Top Ten Tuesday: The Best of Roger Corman
Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, and Tom Stockman
Celebrated producer and director Roger Corman will be in St. Louis this weekend to help kick off the Vincentennial Vincent Price Film Festival. We Are Movie Geeks has decided to take a look at the directing career of the man known as ‘King of the B’s’, a Hollywood legend who’s discovered so much talent and gave so many future directors and actors their starts, that he has to be considered a one-man movie industry. Since we just posted the Top Ten Best of Vincent Price last week and included three of the eight Corman/Price collaborations in that list, we decided to leave off the films he made with Price this week and focus on other films that he directed. Roger Corman will be at the Hi-Pointe Theater at 1005 McCausland Ave. in St. Louis on Saturday May 21 to speak after an 8:00pm screening of his 1965 film THE TOMB OF LIGEIA about the films he made with Vincent Price and again Sunday May 22 after an 8:00pm screening of his 1964 shocker MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH for a discussion of his overall career and to receive a lifetime achievement award from Cinema St. Louis. Both interviews and Q&A sessions will be moderated by Tim Lucas, editor of Video Watchdog magazine and the author of Mario Bava, All the Colors of the Dark.
10. ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS
In the early 1950′s vampires and werewolves were pushed aside by all manner of giant, radiation-mutated beasties in monster movies playing at the local bijou and, especially, at the passion pit ( drive-in ). It was only a matter of time before Roger Corman entered the atom-age zoo. In 1956 he produced and directed for Allied Artists ( formerly Monogram Studios ) ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS. Roger would be the first to admit that a great deal of the film’s success comes from that grabber ( no pun intended ) of a title. Working from a script by frequent collaborator Charles Griffith ( who has a small role as Seaman Tate ), he tells the story of a group of scientists who are in search of another group of scientists who have vanished. The cast includes many actors that Corman would continue to employ- Mel Welles ( the future Mr. Mushnik in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS ), Ed Nelson ( BUCKET OF BLOOD ), and Pamela Duncan ( THE UNDEAD ). Oh yes, and the actor who would gain immortality as the professor on TV’s Gilligan’s Island, Russell Johnson. But here he’s not a scientist, but the macho handyman/mechanic who spends the last few minutes of the film shirtless. But what of the title monsters? They’re not stop-motion creatures ala THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS nor real crabs on miniature sets. The beasties are full sized with bug eyes, wiggling antennae, and clacking claws that pull in their prey. And here’s an even weirder twist-after the eat somebody the crabs communicate telepathically to the other humans and lure them to their underground lair. The ants from THEM have got nothing on these crustaceans! Drive-ins had to have been created to showcase creature feature fun like this.
9. THE PREMATURE BURIAL
THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1962) is the ‘odd man out’ among the series of Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations because of the absence of Vincent Price (Corman began this project at a different studio while Price was under contract at American International). Ray Milland was instead cast as the paranoid and cataleptic Guy Correll, a 19th-century English nobleman convinced that hereditary catalepsy will cause him to be buried alive. While Price’s flamboyant theatrics are missed, Milland’s low-key anxiety as man teetering on the edge of mental collapse works fine for the material. A sequence where Milland, trapped immobile in a coffin looking up and hoping the mourners will see his open eyes, is particularly nightmarish as is the film’s dream centerpiece. With its lavish sets and impenetrable fog, THE PREMATURE BURIAL is unmistakably a Corman production and the stunning Hazel Court is, as always, absolutely wonderful in the female lead. Milland and Corman reteamed the following year for X, THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, a film Corman considered among his very best.
8. BLOODY MAMA
“A family that slays together stays together!”was the tagline for BLOODY MAMA, Corman’s loose 1970 account of Ma Barker and her gang of rural depression-era criminal offspring. Shelly Winters, indulging in some bold over-the-top overacting, was born to play Ma, who, after dumping her weak husband, takes her hillbilly brood off on a brutal crime spree of killing, raping, kidnapping, and torture (Winters had played the spoofish Ma Parker on Batman three years earlier). BLOODY MAMA is a squalid whitetrash crime melodrama that packs one hell of a mean and lingering punch and is one of the most sadistic films from the Corman canon, a perverse mix of murder, incest, bloodshed, family bonding, and action. Corman inserts a good deal of social commentary on America at that time and directs a strong cast including Bruce Dern, Don Stroud, and a young Robert DeNiro who sniffs glue like there’s no tomorrow. Though historically far from accurate (the real Ma Barker never participated in her son’s crimes and her legend as the gang’s leader was fabricated by the FBI to justify her eventual killing), BLOODY MAMA is an entertaining lesson in family psychology peppered with machine gun fire.
7. LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS
Long before the off-Broadway Ashman/Meinken musical, the Frank Oz directed film of said work, and the Fox Kids TV show there was this seventy minute 1960 black and white comedy classic. And it all kind of stemmed from a bet that producer/director Roger Corman made . A fellow at the studio showed him a storefront set that would be taken down in two weeks. Corman told him he could use it in a film. In two weeks? No way , the studio guy said. Corman bet him that not only could he come up with a movie idea in that time, but he could shoot it in two days. He brainstormed overnight with frequent screenwriter Charles Griffith, they hammered out a script , and Roger shot it in two days ( and one night ). This second entry in Corman’s ‘black humor trilogy’ begins at a run- down skid row flower shop owner by the tightwad tyrant Gravis Mushik ( you gotta love these Yiddish sounding names! ) played by Mel Welles. Sweeping the floors there is lowly employee Seymour Krelboin ( Jonathan Haze ) who yearns for the lovely cashier/clerk Audrey ( Jackie Joseph ). Aside from Burson Fouch ( Dick Miller ) who purchases single flowers that he devours with a pinch of salt, they have no customers. Seymour shows Mushnik a strange hybrid plant that he is cultivating. Maybe putting this weird plant in the front window will inspire some walk-in traffic. When it doesn’t respond to soil supplements and water, Seymour stays at the shop trying to nurture the plant to grow. When he accidentally cuts his finger, a few drop of blood falls onto the bud. Then it grows and blooms. For the next few nights, he pricks his fingers to feed it. Finally he’s all bleed out. The plant will have none of this and becomes vocal and demanding: “Feeed me! Feed me! Bring on the chow!”. Seems it, Audrey Jr. ( after his unrequited love ), has to have human flesh and blood! Corman piles on the laughs here-from the pseudo-Dragnet narration to the wild, bellowing plant to a hilarious appearance by a very young Jack Nicholson as the masochistic( had they ever been shown in movies before? ) dental groupie Wilbur Force. This is one dark ( almost pitch black ) comedy. Who’d have ever thought that this would be adapted into a musical that’s become a staple of schools the world over?
6. BUCKET OF BLOOD
In 1959 Roger Corman produced and directed the first of his ‘black humor trilogy’ for American International Pictures, A BUCKET OF BLOOD. For this black and white sixty six minute gem Corman explored the seedy world of coffee houses to take a satirical look at modern art and those proto-hippies: beatniks. Previously these bearded and bereted jazz lovers were spoofed in the musical FUNNY FACE and they would later inspire the beloved TV character Maynard G. Krebbs on the Dobie Gillis show. The movie centers on the slow-witted schlub Walter Paisley ( Corman regular Dick Miller ), a bus boy at a coffee house/ art gallery who wants to impress the beautiful Carla ( Barboura Morris ). He decides to turn to sculpting with poor results. Out of frustration he flings his modeling knife out the window accidentally killing a stray alley cat. Then a light bulb go on above his head. He covers the cat in clay and passes it off as his art. The beatniks there are impressed as is Carla. Unfortunately One of the patrons shows his appreciation by giving the art sensation a herbal gift. Undercover cop Lou ( future TV game show host Bert Convy ) sees this and follows Walter back to his apartment/studio to arrest him for possession of ‘reefer’. Paisley panics when Lou pulls out his revolver and smashes the cop with a frying pan. What to do? Another sculpture! As Walter becomes more popular he seeks out more ‘subjects’ to put together a big art show. BUCKET OF BLOOD boasts a very funny script by frequent collaborator Charles Griffith, a great jazzy score from Fred Katz ( later the pianist at Chicago’s Second City Cabaret ), and a great cast of supporting players ( Corman regulars Anthony Carbone and Ed Nelson ). Viewers expecting a brutal thriller from the title might be surprised by the delightful satire that Corman concocted. Or should I say sculpted?
5. WILD ANGELS
After years of shooting on enclosed sets for the AIP Poe films, Roger Corman needed a change; he wanted to shoot films on location, using open spaces and existing houses as sets. He got his wish with the film that’s generally credited as launching an entire genre of biker films in the 1960s and 70s. Compared to all the copies that followed, Corman’s WILD ANGELS (1966) set a high standard for chopper action, sexy motorcycle mamas, drugs, and brutal violence. Peter Fonda stars as gang leader Blues, whose one desire in life is to be “free to ride, .. get loaded, and party without being hassled by the man”. Along for the ride are fellow bikers Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, and Gayle Hunnicutt (I love that the prettiest biker chick has the scar on her face!). Some of actual members of the Venice Chapter of the Hell’s Angels also are in the movie as extras, though some of the real Angels later sued Corman after the film was released, as they perceived the movie portrayed them in a negative light. From its opening shots of Fonda riding his chopper, to its climactic funeral party, with its general tone of anarchy and rebellion, WILD ANGELS still packs a visceral punch for moviegoers. Corman regards this movie, along with THE TRIP and EASY RIDER, to be the three seminal counterculture films of the decade. Who are we to argue?
4. MACHINE GUN KELLY
Corman gave Charles Bronson his first starring role in the low budget gangster bio MACHINE GUN KELLY (1958) as a hardened criminal who always has his Thompson machine gun in hand and the fear of death on his mind. The most interesting thing about watching MACHINE GUN KELLY today is seeing a relatively young Bronson (actually he was 37) give the type of performance he wouldn’t give after he became a megastar; that of a smiling, fast-talking ladies’ man (and watch him tease a caged lion!). This was one of the first films to gain Corman international recognition and acclaim, due in part to his crisp and efficient directorial style and also a symbolism-heavy script that focused on the psychological mind of a criminal. It was Corman’s idea to film the story of Kelly, a real-life thug who coined the term ‘G-Men’ but ended up surrendering meekly to authorities and later died in prison. Susan Cabot, who played the moll who was the driving force behind Kelly’s exploits as well as the title character in Corman’s THE WASP WOMAN (1959), was bludgeoned to death by her own son in 1986.
3. X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES
Next to Vincent Price, one of Roger Corman’s favorite performers was Ray Milland. With his old Hollywood star power and sometimes brooding screen presence, Milland could carry a film and gave standout performances regardless of budget or studio. In X - THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (1963), Corman’s rumination on the dangers of too much scientific knowledge, Milland does not disappoint. Appearing in nearly every scene, Milland plays Dr. Xavier, a research scientist on the verge of a breakthrough to enhance visual abilities. We watch as the obsessed Dr. Xavier descends into the depths of the world he created. Originally the Xavier character was a musician, and this gave the story an oblique anti-drug theme. Some of those elements remain, but the movie’s themes are solidly in the realm of “be careful what you wish for” science fiction, technology vs. religion, and the limits to mankind’s quest for knowledge. Don Rickles, in his screen debut, also shines as a sleazy promoter. Made during a busy time when Corman was at his creative peak (he made four other films that same year), X holds up well today. Highly regarded by many critics (Stephen King wrote about it), what Corman called his “low budget Greek tragedy” is a compelling little gem with something to say.
2. THE TRIP
Until 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was released the following year, Corman’s uniquely weird THE TRIP (1967) was unofficially the most psychedelic film ever. Taking advantage of the keen interest at the time in both the drug culture and the hippie movement, Corman received a wonderfully wacked-out script from Jack Nicholson (yes, the Oscar-winning actor) and assembled a first-rate cast of young talent (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, and Susan Strasberg). Utilizing ground-breaking effects, with in-camera lighting, image projection, and post-optical work creating wild visuals of spiraling symbols and eddys of color, plus then-novel rapid editing techniques, Corman created a snapshot of 1960s counterculture that has rarely been equaled. The plot is simple: a young director of TV commercials (Fonda) is going through a bittersweet divorce from wife Strasberg (stunningly sexy and beautiful in a nearly silent role). About 10 minutes into the film, Fonda drops acid, and the entire rest of the movie chronicles his experiences-both real and LSD-induced ‘trip’. What follows is outlandishly colorful fashions, body paint, and lots of hippie slang (the word ‘man’ ends every other sentence). Corman also continues his desire, after years of the claustrophobic Poe films, to shoot more in open, natural settings and locations, like the Big Sur scenery here. Corman even manages to sneak in some horror film imagery during Fonda’s drug-induced dreams. And if anyone doubts the reality of the 60s culture, Corman notes that the houses chosen as sets were redressed very little, if at all. In other words, people actually used to live like that! Upon its release, the film was considered controversial for its sex and nudity (tame by today’s standards), and for its perceived pro-drug themes. Corman claims he tried to balance both the positive and negative aspects of LSD, and was upset when the studio added a ‘disclaimer’ at the beginning of the film without his knowledge or consent. A must-see for both fans of Corman and 1960s cinema, this TRIP is groovy!
1. THE INTRUDER
Ironic that topping this list is the only of his movies that Corman claims lost money, but THE INTRUDER, a timely look at school desegregation in the South, is his most unusual and visionary film, far too truthful and bold for U.S. audiences in 1961 and one that gets better with age. William Shatner gives a hugely charismatic performance as Adam Cramer, a cocky racist agitator who travels the South in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, stirring up protests and riots and organizing white citizens groups with himself as their leader. Cramer arrives in a small town (filmed in the bootheel of Missouri) where the local white high school is about to get its first black students and manipulates the townsfolk, taking control of the debate and agenda, and turning an already-tense situation into a riot. THE INTRUDER flopped in its U.S. release despite reissues under the titles SHAME and I HATE YOUR GUTS. Segregation was no doubt a touchy topic at the time, but few directors would have had guts to release a film like this, and it took a maverick like Corman to do so. There’s no sugar coating of the subject of racism in THE INTRUDER. Charles Beaumont’s startling script pulls no punches and it was Europe where it was initially received as the daring and well-made film that it is. THE INTRUDER is a masterpiece by any measure and a cult classic still ripe for rediscovery.