A producer-director whose influence on American film goes far beyond his own energetic, creative, low-budget exploitation movies of the 1950s and 1960s, most of which were made for American International Pictures, a very successful studio that happily pandered to the youth market. Roger Corman churned out movies at an incredible rate, sometimes shooting his feature-length films in two or three days--sometimes two at a time; yet a surprising number of his movies are enormously fun to watch.
He gained his greatest fame as a director for his series of Edgar Allan Poe horror movies during the early 1960s, many of them starring Vincent Price. Though Corman is perhaps best known for his Poe horror cycle, he worked in a variety of genres with equal ease and style, including science fiction, gangster melodrama, and biker movies. But Corman's most lasting legacy will likely be the legion of modern-day directors, writers, and stars whose careers he actively fostered, among then Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Ron Howard, John Sayles, and Francis Ford Coppola.
Corman is anything but the vulgar figure one might expect from the titles of some of his early movies, such as Teenage Doll (1957) and A Bucket of Blood (1959). Born on April 5, 1926 in Detroit Michigan, he went on to graduate from Stanford with a degree in engineering and also studied English literature at Oxford. After serving in the navy, he followed the traditional route to entering the movie business, getting a job as a messenger at Twentieth Century-Fox. He succeeded in being promoted to story analyst, but soon he became dissatisfied with his prospects and eventually joined the newly formed American International Pictures in 1955, becoming its principal director with such films as Five Guns West (1955), The Day the World Ended (1956), and Swamp Women (1956).
Despite the fact that his films regularly turned up in drive-ins and on the second half of "grind-house" double bills, some of his early efforts gained a modest measure of respect from iconoclastic critics. In the early years of the American Releasing Corporation (later American International Pictures), he became one of their major sources of product for distribution. He would be given a sum of money and an advertising campaign (or somethimes just a title) and he would have to come up with the scripts and produce the films. If he had to shoot a film on location he would always try to shoot a second film at the same time, at same location, in order to spread out the costs.
In the new decade of the 1960s, he decided that he wanted to do something that would advance his career. When American International offered him a sum of money to create another one of their low-budget black-and-white double features, he countered with an offer to use the same money to shoot a single feature in color and Cinemascope. American International finally agreed to this offer. It led to the production of House of Usher (1960). The gamble paid off and the film became a box-office hit and generated something that was unusual for an AIP release--critical praise. This was followed by what became known as Corman's Poe cycle.
Minor classics such as Machine Gun Kelly (1958) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) had already presaged the popular and critical applause for Corman's stylish Poe horror films, The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). The success of the Poe cycle allowed Corman to work with relatively larger budgets. Though he was still making "B" movies, there were higher production values to such late Corman classics as "X" the Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), The Wild Angels (1966), The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), and The Trip (1967). This also allowed him to work with veterans like Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Ray Milland.
Corman not only directed but also produced a great many movies throughout his entire career. As a producer, he offered the opportunity to direct to eager if untried talents, giving them invaluable experience that the big studios would never have offered. For instance, among others, he produced Francis Ford Coppola's Demenia 13 (1963), Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968), Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha (1972), and Ron Howard's Eat My Dust (1976). One by-product of this association with younger directors resulted in a series of cameo appearances by Corman in their later films, including The Godfather Part II (1974) for Francis Ford Coppola, The Howling (1981) for Joe Dante, Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993) for Jonathan Demme, and Apollo 13 (1995) for Ron Howard.
Corman's reputation for low-brow exploitation films was delt a serious, if consciously ironic, blow in the early 1970s when he unofficially retired from directing to become an importer/distributor of many of Europe's most esoteric films, among them Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972). He continues to produce and distribute through his own company, New World Pictures.
Corman's films of the 1990s include Little Miss Million (1993), Frankenstein Unbound (1990), and Some Nudity Required (1998). In 1990 Corman published his autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. As the producer of more than 200 low-budget films, Corman has been described as the "King of the 'B's" and the "Orson Welles of 'Z' Pictures."
--SCOTT & BARBARA SIEGEL, from
The Encyclopedia of Hollywood
A selection of Roger Corman films.
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A selection Roger Corman related books.
A History of Horror
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