I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It Before: Roger Corman (1926-2024)


If you were to look at a photograph of Roger Corman without knowing who it was, you might suspect that he was a straight-laced Midwestern businessman—the kind of guy who thrived back in the days of three-martini lunches and Elks Club memberships. You almost certainly would never have pegged him as the kind of guy who would have even seen a film entitled “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent,” let alone made such a thing in the first place. And yet, with his unique combination of the steel-trap mind of an accountant and the soul of an artist—albeit one who thrived at the fringes—he would, over a career spanning nearly 70 years and which ended with his passing on May 9 (just over a month after celebrating his 98th birthday) make hundreds of low-budget exploitation films, become a leader in the world of independent filmmaking decades before most people knew such a thing existed and provide early stepping stones for a truly staggering array of talented newcomers searching for their big breaks.

To call him the single most important and influential figure in post-war American cinema might sound like hyperbole to some but it is a simple fact—without his presence, the film industry landscape would look markedly different than it does today, and we would all be the poorer for it. You think I am exaggerating? Here is just a partial list of some of the filmmakers, performers and other craftspeople that Corman gave jobs to early in their careers: Francis Ford Coppola. Menahem Golan. Peter Bogdanovich. Martin Scorsese. Jack Nicholson. Robert Towne. Joe Dante. Jonathan Demme. Robert De Niro. John Sayles. Ron Howard. Pam Grier. Dick Miller. Monte Hellman. Bruce Dern. Peter Fonda. Allan Arkush. Paul Bartel. Amy Jones. Penelope Spheeris. Carl Franklin. James Cameron. Sure, he exploited their talents, but he also gave them, and so many others, chances to show what they could do when few others would offer similar opportunities. As he put it to Howard, who was directing his first film, “Grand Theft Auto” (1977), “If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.”

Born in Detroit on April 5, 1926, Corman attended Stanford University to study industrial engineering, completing his degree in 1947 and realizing only a few days into his employment at U.S. Electrical Motors that he had no interest in pursuing such a career. After quitting that job, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his brother Gene, who was already working in Hollywood as an agent, and try to make it in the film industry. He went to work at 20th Century Fox in 1950, working his way up to story reader. According to him, the one script he recommended and gave notes on became the Gregory Peck Western “The Gunfighter” and when his contributions went uncredited, he decided that he would make it in the business on his own. After studying at Oxford for a time under the GI Bill and taking odd jobs in the film industry when he returned home, he wrote the script for a low-budget crime drama that he sold to low-budget studio Allied Artists for $2,000, which later produced it as “Highway Dragnet” (1954).

Using the proceeds from the script sale as a start, Corman formed his own production company, Pablo Alto, and produced his first film, “Monster from the Ocean Floor” (1954). There are disputes about exactly how much this endeavor cost (Corman himself claimed it was done for $12,000 while other estimates have ranged from between $15,000 to $35,000) but whatever was shelled out to make the saga of—well, the title sums it up fairly succinctly—it sold enough tickets to inspire Corman to produce a second film, The Fast and the Furious(1955), a racing thriller directed by its star, John Ireland. For this one, Corman signed a distribution agreement with American Releasing Company, a new company run by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, that also provided advance money for two new productions. One of those productions would be “Five Guns West” (1955), a Western that would mark Corman’s debut as director and while the end results were perhaps not the most distinguished from an artistic perspective, it would kick off an unprecedented burst of productivity for the newcomer.

Between 1955 and 1960, Corman would personally direct 27 feature films, many of them in conjunction with Arkoff and Nicholson, who would rename ARC American-International Pictures. Unlike the major studios, who were content doing prestige projects with known stars and lavish budgets, Corman’s films were low-budget affairs that specialized in such easily exploitable genres as Westerns, sci-fi, rock music and horror and which were aimed at a then-underserved youth audience that would cheerfully leap at the chance to see such luridly titled efforts as “Swamp Women” (1956), “It Conquered the World” (1956), “Attack of the Crab Monsters” (1957), “Rock All Night” (1957), “War of the Satellites” (1958), “Teenage Caveman” (1958) and “Last Woman on Earth” (1960). In many cases, these were films where the titles and posters were devised well before a screenplay was written and, in every case, they were made on tiny budgets that Corman would try to minimize even further by cutting every possible corner (and then some). However, Corman would demonstrate a pretty keen sense for understanding exactly what his audiences were looking to see and virtually every one of his films made during this time wound up making money.

Not all of these movies were good, to be certain, but for the most part, they managed to avoid succumbing to the greatest sin of exploitation filmmaking—they were never boring. Sure, they often promised far more than Corman could ever hope to deliver but what they lacked in terms of style and craft, they made up for in sheer audacity. He took genres that were primarily seen as male-dominated and told stories in which women were the central characters, such as the prison escape adventure “Swamp Women” and the Western “Gunslinger” (1956). While Paramount Pictures put their resources behind a 1956 adaptation of “The Search for Bridey Murphy,” a serious book investigating the then-famous case of a suburban housewife who, under hypnosis, allegedly recalled her past life as a 19th-century Irishwoman, Corman cannily exploited it the hype by making “The Undead,” a 1957 version that told roughly the same tale but managed to included an imp played by Billy Barry into the proceedings as well. Most significantly, his best films demonstrated actual traces of personality that allowed them to stick out from the competition—they were wilder and weirder in ways that stayed in the mind long after you saw them.

This was certainly the case of his two most notable films from this era, a pair of horror-comedy hybrids that were utterly unlike anything that anyone was putting out during that time. Produced in about five days on a budget of $50,000, “A Bucket of Blood” was an outrageous goof on the then-popular beatnik scene in which a nebbishy waiter at a Bohemian cafe (Dick Miller, one of the most familiar faces in the unofficial Corman stock company that would develop over the years) dreams of becoming a famous sculptor despite a total lack of talent. After accidentally killing his landlady’s pet cat, he covers it in clay, dubs it “Dead Cat” and is celebrated by his peers for his artistic vision, which he decides to expand upon by bumping off a number of people (including a undercover narc played by Bert Convy) and turning them into statues as well. Although Corman had included moments of oddball humor in a number of his earlier efforts, this was his first full-on attempt at a comedy and he demonstrated an unusual facility for it—although the premise was undeniably outrageous, he made the correct move by having everyone play the material in a relatively straightforward manner, which of course only made everything come across as even funnier.

Although “A Bucket of Blood” was not quite as successful as many of his previous films, Corman decided to reunite with screenwriter Charles B. Griffith to attempt another horror-comedy. After batting around ideas involving a vampire music critic and a restaurant where the salad chef starts cooking the customers, they hit upon the idea for a film that would initially be titled “The Passionate People Eater” and later be redubbed “The Little Shop of Horrors” (1960).  Using the basic template of its predecessor, the film told the story of Seymour Krelboin (Jonathan Haze), a Jerry Lewis-like schnook working in a Skid Row floral shop for the miserly Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles) who develops a strange little plant that he dubs Audrey Jr as a way of impressing co-worker Audrey (Jackie Joseph). Alas, Seymour soon discovers that the plant will only eat fresh blood and when he is no longer able to provide from his own supply, he begins to kill a number of people to feed it to the ever-growing (and now-talking) plant. Legendarily shot over the course of two nights—to make use of sets that were about to be torn down—this is a film that combines a looney premise, weirdo characters and sicko humor (including a running gag about one of the store’s regular patrons, a woman named Mrs. Shiva whose family members are constantly dying) in such astonishing ways that you can hardly believe anyone would have had the nerve to actually make it. Although not a particularly big success when it first came out, it became a cult favorite through TV airings and would eventually inspire a soft-core porn knockoff (1972’s “Please Don’t Eat My Mother”), a long-running off-Broadway musical adaptation in 1982 and a 1986 film version of the latter that would become a cult classic as well.

As the Sixties began, Corman began to shift away from the low-budget black-and-white quickies that he had been making to do things of a more ambitious nature. Working with a $200,000 budget, a 15-day-schedule and the presence of horror veteran Vincent Price in the lead, he made “House of Usher” (1960), an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” that demonstrated a stylistic flair that hadn’t been on display much in his previous work. The success of that led to a cycle of seven additional Poe-related projects that he would make over the next four years—“The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), “The Premature Burial” (1962), “Tales of Terror” (1962), “The Raven” (1963), “The Haunted Palace” (1963–technically an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”), the astonishing “The Masque of the Red Death” (1964) and “The Tomb of Ligea” (1964). When he sensed that interest in those films was waning, he kicked off what would become known as the biker movie genre with 1966’s “The Wild Angels.” He even tried working within the studio system a couple of times—he began directing a Western at Columbia, only to be fired for pinching too many pennies (the film would be completed by Phil Karlson and released as “A Time for Killing”) and would later complete the fairly impressive gangster saga “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” (1967) for Fox.

The most significant film that he would make during this period was The Intruder,” a serious-minded drama that he produced and directed in 1962. In it, William Shatner (in one of his best performances) stars as Adam Cramer, a opportunist who arrives in Caxton, a small Southern town whose high school is set to desegregate by court order, to stoke the fires of racial unrest by spurring a number of white townspeople to acts of violence against local blacks that culminate in a church bombing and a near-lynching. At the time, relatively few American filmmakers were telling stories centered around racial differences and those that did tended to be of the kind of well-meaning but sentimental likes of “The Defiant Ones.” This film, on the other hand, was not afraid to paint the subject in the ugliest ways imaginable without any sugarcoating and as a result, it still manages to pack a considerable punch even today. A clear passion project for Corman, he would famously claim that it was the only film that he directed that lost money and while he would never again make another film remotely like it—any messages he would send would in future films would be beneath their surfaces—but he would often talk of it as a favorite of his.  

By the time the Seventies came around, Corman had begun to tire of directing and after shooting “Von Richthofen and Brown” in 1970, he founded New World Studios, an independent production and distribution outfit. At first, the output was the same kind of exploitation fare that he had succeeded with in the past, including strings of biker films, women-in-prison films and sagas involving nubile nurses, teachers and the like. At the same time he was putting out the likes of “Candy Stripe Nurses,” “Women in Cages” and “Cockfighter,” he took advantage of the declining interest among the major studios in distributing foreign-made art house films by picking up the rights to such works as Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers,” Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord,” Francois Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala” and then marketing them as aggressively as his usual product, even reportedly putting some of them in drive-ins. During this time, he also produced “Caged Heat,” the 1973 debut from Jonathan Demme and “Boxcar Bertha,” the 1972 second feature from Martin Scorsese. (Reportedly, he also offered to finance what would become Scorsese’s third film, “Mean Streets,” on the condition that he rewrite it as a blaxploitation film.)

A number of the films he produced during this time would go on to become cult favorites—the sci-fi satire “Death Race 2000,” the sexy gangster epic “The Lady in Red” and “Battle Beyond the Stars,” to name a few—but the one that best captures the spirit of New World was “Hollywood Boulevard,” a wild 1976 film that he allowed two guys from his trailer department, Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, to make, provided that it could be the cheapest production in the studio’s history. Using extensive stock footage from previous films from the studio as a starting point, the two conjured up a frequently hilarious goof about an ambitious young starlet (Candice Rialson) who begins working at the threadbare Miracle Pictures (“If it’s a good picture, it’s a Miracle”) just as her fellow actresses are being mysteriously bumped off while working on a slate of Grade-Z projects. Shot in ten days, this was a “Hellzapoppin”-style barrage of loopy gags—including plenty of inside jokes for film buffs to catch—and cheerful sleaze and while some of the elements on display might not play so well today (including a couple of scenes in which sexual assault is played for laughs), it still serves as an affectionate homage to the studio that gave so many their starts. Although not a big hit either, Corman gave both Dante and Arkush chances to direct their own solo films and they responded, respectively, with two of New World’s biggest hits, “Piranha” and “Rock n Roll High School.”

Recognizing that the major studios were now beginning to focus on making the kind of fare that he specialized in, albeit on a scale he could never approximate, Corman sold New World in 1983 and formed a new company a couple of years later called Concorde. There, he continued to crank out numerous B movies, though many of these films would only receive token theatrical releases before hitting the more lucrative cable and home video markets. A number of these projects would be sequels or remakes of previous projects, such as a 1988 remake of “Not of This Earth” featuring the then-notorious Traci Lords in her first non-pornographic role or the Angie Dickinson vehicle “Big Bad Mama II.” To ride the coattails of the then-upcoming “Jurassic Park,” he produced the somewhat tackier “Carnosaur” (1993) with Diane Ladd, the mother of “JP” star Laura Dern, and scored a hit. Most infamously, he produced a micro-budget adaptation of “The Fantastic Four” (1994), that was later bought out and shelved by Marvel, though copies of it would eventually get out. He even made one final trip to the director’s chair in 1990 with “Frankenstein Unbound,” an offbeat adaptation of the 1973 Brian Aldiss novel that offered a futuristic take on the Mary Shelley story that, despite some good reviews, was barely released in theaters.

From that point on, Corman continued to produce films, mostly projects for cable outlets like the SyFy Channel bearing titles such as “Supergator,” “Dinoshark,” “Sharktopus.” “Attack of the 50-Foot Cheerleader” and “Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf.” At the same time, he published his autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost A Dime (1990) and while some of the anecdotes may come across as a bit dubious, it nevertheless works as a breezy memoir chronicling his long and strange career with a lot of humor and even the occasional bit of insight. He also began a quirky side gig making cameo appearances in films made by people who had once worked for him, either in roles that showed him in positions of authority (for Demme, he played the head of the FBI in “Silence of the Lambs’ and the head of the law firm in “Philadelphia”) or his legendary cheapness (in Dante’s vastly underrated “Looney Tunes—Back in Action,” he played himself, directing a new Batman film and griping about the cost of air bags for a stunt scene). He would also prove to be a familiar face in a number of documentaries about his work in particular and the world of exploitation film in general.

Having been the youngest filmmaker to be given a retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise back in 1964, he would be additionally feted by the BFI, the Museum of Modern Art and film festivals throughout the world. In 2006, he would receive the David O. Selznick Award from the Producers Guild of America and “House of Usher” would be admitted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The culmination of this would come in 2009 when, after years of lobbying by those who had been given breaks by him over the years, Corman was given an honorary Oscar for his contributions to the medium. Many of those who worked to get him that award also contributed to the acclaimed 2011 documentary “Corman’s World” and Chris Nashawaty’s “Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses. Roger Corman: King of the B Movie,” an oral history in which any number of classic Corman stories are bandied about. During all of this, he continued to work and indeed, only a couple of months before his passing, it was announced that he and Joe Dante would be collaborating on a new version of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Even though I have gone on at considerable length here about Roger Corman and his incredibly litany of accomplishments, I hardly feel as if I have scratched the surface. Although he may have been seen by many as an opportunist who saw filmmaking as an easy way to make a buck, he was more accomplished and artistic than many—perhaps even himself—gave him credit for over the years. As one of the many many moviegoers out there who found themselves responding greatly to his unique body of work (and who considers the time he actually got to interview him one of the peak moments of his career), I will miss the fact that he is gone but there is comfort in the fact that he was a true American original whose work and legacy is going to outlast us all.

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