Roger Corman

Exploitation Videos 5

published in Video Age, November 1985, Melbourne

Roger Corman — the man who put the X in Exploitation. Largely neglected in most historical accounts of the latter development of the cinema, he has almost single-handedly defined the essence of low-budget film-making as a combination of creative exploitation and inventive production.

Corman has consistently viewed film as the art of making money and a money-making art. New World — his own film company formed in 1970 — is now one of the largest independents operating in Hollywood, while both critical reassessment and cult status over the past decade have painted the Corman portrait in flattering artistic light. Half businessman, half producer and half director (Corman always got three halves out of a whole), he truly deserved the honor of officially opening the world's first Drive-In Festival in Texas in 1983.

He also deserves some measure of honor in a column devoted to exploitation films. Corman has directed 49 films (nine of which are available on video) and produced another 41 (12 of which are available on video). The 21 titles available, though, give a good idea of the Corman touch: sensationalist material produced on unbelievably low budgets. Hell's Angels, student nurses, women's prisons, gothic horror, drag racers, blaxploitation, hallucinagenic drugs — this guy knows what life really is all about.

Our story starts sometime in the early to mid-'50s. After England's Hammer Studios attempted to compete with Universal's golden age of Technicolor sci-fi (and failed with the Quatermass series of films), Hammer set about making horror films in lurid color. Fantastic art direction and dazzling cinematography — not to mention lots of redder-than-red blood — gave Hammer a successful formula tor British neoclassical/Gothic horror which lasted for nearly two decades.

During the late '50s, Corman was busy churning put gritty delinquent films, absurd horror epics and crazed Westerns. In 1960, partially inspired-by Hammer's classy low-budget stylisations of horror, Corman created the first of a series of equally distinctive films — the ‘Poe films’ — which helped establish AlP (American International Pictures) as something other than a B-Grade operation.

There are seven films in the ‘official’ Edgar Allen Poe series, five of which are available on video: The House Of Usher (1960): The Pit & The Pendulum (1961); The Premature Burial (on a double feature with Frogs), Tales Of Terror (the video title though is Tales Of Horror) (1962); and The Raven (1963). These five titles form the core responsible for the Corman-Poe ‘look’: all are scripted by Richard Matheson of TV's Twilight Zone fame (except The Premature Burial) and feature cinematography by Floyd Crosby and art direction by Daniel Haller, and all star Vincent Price (except The Premature Burial again, which starred Ray Milland).

These films established Vincent Price as the penultimate modern Gothic horror star, whilst Tales Of Terror and The Raven provided some rarely successful examples of combining horror with comedy thanks to the performances of both Price and Peter Lorre. The other four Corman-directed videos available broadly fall into the category of crime — gangsters, detectives and bikies. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1966) is a modern reworking of the Capone mythology with some high-level direction and inspired casting: Jason Robards, George Segal, Ralph Meeker, Bruce Dern, Harold J Stone, John Agar and Leo Gordon.

Whereas The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (an exquisitely exploitative title) pre-dated the soon-to-follow ‘modern’ gangster film (from Bonnie & Clyde and The Grissom Gang to Dillinger), Bloody Mama (1969) exploded the Depression-era-folk mythology of such films. Starring Shelley Winters as the infamous Ma Barker and Robert De Niro, Don Stroud, Clint Kimbrough, Robert Walden and Bruce Dern as her ‘boys’, Bloody Mamma gave the new gangster trend an unnerv-ingly contemporary treatment. Incest, glue-sniffing, homosexuality, S&M, heroin and rape were all there, plus your good ol'-fashioned gangster stuff like murdering, bank-robbing and kidnapping. This film is a must.

Target: Harry features yet another strong cast, headed by Vic Morrow playing the part of a private detective/airplane-flyer in this modern-day reworking of the Maltese Falcon plot in the style of James Bond meets Tony Rome. Suitable performances are also delivered by Suzanne Pleshette, Victor Buono, Cesar Romero and Charlette Rampling (who, fortunately, only gets to say about 20 words before getting her head fatally squashed by the hands of a Greek wrestler!).

Although not a smash of a film, it is interesting to note that Corman is not credited for direction. In 1969, ABC-TV signed Corman to direct a two-hour telemovie titled What's In It For Harry? ABC TV rejected Corman's completed work due to its excessive violence (that's Roger!) so a few years later Gene Corman (Roger's brother and producer of many of Corman's AIP films) reshot some nudie footage (go Vic!) and tried to release it under the title How To Make It. Unsuccessful in his attempts, he then handed it over to ABC International Pictures who released it in Europe under the title Target: Harry. Direction is mysteriously credited to one Henry Neill. Corman hasn't directed a film since 1970, spending his time and energy producing films for New World and running the company itself. His work at AIP from 1955 to 1970 and at New World from 1970 onwards has led him to giving the initial break to some of the American cinema's modern mavericks.

The Corman productions available on video include the following directorial debuts: Dementia 13 (available as a double with Night-Of The Living Dead confusingly under the title The Haunted & The Hunted) (1962/Francis Ford Coppola); Box Car Bertha (1974/Martin Scorsese); Grand Theft Auto (1977/ Ron Howard); and Piranha (1978/Joe Dante). The other Corman-produced video titles available: The Dunwich Horror (1969); Big Bad Mamma (1974); Deathrace 2000 (1975); Eat My Dust (under the title Jump!, 1977); Deathsport (1978); Avalanche (1978); Rock'N'Roll High School (1979); and Battle Beyond The Stars (1980).

Corman always gave young talent a break — mainly because they were inexpensive but also because they were hardworking and original in their ideas. The names that started out working under Corman virtually establish him as the unofficial head of America's most seminal yet least-recognised school of film-training.

Recognise any of these names? Directors - Lewis Teague, Jeannot Szwarc, Bruce Clarke, Barbara Anne Peters, Jonathan Kaplan, Irvin Kershner, James Cameron, Amy Jones, George Armitage, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Bartel, Alan Arkush, Monte Hellman, Jonathan Demme, Jack Hill, Steve Carver and Stephanie Rothman. Producers — Gary Kurtz and Menahem Golan. Writers — Richard Matheson, Charles Griffith, Jack Hill, Bob Towne and John Sayles. Actors - Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Barbara Hershey, Dick Miller, William Shatner and David Carradine.

To all of them — and thereby a large section of current American cinema – Roger Corman is a cinematic godfather. Exploitation just wouldn't have been the same without him: Check him out sometime.

Text © Philip Brophy 1985. Images © respective copyright holders