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Corman, Roger

Entry updated 13 May 2024. Tagged: Film, People.

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(1926-2024) US film-maker, a number of whose films are sf. Born in Los Angeles, he graduated in engineering from Stanford University in 1947, and spent a period in the US Navy and a term at Oxford University before going to Hollywood, where he began to write screenplays; his first sale was Highway Dragnet (1954), a picture he coproduced. He soon formed his own company and launched his spectacularly low-budget career. From 1956 he was regularly associated with American International Pictures, a distribution company specializing in cheap exploitation films, often made to fit an already-planned advertising campaign. In 1959 he founded Filmgroup, which distributed its own product, but he returned to AIP in the 1960s for his Edgar Allan Poe movies (discussed below). In 1970, with brother Gene and Larry Woolner, Corman founded New World Pictures, which soon overtook AIP as the leading producer and distributor of exploitation films; he sold his share of the company in 1983.

Corman's B-movies – mainly Westerns and sf/Horror stories at first, later also thrillers, road movies and drugs and rock'n'roll movies, most aimed specifically at teenagers – did much to redefine the various exploitation-movie genres, but only by the 1970s did they begin to attract attention from radical film critics. At first he served only as a producer, but in 1955 he began directing. Sf films he directed – the dates are those of first release – include Day the World Ended (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), War of the Satellites (1958), Teenage Caveman (1958; vt Prehistoric World; vt Out of the Darkness), The Wasp Woman (1959), Last Woman on Earth (1960), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), Gas-s-s-s, Or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World ... (1970) and Frankenstein Unbound (1990), his last work as director. The boom for sf films which had begun in the 1950s was dying out by 1963, after which year Corman and other quickie-producers made far fewer of them. Corman-directed films were already rare after 1970; throughout the 1970s and 1980s he concentrated on producing because directing had stopped being fun.

Sf-oriented films he has produced, sometimes only as executive producer, include Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954; vt Monster Maker), The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955; vt The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes!) uncredited, The Brain Eaters (1958) uncredited, Night of the Blood Beast (1958), Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959; vt Attack of the Blood Leeches; vt Demons of the Swamp UK; vt The Giant Leeches), Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) uncredited, The Cremators (1972; vt Dune Rollers), Death Race 2000 (1975), Piranha (1978), Deathsport (1978), Humanoids from the Deep (1980; vt Monster; vt Beneath the Darkness), Battle beyond the Stars (1980), Galaxy of Terror (1981; vt Mindwarp: An Infinity of Terror; vt Planet of Horrors), Forbidden World (1982; vt Mutant), Space Raiders (1983), Not of This Earth (1988 remake), Crime Zone (1988), Lords of the Deep (1989), Time Trackers (1989), Brain Dead (1989), Welcome to Oblivion (1990) and Carnosaur (1993) [which see for sequels and spinoffs].

In the 1960s, Corman furthered the practice (pioneered by the 1956 US release of Gojira) of buying up foreign-language films with spectacular effects and reshooting inserts with well-known US performers to create wholly new films, often farming out the revision jobs to up-and-coming young talent. This explains the presence in the filmographies of Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Curtis Harrington of, respectively, Battle Beyond the Sun (1963), Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968; vt Gill Woman) and Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965); Harrington also made Queen of Blood (1966; vt Planet of Blood) in this way. These four films drew on footage from the Soviet films Nebo Zovyot (1959; vt The Sky Calls; vt The Heavens Call) and Planeta Bur (1962; vt Planet of Storms; vt Storm Planet; vt Cosmonauts on Venus). Throughout his career, indeed, Corman was known for his fostering of young film-makers: as well as Coppola, Bogdanovich and Harrington there were Martin Scorsese, Monte Hellman, Jonathan Demme, Paul Bartel and Jonathan Kaplan; in the sf-film world specifically he was mentor to James Cameron, Joe Dante, Irvin Kershner and John Sayles.

During his proprietorship of New World, Corman became known also as the US distributor of prestigious films by Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut, but he was up to his old tricks with the US release of Nippon Chinbotsu (1973; vt The Submersion of Japan) as a truncated travesty, Tidal Wave (1974). However, he presided over an inspired re-use of miles of New World footage in Hollywood Boulevard (1976), directed by Joe Dante and Allan Arkush; this is a skit on low-budget film-making revolving round the production of an sf exploitation movie called Atomic War Brides.

As a director, Corman also worked in the field of supernatural Horror. The Undead (1957) has a Time-Travel theme in its tale of a prostitute, the Reincarnation of an executed medieval witch, travelling back into the past but ultimately refusing to intervene in her own earlier death because by so doing she would destroy many futures. Later, Corman attracted much critical praise with his series of films based (often insecurely) on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, beginning with House of Usher (1960) and mostly starring Vincent Price, of which one of the finest is The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), written by Robert Towne, later one of Hollywood's major screenwriters. Further examples, all scripted by Richard Matheson (as was House of Usher), include The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) – an anthology film based on three Poe stories – and The Raven (1963). Only The Haunted Palace (1963) – actually based on a story by H P Lovecraft despite the Poe title – has sf elements: deformed Mutants. Corman also produced a second Lovecraft adaptation, The Dunwich Horror (1969), which was mediocre.

Though the final film he directed was Frankenstein Unbound, Corman remained unrelentingly prolific as a producer of low-budget films for cinema, DVD, television, the web, and even for the ashcan – in the case of the notorious unreleased version of The Fantastic Four (1993), made for legal reasons to retain the expiring rights. He was executive producer of a 1995-1996 series of films for Showtime with the overall title Roger Corman Presents; this included Vampirella (1996). Most but not all of these later films have been disposable: a notable exception is Alex Cox's non-sf Searchers 2.0 (2007), in which he additionally delivers one of his thirty-odd onscreen cameos. He was also credited as executive producer on Paul W S Anderson's Death Race (2008), a big-budget remake of his own Death Race 2000. His final film as producer was another contribution to this sequence, the straight-to-video Death Race 2050 (2017; vt Roger Corman's Death Race 2050). Further credits as executive producer followed until 2021.

The argument over Corman's true worth as a film-maker continues. It is clear that by the 1970s he was mostly pursuing rather than setting trends. His work nevertheless attracted a cult following and considerable attention from that school of film critics which holds that there is often a freshness and inventiveness in B-grade films lacking from more "respectable" Hollywood productions. In an interview he said of his sf films: "I was never really satisfied with my work in this field." His autobiography is How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime (1990). The final total of his films was close to 500. [PN/KN/NL/DRL]

see also: Cinema; Monster Movies; Worldcon.

Roger William Corman

born Detroit, Michigan: 5 April 1926

died Santa Monica, California: 9 May 2024


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