Monsters and Matinees: How Roger Corman’s ingenuity created a film legacy

How Roger Corman’s ingenuity created a film legacy

It started, appropriately, with Monster from the Ocean Floor in 1954.

That was Roger Corman’s first film and everything about it, including that fun title, was a taste of what he would give us during his 60-plus years of filmmaking.

When Corman died May 9 at the age of 98, he left behind an amazing legacy of nearly 400 films (he often worked uncredited, so it’s hard to get the full tally), directing 50 and producing the others. And while his low-budget independent movies earned him the title of the King of the B-movies, he also played a large role in launching the careers of many A-listers.

For his first film, Roger Corman produced Monster from the Ocean Floor in 1954.

Corman’s remarkable life and career have been documented in the many books written about him – and by him – so it seems almost ridiculous to try and sum up his career in a 1,500-word story. Yet I try. Why? Because he stirred my sense of wonder.

The Beast With a Million Eyes. Attack of the Crab Monsters. Not of This Earth. The Wasp Woman. She Gods of Shark Reef. Bloody Mama. Galaxy of Terror. Carnosaur. Sharktopus.

Just reading those titles sparks my imagination again, as the films did the first time I saw them. Even today, when I see Corman’s name in the opening credits, it’s a reassurance that I will be entertained.

Right from Monster from the Ocean Floor, Corman had creative ideas on how to make movies despite lacking resources and budget. His ingenuity was his gift as a filmmaker, and he shared it with us.

Here’s how he did it.

Roger Corman’s first film credit was as producer of Monster from the Ocean Floor. What evil lurks in the nearby sea cove?

Pay it forward. Corman took the money he made from one film, and paid it forward to finance his next project. He used the meager proceeds from his first script called House in the Sea to make Monster from the Ocean Floor. (The script became the 1954 film Highway Dragnet starring Richard Conte and Joan Bennett. Oh, and Corman added to his experience by working as an associate producer on the film for free.) He was proud that he made his first film with $12,000 in cash from selling the script, with a $5,000 deferment for lab costs. Monster made a profit of $100,000, which went toward financing the next film, and so it went. A legacy was created.

Hide the monster. Working with low budgets meant there wasn’t money for special effects so creatures were shrouded in darkness or only partially shown. Seeing only the giant claw in Attack of the Crab Monsters was much scarier than the full plodding creature.

Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman was ahead of its time in its statement about women and the business of beauty. But it was one of the films when the creature was best kept under low light.

Keep talking. You’ll notice Corman’s films can be talkative (with lots of scientific mumbo-jumbo in his horror/sci-fi films) and they utilize narration, sometimes in odd spots. It was to help tell the story and fill in blanks when there wasn’t money for additional scenes or special effects.

Blame radiation. Raise a glass of cheer when you hear the word “radiation” in his films, because it helps make any creature you can imagine come alive. A giant, talking crab? Blame radioactive underwater tests. A huge devil-like sea creature with a glaring red eye? Ditto. The mutant walking around a post-apocalyptic world? Just a poor guy suffering from radiation poison.

Cheap & quick. That’s how Corman was able to make nearly 400 movies. Little Shop of Horrors, starring Jack Nicholson, was filmed in two days for $35,000. The Wasp Woman in about five days for $50,000.

When he had a “fortune” to spend – like the $350,000 on The Raven, he still directed it in only two weeks. And that brings me to my favorite Corman story: how he made The Terror.

Roger Corman not only reused sets and actors for The Terror, Jack Nicholson (at left) wore the coat originally worn by Marlon Brando in Désirée.

The Raven was the fifth in Corman’s eight-film “Poe Cycle” (1960-64). By that time, he wanted to “out-Poe” the author and “create a Gothic tale from scratch,” Corman is quoted in his indispensable and entertaining book How I Made Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. Boris Karloff had two days left on his contract for The Raven so Corman, not one to waste good talent or money, kept the actor on the set for the weekend and used the footage as a base for another movie that still needed a script. That would become The Terror.

Corman’s three-day wonder, as it has since been called, was cobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster using bit and pieces from other films and sets, and at times it looks as patchwork as that sounds.

Even the uniform that Nicholson wears was recycled: It was originally used by Marlon Brando in Désirée.

A studio system. Corman worked with people like he ran an old-time film studio as he used a stable of young, undiscovered talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Jack Nicholson made his film debut as The Cry Baby Killer (1958). It was one of eight films he starred in for Corman, who also produced three of his screenplays all before Nicholson became a star with Easy Rider.

Robert De Niro, William Shatner, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Ellen Burstyn and Sandra Bullock were others whose talent he recognized and utilized. Beverly Garland starred in four of his films (Gunslinger, Swamp Women, It Conquered the World and Not of This Earth), Susan Cabot in six (Sorority Girl, War of the Satellites, Machine-Gun Kelly, The Wasp Woman, Carnival Rock and The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Great Waters of the Sea Serpent. Great character actor Dick Miller starred in too-many Corman films to list, but they include The Terror, War of the Satellites, A Bucket of Blood, Carnival Rock, Apache Woman (he had two parts!), Not of This Earth and X: The Man with The X-Ray Eyes.

Then there’s a guy named Vincent Price who starred in seven films in Corman’s “Poe Cycle.”

That’s a fresh-faced Roger Corman at left playing Jimmy the deck hand in a scene from the first film he made,Monster from the Ocean Floor.

And who is that handsome young deckhand in his first film? That’s Corman, offering a towel to the scuba-diving tourist played by Anne Kimbell in Monster from the Ocean Floor. Though he didn’t make a cameo in every film he made like Hitchcock, you can catch him now and again.

This brings us to the people behind the camera and the …

Roger Corman Film School. We’ve all watched movies from the filmmakers who were part of what was affectionately called “The Roger Corman Film School.”

James Cameron, Gale Anne Herd, Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Hanson and Ron Howard are among some of the many filmmakers who started out working with Corman in various ways. Additionally, composer James Horner and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, both Oscar winners, worked early with Corman.

Oscar-winning director James Cameron has frequently spoken about Corman, proclaiming that he “came from the Roger Corman film school.”

Corman gave Cameron his first film work as art director and visual effects on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and he produced Cameron’s first full-length feature Piranha II: The Spawning (1982). Two years later, Cameron blew the doors off the film industry with The Terminator.

And there’s more

With nearly 400 films in his career, Corman wasn’t exclusively making horror and sci-fi films. You’ll find racing films, westerns, rock ‘n roll quickies, “teen girl noirs” and his, ahem, “nurse cycle” which included Night Call Nurses.

Perhaps the most underrated part of his career was how used his New World distribution and production company to release an impressive array of prestigious foreign films into U.S. theaters including Ingmar Bergman’s Crimes and Whispers, Francois Truffaut‘s Story of Adele H and Small Changes, and Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, which won an Academy Award as best foreign language film.

If you haven’t seen Sharktopus, you should. Corman was executive producer and made a cameo in the 2010 made-for-TV sci-fi film.

Let’s watch

So where do you even start if you want to become familiar with Corman films or revisit them? Since this column is called Monsters and Matinees, we’ll stick with Corman’s horror and sci-fi films, many that I’ve already mentioned.

In the mood for undersea creatures? Start at the beginning with Monster from the Ocean Floor then head toward the end of his career with one of my favorite films ever – the miraculously titled Sharktopus.

Looking for an end-of-the-world film? Day the World Ended, Last Woman on Earth.

Alien attacks? Not of This Earth, The Beast With a Million Eyes.

Out of this world adventures? Galaxy of Terror, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.

Want some Lovecraft with your Corman? The Dunwich Horror, The Haunted Palace.

Finally, how about some Poe, too? Head straight to Corman’s “Poe Cycle” films and start anywhere: House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Premature Burial, The Raven, The Haunted Palace (part Lovecraft, part Poe), The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia. The eight films are enough to keep you entertained for a while and stars like Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele, Lon Chaney Jr., Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre make them a special delight for horror fans.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a writer and board member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and also led the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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