Roger Corman (born 1926), a filmmaker with several hundred films to his credit, has rightly been called the "King of the B Movies." His low-budget films made for Hollywood studios included one of the first "biker" movies, The Wild Angels, as well as numerous horror films based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Since 1970 Corman has operated successful independent film production and distribution companies.
Roger Corman's childhood gave few clues that, in later years, he would create hundreds of low-budget films that would make him one of Hollywood's best-known directors. He was born in Detroit, Michigan, on April 5, 1926, the first child of European immigrants William and Ann Corman; his brother Gene (who also became a producer) was born 18 months later. As a child Corman was more interested in sports and building model airplanes than in film. William Corman, an engineer, was forced to take a huge pay cut during the Great Depression that began in 1929. In his autobiography, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Corman speculated that this event might have caused him to be so thrifty when making films.
The family moved to the "poor side" of Beverly Hills, California, while Corman was in high school. He became fascinated with the stories of Edgar Allan Poe (asking for a complete set of Poe's works as a gift), but he planned to become an engineer like his father. After graduating from high school, Corman studied engineering at Stanford University and participated in the Navy's officer training program. In 1947, Corman graduated from Stanford and, after several months of unemployment, took an engineering job. He realized immediately that this was not the work for him, and quit the first week. Through a family friend he was hired as a messenger at Twentieth Century Fox. His lifelong career in the film industry had begun, to be interrupted only briefly in 1949, when he became irritated with studio bureaucracy and spent a year studying and traveling in Europe.
While working in Hollywood as a literary agent after returning from Europe, Corman also began to write screenplays. He sold his first screenplay, Highway Dragnet, to Allied Artists in 1953 and also became the film's associate producer. The next year Corman used the money he made from this work to finance his first independently produced film, The Monster from the Ocean Floor. In this film, Corman established the pattern that would characterize his later work: an incredibly low budget (generally under $100,000, unusual even in those days); a fast shooting schedule (often two weeks or less); and a set theme. Monsters, aliens, supernatural villains, and other frightening characters almost always lay at the heart of Corman's films.
During the next five years Corman produced or directed more than 30 films for American International Pictures (AIP), sometimes completing six or more films per year. These included cult horror classics such as The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), The Day the World Ended (1956), and The Brain Eaters (1958). He also branched out into gangster films, as in 1958's Machine Gun Kelly (starring Charles Bronson); westerns, beginning with 1955's Five Guns West ; and teen-oriented films, with flimsy plots but catchy titles like Teenage Doll (1957) and Rock All Night (1957).
Always looking for ways to cut costs, Corman frequently acted in these films when more actors were needed, and others on the set also pitched in to play characters or trade jobs when necessary. As pointed out by Greg Villepique in Salon, Corman also injected a great deal of slightly bizarre wit into his films. For instance, when the evil coed in 1957's Sorority Doll is discovered beating up one of the pledges, she protests, "All I did was spank her a little."
In 1959 Corman directed one of his best-known horror classics, A Bucket of Blood. Walter Paisley (a character who returns in later Corman films) is a busboy in a beatnik coffeehouse, who discovers a hidden "talent" for sculpture when he coats a neighbor's dead cat in plaster. When there is a demand for more of his work, he takes the obvious Corman route and human "sculptures" start to appear (as people in the neighborhood also start to disappear). A Bucket of Blood, shot in only five days, introduced a decade of similar films from Corman. He followed up with The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), in which the main human character Seymour Krelboin, an assistant in a florist shop, takes second billing to Audrey Jr., a giant blood-eating plant. Audrey Jr. spends much of the film crying out "Feed me!" and growing leaves that bear the faces of the people Seymour has killed to obtain blood. After rehearsing for three days, Corman completed filming in a mere two days, perhaps a record for a feature film. In his autobiography, Corman confessed that he had been told by AIP to make a film for less than $50,000, and so created Bucket; when it was a success, he "did Little Shop in two days on a leftover set just to beat my speed record." Little Shop was notable for featuring newcomer Jack Nicholson as a masochistic undertaker. (In 1982, it also was adapted into an award-winning stage musical.)
Based on the success of Bucket and Little Shop, Corman found himself in an unusual position. AIP gave him larger budgets and he was able to spend more time shooting his films. He embarked on some of his most famous films, a series based on stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe and starring Vincent Price. Outstanding among these were Corman's first technicolor films, The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). For Masque, Corman reused elaborate castle sets from the historical epic Beckett. The film's cinematographer, Nicholas Roeg, created a surrealistic atmosphere that he later used in his own films, such as Don't Look Now. 1963's The Raven, based on a poem by Poe, starred Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Jack Nicholson, and was a horror-comedy that had no clear story line. After The Raven was completed, Corman decided to reuse the castle sets for another quick film before tearing them down, and got Karloff to stay for two more days to shoot The Terror, costarring Jack Nicholson and directed by Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola. However, it took several months after Karloff's departure to piece together the film; Corman called it the longest production of his career, but also said it was "a classic story of how to make a film out of nothing."
During the civil unrest of the late twentieth century, Corman (an acknowledged liberal) nevertheless remained devoted to the apolitical film subjects that had made him famous. In his Salon article, Villepique discussed one of the only films in which Corman explored a political subject. 1962's film The Intruder starred William Shatner as a Northern racist who travels south to fight school integration. Corman himself went to the Deep South to shoot the film, and used local residents as film extras without revealing how critical the film was of civil rights opponents. He and his crew just managed to finish the film before being ordered out of town by the local police. The Intruder was a failure in theaters, even after he gave it a new name more typical of his films, I Hate Your Guts!
Some of Corman's other films of the 1960s focused on characters who later became stereotypes of that decade's lifestyles. The Wild Angels (1966) was one of the first films to look at "biker" culture; it featured little-known actors Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. Another low-budget production, The Wild Angels was extremely violent for its time. However, it not only won a prestigious award at the Venice Film Festival, but also paid for itself many times over, grossing more than $25 million. 1967's The Trip, a pioneer psychedelic film, was starred in and written by Jack Nicholson. Other notable Corman films of the 1960s and early 1970s included Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), Bloody Mama (1970), starring Shelley Winters as the mother of an outlaw gang, and Women in Cages (1971).
Corman, whose films still were considered low-budget but now often cost two million dollars, became increasingly frustrated with what he considered the wastefulness and excessive interference of the major Hollywood studios. In 1970, he established New World Pictures, which immediately turned a profit and soon became the country's largest independent film distribution company. New World continued to produce Corman staple items like Candy Stripe Nurses. But the profits from these films also enabled New World to distribute art films by noted directors such as Francois Truffault and Federico Fellini.
In 1983 Corman decided to stop distributing films so that he could devote more attention to producing them. He sold New World and set up a new company, Concorde-New Horizons, which devoted itself largely to producing horror and martial arts films for distribution to theaters and a cable television series, "Roger Corman Presents." Corman has lived in Santa Monica, California, with his wife Julie Corman (also a producer), for many years. He continues to provide his fans with installments of Alien Avengers and other films with the typical Corman features.
Despite his nickname, "King of the B Movies," Corman's films nevertheless have received critical acclaim in addition to their ongoing popularity with filmgoers. His awards have ranged from a Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival to the Career Achievement Award of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (1996). Perhaps one of the most distinguished features of Corman's long career has been his ability to recognize young screen talent. Among the future film stars who worked with Corman early in their careers were Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Talia Shire, and Diane Ladd; and directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, John Sayles, and James Cameron.
Corman has retained a fondness for the early horror films that established his career. In How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Corman confessed that, of the more than 300 films that he produced or directed, Creature From the Haunted Sea (1961) had his favorite ending. In this film, a mobster/sea captain murders a group of smugglers, steals their chest of gold, and then claims they were devoured by a sea monster. "We have always killed off our monsters," said Corman. "This time, the monster wins." He insisted on a final scene that showed the sea monster on the ocean floor, sitting on the chest of gold and happily munching on a stack of skeletons.
Corman, Roger, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1998.
McGee, Mark Thomas, Roger Corman, the Best of the Cheap Acts, McFarland, 1988.
Entertainment Weekly, May 19, 1995.
Forbes, April 15, 1991.
"Biography of Roger Corman," Concorde Pictures, http://www.concordepictures.com(November 7, 2000).
"Roger Corman," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com(November 3, 2000).
"Roger Corman," Salon, http://www.salonmag.com/people/bc/2000/06/13/corman(November 7, 2000). □