Schlock & Awe: How the ‘King of B-movies’ influenced sci-fi and cinema

Gautham Shenoy April 7, 2017 10 min

Two days ago, Roger Corman turned 91, still busy with the movie business, the latest being the part-sequel, part-updated-reboot of his 1975 dystopian sci-fi cult classic Death Race 2000, Death Race 2050. The new movie is already being described by critics as slipshod, shrill, clunky, and kitschy — but in the world of the B-movies, where budgets are measured in thousands of dollars and not millions, and schedules in weeks, if not days — the critics don’t count and these words don’t matter, and if they do at all, they serve as badges of pride. The only thing that matters is giving the audience what it wants, and turning a profit. The story matters, entertainment is paramount, imagination and budget are inversely proportionate, polish and finesse are optional.

Roger Corman with Vincent Price on the set of The House of Usher. Right: Corman with his 2010 honorary Oscar with fellow awardee Lauren Bacall.

It is a world that Roger Corman knows only too well, having produced well over 400 movies and directed over 50 films in a career spanning almost six decades. A world that he has made his own, earning him the moniker ‘The Pope of Pop Cinema’, creating a trend rather than jumping on one, churning films out like from an assembly line and all the while turning a profit. Not for nothing is his 1998 autobiography called How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.

A simple story will illustrate the Corman style of filmmaking; of being on a trend before anyone else and of knowing the pulse of the people. In 1957, the US watched as Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the earth’s first artificial satellite, triggering the space race between the two superpowers, and sparking the Sputnik crisis in America which ultimately led to the creation of NASA. Corman, with American International Pictures at that time, saw that this event had caught the public imagination, and in the spirit of strike-while-the-iron-is-hot, convinced them that he could deliver a sci-fi thriller about satellites in 10 weeks.

And he did.

Scripted by him within days and shot inside of 10 weeks on a budget less than $60,000, War of the Satellites was in theatres – on a double-bill with Attack of the 50 Foot Woman – within two months! A thoroughly enjoyable example of late 50s sci-fi, War of the Satellites featured aliens, satellites (of course), and perhaps for the first time showed on screen the then-new technique of smaller spaceships docking together to create a larger space vehicle.

Posters of some of Roger Corman’s cult sci-fi movies

But War of the Satellites was not Corman’s first directorial sci-fi feature. The credit for that goes to 1955’s Day The World Ended, a post-apocalyptic film set after World War 3 has devastated most of humanity. This one was shot in less than a week, on a budget of less than 40,000 dollars.

Day the World Ended was shot in less than a week, on a budget of less than $40,000  

More sci-fi films followed in quick succession, in the mould of the Corman DIY formula of filmmaking: reusing existing sets, props and stock footage, shoestring budgets — to the extent of using leftover money from one film to make another on-the-spot  — shot quickly, but with good scripts that didn’t lack in imagination or entertainment. Telling stories that have influenced writers and directors to this day who’ve either remade many of his films or used the kernels of the story and added a bigger studio budget to it or just followed Corman’s genre formula with the addition of more money and better talent.

 

In 1956, Corman released It Conquered the World with Lee Van Cleef as an idealistic scientist who helps brings a Venusian to Earth only to have the alien embark on a conquest of Earth. In 1957, there were two sci-fi films from Roger Corman, both of which were released together on a double-bill. The first of these is a film often considered Corman’s most enjoyable sci-fi film, Not Of This Earth, which is about a humanoid alien who is sent to Earth from his home planet to harvest human blood to send back home — because that’s the only thing that can help the aliens, who are suffering from an incurable disease.

The second was Attack of the Crab Monsters, set in a Pacific island with the titular monsters being two radiation-mutated crabs that have the ability to take over the body and mind of their victims. Now, these weren’t the only movies Corman directed in 1957. Just in that single year, he made nine movies (yes, nine!) including such films as Teenage Doll, Sorority Girl, and the lengthily-yet-descriptively titled The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent.

For, you see, Corman made movies across genres, from ‘fast car’ movies like Fast and the Furious to counterculture films like the first biker movie, The Wild Angels (it came much before Easy Rider), and The Trip, which set off the psychedelic film craze of the 60s. In fact, one of the earliest lead roles of William ‘Captain Kirk’ Shatner was in a Corman-directed film, The Intruder, which dealt with issues of race, civil rights and segregation.

If there was one thing that Roger Corman had an uncanny talent for – other than making films fast, cheap and profitable – it was in sniffing out the best young talent available.

Corman directed a few sci-fi films in the 60s and 70s, such as Last Woman on Earth, The Little Shop of Horrors (shot in two days and a night!), Creature from the Haunted Sea, X–The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and Gas-s-s-s, Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World. His last sci-fi film, which is also his last directorial venture, came in 1990 with the adaptation of science fiction author Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound. From then on, Corman would continue to produce sci-fi films but not direct them.

Posters of three classic movies from Roger Corman’s ‘Poe cycle’

But arguably, Corman’s greatest time behind the camera came between 1959 and 1964 when he directed what is called the ‘Edgar Allan Poe cycle’. Eight fantastic film adaptations based on Poe’s works – in collaboration with the science fiction writer and author of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson – House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, The Haunted Palace, The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia. All while following the same Corman formula of getting things out of the door quickly and cheaply.

So, apart from his own intelligence and effort, how did he manage to do this? And so consistently? The answer to these questions leads us directly to what is fondly known in Hollywood as the ‘Corman Film School’.

If there was one thing that Roger Corman had an uncanny talent for – other than making films fast, cheap and profitable – it was in sniffing out the best young talent available. Unknown actors, designers and editors with no experience but talent in abundance, fresh-out-of-film-school writers, filmmakers and unproven directors – all of who were looking for that one big break. And Corman gave this ‘first big break’ – not for altruistic reasons but financial imperatives – to more than just a few big names. Actors such as Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper, Robert De Niro, and David Carradine to name just a few. In fact, one of Carradine’s first lead roles was in the Corman production, Boxcar Bertha. Carradine would come back to Corman later to star in the aforementioned sci-fi movie Death Race 2000, which also featured a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. The only time perhaps the ever-stoic Jack Nicholson wept on screen when not essaying a role, is when he spoke about the boost and support Corman gave to his career, while speaking about it in a documentary, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.

A few ‘graduates’ of the Corman Film School: James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese

Amongst the directors who got their first big break or rather ‘trained at the Corman Film School’, as James Cameron puts it, were Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, and even Francis Ford Coppola, who – if it had not been for Corman – may never have graduated from making soft-core films. Amongst cinematographers, it was Nicholas Roeg, who would go on to direct the sci-fi classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Each one of these talented artistes acknowledge that working with Roger Corman taught them the ins and outs of filmmaking, primarily because the time and cost factor meant that they had to use their brains and not a budget, and everyone had to do (almost) everything.

Each one of these talented artistes acknowledge that working with Roger Corman taught them the ins and outs of filmmaking  

James Cameron for example started off by doing visual effects and props that passed off as art direction till he impressed Corman enough to be allowed to direct for him. No wonder that it is said of James Cameron that he can do anybody else’s job on the set better. There’s an oft-told anecdote about Corman calling up Cameron after watching – and being impressed by – Terminator and asking him how he managed to make it look so good. James Cameron said to his mentor, “It was easy! We did the same thing we did when we worked for you. We just got to do it with more money.”

Many of Corman’s protégés have at some time or the other paid homage to him in their own ways, but mostly by casting him in cameos in their films, which is why Corman appears in Coppola’s Godfather II, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs and The Manchurian Candidate, and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13.

Well, now that you know about Roger Corman, go look up his movies, and I do hope you enjoy some of them (at least!). And before I sign off for this week, one last tale from sci-fi lore, which involves Roger Corman, superheroes and arguably, comic fandom’s most famous and coveted bootleg print.

The poster (left) and the cast of the unreleased 1992 Roger Corman production of the Fantastic Four

In 1986, the German film producer Bernd Eichinger – who’s produced the Resident Evil series, The Name of the Rose and others – after speaking with Marvel’s Stan Lee picks up the movie rights for the Fantastic Four comic. Six years later, Eichinger is no closer to making the movie with no studio willing to back him, and time is running out. If he does not make a Fantastic Four movie by the end of the year, the rights lapse back to Marvel. Keyword: Make. With practically no budget and time fast running out, Eichinger turns to the one person who can make the movie happen. Yes, Roger Corman!

And it is this print that has over the years been bootlegged and remains a novelty amongst sci-fi and comic book fans.  

And Corman delivers – producing the movie for less than a million, and shooting it within a month. Little did Corman know that Eichinger never had any intention of ever releasing the movie, but just had it made so he could retain the rights to Fantastic Four. Ultimately, Eichinger buys out Corman’s contract, which had a clause that the movie should be released. Meanwhile, a Marvel executive, aghast at seeing a hot property turned into a B-movie (albeit still better and more enjoyable than the big budget productions that came later) and feeling that this production may cheapen Fantastic Four’s brand value, buys all the available prints at a price more than double the movie’s budget and destroys them all, except for one. And it is this print that has over the years been bootlegged and remains a novelty amongst sci-fi and comic book fans.

On that note – and wishing Roger Corman long life and prosperity – I bid goodbye for now, and will see you again next week, with yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live long and prosper!


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