Roger Corman: King of the B Movie!
All Hail Corman!
I highly recommend Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie - a fantastic book by Chris Nashawaty.
This fascinating biography of the legendary low-budget movie producer/director is a must-read not only for fans of "B" cinema but of Hollywood history in general. The notoriously thrifty Corman has been producing and directing movies for more than five decades and he claims he's never lost money on a film. The book covers Roger's entire remarkable career - from his early days at American International Pictures, where he cranked out monster-mash double features at a frenzied pace for the '50s drive-in circuit, to the formation of his own New World Pictures studio in the '70s and his present day status as an elder statesman of independent film. The surprisingly youthful Corman is still hard at work today in his 80s, producing creature features like Piranhaconda and Sharktopus for the SyFy channel.
Roger Corman's massive filmography speaks for itself, but he is perhaps most famous for the number of now-legendary film directors, producers, and performers who got their start working on one of his low-rent productions. The so-called "Corman Film School" has produced such Hollywood luminaries as Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Dennis Hopper, and countless others. Nashawaty's book is absolutely loaded with quotes, stories and remembrances from them (and virtually everyone else who ever spent time on a Corman movie set), and is lavishly illustrated with tons of behind-the-scenes photos, memorabilia and colorful, eye grabbing vintage film posters. It's a treasure trove of trivia for B-Movie nerds!
Diggin' into the Classics
After reading Nashawaty's book I realized that even though I was fairly well versed in Roger Corman's later work (say, from the '70s to the present), I had seen very few of the drive-in cheapies that he made in the '50s and '60s for Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures. Therefore, I decided it was high time that I gave myself a crash course in vintage Corman! Fortunately I already owned a number of these films in a "50 Horror Classics" DVD pack. Corman's AIP films are common in budget-priced box sets like these one, due to the fact that AIP allowed many of their copyrights to expire, so their films are now in the Public Domain. Therefore, if you pick up any of these sets you're bound to find a few vintage Cormans in the mix, like the irresistibly-titled Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), A Bucket of Blood (1959), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), or Last Woman on Earth (1960), to name just a few. Audio and video-philes be warned, the films found in these boxes are often transferred from poor quality prints that are dark, scratchy and beat up but what the hell, if you're paying $20 or less for 50 or 100 movies, you're still bound to come across a few gems.
As luck would have it, right after I finished this book I also happened across a double-feature DVD of Corman's classic Edgar Allan Poe adaptations at my public library. I have always wanted to investigate those films, so I started my Corman mini-marathon with them before moving on to a few picks from my Horror Classics box set. Without further ado, let's roll'em!!
"House of Usher" (1960)
Roger Corman was a massive fan of Edgar Allan Poe's classic tales of terror in his youth, and he repaid his idol throughout the 1960s by adapting eight of his favorite Poe stories for the screen in a series of lavish productions (particularly by AIP standards!) which struck box office gold. Nowadays the films in Roger's "Poe Cycle" are considered classics of the horror genre. House of Usher was the first in his Poe series, and it was written by noted fantasy author Richard Matheson (a veteran of TV's The Twilight Zone, and writer of I Am Legend). Horror icon Vincent Price is creepy as usual in this tale of a young man (Mark Damon) who travels to the crumbling estate of his beloved fiancée Madeline (Myrna Fahey), intending to whisk her away so they can be married at last. Unfortunately for the happy couple, Madeline's twisted brother Roderick (Price) has no intentions of ever letting her leave the estate. This charming retro fear-fest isn't terribly scary by modern standards but it's still a fun watch.
"House of Usher" (1960) trailer
"The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961)
For the second film in his "Poe Cycle," Corman continued his box-office winning streak by re-assembling the "Usher" team of screenwriter Matheson and star Vincent Price. In this period piece set in 16th century Spain, an English nobleman (John Kerr) arrives at a creepy old castle to investigate the mysterious death of his sister, where he meets her guilt-ridden husband (Price), experiences various creepy phenomena, and eventually becomes an unwilling guest of the torture chamber deep in the dungeon. This one took a little while to kick into gear, but once it did, the second half was great fun, with a particularly twisted performance from Price as his character slowly descends into madness. I liked this one better than "Usher" and will definitely be seeking out more of Corman's Poe films in the near future.
"Pit and the Pendulum" (1961) trailer
"Creature From the Haunted Sea" (1961)
I really tried to get into the spirit of this ultra-cheap, ultra-goofy mashup spoof of spy movies and monster flicks, but in the end it was simply too awful for words. Creature From the Haunted Sea was shot in Puerto Rico, where Corman had just finished two other films (Last Woman on Earth and Battle of Blood Island) and it shows in the threadbare production values. Creature takes place at the tail end of the Cuban revolution, with a boat full of American gangsters and Cuban soldiers trying to escape to the U.S. with a stash of gold stolen from the government treasury. The boat's captain plans to get rid of the Cubans while at sea so he keep all of the gold for himself, but in the last reel a goggle-eyed sea monster suddenly appears and complicates things. This movie has become infamous for its bottom-of-the-barrel "monster" design, which looks like someone stuck a couple of ping-pong balls on a trash bag full of seaweed. You have to see this critter to believe it. The monster provides the biggest laugh of the entire movie!!
"Creature from the Haunted Sea" (1961) trailer
"The Terror" (1963)
A late-career appearance by horror icon Boris Karloff and a not-yet-famous Jack Nicholson are the main draws of The Terror, in which a French soldier (Nicholson) becomes entranced by a beautiful woman he meets on the beach - who turns out to be a vengeful spirit haunting the castle occupied by her former husband, the Baron (Karloff). Corman whipped up The Terror on the fly in order to re-use set pieces from several of his previous horror productions (The Raven and The Haunted Palace). Corman is credited as the sole director of The Terror, but the film was actually finished in bits and pieces over the course of several months by his assistants, including Jack Hill and Francis Coppola. Legend has it that Nicholson himself even directed several scenes! To this day, Nicholson supposedly maintains that he has "no idea" what The Terror was supposed to be about.
"The Terror" (1963) trailer
"Dementia 13" (1963)
In this 1963 knockoff of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, a scheming young woman (Luana Anders) covers up her husband's sudden death so she can go to his family's estate in Ireland and maintain his claim on an inheritance. Unfortunately for her and the rest of her late hubby's clan, a deranged axe murderer is prowling the castle grounds, which might make it difficult for anyone to collect. This Gothic tale of greed, family dysfunction and murder is particularly notable because it's an early work by future Godfather director Francis Coppola, who would eventually add "Ford" to his professional nom de plume. Coppola was working on a Corman film shoot in Ireland as a sound editor, and when that production wrapped Corman suggested that Coppola take the money left over from its budget and make "a quickie horror movie" on his own with it. Eager to make the jump to directing, young Francis came up with the story for Dementia 13 in one night, and the rest, as they say, is history!
"Dementia 13" Trailer (1963)
"Swamp Women" (1956)
I'm not exactly sure why this movie is in a box of "Horror" classics, because "Swamp Women" isn't a horror film at all, it's a pretty basic crime/caper flick. If I had to take an educated guess, I would assume that whoever put together this set saw Corman's name in the credits, said "Ahh yes, Roger Corman...he makes horror movies!" and threw it in without ever watching the film. That said, "Swamp Women" - one of Roger's first directorial efforts - is great trashy fun. Three tough-talking female convicts (and one undercover police woman, posing as a fellow prisoner) escape from a Southern jail and head into the Louisiana swamps to recover a stash of stolen diamonds, taking a young couple hostage along the way (the male hostage is played by a young Mike Connors, later of TV's "Mannix"). Naturally the gals' distrust of one another, plus the alligators and other dangers of the swamp, soon begin to take a toll on the partnership. In other words, "Swamp Women" is loaded with hot fifties chicks in short-shorts, beating the crap out of each other!! Hubba hubba! Oh, Roger, you *DO* know what exploitation film fans like!
"Swamp Women" trailer (1956)
Many more to come...
Obviously, these six films are merely a drop in the bucket of Corman's massive filmography - according to the Internet Movie Database, he's directed more than 50 films and produced more than 300! - but any of them would be a great place to get started if you're interested in the work of this low budget legend. Whether you're a fan of horror films, action/adventure flicks, Westerns, war movies, science-fiction, or any other movie genre you can name, odds are that there's a Corman film out there that'll hit your sweet spot. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for me to dig back into my 50 Horror Classics box for another oldie but goodie. Till next time, I wish you happy viewing!!
© 2015 Keith Abt