Fifty Years of Roger Corman
Feature by Joe Barlow, 7 January 2000

Mention cheesy, low-budget movies and two names spring immediately to mind: Edward D. Wood Jr., whose Plan Nine From Outer Space is widely considered to be the worst film ever made, and the legendary Roger Corman, whose five decades in the movie industry have resulted in some of the most consistently schlocky films the world has ever known.  The television show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, a sort of Holy Grail for cinematic fromage, has extensively featured the work of both directors.  But while Wood has his fans, Corman proves himself the winner in terms of Quantity of Wretchedness: over 450 films bear his name and distinctive touch, with more released every year.

Corman and his wife Julie (herself a successful film producer) came to Duke University recently to host a retrospective celebrating Corman's 50th (yes, 50th!) year in the "B" movie business.  As a connoisseur of horrid movies, I couldn't pass up the chance to meet one of the legends of the genre.  As I made my way through the chilly night air and into Page Auditorium, I was unsure what to expect--would Corman be a stuffy auteur, full of resentment for those who didn't worship his movies?  Would he be a blathering idiot, blindly convinced (as Wood reportedly was) that he was making Great Art?  Would he be full of arrogance over his talent scouting abilities? (Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and director Martin Scorsese all got their start by working with the celebrated schlockmeister.)

Im happy to report that Roger Corman is none of these things -- I found him to be laid-back, articulate, and a perfect gentleman, quick to laugh at himself and the desperate shooting methods he's famous for employing.  Corman loves making movies, and one gets the impression that his enthusiasm for filmmaking, which remains undiminished even after half a century, is what allows him to shoot complete films in only a couple of days, often under adverse weather conditions, with no budget whatsoever.  His drive and eagerness are apparent: hes been known to shoot entire movies with only the barest hint of a script, simple because he doesn't wish to wait for a re-write or draft completion.  After hearing him lecture, the thing that strikes me most about his work is not how bad it is, but how he managed to make movies even this good while employing such techniques.

But say what you will about his unorthodox working methods, the fact remains that Roger Corman gets the job done.  All the Corman films I've seen possess a cheerful eagerness to deviate from Hollywood convention and the slow, expensive shooting methods employed therein.  Lacking the funds to shoot an elaborate car chase, for example, Corman once filmed a car driving down the same stretch of road multiple times, from multiple angles, changing the placement of the background scenery with each shot, to foster the illusion that the car was actually going somewhere.  This trick gave him enough footage to construct a chase scene in the editing room.

That's not to imply that Corman's work is entirely devoid of merit, however.  A number of his films, particularly his numerous adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's work, have become bona fide cult classics.  Such titles as The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964) show Corman at the height of his skill and creativity; indeed, Leonard Maltin compared the latter to the work of Ingmar Bergman.  It's a high-water mark the director has not reached since, but one has to admire the enthusiasm with which he keeps trying.

Corman opened his lecture with a remembrance of his sci-fi monster flick, It Conquered the World (the first of his films to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, incidentally).  The director conveyed the not-entirely-serious atmosphere on the set with an anecdote: since the monsters in the film were from a large planet (either Jupiter or Saturn; he couldn't remember which), Corman naturally assumed that they would be very short creatures, due to the increased gravity exerted by their homeworld.  Not everyone on the cast shared this belief, however: Corman laughingly recalled how Beverly Garland, the film's star, casually walked over and began kicking one of the puny monsters as a form of protest when Corman showed it to her.  "I immediately called my prop man over and told him I wanted the monster to be twelve feet tall by one p.m.," he explained, thereby creating one of his guiding rules of film: "Always make sure your monster is taller than your leading lady."

The lecture was preceded by a public reception for Corman at the University Lounge.  Much to my surprise, only twenty or so people showed up to meet him, despite the fact that the event was well publicized.  The director took it all in stride, however, and chatted pleasantly with everyone there, mingling with the small but loyal group of fans who'd braved the chilly temperatures to say hello.  (I was particularly impressed by the way he made it a point to learn everyone's name during the conversation.)  When it was my turn to chat with the filmmaker, I couldn't resist the obvious question:

Joe Barlow: "So, what's your opinion of Mystery Science Theater 3000?

RC: "Mystery what?"

I described the show for him, and he nodded in recognition almost immediately.  "Oh, that!" he said with a laugh.  "To be honest, [my opinion is] not that high.  They're just guys, looking to make a quick buck late at night."  When I replied that MST3K (as the show is known to its fans) was the reason I'd discovered his work in the first place, Corman seemed genuinely intrigued.  Apparently he never considered the fact that by poking fun at his movies, MST3K is in fact helping promote awareness of his work.  Hopefully I gave him some food for thought.

Corman was also kind enough to answer, at significant length, my inquires into the fate of the Fantastic Four movie he produced several years back, which, although completed, was indefinitely shelved.  I've always heard that the movie was not released because the studio detested the final cut.  Corman neither confirmed nor denied this report during out chat, but he did mention that "a major studio" is currently developing an $80 million Fantastic Four movie of its own.  Corman's plan, revealed with an impish wink: "After the new movie comes out, I'll release my film direct-to-video, as the prequel!"

Roger Corman will never have the respect of a Spielberg or a Kurosawa, but I'm not sure he wants it.  As he reveals in his book, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, the director long ago decided to eschew the studio system and its slow, wasteful methods of shooting.  He doesn't seem to want respect so much as the ability to continue making movies.  That's a healthy attitude, worthy of admiration. I, for one, wish Mr. Corman another fifty years of happy filmmaking.

ROGER CORMAN SELECTED FILMOGRAPHY  (an asterisk indicates a film which has been featured on MST3K):

  • Swamp Diamonds  (1955) *

  • The Gunslinger  (1956) *

  • It Conquered the World  (1956) *

  • The Undead  (1957) *

  • Teenage Caveman  (1958) *

  • The Saga of the Viking Women and *

  • Their Voyage to the Waters of

  • the Great Sea Serpent  (1958)

  • Little Shop of Horrors  (1960)

  • The Pit and the Pendulum  (1961)

  • X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes  (1963)

  • The Masque of the Red Death  (1964)

  • Bloody Mama  (1970)

  • Rock n' Roll High School (1979) - (Executive Producer)

  • The Fantastic Four (1994) - (Executive Producer; unreleased)

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