It’s hard to imagine that there may be two generations of movie lovers who have no idea who Roger Corman is. Yet, those younger fans love the films of Coppola, Scorsese, Cameron, Nicholson, De Niro and Stallone for whom Corman opened the door to success. Roger Corman turns 94 on April 5th, and continues to work.
The man that launched many varied careers including Janusz Kaminski (cinematographer – Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), James Horner (composer – Avatar, Titanic), Jonathan Demme (director – The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), Ron Howard (director – Splash, A Beautiful Mind), and wore just as many hats as producer/director/writer/actor/stuntman/sound and miscellaneous crew was even awarded an honorary Oscar in 2014 for his contribution to the world of cinema. For those unfamiliar, now would be a good time to get acquainted.
Corman was the powerhouse thrift store of production companies. The man knew how to stretch a dollar and the talents of his crew continues to be a virtual moviemaker machine. He may have churned out more films than any other producer in the history of cinema, producing films from the mid ’50s all the way up through today! Now, does that mean he had any movies comparable to David O. Selznick (Gone With The Wind), Mervyn LeRoy (The Wizard of Oz) or Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia)? Of course not. But, this movie maven was responsible for so much memorable talent and films.
He not only produced, but directed the original Little Shop of Horrors that would go on to be a Broadway hit and successful movie musical starring Steve Martin. Originally in the Bill Murray role, a very young and demented Jack Nicholson would play a masochistic dentist patient. He also help produce and directed the infamous tale of the notorious Ma Barker in Bloody Mama that would star Shelley Winters in a turn key role and introduce Bruce Dern and Robert De Niro. Corman produced and handed over the directing reins to young Martin Scorsese in the impressive depression era crime/drama/romance Boxcar Bertha starring the very talented Barbara Hershey (The Stunt Man, The Right Stuff, The Natural) and David Carradine (Kung Fu, Kill Bill 1 & 2). He also developed a string of gothic Edgar Allan Poe films that starred horror greats Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.
For me, Corman’s legacy holds a soft spot in my heart because my mentor, Karl Schanzer, grew up with his team of talent working alongside James Cameron, Joe Dante and Francis Ford Coppola. In fact, Karl was the actor who gets beheaded in Coppola’s very eerie Dementia 13, which gave me nightmares as a child. Many of Corman’s low budget, high concept horror films would be big inspirations for other huge blockbusters including the creepy Queen of Blood that launched the Alien franchise and his original Death Race 2000 starring campy performances by David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone.
There is an array of Corman films that I continue to rewatch and not all of them are horror. Corman was also responsible for a host of lurid action films, many of which inspired Quentin Tarantino, including the motorcycle gang action thriller, Wild Angels starring David Carradine, Nancy Sinatra and Bruce Dern, Jackson County Jail, Caged Heat, and The Big Bird Cage starring Pam Grier. He also had some of the most outrageously exploitive titles that made people swarm to the drive-in theaters: The Navy vs. the Night Monsters, Private Duty Nurses, Angels Hard as They Come, I Escaped From Devil’s Island, Beast of the Yellow Night and Rock ’n’ Roll High School, featuring the punk rock group The Ramones.
Roger Corman’s films just have something silly, nostalgic, and fun about them with some outrageously bad effects, by today’s standards, but in whole his legacy of films is bizarrely enduring. Some of my favorites that I would recommend while we have so much free time on our hands, including the films I’ve already mentioned above: Attack of the Crab Monsters, Dementia 13, Deathstalker, The Velvet Vampire, Piranha (’78 directed by Joe Dante), and the ever popular gangster film, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre starring Jason Robards and George Segal at their charismatic best.
A very Happy Birthday wish to the man that not only launched many a career, but showered us with a variety of cinema treats we can enjoy for ages to come.