Reinventing the reel: How Roger Corman changed the face of modern genre cinema (and not necessarily for the better)

Since the 1950s, one man has reigned supreme over all exploitation cinema. The productions of Roger Corman have shaped the filmmaking industry in almost every facet. From shoot to marketing, Corman’s influence can be felt across Hollywood and beyond.

Kickstarting his career with a few lacklustre productions, Roger Corman joined forces with American International Pictures (AIP); a new company formed by entertainment lawyer, Samuel Z. Arkoff, and film sales agent, James H. Nicholson, with the impetus to create low-budget double features aimed at the nation’s teen population. AIP are credited as the first production company to conduct focus groups with core demographics to determine content and marketing for their features. A practice now standard for almost all studios. AIP produced features in a wide range of genres including creature features such as The Beast with a Million Eyes or It Conquered the World and precursors to narrative sexploitation such as Girls in Prison.

It was with AIP that Corman formed his signature producing style; quick, cheap, and accessible. Samuel Arkoff’s movie-making formula – acrostically known as the A.R.K.O.F.F. system counted ‘action’, ‘revolution’ and ‘fornication’ among its composition – would inform Corman’s own approach to creating films. Creating lean, action-packed features was always the golden rule for Corman. Martin Scorsese, whose second feature Boxcar Bertha was produced by Corman, once said “Roger never saw a picture he couldn’t cut ten minutes out of”. Ten being a magic number for Corman, he would require his writers to include an action sequence every ten pages.

Perhaps his most famous series of films were the Edgar Allan Poe features of the 60s. Corman believed that Poe was under-appreciated in the canon of American authors and so took to convincing Arkoff that an altogether more lavish production would be effective for the studio. Instead of the oppressively short ten day shooting schedules, Corman lobbied to shoot for three weeks. The result was 1960’s wildly successful House of Usher. Shot in glorious CinemaScope, Corman directed Vincent Price, who had recently finished William Castle’s The Tingler, through a screenplay by I Am Legend author, Richard Matheson. Three more films were made based on Matheson’s scripts, Tales of Terror, The Raven, and The Pit and the Pendulum, while one of the four that count TV writer and novelist Charles Beaumont as scribe, Premature Burial, starred Ray Milland in place of Price. The final Poe adaptation was that of his short story, Ligeia. Written by Robert Towne, The Tomb of Ligeia filmed in England and stands apart from the bulk of the series due to its use of outdoor locations. Presumably, it was cheaper to put Price on a plane than it was to build a convincing set of ruins.

Now, 60 years on from his first Producer credit, Roger Corman has had a hand in creating some of genre cinema’s most revered fare. From the prison-race dystopia of Death Race 2000, all the way through Joe Dante’s Jaws-alike Piranha up to the present day; here, his career seems to have looped itself as he now returns to the giant monsters that were the mainstay of American International Pictures, the studio in which Corman made many of his successes. His production methods have continuously influenced modern exploitation and horror in the most indelible of fashions. Predominantly, because Corman never dealt exclusively in the narrative aspects of filmmaking – instead choosing the preferred AIP method of building films up from the marketing – his epitaph will never be that of a man whose content drifted into the middle of the road, as is often attributed to other genre legends. Instead, Corman’s quickfire production mantra has etched itself permanently into the psyche of anyone with more than a cursory interest in creating genre cinema.

A legend exists that no Corman production has ever lost money. That may not be true, as his deeply political directorial effort, The Intruder, was a crashing failure on its release in 1962. At the time, rumours surfaced that Corman blamed his star, William Shatner, for the meagre box-office numbers produced by the film. In Alex Stapleton’s brilliant documentary, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, Roger Corman instead cites the film’s tonal distinction from his other features as the driving factor for the film’s defeat. It may not be the only production that lost money, but it certainly smeared his perfect record at that point.

Aside from consistently achieving profitability, Roger Corman productions have historically typified cultural shifts in consciousness that have come to define their respective eras. Some of his earliest works traded on the new enthusiasm for souped-up automobiles in the fast-paced 50s where newly introduced ‘muscle cars’ were adding colour to America’s highways. Likewise, throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Corman dealt almost exclusively in examining the mindset of movie-goers and producing features that spoke to them. Films like The Trip updated the ‘education-exploitation’ concept that had previously been cornered by self proclaimed ‘King of the Celluloid Gypsies’ Dwain Esper and his ilk, while productions like Rock n Roll High School and Suburbia were able to strike a lucrative chord from the burgeoning punk rock movement.  Riding these waves of zeitgeist has allowed Corman to remain culturally important throughout decades, although he might not agree.

“I’m not so certain how culturally relevant I am any more,” he drawls, deliberately. “The years are piling up, but when I was younger I was very involved, particularly, with the counter-culture movement of the 60s. Most of which reflected my beliefs, and some affected of my pictures. I’ve tried to stay up with that by a great deal of reading and just moving and being part of a social network that is still very much involved.”

Throughout his extended tenure as the king of exploitation and genre cinema, Corman has fostered some of filmmaking’s biggest talents; be they actors, producers, writers, or directors. Household names like James Cameron and Dennis Hopper all count a Corman set among their first exposure, whilst other genre legends launched long-standing careers from the same springboard. Corman has been able to mine new talent hungry for filmmaking opportunities primarily because those with the drive will do a lot for very little.

Alongside working with AIP, Corman also founded his own production and distribution firms. His first, Palo Alto Productions, made only three films over 1954 and 1955. In 1959, Roger Corman and his brother, Gene, started Filmgroup. Though Filmgroup lasted only nine years before Roger bowed out and AIP took over distribution of the company’s catalogue, running his own production and distribution racket provided the key experience that he would need to move into his most recognisable phase; New World Pictures. The red sphere of their logo dominated releases throughout the 1970s and 80s. David Cronenberg’s second feature, Rabid, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and Umberto Lenzi’s first foray into the cannibal genre, Eaten Alive (1980),  were all either partially funded or distributed by Corman’s New World. It was with these companies that The Corman School, as it came to be known, gifted filmgoers some of cinema’s biggest names. At one point, the only independent low budget film distributor across America, they taught the big studios a thing or two about profitable filmmaking. So-called independents, such as Miramax, may make films that bate Oscar and light up multiplexes the world over, but their biggest debts are owed to Mr. Corman’s methods for fashioning workable low budget filmmaking into a genuine, respectable artform. Recently, the Corman School of Filmmaking has added a new wing to its notional educational facility. As the cost of filmmaking has declined through the decades, more creatives have been able to adopt the modus operandi of Roger Corman to cheaply create profitable genre films. “I think it’s a natural progression through life.” Corman replies, when asked about his methods being adopted by fledgling low-budget auteurs. “At one time, I was a young filmmaker and now I’m a veteran filmmaker and I just understand the changes that are connected with that. I’m very pleased that my pictures affect people in this way.”

“The biggest difference is really the special effects.” Corman says, explaining how genre filmmaking has changed throughout the years. “Computer graphics, green screen, so forth. The techniques we have today for special effects are far, far superior to what we were dealing with when we doing, say, the Edgar Allen Poe pictures in the early 60s and even some of the science fiction films that I was doing in the 70s. It’s getting better for this reason, the special effects were extremely expensive when it first came in but now the cost is dropping. What was available a couple of years ago to people a hundred million dollar picture or more is now available, to a certain extent, to all filmmakers.” Of course, he is correct. With the cost of creating visual effects now effectively reduced to the man hours spent with navigable, entry-level programs, such as Adobe After Effects, and the fact that almost everybody in the Western world owns the means to shoot rudimentary video of high quality means that modern low-budget cinema should be embracing the counter-culture ideals that Corman was so revered for. But after 60 years of changing the landscape of filmmaking through his ongoing dedication to frugality and fast turnaround, it appears that Roger Corman’s legacy will prove to be something considerably more trivial. There is little doubt that Corman’s catalogue of cult favourites have earned their status over decades of existing just outside of the mainstream cinematic spectrum, and while it may be true that recently a cult can be forged by applying the legendary name; most cults are forged over time.

In the current climate of accessibility, instant gratification is de rigeur. Where in previous eras, cults were forged through word of mouth or blindly stumbling through the minefield of VHS artwork; the age of the internet has, for the most part, rendered that moot. In the days of yore, those seeking something apart from the small-town cinema might spend their time circling capsule reviews in fanzines or, more likely, Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, followed by prowling the VHS section of your local record store in the hopes of finding something from that sacred tome. Nowadays, a few well-placed words on a low-budget horror film can rip through social networking platforms in days, hours, minutes. The right title can produce a cult following virtually overnight. Canny exploitation fans can hop over to their nearest file-sharing facility and download a workprint or a screener in a matter of minutes. In some cases, the completed cycle can be measured in mere moments.

While courting cult status during the formation of a feature is hardly a new discovery – for example, Corman acolyte Jim Wynorski knew exactly what he was doing when he bestowed the perennial moniker of his 1988 film Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers – the current crop of insta-cults market themselves with all the precision of an SEO Executive. Designing films, and subsequently their titles, to elicit a very specific reaction. They may well be imbued with the independent spirit that informed so much of Corman’s classic output, but they choose to subvert the King of the B’s old adage that “genre films sell themselves based on the subject matter” to reflect a relatively new belief that, perhaps, the title is enough. It’s easy to look backwards and note that cult films of yesterday have a playful attitude towards titling. David DeCoteau’s frat-boy horror comedy Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Bernard L. Kowalski’s 1958 sci-fi tinged creature feature Night of the Blood Beast, and Tobe Hooper’s seminal The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all provide the viewer with a window in which to imagine what the film may be like, without being entirely explicit. Watching with irony-laced hindsight, decades later, it’s very easy for us to gauge the schlock-factor (or lack thereof) of these features but the double-edged sword of releases like Sharknado, Zombie Strippers, Snakes on a Plane, and the like, is that you don’t actually have to see the film to understand it. Every possible scenario that could occur between title card and credits is immediately played out in the viewer’s mind long before hitting play. There is a kind of beauty in that because some filmmakers rise to the challenge, but most languish in disappointment because these low budget special-effect based pictures not only have to battle the attitudes of fans of supposed high cinema, but the far-reaching sweep of the human imagination. However, this rejuvenated trend in colossal creature features has not slipped by Mr. Corman; he pioneered the renewed interest in Kaiju’s slightly awkward relative with his 2004 production, Dinocroc. It was Hollywood’s attempt to manufacture a cult with 2006’s Snakes on a Plane that allowed the high-concept, low-budget intentionally schlocky trend to gain traction. Even though David Ellis’s Snakes on a Plane was ostensibly considered a failure, the buzz it created gave filmmakers a glimpse at what can be achieved when you inject a little borrowed nostalgia into a feature.

As alternatives to mainstream cinematic fare, genre films became increasingly popular to the point where the only real line of distinction between the two is that of budget. With directors like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino taking their encyclopedic exploitation knowledge to the mainstream and Hollywood responding by producing frenetic actioners starring actors like Jason Statham and Vin Diesel using titles that wouldn’t look out of place on Roger Corman’s resume (in fact, The Fast and the Furious was a title of a feature Corman produced in 1955!). Modern exploitation is virtually non-existent, with the major studios covering more and more the cinematic bases since Spielberg’s Jaws showed just how successful genre pictures can be, leaving very little room for genuine cults to bloom. Filmmakers with any real cult sensibility have to respond in kind, aggressively pursuing the status that Hollywood’s remake and exploitation culture has taken from them; that is where the insta-cults of Syfy original movies and The Asylum come in. Low budget productions that would have previously achieved cult status are lost in the mêlée and as such have to forcefully stake their claim in the cult camp in order to effectively rival their larger budgeted counterparts. Kicking back at the studio system, at least, is very Corman-esque.

It appears that, now, the cult film is just another marketable niche to be exploited by shrewd individuals, with each of the films in this canon vying to out-schlock each other through increasingly ludicrous titles, ropey special effects, and stunt casting figures of varying degrees of cinematic ridicule. Some may be made with genuine affection for the genre films that paved their road; 2013’s Big Ass Spider, Michael Jai White Blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite (2009), and the wonderful Astron-6 sci-fi fiasco, Manborg (2009), all contain a healthy dose of reverence and respect for their forebearers. There is a cynicism that accompanies living in a world awash with nostalgia that requires people to view their current era with suspicion; in relation to modern genre cinema, it is the world-weary belief that the films of today exist just to turn a profit. Roger himself would tell you that they always have.

This piece was originally published in Diabolique issue 19 under the name Post-Corman’s World –

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