Sunday, December 29, 2019

Roger Corman and Me

It will be my pleasure and privilege to conduct a Q&A with the legendary Roger Corman on Friday, Jan. 3, following the 7 pm screening of his classic Masque of the Red Death at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. And I’m even happier to report this will occur just one night after the Houston Film Critics Society — of which I am a founding member — honors Corman with a special lifetime achievement tribute during HFCA’s annual awards show at MFAH.
You can purchase tickets for both the awards show and the Masque of the Red Death screening at the MFAH website. Or you can opt not to attend either event, and spend the rest of your life tortured by gnawing regret. The choice is yours.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late…
(Cue the cut-and-pastings from the mini-bio I have prepared for my film studies students.)
Roger Corman has earned millions and entertained millions more throughout his decades-long career as a director, producer and/or distributor of over 300 highly successful small-budget, high-concept films, and continues to regale audiences with a steady output of similar fare for theatrical, home video, streaming and cable platforms. Indeed, just three weeks ago, the remarkably spry 93-year-old legend presented his latest effort as an executive producer, the sci-fi action-thriller Abduction, at the Bahamas International Film Festival — where, not incidentally, he and his wife, producer Julie Corman, conducted mentoring sessions with budding screenwriters.
The titles of many of Corman's 1950s films -- The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), War of the Satellites (1958) and A Bucket of Blood (1959) -- indicate why he earned early on the nickname “King of the Drive-in.” (In 1960, he produced and directed the cult classic Little Shop of Horrors, which reportedly was shot in two days and one night on a leftover set).
During the 1960s, however, he began to attract serious critical attention, domestically as well as internationally, as the auteur of several stylishly gothic horror films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), and, of course, The Masque of the Red Death (1964), featuring such established actors as Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Ray Milland, and Peter Lorre. (If you are of a certain age, these films are more likely than all the English classes in the world to have sparked any interest you’ve ever had in Poe’s literary output.) But Corman is equally proud of The Intruder (1962), his socially conscious indie drama about a charismatic demagogue (brilliantly played by a young William Shatner) who stokes racial tensions in a small Southern town. The movie was boldly progressive for its time, and remains, in the words of critic-historian  Wheeler Winston Dixon, “one of the most brutal, honest, and unflinching examinations of American racism in cinema history.”
In 1970, Corman formed New World Pictures, an independent mini-major that produced the work of such up-and-comers as John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, and Peter Bogdanovich. New World's first film, The Student Nurses (1970), was shot in three weeks for $150,000 and grossed more than $1 million. Other early New World releases included horror, biker, and women-in-prison films. The profits from these low-budget features allowed Corman to act as the American distributor for a number of prestigious foreign films. In a 10-year period, New World released three Academy Award winners in the Foreign Language Film category: Federico Fellini's Amarcord (1974), Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975) and Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum (1979). It should be noted that when Corman told Ingmar Bergman that he had attempted to expand the potential audience for the latter’s 1972 masterwork Cries and Whispers by releasing it in some drive-ins, Bergman approved.

Corman’s influence on American cinema has been incalculably enormous, both as a filmmaker — his Poe films continue to inspire many directors of gothic horror movies — and as a nurturer of up-and-coming, destined-for-prominence actors, screenwriters and directors. (In addition to those previously mentioned, Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Fonda, Sylvester Stallone, Pam Grier, Bruce Dern, Gale Ann Hurd, Ron Howard and Robert Towne are among the luminaries he gave significant early-career boosts.) In 2009, the Motion Picture Academy’s Board of Governors voted to give Corman an honorary Oscar “for his unparalleled ability to nurture aspiring filmmakers by providing an environment that no film school could match.”

In short: Roger Corman has made an immeasurable impact on American movies — on movies, period — as a maverick and a mentor. And I would venture to say the secret of his success has been his savvy as an entertainer. He has always known that audiences will respond to a wide variety of films — everything from low-budget horror flicks to socially conscious dramas to slam-bang B-movies to challenging art-house fare — if they have access to, and are encouraged to sample, the full scope of that variety. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, Roger Corman understands and appreciates that cinema is large — it contains multitudes.  

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