On the occasion of his 84th birthday, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
A living legend in the film industry, Roger Corman has directed more than fifty low-budget independent motion pictures, thirty-three of them for American International Pictures (AIP), which was founded by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff in 1954 as the American Releasing Corporation. Born on April 5, 1926, he has also produced and/or distributed hundreds more for his own companies, New World Pictures and Concorde/New Horizons; given a generation of major filmmakers their first big break, on one or both sides of the camera; and even acted in occasional films. Long before there was a Sundance Institute for independent filmmakers, there was an unofficial “Corman School” whose many prestigious alumni include Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Gale Anne Hurd, Jonathan Kaplan, Jack Nicholson, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Towne.
Associated with AIP since its inception, Corman became disillusioned with the studio over changes made by cofounder Nicholson to four consecutive films without his knowledge, and after making Von Richthofen and Brown (1970) for United Artists, he took a twenty-year hiatus from his directing chores to get married, start a family, and found New World, which he eventually sold in 1982. As a director, he is probably best known for AIP’s highly successful series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, which in its use of color, Gothic horror, classic literary sources, and relatively low budgets served as an American answer to the Hammer horror revival that was then underway. Corman initiated the series, directing the first eight films, half of which—House of Usher (aka The Fall of the House of Usher, 1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963)—were based on Poe’s work by acclaimed author and screenwriter Richard Matheson.
Matheson’s friend and colleague, Charles Beaumont, weighed in with The Premature Burial (1962), written with the late Ray Russell; The Haunted Palace (1963), which took its title from the poem by Poe, but was primarily based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; and The Masque of the Red Death (1964), which was rewritten by R. Wright Campbell and incorporated Poe’s “Hop-Frog.” The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) was scripted by Towne, then still in his twenties, and Corman’s team included Vincent Price (who starred in all but The Premature Burial), composer Les Baxter, and cinematographer Floyd Crosby, an Oscar-winner for the semi-documentary Tabu (1931). Art director and production designer Daniel Haller later directed AIP’s more overt Lovecraft films Monster of Terror (aka Die, Monster, Die, 1965)—adapted by another member of Matheson’s circle, Jerry Sohl, from “The Colour Out of Space”—and The Dunwich Horror (1970).
Corman made his directorial debut with a Western, Swamp Women (1955), after producing three films, including Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954), and while his subsequent genre credits as a producer are too numerous to mention, he has directed several sometimes borderline SF films, most of which are cult classics, like It Conquered the World and Day the World Ended (both 1956). The former pits Peter Graves against fellow scientist Lee Van Cleef, the minion of a cucumber-like creature from Venus trying to take over the Earth with bat-shaped control devices, while Richard Denning starred in the latter, as irradiated mutants menace a group of survivors after an atomic war. These gained additional “bad cinema” luster when Dallas-based auteur Larry Buchanan remade them, for even less money, as Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966) and In the Year 2889 (1967), respectively, to round out two packages of genre films for American International Television (AIT).
Remade by Jim Wynorski in 1988 and, incredibly, again by Terence H. Winkless in 1995, Corman’s Not of This Earth (1957) was written by Charles B. Griffith—who scripted no fewer than seven of his genre films—and Mark Hanna, with Paul Birch as an alien seeking blood for his dying race, and Corman’s frequent and formidable leading lady, Beverly Garland, as his gutsy nurse. In the self-explanatory Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), atomic fallout is fingered as the culprit once again, not only rendering the crustaceans colossal but also giving them the ability to absorb the brains of those they kill, which still makes them no match for a cave-in and high-tension wires. The Undead (1957) cashed in on the Bridey Murphy craze, with prostitute Pamela Duncan hypnotized as the subject of a regression experiment and sent to the Middle Ages, where she is inconveniently jailed as a witch; it was reportedly shot in six days, with interiors built inside a disused supermarket.
With a running time only slightly longer than it takes to read its title, The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957) mingled Corman regulars and an unusually threadbare beast, created on an off day by the entrepreneurial effects team of Jack Rabin, Irving Block, and Louis DeWitt. Responding to reports of the Soviet Sputnik, Corman and writer-producers Rabin and Block then banged out War of the Satellites (1958) in just two months, although any resemblance to reality was, presumably, purely coincidental as aliens attempted to foil manned space flight. To Corman’s dismay, AIP retitled Campbell’s script Prehistoric World as the more exploitative Teenage Caveman (1958), with a relatively young, albeit hardly teenaged, Robert Vaughn as “The Boy,” who breaks his clan’s laws and heads for greener pastures roamed by The God That Brings Death With Its Touch, finally revealed as the deformed survivor of an atomic war.
In between the Poe series and such spoofs as A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), Corman continued to dabble in SF with the likes of The Wasp Woman, in which royal jelly from a queen wasp turns Susan Cabot into the titular terror, and The Last Woman on Earth (both 1960). Shot back-to-back with Haunted Sea, this featured the same leads—Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, and “Edward Wain” (debuting screenwriter Towne)—enmeshed in a post-apocalyptic love triangle, reminiscent of the somewhat higher-toned The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959). One of Corman’s more unusual efforts of this period, X—The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963), was written by Russell (also an editor at Playboy, in which capacity he acquired many stories by Matheson et al.) and Robert Dillon, with Ray Milland as a driven scientist whose experiment leads to enhanced vision but ends in tragedy.
Corman’s swan song at AIP, the ill-fated satire Gas! or, It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It (1970), included an homage to Poe in general and The Raven in particular, with a character named “Edgar Allan Poe” appearing periodically to comment on the action, riding a Hell’s Angels chopper with a raven perched upon his shoulder. It concerns a nerve gas that is accidentally unleashed and prematurely ages all those over twenty-five to death, leaving the youth of America to run the country in a scattershot mélange of communes, bikers, rock music, hippies, and a deus ex machina ending. Corman’s sole directorial credit since 1970, Frankenstein Unbound (1990) is based on Brian W. Aldiss’s novel, with scientist John Hurt transported by a time slip from 2031 to 1817, encountering Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia), his Monster (Nick Brimble), Mary Godwin (Bridget Fonda), Lord Byron (Jason Patric), and Percy Shelley (Michael Hutchence).