Sign up for the Film Comment Letter today to get original film writing delivered to your inbox every week! >>

The Films of Roger Corman

A career overview

After a three-year retrenchment following the appearance of THE TRIP in 1967, Roger Corman is again hard at work portraying that topsy-turvy world of violence and tension which figured so prominent­ly in his exhaustive earlier body of work. Acid expe­riences notwithstanding, directing forty-five films in twelve years is enough to make anyone stop and take stock of their situation. The results here, how­ever, have been worth waiting for: BLOODY MAMA, GASSS, and VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN contain some of Corman’s finest and most interesting work, and display a critical self-awareness only vaguely in evi­dence in his earlier films. The recent forty-two film Corman retrospective in New York revealed a star­tling homogeneity in the films, with the darkish Cor­man flavor spreading over things as diverse as the droll GUNSLINGER, the spectacle spoof ATLAS, or that ultimate gangster movie, THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE-each distinct, yet each reflecting the same strongly personal world-view.

The forty-nine films signed by Corman can be divided into genre quite easily in the following man­ner: 25 fantasies, 16 modern problem dramas, 4 westerns, 3 war films, and two sports—ATLAS, a spectacle spoof, and WHAT’S IN IT FOR HARRY, a caper-type film. But for the purposes of this discus­sion Corman’s work will be divided into three chro­nological periods, each illustrating a growth of cre­ative ability and stylistic awareness, yet each still predominantly concerned with the same acutely contemporary moral and psychological dilemmas. Corman’s immature period covers roughly his first dozen films, from FIVE GUNS WEST in 1955 to ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS the following year. These films are usually straightforward genre efforts in­tended for the lowest level western and sci-fi audi­ences. THE UNDEAD falls prey to a heavy-handed effort to introduce greater “significance” (here an uncomfortably humorless effort to cash in on the “Search for Bridey Murphy” craze), but the others seldom attempt to rise even to these heights. But Corman had had no previous experience in practical film direction and admits to a great many flaws marring his earliest work—so we may feel justified in writing off most of his student period as on-the-job training.

A second period runs from ROCK ALL NIGHT in 1956 to THE HAUNTED PALACE in 1963, covering twenty­-seven more films and the greater part of his work. These films begin to display secondary and tertiary levels of meaning obviously not intended for Satur­day afternoon audiences, although the films them­selves hardly differ on the surface. Experience has been gained here so that by now Corman can begin smiling at his genre conventions and evoking more and more dark humor, culminating in two master­pieces of self-satire, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and ATLAS (both 1960). The consolidation of Cor­man’s visual style also occurs here, thanks largely to his collaboration with Floyd Crosby, who shot twenty-one of Corman’s first thirty-nine films. Crosby, it might be remembered, worked with Fla­herty on the abortive SKY CITY, won the Academy Award for shooting Murnau’s TABU, worked on Pare Lorentz’s THE RIVER, and even did some work on the “My Friend Bonito” segment of Welles’ IT’S ALL TRUE. He had shot HIGH NOON for Zinnemann not long before joining Corman on his first film in 1955. Corman’s middle period, which also signals the first serious analysis of his work in various French critical journals, can be said to end with THE HAUNTED PAL­ACE, their last film together.

It might be relevant here to point out that Corman is one of the handful of Hollywood directors today whose visual style is easily recognizable, a constant and graceful flow of tracking movements probably derived through his work with Crosby. But even without Crosby, Corman often goes out of his way to work with the best cameramen available, men whose ability to handle lengthy and involved moving shots reinforces one of the director’s own predilec­tions. This tendency often approaches television technique in the way the movements are designed to make visually interesting shots of rather long duration, the lengthy takes planned not so much for aesthetic value as sheer economy. (THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, shot by Archie Dalzell in 2½ days in 1960, is the foremost example of this technique in application, although the larger budgets and shooting schedules of the Poe films enable it to be seen there to rather better effect.) Among the cameramen Corman has worked with are John Mescall (NOT OF THIS EARTH) who had shot the notable BLACK CAT for Ulmer in 1934, as well as a series of fine James Whale films, including THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN; Milton Krasner (THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE) an expert in early CinemaScope whose best work includes Lang’s impressive SCAR­LET STREET; Arthur Arling (THE SECRET INVASION) who won an Oscar as part of the team which shot Clarence Brown’s lovely THE YEARLING; and Nicholas Roeg (MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) then a young cameraman, but soon to photograph FAHRENHEIT 451, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, PETULIA, and his own PERFORMANCE. The way Corman has man­aged to weld all of these strong styles, and others, into his own personal blend is something which only he could fully describe. But if Corman’s early black-and-white standard-ratio efforts were occa­sionally noteworthy, he really hit his stride with the introduction of color and ‘scope. The browns and reds of the Poe films (never without their red can­dlesticks) serve to unify the series on even a chro­matic level. Crosby’s THE PREMATURE BURIAL is Cor­man’s color masterpiece, where everything is suf­fused with an earthy brown that serves to externalize the dread of cataleptic burial suffered by Ray Milland (the work of designer Daniel Haller, responsible for more than his share of these effects, will be dis­cussed below). Other notable examples of Corman’s color are TOMB OF LIGEIA (Arthur Grant) with its cool blues and excellent use of natural locations, ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (Krasner) the most lushly textured Corman as regards both photography and set decoration, and BLOODY MAMA (John Alonzo) a symphony of cool greens and blues capped by one final flash of red (the marriage of MARNIE and SPELL­BOUND).

The modern phase of Corman’s career would seem to begin with THE SECRET INVASION in 1963, running through his other European productions, and finally up to his most recent work. In this period Corman has become a major international director, whose films open international festivals and are the subject of numerous articles in European critical journals. Finally he gains some grudging accept­ance in America. He ends the series of science fiction/horror films which accounted for so much of his earlier work and returns to the modern prob­lem drama, something he was dabbling with in the late Fifties. This phase possibly may have ended with THE TRIP, the three year gap between that film and BLOODY MAMA perhaps initiating a new era in Cor­man’s evolution, but it is still too soon to tell. (I must confess to not yet having seen WHAT’S IN IT FOR HARRY?, so far unreleased in America, and so cannot figure out just how it fits in here.)

Corman first moved into films as a literary agent, scriptwriter and producer, having been in the busi­ness little more than a year before deciding to direct his own productions. There has been some con­troversy as to his first actual directorial effort, some claiming he worked uncredited on his own produc­tion of THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (a film usually credited to Edward Sampson and John Ireland, coincidentally the film’s editor and star) but Corman today denies this. His career seems to have initially gotten off on the wrong foot due to a preponderance of westerns, a genre Corman is apparently uncom­fortable with, but there is a sound economic reason for this. B-westerns were still the most easily mar­ketable film commodity in the middle Fifties, and as a struggling new independent this is what Cor­man chose to produce. But his later career would seem to bear out the fact that he is more comfortable conveying psychological tension than handling sheer physical actio—even in MACHINE GUN KELLY and BLOODY MAMA it is the emotional difficulties, and not the physical action, which is stressed. And in retrospect these misbegotten Corman westerns ap­pear as among the dullest films ever produced. They seem to have leaped on to the vogue for psy­chological westerns, and nearly all their thematic and story values are conveyed through the dialogue, an obviously fatal flaw for a B-western. THE OKLAHO­MA WOMAN is probably Corman’s dullest film, and APACHE WOMAN is close behind, interesting solely for Crosby’s Pathecolor photography. It is sad that too much cannot be said about the color of Corman’s Fifties films, because judging from the prints shown at the New York retrospective the color has badly decomposed. So much of it has run to pink, and bled all over the frame, that watching many of the prints is infuriating. The most frustrating example was SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF, in which almost noth­ing but shades of pink and red survive. What we do see, however, are a great number of scenes shot on location in the South Seas at twilight, with long shadows following the players across the sand. I doubt if Crosby was trying to make this the color version of TABU, but with the surviving prints we’ll just never know. NAKED PARADISE, shot concurrently, was cancelled in the recent retrospective, and hope­fully the color values here have held up a little better.

Of the earliest films, FIVE GUNS WEST, the first, is a moderately successful effort in which a band of prisoners are recruited during the Civil War to hold up an important Union stagecoach shipment. R. Wright Campbell, one of Corman’s favorite screenwriters, repeated the situation in his script for THE SECRET INVASION eight years later, changing the background to World War II. This kind of film was eventually popularized into a minor sub-genre by Aldrich’s THE DIRTY DOZEN later on. The only western of even passing interest is GUNSLINGER largely due to the appearance of one of Corman’s favorite devices, the sexual role-reversal. Women very seldom count for anything in Corman’s films ­usually they appear only as hapless figures to be menaced by Vincent Price or, in the earlier films, some papier-mache monster. But periodically Cor­man features a woman in the lead due to her as­sumption of some decidedly “masculine” activity, and usually the title signals this role-reversal as some sort of freak attraction: APACHE WOMAN, SWAMP WOMEN, SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF, VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT, WASP WOMAN, etc. GUNSLINGER is the most interesting of these, sort of a cross between Dwan’s WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED (1953) and Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR (1954). Beverly Garland is ideal as the sheriff’s wife who takes over his job after the local saloon hostess has had him shot, and the script by Charles Griffith is easily the best from Corman’s early period. Occasionally the film even shows flashes of the later Corman brilliance, notably in the sheriff’s death over his morning coffee. It is significant that Corman only returned to the western theme once after this (the abortive LONG RIDE HOME, taken over by Phil Karlson and released as A TIME FOR KILLING in 1967) and concentrated instead on science fiction/horror films. The Fifties were the golden age of such films and Corman, with his usual acumen in sensing sudden shifts of public taste, abandoned westerns in favor of these fantasies. Here physical action sequences counted for less, and more time could be spent on the tensions inher­ent in fantastic situations.

THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED is one of a number of films depicting the survival of a few humans after a nuclear war (Arch Oboler’s FIVE is perhaps the classic example) and in it appears the first instance of Corman’s penchant for wiping out the past through violent conflagration and allowing life to start over anew. This tendency has recently been elaborated on at great length in “The Millennic Vision,” a monograph published by the Edinburgh Film Festival. The authors argue that the constant elements of destruction and rebirth encountered over and over in Corman’s cinema are manifesta­tions of the myth of the eternal return masquerading behind the facades of B-pictures. Corman himself professes that the concept of obliteration of the old to make room for the new order is a conscious element of his style, but is understandably wary about imputing too much metaphoric significance to this. In these early films some idea of Corman’s later thematic preoccupations were developed, and the black comedy which would blossom in his sec­ond period was being quietly· introduced in the scripts of Charles Griffith and the supporting per­formances of Jonathan Haze and Dick Miller, all of whom were to make greater contributions later on.

With the start of his second period and ROCK ALL NIGHT (1956), Corman’s films can begin to bear serious discussion. This Griffith script is a witty send-up of THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE and other Saroyan-style barroom tales, and is filled with out­rageous dialogue that strips down to comic-book proportions the windy theatricality of such stories. The film also provides a showcase for Dick Miller, one of the main stalwarts of the pre-Poe stock com­pany, here completely in his element as a smart-ass barfly who impudently talks down a couple of cheap gunmen as a cross section of humanity looks on. ROCK ALL NIGHT purports to be a musical, but the numbers by The Platters and a few other groups are all lumped together at the beginning and bear no connection whatsoever with the rest of the film. (“The Platters weren’t available when the film was being shot,” Corman dryly explains today.) Besides the exceptional scripting and performances, a major factor in the success of ROCK ALL NIGHT is the sense of place established in the cramped barroom set, thanks again largely to the phenomenal work of Crosby. His contribution to the Corman style be­comes even more clear in their next film, TEENAGE DOLL, with its hard blacks and whites and glistening rainy streets at night time, certainly the most hand­some of Corman’s early films. This follow-up to REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE is one of the most effective of the “juvenile delinquent” exposes of the Fifties, and a film with interesting parallels to THE WILD ANGELS nearly a decade later.

The gang in TEENAGE DOLL (here a girl gang, another example of Corman’s use of the role-reversal) are cornered at the end of the film by the police. They have the opportunity of giving themselves up or escaping, and the gang splits up over the decision—most flee into the night, but a few walk into the glare of the squad cars and give up their rebellious life style for another try at establishment living. By the time of THE WILD ANGELS nine years later this whole situation has grown noticeably more cynical. Peter Fonda waits at the grave site while the rest of the Angels race off, but only because “There’s no place to go.” In the earlier film the feeling produced by the girls’ disavowal of their rebellious sub-culture was definitely upbeat, but in the Sixties this acquiescence seems a defeat, the crushing of the rebel spirit a dubious victory. Both these films are from Charles Griffith scripts, and the excellent work of Griffith on thirteen of Corman’s most interesting films deserves further examination.

With Crosby and Griffith, the third notable Corman collaborator behind the cameras was the designer Daniel Haller, credited art director on fifteen Corman films between WAR OF THE SATELLITES and THE HAUNTED PALACE (and most of the rest were not credited to anyone). Like Corman himself, he first attracted widespread attention due to his work on the Poe films, even though his earlier work was at least as interesting. Haller can make the cheapest settings look elaborately and expensively mounted, no small virtue for someone working at American-International Pictures. Supposedly, his control on these films extended nearly as far as that of such classic designers as William Cameron Menzies or Richard Day, and his set constructions largely governed the movements of the roving Corman/Crosby cameras. His graduation to director after THE HAUNTED PALACE was undistinguished. It is one of the major hallmarks of Corman’s modern period—those films from THE SECRET INVASION on—that he completely severed his connection with all three of these people (the single exception being Griffith’s WILD ANGELS screenplay). So we can mark this exact date off as the start of his mature period not only because Corman then began his big-budget European productions and started attracting major critical attention but because he had then outgrown the collaborators of his earlier days and proceeded to go beyond them. The collaborative nature of the film art is such that a break with old creative partners is often dangerous, but ultimately necessary in the maturation of the prime film artist, the director. Consider the career of Murnau after he parted with Carl Mayer and Karl Freund, who had written and photographed a great number of his earlier successes.

By 1958 the apposition of culture and sub-culture in Corman’s work evidenced in TEENAGE DOLL became especially pronounced and continued to grow more clear with each film. The most interesting factor, however, is that the resolution of this conflict in nearly every case depends on whether it is set in a realistic or non-realistic framework. Take just four examples not yet discussed for illustration: IT CONQUERED THE WORLD , TEENAGE CAVEMAN , SORORITY GIRL and MACHINE GUN KELLY. In each of these films the protagonists are shown in a state of alienation battling an overwhelmingly powerful outside group: in the fantasies they are able to overcome these outside powers; in the realistic modern pieces they must yield to them.

IT CONQUERED THE WORLD details the struggle of one scientist (Peter Graves) to thwart a Venusian invader who is slowly taking over the minds of all the people in a small American town. After the leadership of the local police, army detachment, and other sources of power are under the monster’s control Graves’ situation seems hopeless, and he is constantly urged by everyone to “join us.” But finally with the aid of a friend (Lee Van Cleef) who had at first aided the creature, they succeed in destroying it by burning its eyes out with a blow torch and simultaneously overthrowing its slave society (the images of fire and eyes are among the most recurrent figures in Corman’s cinema, and also deserve an examination all their own). In TEENAGE CAVEMEN Robert Vaughn plays a young member of a primitive tribe who seeks to break the local taboos and cross the river to the forbidden land. Eventually he does, and the act results in a cataclysmic discovery for the people of his tribe. Throughout this film the “teenagers” are developed quite consciously as a rebellious sub-culture on the outside of the adult world in the standard Fifties realistic style for such material. But this is a period fantasy, and so Vaughn succeeds in flaunting the societal taboos and, by seizing the initiative, asserts the viability of his group over the stagnation of the adult culture. If this same story had been played in leather jackets instead of bearskins (as it easily could have been) the alienated sub-culture would have run true to form and Vaughn would most certainly have blown it in some fashion, being defeated by the establishment. Now notice how Corman develops such conflict in modern dress situations:

SORORITY GIRL centers around a bitch named Sabra who makes life difficult for the rest of the girls in her sorority house-actions which, we are led to believe, result from an inability to consider herself a regular member of the group. Inevitably, she gets her comeuppance. MACHINE GUN KELLY is a stock criminal biopic in which the outlaw, after a series of notorious anti-social exploits, is eventually defeated by society in a very explicit manner.

In case after case in Corman’s modern dress films, the protagonists (either singly, or as representative of some form of alternate culture) are defeated by the establishment they hover outside of. Sometimes they have a secret desire to get in—sometimes not. Nearly always they are given at least criminal traits to emphasize their alienation. Think of WILD ANGELS and TEENAGE DOLL, discussed earlier or I, MOBSTER, a gangster tale in which the criminal is destroyed by his own rivals, or THE INTRUDER, in which the anti-integrationist is destroyed by his own hubris, or THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, where AI Capone has died in prison of syphilis, and the enormous “Rest in Peace” of his tombstone fills the screen at the conclusion instead of “The End.” But in the fantasies these overwhelming forces can be conquered and bent to the protagonists’ will. In ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS the creatures are successfully defeated; in VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT the savages are destroyed and the Vikings escape.

This idea of a seemingly superior group being defeated and superseded by an apparently weaker one finds its most interesting expression in Corman’s latest fantasy work, the Poe cycle. This group of films centers not so much around any societal clash as around the idea of destruction and rejuvenation first introduced, in primitive form, back in THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED, and here elaborated on as a contest between older established forces and younger, more virile ones. The destruction of the old, preferably through fiery conflagration, and the start of life anew completely take precedence here, and even creeps into a related film like THE TERROR (except that there a watery inundation replaces the fire and brimstone of the others). The Poe films become a study of the relationship between the past and the present represented dramatically as a conflict between age (Vincent Price) and youth (some forgettable ingenues). HOUSE OF USHER is the clearest example of this, as the “Morella” episode of TALES OF TERROR is the finest. Dead spirits of the past try to reach out and affect the young and living in THE HAUNTED PALACE and TOMB OF LlGEIA. THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and THE PREMATURE BURIAL show how traditions, ideas handed down from the past can affect the living in dangerous ways. The choicest method of purging musty old influences is to burn them out, and razing of the ancestral home the favored image. The system has become so ritualized that the films utilize the same stock footage of burning walls and castle exteriors in a way that is somehow quite fitting and acceptable—especially so in the compressed context of a retrospective. This apparent shift of emphasis is not entirely unexpected in Corman’s work, for the early films are full of lessons in the need to break taboos—ritualized, restricting traditions descended from the distant past. Typically, they all belong to the fantasy cycle, however: VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT, SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF, TEENAGE CAVEMAN. The new group of Poe fantasies only develops this idea on a more sophisticated level.

Altogether, this seems quite a unified body of work for a director given such short shrift by most American critics for his cheap sensationalism. And not only a unified body of work, but an expressive one, reflecting a sensibility painfully attuned to the undercurrents of violence gripping the country even in the seemingly placid Eisenhower years. Corman’s films are full of violence, but not the clean violence of thundering hooves, only the malingering violence of long suppressed and dangerously seething emotions on the threshold of eruption. In this way he certainly becomes the exploitation director par excellence, for he has exploited that feeling of coercion and terror in his films to create a catharsis in the purest Aristotelian sense, a purgation which allows these undercurrents to be brought to the surface where they can be recognized and dealt with. If it was all a question of making a buck, Corman could have pleased the folks at AIP just as easily with Annette Funicello’s beach blanket as with his string of nasty little B’s. But if the beach party might make sense at the box office it just doesn’t work as a metaphor for modern America, at least not the way a good Edgar Allan Poe story does.

Richard Koszarski has been awarded a Research Associateship by the American Film Institute to ex­pand on a study of Erich van Stroheim’s career.