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Baron of B: ROGER CORMAN at Anthology

An online exclusive essay

From left: X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, Tomb of Ligeia, The Pit and the Pendulum

Images courtesy of MGM

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Friday, October 30, 2009

By Bruce Bennett

Roger Corman: Poe and Beyond
October 28 through November 8
Anthology Film Archives

News arrived Monday that Paranormal Activity, a ghost story purportedly made for $11,000 on a seven-day shooting schedule, had trounced the latest, comparatively high-budgeted entry in Lionsgate’s Saw horror franchise at the box office. When it comes to the American genre-film marketplace, audiences and entertainment journalists love an underdog as much as studios love a bargain. In the aftermath of this surprise upset, industry and mainstream pundits have drawn admiring comparisons between Paramount’s Paranormal windfall and similar coups pulled by the distributors of The Blair Witch Project and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi.

In the grand economic scheme of things, micro-budget mainstream box-office successes like these are flukes and have been for decades. But the Paranormal Activity PR victory lap evokes a past in which quickly, cheaply, and smartly made movies helped keep America’s drive-ins and pre-sprawl single-screen theaters in business. The patron saint of the nearly extinct “make low, show high” approach to moviemaking is arguably director and producer Roger Corman — due to receive an honorary Oscar® statuette at next year’s Academy Awards, and subject of an ongoing 14-film retrospective at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.

An accurate accounting of Roger Corman’s directorial heyday at American International Pictures from 1955 until Corman set out his own producing shingle in 1970 would have to include a hint of nostalgia for the now outdated business model that made his best films possible. The U.S. picture business that Corman entered in the fifties was an industry still reeling from antitrust legislation that had forced divestiture of the major studio’s theater holdings. Without the overhead-lowering advantage of pre-selling first-class, first-run star vehicles packaged with cheaply made second features to fill out a bill, sovereign B-picture units within the bigs and independently run poverty row film factories like Republic, Monogram and Eagle Lion were hard pressed to find a foothold in the new exhibitor landscape.

Advantageously for both sides of the partnership, in 1955 Corman teamed with executive producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson, whose newly minted production imprint, American International Pictures, was exploring new low-budget routes to the bank through a post letter-grade film distribution world. The key for American International was to directly engage the other exhibitor bugaboo of the day: television. But unlike Universal, Warner Brothers, and others, AIP didn’t respond to the competitive threat of the small screen with a TV production division of their own (though that would come later, and become part of AIP’s eventual downfall). Instead, the AIP brain trust set their sights on the demographic that TV networks woo so ardently today but that fledgling postwar broadcasters had no idea how to get through to: America’s teenagers.

Corman’s first half-decade as a credited director saw his name affixed to science fiction, horror, rock and roll movies, Westerns, and crime films — all bluntly and sturdily crafted enough to play counterpoint to make-out sessions, lengthy trips to the concession stand, and social car-hopping at the drive-in, as U.S. teens sought a night out from under Mom and Dad’s supervisory thumb. With science fiction movies like 1963’s sublime X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, or biker movies like 1964’s The Wild Angels, Corman’s American International Pictures were short, and titles were plentiful. Exhibitors could easily add showings and maintain an ever-changing menu of movies for short attention spans.

At AIP, marketing was its own uniquely creative pursuit. In interview after interview, Sam Arkoff was never shy about detailing the company’s exploitation ethos, chapter and verse. AIP pictures were often written and produced as much around titles and ad campaigns as around a unifying high-minded storytelling goal. The company was, for instance, only too glad to pick up foreign-language properties, redub them in English, and shoot additional sequences featuring nominally familiar actors to smooth out any cross-cultural speed bumps. The audio tracks on an AIP horror film’s first reels were often substantially quieter than the last so that projectionists would unwittingly crank up the volume before the screaming started.

As a producer at AIP and later at his own New World Pictures, Corman certainly kept the exploitation tradition alive, giving tyro directors like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme sage formative advice on how best to organize a day’s camera setups. With the same businesslike calm — according to one hireling in a late-seventies documentary on the Corman touch — Corman would jot script notes like “possible breast nudity here?” on the pages of properties undergoing spinning hamster wheel-paced development.

But the films Corman directed at AIP have a peculiar dignity and a particular cinematic acumen all their own. Corman worked with a stock company of writers, actors, and technicians accustomed to a production speed that ensured 1960’s Little Shop of Horrors would wind up in the can in less than three days, give or take a few subsequent re-shoots. Regular collaborators like lead actor Dick Miller and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith helped Corman to imbue Shop (and its even more trenchant predecessor, A Bucket of Blood) with a side order of satire that dwarfs the film’s ostensible premise now but was then there just for the intended audience to feast on if they were so inclined.

Corman’s enrollment in blacklisted actor Jeff Corey’s suburban L.A. acting school led to his introduction to storied AIP graduates Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper and screenwriter Robert Towne. What Corman learned in Corey’s garage studio remains debatable, as his ferociously tight production schedules likely kept actor-director conversations to a clipped minimum. But the boost that smart (and cheap) hires like Nicholson, Hopper, Towne, Peter Bogdanovich, and Francis Coppola received while working for Corman at AIP proved indispensable to their subsequent careers.

A particular stand-out in both Corman’s filmography and Anthology’s program is the Towne-scripted 1964 Edger Allan Poe adaptation, The Tomb of Ligeia, the last of eight films Corman directed based on Poe’s works. Shot over three weeks partly on sets recently vacated by the cast and crew of Becket, Ligeia is a delicately paced widescreen gem that mixes elegant camera moves, oddball montage shock effects, and shrewdly placed voiceover into a neo-classical concoction. It’s a movie that could have given pause to even the most ardent sophomore-year drive-in date spit-swap.

 

 

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