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Ever since the early 1950s, famed indie producer and sometime director Roger Corman churned out hundreds of low-budget genre flicks - many of which were suspect for both artistry and taste - while revolutionizing the way films were made and distributed. Working outside the studio system, Corman established a record as one of the most commercially successful filmmakers in Hollywood history, having had about 90 percent of his films turn a profit. Though he had made over 200 films in his career, there were a few that stood out as classics of their genre, including "Not of This Earth" (1957), "The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960), "The Raven" (1963), "Death Race 2000" (1975) and "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980). Perhaps more important than being a success himself, Corman was singlehandedly responsible for launching numerous Hollywood careers, boasting some of the biggest names of the latter half of the 20th century as his protégés - Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, Curtis Hanson and James Cameron, among many others, all of whom started their careers with Corman. Meanwhile, in the 1970s, he helped such foreign...
Ever since the early 1950s, famed indie producer and sometime director Roger Corman churned out hundreds of low-budget genre flicks - many of which were suspect for both artistry and taste - while revolutionizing the way films were made and distributed. Working outside the studio system, Corman established a record as one of the most commercially successful filmmakers in Hollywood history, having had about 90 percent of his films turn a profit. Though he had made over 200 films in his career, there were a few that stood out as classics of their genre, including "Not of This Earth" (1957), "The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960), "The Raven" (1963), "Death Race 2000" (1975) and "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980). Perhaps more important than being a success himself, Corman was singlehandedly responsible for launching numerous Hollywood careers, boasting some of the biggest names of the latter half of the 20th century as his protégés - Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, Curtis Hanson and James Cameron, among many others, all of whom started their careers with Corman. Meanwhile, in the 1970s, he helped such foreign directors as Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman gain a distribution foothold in the United States when no one else would take the chance. Having been one of the first producers to recognize the financial advantages of shooting in Europe while he used sets discarded from other lavish, expensive movies for his own films, it was no wonder that Corman, once dubbed the "King of the B's," had become one of the most prolific and successful producers of his day.
Born on April 5, 1926 in Detroit, MI, Corman was raised the oldest of two sons by his father, Gene, an engineer who helped design the Greenfield Village dam, and his mother, Anne. Though he grew up in the industrial Midwest, his father suffered health problems that forced an early retirement and a family move to Southern California. After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Corman served in the U.S. Navy during the last years of World War II before following his father's footsteps into engineering while he attended Stanford University. While there, he first demonstrated his interest in entertainment by writing film reviews for The Stanford Daily. Following his graduation in 1947, he spent a grand total of four days working for U.S. Electric Motors before he ditched his engineering ambitions to try his hand in Hollywood. Corman broke into the business as a messenger boy for 20th Century Fox before he moved on to become a stagehand and script analyst. The latter job exposed him to a number of B-movie scripts, which seemed to him to be a decent way to make a buck.
Corman sold his first script, "Highway Dragnet," for four grand. He used the money to produce his first feature, "Monster from the Ocean Floor" (1954), an ultra-low budget horror flick about a tourist in Mexico (Anne Kimball) and a deep-sea diver (Stuart Wade) trying to find a mysterious sea creature attacking humans and animals. Showing a savvy for the business of making movies from the start, Corman secured funds for additional movies after landing American Releasing Corporation, which later became American International Pictures, as the distributor for his second film, "The Fast and the Furious" (1954), perhaps one of his most enduring titles. By the following year when he made his directorial debut with "Five Guns West" (1955), the Corman formula was already in place: quirky characters, offbeat plots laced with social commentary, clever use of sets and cinematography, utilizing fresh talent, and most importantly, breakneck shooting schedules fueled by miniscule budgets. In fact, his fast-paced shooting schedule allowed Corman to make upwards of nine movies a year - an unheard of production in more mainstream Hollywood circles.
Over the next several decades, Corman churned out schlock movie after schlock movie while occasionally making a film that was worthy of critical admiration. He slapped together such genre films like "It Conquered the World" (1956), "Swamp Women" (1956), "Attack of the Crab Monsters" (1957), and "The Undead" (1957), which was lampooned years later on the hit cult television series, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (Comedy Central/Sci Fi Channel, 1988-1999). Following the forgettable titles "Carnival Rock" (1957) and "Naked Paradise" (1957), Corman directed easily his best film of the era, "Not of This Earth" (1957), in which he disposed of the standard monster in a rubber suit to portray a human-looking alien who arrives on earth in order to draw blood to feed his species. Dark, creepy and atmospheric, the film marked one of the rare instances where Corman was able to turn his low-budget sensibilities into a creative advantage. With further titles like "Machine Gun Kelly" (1958), "Night of the Blood Beast" (1958) - another that was raked over the coals on "MST3K" - and "Stakeout on Dope Street" (1958), Corman left no doubt in his intention of ditching artistic merit in favor of fast, cheap and ultimately profitable genre flicks.
Corman directed another campy horror movie that was worthy of certain praise, "A Bucket of Blood" (1959), which focused on a goofy busboy at a Beatnik coffeehouse who gets accepted into the 'in' crowd by turning gruesome murders into hit works of modern art. Perhaps his most notorious film at the time was "The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960), a whacky and enduring horror comedy about a nerdy floral shop assistant (Jonathan Haze) who invents a carnivorous plant that feeds off human blood. While later spun off into two successful stage musicals and a film remake, "Little Shop" also earned a considerable cult following and lasting life on video and DVD, thanks to Corman casting a then-unknown Jack Nicholson in a supporting role. Corman moved into perhaps his most acclaimed period when he began making several films based on the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, almost of all of which starred the great Vincent Price. The first may have also been his best, "House of Usher" (1960), which starred Price as the doomed Roderick Usher, which he followed with a fine take on Poe's short story "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961).
Corman continued making his cheap genre films while continuing his string of Poe adaptations. After "Takes of Terror" (1962), he directed a young William Shatner in "The Intruder" (1962), a surprisingly mature and ahead-of-its-time treatment of racial segregation and civil rights. The following year, he directed another top shelf Poe adaptation based on the author's most famous work, "The Raven" (1963), which also starred Nicholson, Peter Lorre and Borris Karloff. Corman wrapped up his fascination with Poe following adaptations of "The Haunted Place" (1963), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964) and "The Tomb of Ligeia" (1964); the last of which featured a script written by future Oscar winner Robert Towne. Also during this time, he produced the horror thriller, "Dementia 13" (1963), which was directed by fledgling filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. He returned to producing and directing schlock films with "Beach Ball" (1965), "Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet" (1966) and "The Wild Angels" (1966), a biker exploitation film that featured the early work of actors Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, while also being written and edited by Peter Bogdanovich. Corman next took on the famed gang wars of the 1920s with "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre" (1967), which starred Jason Robarbs as Al Capone, who does battle with rival mob boss, Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker), on the bloodied streets of Chicago.
Always willing to allow creative talent to experiment, Corman had Nicholson pen the script for "The Trip" (1967), a surrealist psychedelic fantasy about a television commercial director who undergoes an LSD trip, which leads him along an Alice In Wonderland-like journey that ends in his rebirth at the end. Allegedly, Corman ingested the starring drug in order to get a better sense of what an acid trip was like. He spent the next couple of years juggling both directing and producing duties on "Targets" (1968), Peter Bogdanovich's directorial debut about the 1966 shooting spree by tower sniper Charles Whitman, "Bloody Moma" (1968), which starred Shelley Winters as the real-life crime family matriarch Ma Parker, and "The Dunwich Horror" (1970), which starred Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee, and marked the screenwriting debut of future Oscar-winning director Curtis Hanson. Dissatisfied with increasing interference from longtime distributor American International Pictures, in both the content and budgets of his films, Corman decided to form New World Pictures in 1970 to exert total control over his product. He took the helm on both "Gas-S-S-S!" (1970) and "Von Richthofen and Brown" (1970), though Corman found himself disinterested in directing and decided to step away from sitting behind the camera; a move that lasted well into the 1990s.
Meanwhile, Corman became more involved with helping fledgling directors get a leg up, many of whom went on to direct some of the greatest films in cinema history. After launching Jonathan Demme's career by hiring him to write the pages for "The Hot Box" (1972), he tapped a young Martin Scorsese to direct "Boxcar Bertha" (1972), a Depression-era crime drama about a wayward young woman (Barbara Hershey) and a union organizer (David Carradine) forced by societal and economic pressures into a life of crime. During this time, Corman produced a series of sexploitation films that were full of nudity and violence, but short on story or characterization, including "Tender Loving Care" (1972), "The Student Teachers" (1973) and "The Young Nurses" (1973). Continuing to operate the unofficially named Corman Film School, the producer allowed Curtis Hanson to make his feature debut as a director with "Sweet Kill" (1973), while Demme followed suit with his take on the girls-in-prison genre, "Caged Heat" (1974). Following "Candy Stripe Nurses" (1974), "Crazy Moma" (1975), starring Cloris Leachman, and a cameo appearance in "The Godfather II" (1974), Corman spearheaded another quality sci-fi actioner, "Death Race 2000" (1975), a futuristic satire about a national road rally whose winner is the driver who runs over the most pedestrians.
Corman maintained a steady output throughout the decade, churning out car chase flicks and crime thrillers like "Cannonball" (1976), "Jackson County Jail" (1976), starring Tommy Lee Jones, and "Grand Theft Auto" (1977), which marked Ron Howard's directing debut. He next produced the horror spoof, "Piranha" (1978), the second feature from future Steven Spielberg protégé, Joe Dante, and the first penned by acclaimed writer-director John Sayles. After producing and appearing in his own documentary, "Roger Corman: Hollywood's Wild Angel" (1978), Corman produced some of his more lasting titles: "Rock 'n' Roll High School" (1979), "The Lady in Red" (1979), and "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980), one of his biggest hits that again used the writing talents of John Sayles while featuring special effects directed by James Cameron. He struck creative and financial gold with "The Howling" (1981), a groundbreaking werewolf movie that featured stunning special effects makeup while boasting Joe Dante as director and a script written by Sayles. Following "Forbidden World" (1982), "Hell's Angels Forever" (1983) and "Oddballs" (1984), Corman once again demonstrated his acute business acumen when he sold New World Productions - then the largest independent production and distribution company in the U.S. - for $16.5 million in 1983.
Also that year, Corman founded Concorde/New Horizons, a production company that became both successful and prolific in taking full advantage of newer markets like videotapes - and later DVDs - paid television, and foreign sales by releasing cut-rate exploitation films like "Moving Violations" (1985), "Sorority House Massacre" (1986), "Summer Camp Nightmare" (1986) and "Stripped to Kill" (1987), which naturally featured excessive violence and nudity. For the next several years, Corman produced a long series of horror and martial arts flicks that were poor in quality and barely indistinguishable from one another. But as always was the case, the movies were profitable. Of the many titles, there were a few standouts, including "Bloodfist" (1989), which spawned numerous sequels over the years. He also helped revive the stalled career of porn star Traci Lords by casting her for a legit role in the remake of "Not of This Earth" (1988). Then after a two-decade absence, Corman made a surprise return to directing with "Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound" (1990), a time-traveling telling of the classic 19th century story that was a rather inauspicious return to the helm. He continued his producing role with such ham-fisted titles as "In the Heat of Passion" (1991), "Homicidal Impulse" (1992) and "Carnosaur" (1993).
Settling down in his later years, Corman began making appearances as an actor in several high-profile features, including "Silence of the Lambs" (1991) and "Philadelphia" (1993), both of which were directed by his old protégé Jonathan Demme. After an appearance in "Apollo 13" (1995), directed by Ron Howard, Corman began to see his output slow down in the late 1990s - the first time since he began making features 40 years before. In fact, he began turning out films at a normal rate for a producer, making one or two films a year. Following "Black Thunder" (1998) and "Nightfall" (2000), Corman executive produced "Barbarian" (2003), a cheap sword-and-sandal knock-off of "Conan the Barbarian." Of course, he continued to recycle old concepts like he did with sets, producing the umpteenth sequel, "Bloodfist 2050" (2005). In a tip of the cap to filmmaking itself, he tackled the old John Ford classic with "The Searchers 2.0" (2007), a comedy about two actors seeking revenge against a legendary screenwriter.
Just as with prostitutes and politicians, Corman stuck around long enough to earn the respect of Hollywood, a system that had largely ignored the producer throughout much of his career. In 2009, after he spearheaded a web series with Joe Dante called "Splatter," Corman received an Honorary Oscar on Nov. 14, 2009 at the Governors Awards ceremony. While some dismissed the award as undeserving due to his lack of artistry and taste over the years, many sprung to his defense, making the claim that Corman had done considerable service for many great filmmakers by helping them launch their careers.
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