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When Roger Corman receives his Honorary Oscar next month at the Academy's inaugural Governors Awards ceremony, will it be for his career as a director, an impresario, or both? The Academy's official press release plays things straight down the middle, crediting Corman equally for his own films (more than 50 as director) and for his mentoring the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, Jonathan Demme, and James Cameron. Meanwhile, in time for Halloween, Anthology reminds us that there's much to admire about Corman the drive-in auteurindefatigable ringleader of biker-,gangster-, and monster-movie mayhemwith 14 of the films he directed from 1960 to 1970 (the year in which he started his full-service production and distribution company, New World Pictures, trading the director's chair for the mogul's).
The perfect subject for a recession-era retrospective, Corman, born in 1926, was a child of the Great Depression who never lost that era's deeply ingrained sense of thrift. Quitting Stanford midway through an engineering degree, the Detroit native took a job as a bicycle messenger on the 20th Century Fox lot, where he quickly advanced to the story department and gave notes on the script for The Gunfighter (1950), director Henry King's eccentric death-dream Western starring Gregory Peck. Four years later, after a stint studying English literature at Oxford and drinking in existentialism in Paris, he sold his first screenplay, Highway Dragnet, and produced his first independent feature, Monster From the Ocean Floor. Arriving on the heels of Morris Engel's 1953 Little Fugitive and a half-decade before Pull My Daisy and Shadows would earn the nascent American independent film movement some serious street cred, Corman industriously churned out cut-and-run quickies, with titles like Swamp Women and Day the World Ended (both 1955). More noteworthy than the films themselves were their innovative methods of stretching a greenback: When he decamped for Puerto Rico to make 1961's Creature From the Haunted Sea, Corman cast a young screenwriter named Robert Towne in one of the leading roles, mainly so he could have Towne on hand to finish the script for a second picture, Last Woman on Earth, intended to be shot simultaneously. (When Corman finally got around to directing a major-studio picture, 1967's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, he was reportedly horrified by the wastefulness of big Hollywood spending.)
Not surprisingly, Anthology's Corman showcase focuses on somewhat tonier fare—specifically, the seven Edgar Allan Poe–derived films he directed for American International Pictures honchos Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, from whom Corman inherited much of his carnival-huckster panache. (An eighth film, The Haunted Palace, marketed by AIP as part of the Poe series, was actually adapted from H.P. Lovecraft.) Extravagant by Corman standards—at least until you realize you are seeing the same, slightly redecorated castle and cobwebbed dungeon over and over again—these color-saturated CinemaScope fables range from the scrupulously faithful (House of Usher) to the freely inventive (The Raven, which uses Poe's melancholic narrative poem as a jumping-off point for . . . a farcical battle of wands between rival sorcerers Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff!). And if The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is duly the most celebrated of the lot (for its Nicolas Roeg camerawork and Bergmanesque touches), none are without their pleasures, whether Corman's pseudo-psychedelic dream sequences or simply the sight of old pro/ham Price enthusiastically leading the charge through Poe's own storehouse of recycled tropes. A particular delight: Lorre's grandiloquent drunk going round for round with Price's dandyish oenophile in the "Black Cat" episode from 1962's Tales of Terror.
For Corman in a less gothic mode, there's the disarmingly funny A Bucket of Blood (1959), from a script by Little Shop of Horrors scribe Charles B. Griffith, starring B-movie colossus Dick Miller as a lonely waiter whose attention-grabbing sculptures (literal "life studies") make him a darling of New York's burgeoning boho art scene. Best of all is The Intruder (1962), a searing and straight-faced political drama set at the dawn of integration in the American South, with William Shatner terrifying as a gentleman devil trying to turn (back) the historical tide. That movie was a departure for Corman, and one of his only commercial failures, though when I interviewed him three years ago (on the occasion of an 80th-birthday tribute by the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles), he was quick to note that it had recently turned a profit on DVD.
"The audience just didn't want to see that film at that time," Corman told me. "So, I came up with a different idea, that I would make films that were entertainment, particularly on the surface, but if I did have some theme that was important to me, I would put it in the picture, subtextually. If I did a picture such as The Wild Angels , about the Hell's Angels, or Bloody Mama , about a woman gangster and her sons in the South during the Depression—on the surface, they would be the entertainment/shoot-'em-up action pictures that the audience expected, and underneath would be a little social comment from me as an added bonus. Some people wouldn't even notice. Other people, if they did notice, would recognize that the picture was a little more complex than they expected."
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