B-Movie Heroes: Roger Corman

When we decided to do a B-Movie Heroes feature on the Sultan of Schlock himself, Roger Corman, there was only one man we could turn to...

That's right, we recruited the aid of the refined gentleman of retro horror, Mr Jim Moon of the Hypnogoria blog, to give us a run down of Mr Corman's greatest hits. Hit the jump and hail to the chief:

To cult movie fans, Roger Corman surely needs no introduction. He’s the fellow who launched a thousand cheapies in seemingly a thousand different genres, first for AIP and later his own New World Pictures. He’s the Schlockmeister General who has been purveying *ahem* inexpensive productions based on exploitation thrills for nearly six decades, and who with typical cheek entitled his autobiography How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime.

However there is another side to Corman than the creator of a legion of genre tat. Firstly, as well as making movies, he’s also long been in the business of distributing them, and it was under the aegis of his New World Pictures that a host of foreign films, such as the works of highbrow arthouse fellows such as a Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini, first gained wide releases in US cinemas.

Secondly, throughout his career, his movies have been a training school for generations of film talent. A host of directors all cut their teeth in Corman-produced flicks, from popular favourites like James Cameron, Joe Dante and Ron Howard, to genuine cinema heavyweights such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorese.

Now, the many cult movies he has produced over the years is one thing - and surely deserving of another B Movie Heroes in itself (watch this space - Ed) - however, it’s easy to forget that Corman was no slouch in the directing department himself, so here’s three seminal flicks helmed by the man himself!

Little Shop of Horrors

Although legend has it that this movie was made for a bet, sadly that is not the truth. It is a fact, however, that this seminal horror comedy was shot in a record breaking two-and-a-half days in order to gain use of some sets due for demolition.

Now 1960 was a turning point for Corman, before then he’d been producing low-grade fare such as Attack of the Giant Leeches and A Bucket of Blood, but Little Shop Of Horrors was a full-blown attempt at mixing comedy and horror. Now this tale of a boy and a killer plant with a taste for human blood was hardly a box-office smash on its first release. However, despite being part of a drive-in double bill, over the years the tale of Audrey II has become a part of the popular imagination. First gaining a following by word of mouth and then frequent TV showings throughout the ‘60s and 70s saw the film blossom into a bona fide cult movie.

However the growth of Little Shop didn’t stop there: in the 80s, it spawned an off-Broadway musical, which ran for five years and itself came to the screen in 1986 courtesy of Fozzie Bear *ahem* I mean, Frank Oz. In turn, this spawned a cartoon series in 1991 and a return to the stage, this time on Broadway itself, in 2003. Even now, there are plans for yet another big screen version, this time from director Declan O’Brien. If all that wasn’t enough, the original movie also gave a young Jack Nicholson one of his first movie roles. Not a bad legacy for a movie made in under 72 hours!

X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes

Now I’m sure that, as kids, we all  fantasied about having Superman’s powers of vision or wished that those X Ray Spex sold in joke shops and the back of comics actually worked. However, this little flick from Corman tells us that access to such magic vision would prove to be decidedly more disturbing than just seeing the skellingtons that live inside everybody.

Like all the best science fiction and horror, Corman and screenwriter Ray Russell think their way into the far corners of the scenario, extrapolating the seemingly-innocent invention of eye-drops that bestow X-ray vision into terrifying and imaginative territory. Initially, Ray Milland has every teenage boy’s fantasy of being able to see through ladies' clothes, but also discovers he can spot all kinds of hidden medical ailments. However, in true B-movie fashion, this power spirals out of his control, and very soon he’s seeing beyond human reality and strange visions are assaulting his sanity.

As Stephen King has remarked, the movie mutates from typical mad science shenanigans into a tale that recalls the cosmic horrors of HP Lovecraft, but also the slow crumbling of Xavier’s life strangely echoes that other Ray Milland classic The Lost Weekend, and it has to be said that, as the vision-impaired scientist, Mr Milland turns in a performance with the same strength and gravitas as his famous portrayal of a hallucination-prone alcoholic.

Perhaps needless to say, that this movie does not have a happy ending... however, when you’ve experienced the proto-psychedelic terrors of X, be sure to look up the final line that was cut from the finished film that ratchets up the horror of the climax another notch!

Tomb of Ligeia

Of course, no celebration of Mr Corman could possibly be complete without a selection from his famous cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, which saw him team up with genre superstar Vincent Price and legendary authors Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumount.

Still, this last entry in the Poe cycle was somewhat different from its predecessors: to begin with, this one was penned by Robert Towne, who would go on to script the classic Chinatown, and rather than being entirely studio-bound, Tomb of Ligeia was largely shot on location in the heart of the English countryside.

Often overlooked for being the 'odd man out' in the cycle, and somewhat overshadowed by the preceding movie in the series: Masque of the Red Death, which many view as the pinnacle of the Poe movies, Tomb of Ligeia is nevertheless a very fine film.

With typical flair, Corman makes the most of the Norfolk locations and delivers a truly-beautiful movie. Whereas the crumbling castles and decaying mansion sets of the previous Corman/Poe movies evoked the popular notion of gothic (i.e. old and spooky), Tomb of Ligeia is actually closer to the literary genre bearing the same adjective - dripping with a strong sense of landscape and themes of doomed love and moral corruptions entwined around the usual 'ye olde worldy' horror antics. While it mixes in elements from other Poe works like The Black Cat and The Facts in The Case of M. Valdemar, the movie accurately captures the dark romanticism of the original tale.

With its evocative use of the English countryside and the action firmly built around the strong performances of Vincent Price and Elizabeth Shepherd, the tangled and supernaturally-thwarted relationship between Verger Fell and the Lady Rowena makes for a dramatic and haunting tale. Brimming with atmosphere and delivering some creepy scenes that unusually take place in the bright sunlight of a British summer’s day, Tomb of Ligeia is perhaps the most subtle and most ambitious of all Corman’s Poe adaptations. This movie is a fitting swansong for the cycle and in an under-rated jewel in Corman’s directorial crown.

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