he felt that both time and money were being wasted. In addition, he was feeling burned out; by the time he directed Von Richtofen and Brown (shot in 1970, released in 1971) for United Artists, Corman felt that the time had come to take a break from the rigours of directing, and concentrate on producing his films for his own company.
Thus, in 1971, Corman formed New World Pictures, and released a pick-up picture, Richard Compton’s Angels Die Hard (1970), as its first effort. This was followed by Stephanie Rothman’s Student Nurses (1970), a soft-core sexploitation comedy, the first film that New World actually produced, shot at a studio that Corman converted from a lumberyard in Venice, California. Both were enormous hits. Corman began a policy of aggressively booking his films not only in regular theatres, but also in drive-ins that were then fading from the American scenes and desperate for product. In the years that followed, Corman produced a stream of low-budget exploitation films, including Gerardo de Leon’s Women In Cages (1971), Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972), Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974), Charles B. Griffith’s Eat My Dust! (1976), Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto (1977) and Allan Arkush, Joe Dante and Jerry Zucker’s Rock and Roll High School (1979), offering employment opportunities for an entire new wave of directors, including Demme, Scorsese, Howard, Dante, Paul Bartel and James Cameron. Simultaneously (and somewhat paradoxically) he served as the American distributor for Ingmar Bergman’s Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers) (1972), Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1974), François Truffaut’s L’Argent de poche (Small Change) (1976), Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) (1979), Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980) and other European “art” films that were being shut out of the lucrative US market. Corman marketed these films in the same manner as his homegrown efforts, with aggressive ad campaigns and saturation bookings, garnering impressive box office results from films the major studios found impossible to sell.
However, with the collapse of the drive-in market, and the rise of cable, videocassettes and, later, DVDs, Corman recognised that New World’s days as a producer/distributor were numbered. Accordingly, he sold New World in January of 1983, and almost immediately formed a new, more competitive company, Concorde-New Horizons. Aimed strictly at the home video and direct-to-cable market, Corman’s Concorde films included such titles as Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia (1984), Katt Shea’s Stripped to Kill (1987), Deborah Brock’s Slumber Party Massacre II (1987), Jim Wynorski’s Big Bad Mama II (1987), Cirio H. Santiago’s Dune Warriors (1990), Adam Simon’s Carnosaur (1993) and numerous other action and science fiction thrillers. These later films are extremely problematic for most viewers. In the first place, they are all but invisible to the public, being released solely through US cable networks, or on straight-to-home video deals. Secondly, in the age of digital special effects, Corman’s newer films suffer because of their low budget look. Finally, the excessive amounts of sex and violence in the recent Concorde films makes many viewers uncomfortable; compared to the relatively tame sexploitation of Student Nurses, more recent Corman productions such as Tim Andrew’s Don’t Sleep Alone (1997), Garrett Clancy’s Detonator (1998) and Brian Katkin’s Hard as Nails (2001) seem devoid of any artistic impulse whatsoever, designed solely to make money.
While Corman’s pace of production hasn’t flagged, his films have become more and more marginal. In the mid 1990s, Corman struck a deal with Showtime for a series of made-for-cable films, often based on older titles in his library, and as the straight-to-video market evaporated, Corman moved ahead with a television series for the Sci-Fi Channel and American Cable Network, entitled The Black Scorpion, directed by Jonathan Winfrey, which began production in 1998. In early 2000, Corman sold the Venice studio, and began to relocate his production activities to Ireland, where he had purchased a film production facility. Presently, in his late seventies, Corman’s production schedule continues unabated, with such films as Henry Crum’s Barbarian (2003) and Brian Clyde’s Rage and Discipline (2004), both extremely violent films.
While Roger Corman has been instrumental in furthering the careers of numerous young talents within the industry, it may be that his influence in this area is coming to an end. Although numerous Corman alumnae now hold major studio positions, a younger generation of directors is finding work within the majors to be the fastest route to promotion, partly as a consequence of the hyperconglomerisation of Hollywood, which has all but killed off independent production. Corman’s films as a director, and the success of his numerous protégés, are his real legacy; in his films for AIP, one can sense the hand of a genuine and caring artist at work. Honoured at numerous retrospectives of his work throughout the world, Corman has become something of an elder statesman in Hollywood, despite the fact that he hasn’t directed a film since Frankenstein Unbound in 1990. In addition, Corman has recently forged something of a new career for himself as a character actor in films by his many directorial protégés, such as Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993) and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), often playing a smooth-talking heavy.
With more than 300 films to his credit as a producer, and more than 50 as a director, Roger Corman has had an undeniable impact upon the industry both as a business and an art form. His best films as director are now all readily available on DVD; given the luxury of pristine digital transfers in their proper aspect ratios, they are as immediate and captivating today as when they were first made. But more importantly, they offer us a window into a time that is now almost lost beyond authentic recall. Corman was the maverick who jump-started the entire 1960s cinema rebellion in the United States, and it for this, ultimately, that he will be remembered.
As director/producer only *
Five Guns West (1955)
Swamp Women (1955)
Apache Woman (1955)
Day the World Ended (1956)
The Beast with a Million Eyes (1956) (uncredited)
The Oklahoma Woman (1956)
It Conquered the World (1956)
Naked Paradise (1957)
Carnival Rock (1957)
Not of This Earth (1957)
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
The Undead (1957)
Rock All Night (1957)
Teenage Doll (1957)
Sorority Girl (1957)
The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957)
I, Mobster (1958)
War of the Satellites (1958)
Machine-Gun Kelly (1958)
Teenage Cave Man (1958)
She Gods of Shark Reef (1958)
A Bucket of Blood (1959)
Ski Troop Attack (1960)
The Wasp Woman (1960)
The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Last Woman on Earth (1960)
The Intruder (1961)
Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
The Premature Burial (1962)
Tales of Terror (1962)
Tower of London (1962)
The Young Racers (1963)
The Raven (1963)
The Terror (1963)
The Haunted Palace (1963)
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
The Secret Invasion (1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (1965)
The Wild Angels (1966)
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)
A Time for Killing (1967) (uncredited)
The Trip (1967)
The Wild Racers (1968) (uncredited)
Target: Harry (1969)
De Sade (1969) (uncredited)
Bloody Mama (1970)
Gas-s-s-s… or, It May Become Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1971)
Von Richthofen and Brown (1971)
The Red Baron (1971)
Deathsport (1978) (uncredited)
Frankenstein Unbound (1990)
* For a list of Corman’s 300+ films as producer only, please consult the IMDB.
Roger Corman with Jim Jerome. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Random House, New York, 1990.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, “An Interview with Roger Corman”, Post Script, vol. 8, no. 1, fall 1988, pp. 2–15.
Beverly Gray, Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, Renaissance Books, Los Angeles, 2000.
Mark Thomas McGee, Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures, McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 1996. [Revision of 1984 original edition.]
Mark Thomas McGee, Roger Corman, The Best of the Cheap Acts, McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 1988.
David Will and Paul Willemen, Roger Corman: The Millenic Vision, Edinburgh Film Festival, Edinburgh, 1970.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Little Shop of Genres: An Interview with Charles B. Griffith by Aaron W. Graham
An Interview with Roger Corman
By Andrew J. Rausch for Images journal.
Roger Corman in Europe
Interview by Steven Yates for Kino Eye.
Roger Corman on New World Pictures: An Interview from 1974
By Gary Morris in Bright Lights Film Journal.
Salon.com | People: Roger Corman
Introductory overview by Greg Villepique.
What They Learned from Roger Corman
Article by Beverly Gray for Movie Maker Magazine.
Legendary AIP Director Monsterizes AMC
By John Rossi for Film Fax.
Interview by Nicky Fennell for FilmWest.
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