The importance of Roger Corman in American filmmaking cannot be underestimated. Without Corman, the New Hollywood style of filmmaking, which arguably began with Easy Rider in 1969, would never have happened. Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Joe Dante would never have been given their first chance at making movies. Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and William Shatner may never have broken into stardom had Corman not given them roles in his films.
For much of the US filmmaking establishment, Corman is ‘King of the Bs’ – a director and producer of low-budget trash. But what filmmaker Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World demonstrates is that, as cheap and swiftly made as Corman’s movies are, they’re varied, imaginative, and contrary to common assumptions, aren’t all exploitative trash.
From his first picture, Monster From The Ocean Floor in 1954, to Dinoshark in 2010, Corman’s World provides an overview of the filmmaker’s extraordinary movies, with interviews with the directors and actors who worked along side him – Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda are just a few of them, and their recollections are entertaining and, on occasion, surprisingly moving.
Often produced in a matter of days – which included writing the script – the sheer speed with which Corman directed or produced meant that the results inevitably varied, but there was an unbridled sense of anything-goes fun in his movies, and that’s something perfectly captured in Stapleton’s documentary.
Little Shop Of Horrors, one of Corman’s more widely known movies thanks to its adaptation into a musical and 1986 movie, was shot in less than two days, with mostly improvised dialogue, sets left over from A Bucket Of Blood (Corman’s previous picture) and some medical equipment borrowed from a dentist.
Jack Nicholson recounts his involvement with the late 50s and 60s period of the filmmaker’s work with a mixture and affection and horror. “When he finally made good movie by accident,” Nicholson muses, “I wasn’t in it.”
If the quality of Corman’s films was mixed, so to was their subject matter. He’s perhaps best known for his monster movies and Poe adaptations, but he also made films such as The Intruder, a brave yet little-seen civil rights-era drama starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, and The Wild Angels, a counterculture biker movie which undoubtedly paved the way for the better-known Easy Rider.
As an overview of his movies, Corman’s World is informative and briskly told. The sheer volume of his output means that omissions are inevitable – I’d have liked to see the film dwell a little longer on his late 70s and early 80s sci-fi and horror productions, such as Galaxy Of Terror, C.H.U.D. and Battle Beyond The Stars, for example – but it does mention some of his finest movies, such as A Bucket Of Blood, The Pit And The Pendulum and The Tomb Of Ligeia.
If you’re already familiar with Corman’s movies, they’ll make you want to watch them all again (or maybe some of the better ones, at least), and if you’ve never heard of Corman, you’ll be amazed at some of the crazy films he made, and exactly how he made them.
Most of all, Corman’s World paints a portrait of a filmmaker who, although not without flaw (his penny-pinching mode of operation didn’t always work in his favour), has earned a great deal of respect and fondness from those who’ve spent any time on set with him.
Now in his 80s, Corman continues to produce, and in 2010 rattled out no fewer than three monster movies for the Syfy Channel. And although his movies haven’t achieved the mainstream success of some of the talent he nurtured in their early years, the documentary concludes with Corman finally receiving the recognition he deserves.
And as Corman’s World proves, Hollywood owes a huge debt to Corman, even though he’s stoically toiled on its periphery; Jaws, Star Wars and Alien are essentially B-picture concepts made with A-picture money. Years before Spielberg was attacking actors with rubber monsters, Corman was doing the same thing – except with less cash, less time, and probably without a permit.
To borrow a saying originally written about Frank Sinatra, this is Corman’s world. We just live in it.