Roger Corman has had as much influence over modern Hollywood as Spielberg or Scorsese. And for good reason: Without him there likely wouldn’t even have been a Spielberg or Scorsese. This director/producer of hundreds of low-budget horror, sci-fi, and exploitation films is remembered (rather unfairly) as a B-movie hack, but Corman’s aesthetic sensibilities have come to dominate the franchises we now call “tent poles,” and his protégés number among the most influential people in cinema. He’s enjoyed every minute of it.
Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, a new documentary by Alex Stapleton, tells the story of Corman’s career, from his self-financed beginnings to his tensions with Hollywood executives and the founding of his own studio, New World Pictures. The film gets a lot of mileage out of ridiculous clips from Corman’s films featuring terrible special effects and overacting. Yet without exception, all of these movies seem playful and fun. This impression is deepened by the many interviews with Corman’s friends and colleagues. Everyone knew they were making low-budget quickies for teenagers at the drive-in and simply decided to have a great time making them. How could you not when making the likes of Teenage Caveman, The Wasp Woman, Death Race 2000, or Attack of the Crab Monsters?
The documentary’s interviews offer up a who’s-who of New Hollywood filmmakers: Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Joe Dante, and Jack Nicholson all make appearances. In fact, after Corman himself, Nicholson probably gets the most screen time, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that his reflective, witty, and emotional remarks are not only the best of the film but the best publicity Nicholson’s done in the past decade or so. The arrogant, self-important star we’ve gotten used to seeing on red carpets vanishes here. All of these guys got their start working on Corman productions, and most owe their careers to him.
Corman himself comes off as very humble, resembling no one so much as Mr. Rogers. He laughs at himself and his experiences frequently, and at first we are invited to laugh at him too. The movies themselves are ridiculous and everyone admits that Corman’s creative motivation was always about saving money. After a while, however, it begins to be clear that Corman has a better sense of himself and what he wants to accomplish than virtually any other director working in Hollywood. At no point in the film does Corman express an ounce of regret for being “King of the Bs,” and who could blame him?
Corman did actually make some memorable films along the way, including The Little Shop of Horrors and a series of films based on Edgar Allen Poe stories—such as The Pit and the Pendulum and The House of Usher. Wanting to make a movie about integration in the South, but unable to find a financier willing to touch the subject, he self-funded and self-produced The Intruder. He later made The Wild Angels and The Trip, both starring Peter Fonda and which Fonda and Dennis Hopper essentially combined in 1968 to make Easy Rider.
In fact, as various New Hollywood film directors tell the stories of how they got started, we start to see a pattern: Many of the most important films of the late ’60s and early ’70s are really just bigger-budgeted versions of Corman’s work. Mean Streets was nearly made for New World Pictures. Jaws had no Corman involvement, but there’s virtually nothing about the movie that couldn’t have been done under Corman’s supervision. (1978’s Piranha, directed by Dante, was.) And, finally, there was Star Wars, about which Jack Nicholson is characteristically blunt: “I hated Star Wars.”
With the double whammy of Jaws and Star Wars, Corman realized his business was in trouble. Even though his movies were, in terms of plot, script, character, and target demographic, hardly any different than those of George Lucas, he couldn’t compete on budget. Jabba the Hutt would always look more believable than the Crab Monster. And as we now know, it wouldn’t take long for FX believability to become the raison d’etre for the summer season. Corman may not have made films with strong stories or characters, but he always strived to make films that were fun. Even “fun” was soon less important to the studios than spending money on special effects. Drive-in culture was replaced by summer blockbuster culture, and Corman has spent the last couple of decades relegated to straight-to-video and basic-cable releases.
Corman and the film make a surprisingly moral case for why the likes of Star Wars are a bad thing. It’s not, as many have argued over the years, that the movies are childish, but that Corman could make the same films cheaper, faster, and, as Nicholson puts it, less pretentiously. In a clip from the late ’70s, an interviewer asks Corman if it’s obscene to spend $25 million to make a movie—a high amount at the time which seems very low today. “Yes,” he replies, “With that amount of money we could rebuild a city slum.” Corman simply doesn’t understand why that much money was necessary.
Such a response could come off as simply sour grapes, but not from Corman. He’s as unassuming and unpretentious as any man in Hollywood, so when he says that spending money on expensive sci-fi films is wrong, you believe it. I was actually a little taken aback, myself, to think about that moral quandary: Are the films I watch immoral because they’re expensive? Is there something about a $100,000 monster movie that’s not only more fun but more noble? I don’t really have an answer to that, and I don’t think Corman would ever suggest that his films are somehow more morally righteous than Star Wars. But what comes across in Corman’s World is a man who has spent his life having fun while working on his craft without regrets. There’s something rare and special about that. I think every Crab Monster would agree.
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ran from April 14 - 17.