Friday, October 09, 2009

Petri Dish 101: The Haunted Worlds of Roger Corman

After several decades of entertaining and influential work behind the camera, director/producer/exploitation legend Roger Corman will finally get some respect in the form of an Honorary Oscar next year. It's a long-overdue acknowledgement considering the man's indelible impact on film.

Corman produced and directed low-budget B-flicks for decades, following trends and social mores with a canny eye for what audiences wanted. but he's probably best known today as mentor to some of the greatest and most successful filmmakers of all time. The roster of talent that Corman mentored during his years as a director and producer pretty much built modern cinema--Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro got some of their earliest acting gigs in Corman's employ, and the rogues' gallery of directorial talent shepherded by this exploitation king includes Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, John Sayles, and James Cameron (yes, the man who directed the most financially lucrative motion picture in history learned his craft in the trial-by-fire B-movie trenches of Roger Corman).

With all of this talent springing forth from Corman's metaphoric loins, his own work as a director often gets dismissed. Part of the blame goes to the man himself, who's repeatedly confessed to being too frugal and impatient to create lavish cinema masterworks: He's always been all about telling stories as directly as possible (and making a profit, natch). But within budgetary and time constraints that'd kill a dozen lesser men, Roger Corman turned out some of the most fun and satisfying genre films of the twentieth century.

This being Horrorpalooza, I'll resist the temptation to wax rhapsodic on most of the genres that Corman invented or perfected (biker flicks, juvenile delinquency movies, and women-in-prison pictures among them), and concentrate on his forays into the macabre and fantastic. His style may not have been as showy as some of his contemporaries, but Roger Corman always gave even the most absurd genre flicks his all.

From this cramped perspective, the below horror and sci-fi films stand as his most essential:

Attack of the Crab Monsters (Available from Allied Artists DVD, originally released in 1957): A team of Navy scientists investigates a remote, freshly-irradiated (thank you, H-Bomb) South Pacific island; and soon they're marooned and picked off--one by one--by an initially-unseen menace with a yen for decapitations (the title might be just a bit of a spoiler).  Yeah, it's saddled with one of the most deliciously absurd monikers in cinema history, the titular critters look like a grade-schooler's attempt at a papier-mache Peter Lorre mask, and you'll surely lose it when one of the giant crabs busts out a French accent (long story best discovered for yourself). But Corman does a terrific job of unpretentiously building up suspense--keeping his monsters in the shadows proves a wise decision aesthetically as well as economically--and screenwriter Charles Griffith (one of Corman's best creative foils) constructs a taut narrative that sports smarts uncharacteristic for a fifties science fiction thriller.

A Bucket of Blood (MGM/UA DVD, 1959): After helming a few dozen straight exploitation flicks, Corman grew bored with standard horror tropes and decided to goose the genre with a hearty snifter of black humor. The apex of this approach came a year later (more on that a few clicks down), but A Bucket of Blood stands honorably as a pretty awesome horror comedy on its own. Corman stalwart Dick Miller plays Walter Paisley, a pathetic busboy working at a hipper-than-hip coffeehouse/art gallery. Paisley accidentally kills his landlady's cat, coats the iced feline with clay, and is instantly hailed as a burgeoning artistic talent by the self-absorbed snobs who populate the hipster hangout. Of course, Walter's gotta follow up his masterwork with something bigger...Like a human sculpture or two. Miller's flat-out hysterical in one of the few leads of his career, and Charles Griffith hits the nail on the head with this screenplay: Substitute spiky-haired indie-rock kids and rock clubs for the beatniks and coffeehouses on display, and you've got a spoof that still stings today.

The Wasp Woman (public domain, available from various companies on DVD, 1959): You have my permission, officially, to laugh at the title. Go ahead. And when you get a load of the actual Wasp Woman--with its helmet-wig, pipe-cleaner antennae, glitter-covered ping-pong-ball eyes, and dime-store fangs--you'll likely lose it, too. Just promise me that you'll pay attention to the melancholy and resonant performance of Susan Cabot as an aging cosmetics CEO so desperate to stem the tide of advancing years that she literally turns herself into a monster. And in a world more fixated than ever on eradicating the signs of age with potions, creams and injections of God-knows-what, The Wasp Woman looks less like silly sci-fi schlock and more like prophecy with each passing day.

Little Shop of Horrors (public domain DVD, 1960): This mini-budgeted horror comedy about a nebbish and his carnivorous plant inspired the Ashman/Mencken musical that took Broadway by storm and made mordant humor palatable to the Great White Way. Much as I love Frank Oz's film adaptation of the musical, Corman's original still takes the cake with its gleefully nasty streak, uncompromising ending, and utterly hysterical comic bit by Jack Nicholson as the squeaky-voiced masochist Wilbur Force. And Roger Corman shot this little gem--one of the greatest horror comedies ever--in two-and-a-half days.

X-The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (MGM/UA DVD, 1963): Oscar-winner Ray Milland plays James Xavier, a scientist experimenting with a chemical that can expand the capabilities of the human eye. When he recklessly tests the substance on himself, he opens up a veritable Pandora's Box of perception. One of Corman's most cerebral efforts, with a literate Robert Dillon/Ray Russell script, great performances by Oscar-winner Ray Milland and (seriously) insult comic Don Rickles, and an ending that packs quite the existentially-horrific wallop.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964), all on MGM/UA DVD: The most artistically-accomplished horror movies of Roger Corman's career started off as a nervy gamble. Producer Samuel Arkoff initially balked when Corman suggested they film Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, and the director fought for obscene luxuries. He eventually won double his usual shooting schedule, a bigger budget, full-color Cinemascope, and the thespian talent of silken-voiced character actor Vincent Price.

The gambit paid off big-time: Corman's stylish, spooky version of Usher made a certifiable horror star out of Price, and became such a huge hit that six more Corman-Poe adaptations made it to the screen in the next five years. Good as all of them are, three of the adaptations shine just a bit brighter than the rest.

In Pit and the Pendulum, Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Price) is driven to the brink of insanity by the ghost of his late--or is she?--wife (Barbara Steele). Screenwriter Richard Matheson does a terrific job of taking what was essentially one horrific Poe vignette and expanding it to a real story replete with whodunnit elements and a whole closetful of hideous family secrets. Steele's echoey, spectral voice purring "NIC-holas...NIC-holas," and the terrifying final shot still chill to the ever-lovin' core.

The Raven, meantime, sees Corman returning to the fertile fields of horror comedy, satirizing the sub-genre he helped create. Good magician Price faces evil sorceror Boris Karloff in an effort to save his colleague Dr. Bedlo (Peter Lorre) from imprisonment in the form of a raven, and his daughter from certain doom. It's little short of horror heaven to see Price, Karloff, and Lorre sharing the screen, and Lorre's an improvisational hoot as the boorish, crabby, eternally-soused comic scene-stealer.

Finally, Corman pulled out all the stops with his adaptation of Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. Its plotline and visuals superficially reflect the influence of Bergman's The Seventh Seal, but it quickly becomes its own rich, darkly-colorful fairy tale. Several nobles take refuge from their plague-ravaged countryside in the castle of the most corrupt noble of the bunch, Prince Prospero (Price again). As it turns out, even the corrosively evil Prospero proves no match for the Grim Reaper himself. Masque glows with succulent primary colors (shot by Nicholas Roeg, soon to be a successful director himself with efforts like Don't Look Now and Walkabout). It also showcases two incredible performances from Price (seldom more subtly, icily sinister than here), and the luscious Hazel Court as a hedonist nowhere near as strong and cynical as she thinks she is. Consider that honorary Oscar a belated reward for this, Roger Corman's masterpiece.

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